Cels at Work

Time was, back in the eighties, when anime cels were literally regarded as industrial waste. Some, it was true, were “banked” to use on later episodes of the same show, but when a show was over, they were thrown away. Thanks to increasingly strict laws on plastics and polymers, they had to be expensively disposed of, leading to one notorious incident in which a studio was caught burying their old cels in a hole in the backyard.

Anime cels were pointless fragments of an image, the building blocks of filming, their purpose fulfilled the moment they were composited together and photographed to make a particular frame of actual animation. When Carl Macek asked for all the old cels from Akira, the film-makers gleefully threw them into a shipping container and packed them off to California, as if they’d just sold him London Bridge. But Macek also ran an art gallery, and he saw the value of cels as industrial artwork, and as freebies he could give away with the Akira VHS, in order to encourage people not to settle for pirate copies.

And so, there is a certain irony in this month’s news that an anime cel, which would have once been something the studio literally couldn’t give away, has sold for a record-breaking price of 26.4 million yen – that’s £173,625.00 to you.

The online auction in Japan became headline news for the smug-factor it is sure to instil in any fan with a couple of souvenir cels. But, of course, it’s never that simple. Because the cel in question is an image from My Neighbour Totoro, and Miyazaki is such a notorious control freak that it, like all the other cels, is liable to be touched by his own hand. Heritage Auctions (HA.com) have hosted a number of similarly high-value sales in the last few weeks, including other iconic images from Akira and Studio Ghibli works – all titles sure to be known in the mainstream and to retain their value.

Then again, there’s another irony, since this month’s anime news also features a spat over at Mappa regarding the super-low pay now being offered to animators as the studio scrambles for as much of that Netflix dosh as possible. Yesteryear’s anime is being valued ever higher. Today’s barely pays a living wage.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #211, 2021.

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