The Imperfect Storm

There was a time when the $17,000 budget for an episode of Getbackers was considered obscenely low. Now industry figures claim that allocations of anime budgets have sunk to a shocking $14,000. That’s less than ten thousand pounds, divided among every sketch artist, colourist, animator and designer on an episode of TV anime. It means that there are some anime that cost less to make than this issue of NEO! Terrifyingly, it suggests that it can now cost more to dub certain anime into English than it does to make them in the first place. Unsurprisingly, some insiders are already questioning the figures, and asking if this is not perhaps an attempt by anime’s notoriously cunning accountants to squeeze taxpayers’ money to pay for the likes of Naruto, which, let’s face it, is hardly begging on the street corner with a tin cup and an eyepatch.

Meanwhile, of course, self-styled otaku prime minister Taro Aso (you’ll miss him when he’s gone!) wants a National Media Arts Centre in Tokyo Bay, a $120 million boondoggle where people can go and… well, nobody really knows yet. Watch anime. Read books. Look at someone’s colouring-in.

“If there really is money for this Centre,” notes Junichi Takagi, the producer of Red Garden, “I’d rather see it going to renewing the Japanese animation business and hence our national industry.” The pundits agree. Nobuyuki Tsugata, a noted historian of Japanese animation at Kyoto Seika University, is precisely the sort of person to benefit from a big boondoggle like the Centre, as it would sure to require talking heads, sign-writers, catalogue writers and speakers. But Tsugata isn’t in it for the money, he’s in it for anime, and he can see what’s happening.

“It is vital,” he told the Mainichi, “that we help medium- and small-scale anime productions.” Otherwise, there won’t be anything to look at, and after that I guess it’ll be nothing but cosplayers looking at each other.

Anime has been heading this way for 20 years. The demographic decline in juvenile audiences (who are, whatever way you cut it, still a big part of the revenue stream), and the aging otaku sector have created an industry that is increasingly self-referential. Aso’s white elephant isn’t even the first of its type; it is merely the largest. There is already an “Anime Centre” in Tokyo that offers visitors the chance to watch certain aspects of the production process. Anime’s publicity relies on the hoary cliché that it is taking the world by storm… and yet what kind of storm is it if it has to go cap in hand to the government? What kind of storm is it if the average monthly salary is $700? The public already subsidise anime by buying it in the first place, now we must pay to watch it getting made, merely so that it is made at all!?

Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, famous anime hyphenate, is having none of it. “Anime has the vitality of a weed. I want it to be left alone,” he told the Mainichi. “And with government support, I worry about potential restrictions being placed on freedom of expression.” Because nobody has yet asked if the Centre will be showing the Right Sort of anime. Or will Urotsukidoji be getting a subsidy, too…?

(This article first appeared in NEO Magazine #63, 2009)