The Art of the Deal

When Noboru Ishiguro died in 2012, it was only fair to wonder would happen to Artland, the company he helped found. But even five years ago, Artland was already a changed entity. In 2006, it had been subsumed into Marvelous, a computer games conglomerate which turned Artland into a limited company, and then split it into two in 2010. One part, the Artland Animation Studio, continued under its sole shareholder Kuniharu Okano, who toiled on shows such as the upcoming Seven Deadly Sins.

In 2015 the other part was entirely absorbed within Marvelous in order to “improve the efficiency of group management.” Let me translate that for you: the other part was a holding company for intellectual property – shares in anime franchises. You might like to call the late Ishiguro himself an asset of sorts, but his days were numbered, while the franchises he helped create live under copyright law for decades after his demise.

Meanwhile, in 2016, a chunk of ownership in the animation studio was sold to Emon, a subsidiary of the Chinese company Haoliners, in order to “strengthen production capacity.” What did they think they were buying? It surely wasn’t a stake in Macross or Legend of the Galactic Heroes, as they were presumably still part of Marvelous. Was it, perhaps, just the Artland name, so that any work brought in could be spirited off down a fibre-optic cable to cheaper animators in China? Okano’s company, if it truly is merely an “animation studio”, amounts to tables and chairs, pens and paper. It doesn’t own the people who work for it, and it may even only rent the real estate where it resides. True enough, it might be able to work its way out of debt, but why would anyone fund this if it doesn’t own anything?

Four days after the anime press reported Artland’s bankruptcy this July, a fuming Okano went public to assert that the company was trying to restructure its debts, but was by no means dead. He had, he claimed, a bunch of offers from new investors, although he had yet to take any of them up on it. However, the question that everybody is asking is whether Artland itself actually retains any intellectual property – part-ownership of any of the franchises for which it is listed as a co-producer – when surely all that stuff is still sitting in a filing cabinet at Marvelous? Artland is for sale… but what would any new investor really be buying?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #167, 2017.

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The End of Fantasia

agentaika

There have been some heartfelt eulogies in fandom for Studio Fantasia, which has declared bankruptcy after a generation in the anime business, most notoriously with its micro-skirted spies in Agent Aika and its panty-flashing operatives in Najica Blitz Tactics.

Fantasia itself was born under suspicious circumstances, by staff manning the lifeboats from the foundering Tsuchida Production in 1983. Tsuchida eventually sank in 1986, but to say it went down with all hands would be misleading – by the time it went, it was a name on a filing cabinet, without real estate, equipment or employees, while its former staff were already running Studios Comet and Fantasia.

It’s important when reporting the history of the anime business to understand the difference between a disaster and a simple change in circumstances. Studio Fantasia, from what I can see, appeared to shut down because it was little more than some signatures on paperwork that allowed a guy to get some bank loans. Tomohisa Iizuka, the man who led the exodus from Tsuchida all those years ago, set up a company that in its 2006 heyday was bringing in £2.7 million a year and had 43 employees. But if Iizuka wants to retire, and if there is nobody willing to take on the company and its liabilities… if the company itself has no intellectual property worth preserving, then Fantasia might as well cease to exist on the day that Iizuka puts on his golf shorts and heads out to the country club.

As the director Noboru Ishiguro put it in his memoirs: “It is so easy to create a TV animation subcontractor. That’s because 90% of the cost is labour and hardly any investment is needed. As long as you have money to rent a studio and to buy tables for animators, all you need is people. You could start an animation production company tomorrow. But they go bankrupt quickly, too – just like a pub. Because the production cost is cheap, subcontractors can never make large profits. You’re lucky if you are not making a loss. As soon as you start doing a different job and the efficiency level drops, or an animator quits, the business goes downhill.”

2006 wasn’t just a peak for Fantasia, it was a peak for the entire anime industry. The studio visibly slowed over the following decade, until it was just picking up a few bits of piece-work on a couple of recent shows. It was not, like Studio Ghibli, initiating and owning new content. But it was, like Studio Ghibli, very much the workplace for a group of guys who were looking forward to not having to work anymore. Except the guy who draws knickers, for whom it is still probably still a labour of love.

Then again, never say never. Who would have guessed at the beginning of last year that the “next Hayao Miyazaki” would turn out to be Hayao Miyazaki?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #159, 2017.

Noboru Ishiguro 1938-2012

My obituary of the anime director Noboru Ishiguro is up online now at the Manga UK blog. Never met him myself, but he was one of the most prominent Japanese figures in American fandom – having become a oft-seen and affable attendee at many conventions. I had an odd sense that he would be the next of the big names to go, although according to colleagues who tipped me off as to his condition, when the end came, it was sudden, and belied by his good humour the day before. The story about his name-tag was supplied by Takayuki Karahashi, who was one of the last visitors to see him alive.