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Japanese Anime Studios Feel Pressure From Unhappy Artists and Outsourcing (wsj.com)
21 points by jakarta 2435 days ago | hide | past | web | 16 comments | favorite

The industry is also very, very good at milking a megahit but hasn't had a new one in about ten years. The usual pattern is that a successful manga series gets turned into an anime and after that it is off to the races: toys, movies, many different video games, spinoffs and all that jazz.

However, my casual judge-by-the-contents-of-the-rental-rack guess is that the newest megahits are over ten years old at this point. (Before Bleach and Naruto got big in America they were big in Japan. Big like "qualify as industries unto themselves" big.) Both of them are actually animated in Korea, incidentally. (And, oddly enough, both are quite "high tech" in terms of animation techniques. It is sort of the series' aesthetic.)

Incidentally, Youtube isn't the enemy of Japanese DVD sales. Rentals are. Japan does distribution really freaking well: there are about three or four companies with reach as good as Netflixes, plus plenty rental chains stocked with up-to-the-minute DVD releases. Here's the math: $200 for a 4 DVD boxed set or $8 to rent them all. Not hard to figure which one wins out. (Or you could go rent a big screen TV and a comfy chair at an Internet cafe for $2 to $4 an hour and get the DVDs loaned to you for free.)

Yeah they do know how to milk their hits. There are already 9 One Piece movies and another one releasing next month. To top it off the series has been running for fourteen years.

That said, getting a hit series is not really an easy thing for authors (mangakas). They work about 14 hours everyday and have to produce 19 pages of content every week. The gruelling workload takes a toll on a lot of mangaka's health, forcing the series into a hiatus, which further reduces their chance of becoming hits.

Youtube might not be much of a problem within Japan, but it certainly hurts the overseas profits. Also Japanese studios are incredibly lax when it comes to enforcing copyrights. They usually let fansubbers and scanlation groups get away with pirating weekly chapter releases in the hopes that this would encourage people into buying the volume releases when they are available.

Yeah they do know how to milk their hits. There are already 9 One Piece movies and another one releasing next month. To top it off the series has been running for fourteen years.'

To say nothing of Gundam...

That said, getting a hit series is not really an easy thing for authors (mangakas). They work about 14 hours everyday and have to produce 19 pages of content every week. The gruelling workload takes a toll on a lot of mangaka's health, forcing the series into a hiatus, which further reduces their chance of becoming hits.

And often even when something does become a hit, it creates its own problems: for example, from what I heard, the author of Death Note planned to end the story at what eventually became the halfway point. Instead his publishers told him that it had become so popular that they wanted him to make more of it, and so he dragged it on for a whole bunch more chapters.

There's also the fact that a huge number--probably the majority--of authors don't seem to care too much about making huge hits. Just look at the sheer volume of doujin productions: nobody there ever intends to even make enough money to pay for their own time, yet there's probably more doujin manga than professionally published stuff.

Both of them are actually animated in Korea, incidentally.

It's funny... There was a minor controversy a few years ago when someone discovered that several Naruto fight sequences were actually traced off of other sources, including the Cowboy Bebop movie. I wonder whose idea that was -- the main studio or the outsourced one?

There are two kinds of anime, and they're very similar to the two kinds of personal computers we have today. Studio Ghibli produces the kind of anime that's identifiable to Apple products—it's high-quality, expensive, has its own style, and is aimed at a very wide audience, sometimes ending up in American theaters. Additionally, the content (software) produced to go along with the format (hardware) is developed in-house.

Meanwhile, most other anime producers are like PC manufacturers—they compete to produce a commodity as cheaply as possible. First, they're adapting manga that has already been written, illustrated, published, marketed, and merchandised, so the customer development half of their business doesn't need doing. They simply churn out adaptations of the books they receive, and people tune in; it's a pre-made market.

Second, people don't care about the visual quality of anime. It's great when it's exceptional (I can only think of Ghibli work and FLCL at the moment), but no one expects it to be. Mostly, anime-watchers tune in to experience a visual dramatization of a story that couldn't be executed in live-action without a ridiculous budget. Things in space, giant robots, fantasy creatures that aren't just actors with bumpy foreheads, etc. They don't expect great visuals, just the bare minimum needed to understand what's going on, so they can enjoy the story without having to imagine the narrative themselves (and though they do still end up having to read the dialogue, this doesn't require any form of visual imagination.)

Given these two factors—that the studio's only job is to adapt a manga to the screen, and that they may do this as badly as possible and still not lose any of their following—it's no surprise that it's a process that has been outsourced and reduced to manufacturing "more work with longer hours = better" conditions.

Japan did a significant amount of outsourcing work for American studios as recently as the 1990's, but that definitely isn't the case now, and I think that's an important distinction. While a number of things can be blamed, I would pin the main problem on how anime studios have historically tended to stay behind the curve in the use of labor-saving technology. (Compare against American animation, which has fairly enthusiastically taken on 3D, vector animation, digital matte, etc., as soon as they've been commercialized) It's a sustainable practice while you're in an up-and-comer economy and the local labor is cheap or impossible to match anywhere else, but it's much harder to swallow when China and Korea are putting out equally competent work at bargain rates. When the outsourcing market left Japan, you are left with the current situation where the local labor force is squeezed dry building low-revenue products for the leftover niches. There's some great stuff coming from it, artistically speaking, but the business won't last as-is.

The future for Japanese animation will probably have to come from the American playbook - lower scale, more technology, and more diverse revenue streams.

The lack of vitality in the Japanese animation industry's fairly old news at this point. What we're seeing now is decidedly not an overnight thing - it's the end result of about a decade's worth of bad policy-making, starting from an inability to adapt to online distribution, hovering with emphasis over the craptastic wages that are driving away decent talent, and ending with the industry's hypernarrow demographic targeting.

Just because any individual otaku is probably willing to spend untold amount of money on miscellaneous merchandise doesn't mean it was a good idea to ignore the overwhelmingly larger demographic of Everybody Else...

On the other hand, it has often seemed like anime has been one of the few professional entertainment industries devoted to trying to make money off the Long Tail.

That begs the question of whether or not the studios attempting to do so are in a /position/ to do so.

>and ending with the industry's hypernarrow demographic targeting.

Do you mean outside Japan? In Japan I'd say the target age range is pretty wide

Not just outside Japan. The biggest, most heavily committed releases of the last few seasons have been targeted at the otaku demographic, sometimes blatant to the point of parody.

This pattern of low quality competitors upping their game and taking over a large chunk of an industry has occurred again and again and difficulties associated with that pattern feel a bit inevitable. The best situation for Japanese producers might be to get smaller and refocus as content creation over large scale production.

There's other areas to innovate as well. Studio Ghibli, the acclaimed studio behind Spirited Away, is collaborating with critically acclaimed video game studio Level 5 on a video game.

300 frames a month? Even if they are key-frames that still only comes out to 5 minutes of footage. No wonder it's dieing. Everyone else (not Japanese) is using animation software to create an entire movie. In this day and age there is no excuse to still be hand drawing cells. Proper wireframing can get you an entire scene rough cut in a day. Even less if you have an asset library built up.

It depends on how the drawings are used. You can easily squeeze ten seconds of footage out of three finished cels, if it's a wide pan over a couple characters talking in the distance -- which is both efficient and cinematic. And this type of shot is common in anime for precisely this reason.

Gainax is one of the past masters/worst offenders in this regard, including: a sequence near the end of Evangelion where they just shot the back of a bunch of old cels; a off-screen sex scene near the end of Evangelion where a shot of only the background plate is held for at least a minute; back-to-back clip shows in Kare Kano, where they show cel counts for each prior show to pad for time -- one episode had 2300 cels (that's total cels, not just keys).

As far as I can tell, most anime studios these days are using animation software to some extent or another. It's a very rare situation (e.g. Miyazaki) when old-fashioned cels are used, and it's at very high cost.

Nowadays, especially on lower budget stuff, you can spot blatant motion-tweening.

"300 sketches"

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