Japanese production companies have traditionally not had the money and resources as their big American counterparts like Disney and Warner Brothers. Anime production companies have traditionally kept costs low by paying their staffs minimum wage and insisting they put in long hours and by keeping marketing expenses to a minimum.

In conventional anime productions, it's difficult to redo some processes because everything is done by separate divisions — scriptwriting, storyboarding, keyframing, inking and finishing. To save money artists draw relatively few cells. As a result the animation seems like half manga, half animation. The movements are more stilted and faces often fill the screen. To save rent money studios are often located in remote Tokyo suburbs. The main reason budget are so tight is that networks pay anime producers relatively little money for their work. One reason for this is the “curse of Osamu”: the precedent set byAstroboy creator Osamu Tezuka, who sold his work cheap to get it seen and discourage competitors.

The current production period for a typical TV show is about one and a half months. Two keep steps in making anime are: 1) tweening — creating the frames used to connect key frames and create movement — and 2) creating original drawings — used for the so-called key frames that express emotion and movement.

A typical 30 minute cartoon requires over 3,500 pages of drawing and takes three months to make. Sometimes as much work goes into a 10 second action scene as five minute conversation scene in which there is little movement except for the mouths. Japanese animators are known for putting in long hours, often 12 hours a day, including weekends. Before deadlines they are known for not leaving their studios and sleeping under their desks.

Japanese artists are trained in two-year courses at high-tech schools like the Nippon Engineering College. After graduating they get jobs in Japan’s anime studios. To cut costs Japanese anime producers are farming out work to South Korea. China and the Philippines. Poor pay and long working hours has resulted in the migration of workers to more lucrative jobs in the video game industry and a shortage of talent.

People employed on the anime industry are poorly paid. One survey found that those in their 20s earn only about $11,000 a year while those in their 30s earn only about $21,400 a year. Even, skilled veteran artists in their 40s and 50s earn only about $30,000 a year. Nearly 50 percent have no contacts and 40 percent have no healthcare coverage.

Japanese Anime Industry

null Japan produces about two thirds of the animation watched around the globe and 70 percent of this is produced in Tokyo, mainly in western suburbs and in the city’s Suginami and Nerima wards. Of the 430 anime studios in Japan, 71 are in Suginami ward.

Some anime make it to the big screen as movies. Other are regular series on major television networks. Some find specialized audiences on cable or satellite channels or through DVD sales. DVD sales and rentals are the biggest income earners for most anime.

Anime is a big business and thriving industry not only in Japan but also in South Korea, China and the Philippines, where cheap labor is utilized to do many of the laborious tasks of animation such as coloring in figures and creating backgrounds. In some cases only the script and direction is done by Japan while most of the actual drawing, animation and finishing touches are done overseas.

Why Japan is So Strong in Anime Production

Takamasa Sakurai wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Why does Japan have such a global monopoly when many Asian countries--which Japan outsources to--have the ability to produce their own animation? One factor is the quality of pictures drawn by Japanese creators. A crucial element of anime production--character design--has long been unique to Japanese creators and regarded as a Japanese tradition. [Source: Takamasa Sakurai, Daily Yomiuri, January 20, 2012]

"Character design is Japan's stronghold in every field from anime and manga to video games," Hirasawa said. "Not only are the drawings high quality, but the characters are likable. Making characters that people grow attached to is a feature of Japanese animation."

When I travel overseas, I can't help but feel there are no other countries where young people can be seen everywhere painstakingly drawing pictures. I felt that especially strongly when I visited Comic Market (known as Comiket), a semiannual event in Tokyo that attracts more than 500,000 visitors. There is no place other than Japan where such large-scale sales of dojinshi (self-published manga) take place. Comiket is like boot camp for young mangaka and anime creators of the next generation.

I once asked the following question to young Italian anime fans, "Don't you want to create your own stuff similar to Japan's anime”" One of them replied, "I don't think so, because we already have Japanese anime." That person wasn't the only one, and I was shocked to hear that so many Italian fans are not into creating their own anime.

Currently, China is the strongest follower of Japan's anime trend. Comiket-style events are organized all over China, where young people buy and sell dojinshi. Seeing China's dojinshi market, I strongly believe its highly possibly that China will eventually take a big bite out of Japan's "traditional" business.

Anime Production Companies in Japan

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Home of GAINEX studio
Major anime companies include Aniplex, Geneon Universal Entertainment Japan, Marvelous Entertainment and Media Factory — owners of such mega-successful global properties as Naruto, Pokemon, Neon Genesis Evangelion and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Reports from the 2010 Tokyo International Anime Fair were dominated by the arrival of several Chinese anime producers on the scene.

Studio 4̊C produces “Tekkon Kinkreet”, “Genius Party” and “Mind Game” and episodes of “The Animatrix”. “Tekkon Kinkreet” has been critically acclaimed. Madhouse is a renowned anime studio founded in 1972. Its talent pool includes Yoshiaki Kawajiri, director of “Vampire Hunter D”; Santa Inoue, creator of the “Tokyo Tribes” manga series; and Satoshi Kon, director of “Paprika”. Madhouse’s parent company Index is a content provider for cell phones and leader in marketing manga and anime for cell phones.

Production I.G. produced “Ghost in the Shell” and the anime sections of Quentin Taratino’s “Kill Bill”. Studio Pierrot is home to anime veterans who produce Bleach and Naruto.

Studio Ghibli, See Miyazaki, Below

Some studios have moved to rural areas to reduce costs and to provide animators with a more relaxing and congenial environment to work in.

Anime Merchandizing

Gundam toy
There are lots of shows with children with product and merchandise tie ins. Pokemon is the most famous. “Tottoko Hamtaro”(“Little Hamsters, Big Adventures”) was big with kids in the early 2000s, generating popular songs and dolls. “Cinnamon Roll” was big in the mid 2000s and produces hundreds of merchandise items.

In Japan, Anime stars have large fan clubs and release CDs that sell millions of copies. Animation and toy companies make bundles from tie-in toys and merchandise. Schoolbag, dolls and other “Sailor Moon” products bring in more than $250 million a year.

“Transformers” — cars and trucks that can transform into robots — had a complex beginning as toys in the United States and Japan and inspired the animated television series and the movies, including an animated film in 1986 and a big-budget blockbuster in 2007. Some say tit all began with he Japanese cartoon “Macross” (“Robotech” in the United States), about F-14 fighter that changed into robots.

Among the under six set for a while “Tottoko Hamtaro” were all the rage. These wide-eyed manga hamsters found their way on to a popular anime and a number of hit records and an array of products that rivaled Hello Kitty. The “hamustas” first appeared in Shogaku Ninensei (Second Grader) magazine to tie in with the popularity of hamsters among children. By 2003, the anime was shown in 15 countries, including Britain, South Korea, Thailand, the United States, Brazil, China and Spain. The characters also became very popular among cute-loving Japanese women in their 20s.

Troubles and Hopes for the Japanese Anime Industry

The anime industry is suffering as a result of decreasing DVD sales which in turn is affected by the amount of material available free on the Internet. Fan-subbing — fan’s creating subtitles of Japanese anime in their own languages — is undermining efforts to make money from overseas markets. In Many cases fanssubbed versions of popular anime and manga are available for free on the Internet long before the official subtitles versions are sold on DVD.

Anime is also encountering trouble on the television front in Japan. Few anime shows are found in prime time. This was not the case a few years when shows like “Detective Conan”, “One Piece” and “Yatterman” were prime time fixtures. Now they are relegated to other time slots are only show in prime time on a few local station.

To make money anime studios are making soft-core material aimed at otaku in their 40s that is shown on late night television along with ads for DVDs of expanded versions of the same show. An overwhelming number of productions are based on manga or are watered down with the opinions of corporate sponsors, making it difficult for animators to produce an original piece of work.

Ian Condry, Harvard professor and author of “Anime Revolution”told the Daily Yomiuri, “The anime industry has substantial opportunities to expand if it can find a way to better harness the enormous fan energy overseas. Certainly, the easy access of anime on YourTube and Bit Torrent poses a threat, but the energy of fansubbers and scanlations [which are unauthorized translations of anime and manga respectively] demonstrate that many people care about anime and want it to continue being creative engaged, and cutting edge.”

Animators' salaries are much lower than in other industries, a fact that has cast a shadow over the influx of new blood. A 2008 survey by the Japan Animation Creators Association (JANICA) revealed the average annual salary for animators with at least one year of experience was a mere 1.1 million yen. A lack of money has also made it difficult for animation houses to set up an educational system to train artists and staff.

Tweening — creating the frames used to connect key frames and create movement — had traditionally been a craft that young animators had to master before they were allowed to work from original drawings — used for the so-called key frames that express emotion and movement. In recent years, many tweening assignments are being farmed out to foreign animation houses to streamline production. The result has been the destruction of the structure by which the nation's young talent had traditionally cut its teeth. [Source: Yasuko Onda, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 12, 2010]

Anime creator Yutaka Yamamoto, the creative force behind hits including Haruhi Suzumiya and Lucky Star, bemoans what he calls the "inward-looking" insularity of the anime industry, its reliance on cheap labor, outsourcing and a glut of similar series often in the moe (hyper-cute character) category aimed at hardcore otaku, and its failure to provide interactive human exchanges between and among creators and fans. Even in Japan, Yamamoto notes, "the bubble has burst" for the industry.

Anime Background Art

Takamasa Sakurai wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “For many anime fans, beautiful background art is characteristic of Japanese anime,” “The backgrounds are created separately from the characters; this infusion of such realistic scenery is only possible because of the artists' skills.

These days much of it is actually created in China. Sakurai wrote. “I once visited inland China with some cutting-edge background artists. I was moved by how absorbed they were in studying the tiniest of details, taking pictures of stains on the walls of a building slated for demolition or posters coming off the walls. They were doing this to create a library of reference materials for the future. I felt as if I was being shown their uncompromising spirits: Their enthusiasm for their work suggested they never cut corners even when making a scene that will only appear for just a moment.”

Qumarion Doll Opens Door to New Motion-Capture Technology

Takamasa Sakurai wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “QUMARION--a humanoid motion-capture device that processes 3-D computer images using a posable doll--has been released by Celsys, Inc. The joints of the doll can be manipulated to mimic the postures of humans and animals, which are read by a computer and displayed in 3-D on the screen using "QUMA" technology. [Source: Takamasa Sakurai, Daily Yomiuri, September 28, 2012]

Products similar to QUMARION already exist on the market, but are generally too expensive for the average consumer. "QUMARION targets not only those who are good at drawing, but also those who aren't," said ViVienne Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jun Kuchii, QUMA's founder. "Just as mangaka use pens and musicians play on keyboards, the content and ideas in an artist's head can be expressed through various interfaces. But some people find it hard to give shape to their ideas.”

"We are concerned that Japanese pop culture, such as manga and anime, won't maintain its superiority without drawing upon unique content that may be locked within people's heads," he said. Kuchii speaks from experience. About 12 years ago, Kuchii aspired to write a manga series. His friend created the artwork while he came up with original scenarios. Their collaboration was presented at a comic market, which led to an offer from a publishing firm.

"But my friend and I were unable to communicate well regarding pictorial expression and ended up not making the series. At the time, I wished I could use a motion-capture tool to illustrate my thoughts on a screen so we could communicate more effectively," Kuchii said. However, the environment and technology at the time had not developed to the point at which his wish could be realized.

Writers can explain their ideas in drafts or on storyboards, but many often find it difficult to accurately depict more subtle motions and poses. QUMARION would help eliminate such problems. Kuchii believes that manga and anime are likely to become collaborative efforts between writers and illustrators and that division of labor between partners will become more prominent in the future. "The level of quality expected by the public keeps getting higher and higher, and it's impossible for one person to do everything. The number of specialist teams will increase in manga production," he said. Even manga artists have difficulty with some molding designs. According to Kuchii, the device could help them too.

What kinds of poses could be depicted more easily with QUMARION? "The sitting pose for a girl is one example," said Digital Hollywood University President Tomoyuki Sugiyama. "A girl seated on the floor with her feet splayed out to the sides of her hips is a symbolic 'moe' pose, but it's hard to depict natural, realistic curves for such a pose on CGI." One notable feature of QUMARION is that the doll can only recreate poses that can be performed by the human body.

Voice Actress Princess

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Voice actress Eri Kitamura
Makoto Fukuda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Voice actress Yukari Tamura is called “Princess of Yukari Kingdom” by her huge following of fans, who are known as her "subjects." The sense of unity and excitement at her concerts is overwhelming, but easily recognized by fans of other voice actors.” Tamura, or Yukarin as she is also called by her fans, held 10 concerts at eight locations from in September and October 2010. Over 5,000 people flocked to the final concert at Tokyo International Forum to hear 26 songs, “with Tamura and her fans wielding the chemical pink pen lights that are ubiquitous at her live performances.” [Source: Makoto Fukuda, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 21, 2011]

“The relationship between Tamura and her fans is very close. At her shows, there are certain "promises" that are kept. When she waves a stick and says "meroon," for example, the audience and staff become meromero, or behave like they are hopelessly in love. Her fans are always ready to respond to her improvizations, and have been described by outsiders as "well-trained." Through her @yukari_tamura Twitter account, Tamura interacts casually with her nearly 100,000 followers.” "They're more like friends than fans. Some of them write to me at my radio show. There are even people I often mention during conversations. That's maybe why people think I'm so close to them," she said.

Born in 1976, the Fukuoka native debuted as a voice actress in 1997 in the role of Passel in the CD drama “Macross Generation” . She now has her own radio program, Tamura Yukari no Itazura Kurousagi, and is considered at the pinnacle of the voice acting field, along with Nana Mizuki and Yui Horie. Although Tamura looks happy talking about her work and fans, she said she was once shy and withdrawn, and was uncomfortable talking to people when she was a child. But she said everything changed when a primary school teacher praised her for reading a language textbook well. "It seemed like my very first compliment. I didn't have many friends, but after I was praised for something I did, I was able to talk to people. Later, I started thinking I wanted a job where I could express things," Tamura said.

After graduation, Tamura started a regular job, but she soon moved to Tokyo to pursue her dream at voice acting school. Tamura started as a voice actress and singer on CD dramas. But she said it took a while before she became a real voice actress. "Even though I didn't have much of a resume, I got quite a number of jobs, and many of them were for singing roles. I was happy, but I also felt conflicted," she said. Her first hit came in 2000 when she played Mai Kawasumi in the videogame “Kanon” , which was later adapted into an anime. This was followed by the role of Ranpha Franboise in “Galaxy Angel” , a videogame, anime and comic.

With her incredible vocal range, Tamura has played everything from a small girl to an adult. She has also done two different roles in the same program, as in “Gokujo Seitokai” where she is the voice of both the main character and a doll. Other accomplishments include the role of Nanoha Takamachi in the anime “Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha” , which was made into a movie; the high school girl Yamada in the romantic comedy “B-gata H-kei” ; the role of Togame in Katanagatari, which follows Yasuri Shichika and Togame on a quest to find 12 legendary swords.

Japanese Government Helps Foster Young Anime Talent

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voice actors Suzuko Mimori, Izumi Kitta
and Takaaki Kidani
In an effort to tackle some of the problems facing the anime industry Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency set up the Japan Animation Creators Association (JANICA), which was commissioned to lead a project that began in 2010 to nurture young talent selected on the basis of proposals for short original animated films by giving them training and money to realize their projects. [Source: Yasuko Onda, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 12, 2010]

The agency began the project over fears the industry's talent pool is drying up. These young animators are working on the original drawings and tweening. In a normal setting, animators are put in charge of key frame drawings only after they have mastered tweening. From among these animators, people deemed to have the overall capability to become directors are chosen and fostered accordingly.

To give animators more of an incentive, pay is being raised during production periods. Providing animation houses with the opportunity to create original work is also important so they don’t rely too heavily on manga or are pressured by corporate sponsors. The government project is giving many filmmakers an opportunity "to attempt something different rather than stick to conventional imagery," according to Production I.G, the maker of massive hits such as Ghost in the Shell and Stand Alone Complex.

Japanese Government-Funded Anime Promotion

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Kanon Itashi
In July 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A public-private joint investment fund will set up a new company as early as this summer to deal with planning, production and international distribution of Japanese movies and anime. The new company to be established by the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan (INCJ), is designed to boost the international competitiveness of Japanese movies and anime stories. It will be tasked with identifying promising original works and ideas from among Japanese companies or individuals and will be entrusted with holding the sale of rights for film adaptations on behalf of the original copyright holders, the sources said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, Jully 21, 2011]

While recruiting some experts in Hollywood and gaining their expertise in production and distribution, the new company will attempt to expand distribution channels for Japanese movies and anime abroad, including in emerging markets. The INCJ will invest about 5 billion yen in the new company, which it will wholly own. The company will have bases of activity in Japan and the United States. The new company will aim to produce about 10 box-office hits, each making several billion yen, in the initial five years, the sources said.

Japanese-made movies, anime and other content have been quite popular in Western and Asian countries as a symbol of "Cool Japan." But, according to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, their prices have often been beaten down in negotiations over the original works, with the result that Japanese businesses and individuals who created the content do not receive sufficient profits.

Women in Anime

Roland Kelts wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The status of real women in anime production may be evolving through advances in technology and societal shifts accelerated by post-disaster turmoil. I was reminded of Hayao Miyazaki's remarks when I interviewed him in California a few years ago: "All of our best young artists are women," he said. "Maybe I need to make films about powerful young men now to give them the strength to compete." [Source: Roland Kelts, Daily Yomiuri, March 16, 2012]

In the production of anime, Japanese women may also be liberated by changes in the creation of the medium. Just as self-publishing models are enabling writers to reach readers without the third-party involvement of publishers, computer software provides artists in anime the means to craft their art outside of studios, which remain largely male-dominated environs.

Anime auteur Makoto Shinka was a pioneer of the new indie anime model in Japan. He created his first anime short, She and Her Cat, entirely on his own, from photographs he took and imagery drafted on the computer tools that were available in 1998. He then wrote, directed and produced his first feature-length anime, Voices from a Distant Star, on his Apple Power Mac G4. Shinkai told me in New York last year that his goal as an artist was to tell his audience, "You will be OK"--a particularly urgent sentiment in the wake of increasing calamities, he said, not just in Japan, but worldwide.

Hiroshima-based Soubi Yamamato, a 22 year-old female artist from Japan's new generation of anime auteurs, sees Shinkai as an artistic and spiritual model. "The titles that Mr. Shinkai created on his own opened a door for me to this wonderful culture of indie anime. His creations were were like beacons showing me the way high-quality animation can be made by one committed individual working solo.”

Yamamoto's first commercial release, This Boy Can Fight Aliens, is a 28-minute story about a trio of young males (one of whom has the power to save the planet) and their fraternal affection and conflicts in the rural home they share. The scenario enables Yamamoto to explore the nuances of human interdependency and camaraderie and the will to survive. "Although things may be hard now, and you're struggling and feel like you're all alone," she says, "there will always be someone somewhere to help you, and there are definitely some people out there who like you.”

I asked Yamamoto why she was compelled to create anime, a traditional, two-dimensional art form in a world of flashier, more lucrative options. "It's true that the problem with the industry is that animators are not paid well. But anime allows me to express the world I have in my imagination in the most complete way. The appeal is that you can use more than just pictures, because in anime, other elements, such as story, voice and music, are interwoven to create the whole." "[In Japan] we have had a great manga culture for many years," she adds. "Those of us who grew up close to manga and anime and aspired to become writers and animators during our childhood are the artists at work now.”

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, xorsyst blog, Hector Garcia, Anime gallery, Japan Zone, Goods from Japan

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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