The Hard Life of an Anime Director

by Justin Sevakis,

Holy crap, I asked for questions and you guys responded! After last week I got inundated with questions, and almost all of them were really fantastic ones! Right now I have enough to get me through the holiday season and then some... Keep 'em coming, guys!

Cameron asks:

I was wondering if you could lend some insight to the alarming rate of untimely deaths and serious illness within the anime/manga industry in Japan? It's sad when I hear about beloved artists passing away in their 40's and 50's, especially when they have brought so much joy to the people who appreciate their work. I thought perhaps the reason lies within the culture's life-style habits? But then Japan has the highest average lifespan of any country if I'm not mistaken. It could also be dietary, genetic, geographical, and probably a lot of possibilities I haven't even considered. Perhaps even the anti-anime nuts are correct and anime does in-fact kill? Either way, this has been of great concern to me for a while, and I would appreciate any insight you could provide. Get well soon Sato Shuho.

It's no secret that several prominent anime staff are dying way too young. It's also no secret that animators, and even anime directors, don't make all that much money. It's irresponsible to directly point fingers -- the anime production process obviously isn't directly killing anybody -- and I'm sure many animators have family health histories and hereditary conditions that make it impossible to judge the health of an entire industry as a group.

That said, the lifestyle of an animator is not exactly a healthy one. Long hours spent hunched over a desk, barely moving, are simply not conducive to a long life. Animators often subsist on instant and pre-packaged foods from convenience stores, most of which are terribly unhealthy. Until quite recently most animators were chain smokers, often letting the butts burn in their ashtrays while they toiled away on drawing after drawing. Many of the old-timers still smoke, although most anime studios these days are non-smoking. The long hours don't help things either -- I'm pretty sure few to none of these guys are getting proper exercise.

It would be one thing if all of these guys were dying of one single thing, but the fact is, the ones that are dying are doing so from a range of ailments. It wouldn't surprise me if smoking and poor nutrition were major factors in most of them. Satoshi Kon, for example, died of pancreatic cancer, which isn't very common in people as young as he was (he died at 46) but smoking is considered a major risk factor. Although he wasn't all that young, towards the end of his life Osamu Dezaki looked far, far older than his 67 years; he was also a major smoker and died of lung cancer.

It seems like nearly every new study coming out says the same things: the keys to a long, healthy life are a good diet, not smoking, not drinking to excess, and getting lots of exercise and a decent amount of sleep. It really seems like the life of an animator (in Japan at least) precludes nearly all of these things. I certainly hope things get better in this regard (and they might be, given how the health of employees is becoming an issue in corporate Japan over the last few years), but even if pressed, a lot of animators might not even be the type to take care of themselves. Certainly, nobody was forcing them to smoke.

Eugen asks:

A long long time ago, I read your column about a specific buried garbage: Chinamation. It came complete with short trailers and explained the synopsis of each show. My lord, was that bad. But here's my question: has any other country tried to enter the American animation market? I know the French have pretty good animations, but have they ever tried to sell them in America?

Nearly every country that produces its own animation does so with a world market at least partially in mind. How successful they are in getting their product released overseas, and in America specifically, varies wildly. Every year at MIPCOM, NATPE and other markets for television and film content, independent producers from around the world show up with trade show booths and displays showcasing their latest productions. Animation represents a decent chunk of these shows, but most of them never find a buyer for the US market.

What made that Chinamation stuff so amusingly awful is how it was CLEARLY modeled after anime, but was so janky looking that nobody could ever take it seriously. One company, a Chinese American-owned toy manufacturer with zero entertainment industry experience, tried to market the stuff in America but fell on its face, and promptly retreated from the market. The Chinese animation industry has released a few very decent feature films since, so it's not like they can't produce good stuff, but no US distributor has yet picked up any of these films.

Other Asian countries have produced animation. Hong Kong gave birth to the charming McDull series, about a young pig and his single mother. Taiwan produced the kids' show A-kuei, which later spawned a Japanese-produced spin-off series. South Korea has probably made the strongest push for American releases of its trademark shows (and ADV, Central Park Media and Manga Video have all tried their hand at releasing them), but despite a huge government-sponsored trade show presence, none have made a signfiicant impact.

Outside of Asia, France produces a few interesting feature films every year, and those occasionally get picked up, dubbed and released in the US by GKids. (NYAV Post has produced star-studded dubs of such films as Mia and the Migoo, Cat in Paris, and several others.) Italy churns out the terrible Disney rip-off cartoons that lined the shelves of supermarket checkout isles for decades, the most infamous of which must be Camillo Teti's Titanic: The Legend Goes On. (If you've never seen it, it features a rapping dog.) Lately India's been getting in on that market as well.

What made Japanese animation successful where the others are either struggling for attention, or racing to the bottom of the cheap imported content market? Simply, it's the fact that the fans came first. By keeping quality relatively high and focusing on the filmic language of its output, Japan succeeded in attracting an older, more passionate fan base, making anime a respectable stand-alone industry. The other countries that try to compete simply aren't successfully marketing themselves towards fanboys: they're largely trying to create children's cartoons, and the market treats them as disposable pablum. Small media companies might sniff around them looking for a bargain, but larger companies ignore them and make their own content. Occasionally another foreign cartoon breaks out, but this is a rare occurance, and almost always happens at the art-house end of things.

Thomas asks:

I know very little about the structure of the film industry in general in anime in particular, so this may be an easy one. But in studying anime directors, I often see them rise up working in a single studio, say Madhouse or Toei, working their way up from storyboarder to director. And then when they become a director, they seem to move from studio to studio, to Manglobe, to Bones, to A-1, to basically whoever is doing their next project. Other directors, however, like Kawajiri and Hosoda, seem to stick with Madhouse as their main studio. Why does it seem there's very little connection between director and studio? When there is a connection, what is the difference that makes them in-house rather than freelance?

Every director is freelance. The reason they end up working with the same studio or two over and over is largely because of the relationships they cultivate. It's much like any freelancer: even though you're a free agent, when you're working with people you form a working relationship, and if it's a good one, they keep hiring out back. If you like working with them, you keep taking the jobs. At a certain point you can spend so long at a certain office that people forget you're freelance; that's just where you work.

Sometimes these relationships gel to the point where something major has to happen to get a director to leave the studio. For example, Masao Maruyama leaving Madhouse and starting MAPPA was a major enough incident that many directors followed him over. Other times, directors who don't work consistently will float more from studio to studio, chasing opportunities for projects as they come up.

There are plusses and minuses to being a non-salaried work-by-project sort of person. You end up with vacation time between projects, where you can think and brainstorm and come up with your own project ideas. They can also be a curse: an easy excuse for a studio to kick you to the curb if your project didn't turn out right. There is very little job security in any part of the entertainment industry anyway, but when you're a professional freelancer the insecurity seems somewhat codified. It's just how things work.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

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