Would An American Creator Have Control Over Their Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Branko asks:

Japanese authors appear to have a lot of control over how their works get adapted into anime. However, that is not true everywhere especially in Hollywood. So if an American author, like say George R.R. Martin wanted to produce an anime adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, would he have the same creative control over the project as a mangaka?

It depends. Japanese copyright law basically allows for the creator of an original work or their agent to sign-off on pretty much every aspect of its adaptation and its resulting business. If the producer of the anime is in Japan, it's pretty rare for them to consider adapting a foreign work that isn't old and in the public domain. In the handful of cases where a foreign original work is licensed, they'll usually only do a deal if the creator or their agent is not insisting on much creative oversight. The producer is usually mindful of the language barrier, and the tight deadlines and budgets that anime is produced under. Having to go through a translator, multiple time zones, and waiting for sign-off usually seems like more trouble than it's worth.

So by default, Japanese production staff don't talk much with Western creators of shows that they decide to adapt into anime. This doesn't happen often enough for me to have heard of any stories of an author trying to give input and not being received, but there are always quiet, passive-aggressive ways to get around any limitations, particularly when there's a language barrier. Ursula LeGuin was not really consulted in any way during the production of Tales of Earthsea; upon seeing the final work she reportedly told director Goro Miyazaki that it was good, but not representative of her work. She was pretty gracious: E. E. "Doc" Smith, creator of the Lensman series of books, was so unhappy with the 1980s anime adaptations that he's banned any further release of them.

Perhaps more amusingly, AnimEigo's Robert Woodhead gained notoriety in the early PC era for programming the first PC RPG game, Wizardry. An OVA adaptation was made a few years later, which was widely panned and is now forgotten. Mr. Woodhead does not talk about this anime.

But if the producer of the show is American and aligned with the American creators, it's a completely different story. An American producer of some sort is usually on the ground in Japan, breathing down the necks of the director and creative staff, and dictating the overall direction of the show. The anime studio is basically working for the Americans at this point. This process has proved very difficult for Japanese creative staff to work under, and while some anime studios still seek out work-for-hire jobs like this, most will quietly give the work to its least qualified production team. I've even heard rumors that some have secretly outsourced the work to Korea. This might explain why this doesn't happen very often anymore.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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