Do Foreigners Work In Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Lucas asks:

Not sure if you already answered this question before, but I was just wondering how open the anime industry is when it comes to foreigners directly working on the development of anime. Are there cases of foreigners managing to get high-positions such as direction or scenario writing or are Japanese companies usually wary of foreigners trying to get into the industry?

There are lots of foreigners who work on anime. The most obvious places they work in are in the more labor intensive parts of the animation process, which have long been outsourced to other, cheaper Asian countries: first was South Korea, and then Hong Kong, Mainland China, The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. While this outsourced labor is mostly restricted to in-between animation, scanning and painting, sometimes key animation, compositing, and 3D CG is done outside of Japan as well.

Inside Japan, there are occasionally foreigners that get hired as animators and slowly work their way up the meritocracy of the animation studio. Some are Korean, like Eunyoung Choi, who started off as an in-betweener and has gone on to become a key animator, animation director, episode director and storyboard artist. Some are French, such as Thomas Romain, who came to Satelight as an already-established animator and now does quite a bit of design work in anime. Over the years, there have been Americans, Singaporeans, and probably several other nationalities as well. (To hear what this was like back in the 90s, I do encourage you to check out this old ANNCast interview with Jan Scott Frazier -- who actually got to direct some short segments for games towards the end of her run. It is definitely not all roses.)

But as for development? That's not really something that happens. The only project that I know of where non-Japanese people were able to develop and create a major project within the Japanese system was Tekkonkinkreet, which was directed by Michael Arias (who got his friend Anthony Weintraub to write the screenplay in English, based on the Viz Manga translation). Arias had spent years developing animation software that was widely used in anime production in Japan, and had many connections within the industry. He came in as a producer for The Animatrix, and spent years trying to push Koji Morimoto to take on the project before the idea came up to try directing it himself. This, and his new film Harmony, are the only cases I know of where a foreigner has been able to develop an anime project of his or her own. Or at least, the only cases where they didn't also have to bring in an outside producer to finance the project and just hired the Japanese studio to make it for them.

Arias, obviously, is a special case. The vast, vast majority of anime directors rise through the ranks of animation staff, and there's not that many people willing to put up with the long hours, the terrible pay and the insane stress involved in being an animator these days. The number of foreigners who are also willing and able to put up with Japan's labyrinthine immigration system, learn Japanese fluently, and move to a new country with no support system for those long hours, terrible pay and insane stress are extremely few, and it's not clear that any of them stick around long enough to make it all the way to director (although some more maverick studios are willing to take a chance with less experienced talent).

It's come close to happening before, and so that isn't to say it won't happen. As the industry gets more desperate for fresh talent, it's inevitable that one of these crazy hard workers from another land will inevitably get to that finish line. I'm not sure that will ever happen for a writing position -- it's hard for me to imagine someone learning Japanese well enough to write delicately nuanced screenplays, only to work in what is widely considered to be a low-end job writing anime TV series.

But the barriers are insane, and there are so many easier, better paying paths for a talented artist or writer to take that whoever does get there would have to be absolutely nuts.

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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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