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Why Were Anime Budgets So Big In The 80s?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jacob asked:

I was looking back at the anime that was made during the 1980's and have had something that has always had me curious. I have heard from several anime podcasts and as well as convention panels that the anime industry had a lot of money to throw around in the 1980's. The one I here quite often is the founders of Gainax, at the time a bunch of 20's something college dropouts, were given an insane amount of money to make The Royal Space Force Wings of Honnêamise film. It was one of the most expensive films to date until Studio Ghibli made Princess Mononoke. As well as a number of other projects that were given dump truck loads of money to make of varying quality. Unlike today were made with no real intended audience or franchise plans. My question is why did these studios get so much money to make these OVA's, movies and TV shows? Where did this money come from? Why dose it seem like there was such little over site back than compared to now?

If you ask an otaku to define Japan in the 80s, they'll doubtlessly reference one of the myriad classic shows or movies from the era. The 80s was when Hayao Miyazaki found his footing as a feature film director. It was when mecha series ruled the airwaves, and everything from Macross to Gundam to Dougram to GoLion to Votoms and everything in between were using toy company money to tell epic war stories. It was when the newfound freedom of the home video market allowed animators to explore new styles of storytelling and indulge their more lurid fantasies. It was definitely a golden age in retrospect.

But if you ask someone who doesn't care about anime, the first thing they'd be likely to tell you that in the '80s, Japan was in the midst of an economic boom to end all economic booms. Its export market was hot; Japanese-made electronics, cars, motorcycles and toys were everywhere, and the country that had been decimated after the second world war was now proudly taking the world's stage, becoming the #2 economy when measured by GDP. Newly rich Japanese businessmen were buying up real estate overseas (most notably golf courses), and buying out American companies. (This inspired some amount of anti-Japanese racism in the US, particularly in places like Detroit.)

Back in 1985, the exchange rate was ¥250 to a dollar. The country's engineering and workmanship was very good. ("All the best stuff's made in Japan!" a certain Marty McFly once remarked.) This made Japan a total bargain for foreign companies looking for manufacturing. Money poured in, pushing the Japanese stock market and property values to ridiculous highs. A lot of people and a lot of companies suddenly had a lot of money, more than they knew what to do with.

And as happens when a lot of businesses find themselves with a windfall, they look for places to invest that money. But in times where money's everywhere, businesspeople get sloppy. They invest and lend money at low rates of return, with little due diligence into what they're actually investing in. They get hyped up en masse about "big new things" that turn out to not be so big (Bitcoin would be a modern equivalent). They don't do their homework.

Anime was one of those dumb investments in the '80s. Toy companies launched new lines of toys with break-neck speed, each one with an accompanying anime they'd sponsor -- the content of the show almost didn't matter. ("You want to make a dark, dystopian series with heavy environmentalist themes? Sure, just show our robots a lot!") Giant feature films, like the aforementioned Honneamise, or Akira, got greenlit without any real idea how they'd make their money back. (And many of them didn't.) Keep in mind, this was the era when almost nobody outside of Japan knew or cared about this stuff.

And let's not forget the home video market. VHS, Beta, Laserdisc and VHD were all new technologies, and needed content, and a bunch of ramshackle companies sprang up to meet the demand. Some did well for themselves, like Network -- which eventually became Bandai Visual. Others, like Hiromedia, producers of such legendary fare as MD Geist and Roots Search, died pretty quick. Since all of the known anime creators were busy with mainstream releases, this weird little market hired a lot of young people right out of college. Some of them did great things, but most of them didn't know what they were doing and created some absolute garbage. But the OVA market was largely a fad at first, and the first companies that sprang up flooded the market with junk that would never make money before burning out.

All of these bad investments and irrational exuberance eventually came to a head, and the "bubble economy", as it became known, eventually popped. By the early 90s Japan's economy had cratered, and didn't rise again for over a decade. That was a dark time for the anime business, and a lot of companies shuttered. The crazy high-budget anime that we know and love from that era stopped, and that sort of spending has seldom been seen since.

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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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