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What's With All the Delayed Aniplex Shows?

by Kim Morrissy,

This time, we interrupt the regular reader-submitted questions with some “behind the headlines” analysis.

Kim asked:

Three Aniplex shows—NieR:Automata Ver 1.1a, UniteUp!, and Ayakashi Triangle—have recently announced delays due to COVID-19. Is COVID actually a problem right now, or is this just a case of mismanagement?

COVID-19 is a legitimate problem—and this is particularly true right now because of the all-time high infection rates in China. If the accounts from those working at Chinese subcontracting studios are to be believed, the bottlenecks have been building up for months, as Japanese companies have been pushing more and more last-minute work on overburdened studios.

The thing is, though, people should have seen this coming. The industry faced its first reckoning with the virus three years ago, and one of the big lessons then was the need for ways to work around delays from overseas outsourcing partners. While the industry was eventually able to adapt to the new normal, the early days of COVID exposed the inherent fragility of the animation production pipeline. Given that knowledge, it would be extra risky nowadays to plan a production schedule that doesn't consider a possible outbreak or other unexpected delays.

It's also worth noting that January anime tend to be harder on the staff compared to other times of the year due to many Chinese companies taking time off for the Lunar New Year. Saekano director Kanta Kamei mentioned this in a tweet seemingly reacting to the recent Aniplex delays. He even recounted how he once told an Aniplex producer to stop scheduling shows for January, but was ignored.

Given all this context, giving Aniplex the side eye is easy. The company has been less than transparent about delays in the past, often attempting to dress them up as planned schedule changes, like in the cases of Magia Record, 86, and Wonder Egg Priority. Despite the animation staff's high ambitions and prodigious talents, it's no secret that their productions frequently tear at the seams, resulting in noticeably lower quality episodes later in their runs.

To make matters worse, Aniplex has been ramping up its production lines throughout the pandemic, not winding them down. CloverWorks alone has released 14 new TV anime titles since 2020. Even when the shows themselves consistently look good, that's no guarantee of a healthy schedule behind the scenes. The credits in recent shows like My Dress-Up Darling and Akebi's Sailor Uniform indicate a significant level of staff overlap for titles that were supposed to be handled by different sub-teams within the studio. The teams are being spread too thin to keep up with all the work.

Given Aniplex's past record, I am not inclined to take the COVID-19 excuse at face value. To give NieR:Automata Ver 1.1a as an example, that anime shares its animation producer and several animation staff in common with 86, a series that faced production troubles well before the current COVID flareup. Because the final two episodes were delayed, the staff couldn't wrap up production sooner, which probably bled into NieR's schedule. It seems that, in that case, COVID was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, but really, the show should not have been put in that situation in the first place.

I've mainly focused on Aniplex in this column because it's the most egregious example on display. Still, it is worth noting that Kubo Won't Let Me Be Invisible, headed by Pony Canyon, has also announced a delay until April. It's a tough situation all around.

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