Too Many Anime Spoils the Brothby Callum May,
“But look, I made you some content! Daddy made you your favorite, open wide!” - Bo Burnham
Remember television? It wasn't all that long ago that our viewing habits were built around a definitive schedule. If you wanted to catch a new episode of Lost in 2004, then you'd have to make sure you're plonked on the couch at 8PM every Wednesday. Because of this set schedule, there were only so many shows that could air in the primetime. But what if you didn't like those shows? No matter, the industry was ready to provide us with more options, for a price of course. Pay TV providers bundled up hundreds of channels into tiered packages and offered them to viewers who couldn't possibly watch them all.
With this in mind, streaming services feel inevitable. Now we didn't need to flick through hundreds of channels, invest in expensive box sets, or turn up at set viewing times. You don't even need a TV anymore—a mobile phone in bed will suffice. Ultimately, boredom is extinct in the streaming age. In 2019, Netflix released more Originals than the entire TV industry did in 2005. Yet, it's not like most people are watching exponentially more shows individually. It's just that the rising quantity of programming ends up increasing the possibility that we might find something we like.
The problem is that human beings have to actually create all of this content. Anousha Sakoui for the LA Times reports that in the wake of the pandemic, “The scramble to make up for lost time—combined with soaring demand for content from new streaming platforms—is taking a toll on crews.” Production jobs have never been easy, but streaming platforms are pushing creators to work overtime to supplement the demand for more content. These platforms are owned and operated by the largest companies in America, but it's not only the American industry that's being stretched by overproduction.
Netflix faced pushback when first entering the anime industry. They sought to make their first Original Anime with Polygon Pictures, a Japanese studio that was mainly known for working on U.S. shows.
In 2014, Netflix released their first Original Anime, Knights of Sidonia from 3DCG studio Polygon Pictures. A year later, the service launched in Japan, promising to bring more Japanese TV shows and films to the rest of the world. One of their biggest efforts has been in acquiring and commissioning anime series from top studios, establishing a Production Line Partnership to steadily increase the amount of series on the platform. This initiative has paid off—anime consistently ranks in the top 10 most watched programs worldwide, and anime viewership had more than doubled within the United States in 2020.
With so many people watching anime, Netflix and other streaming services have risen to attempt to meet the demand, putting more money into the industry to license existing shows and produce new ones. Today, revenue from overseas streaming makes up almost half of all anime revenue. This was initially boosted by Chinese licensors, but in the wake of government content restrictions, U.S. platforms have picked up the slack. In an article by ANN's CEO Christopher Macdonald, he explains that the large amount of money paid by streaming services upfront can potentially make back the entire budget of a series, if not a healthy portion of it.
Producing an anime has never been less risky, and this has prompted an overproduction crisis that exists as a combination of streaming service's ever-increasing demand for more content, coupled with the anime industry's continuing issues with overwork. These issues haven't fazed the industry, however. This year, Kadokawa announced that they were aiming to produce 40 anime each year until 2023. The publisher is already one of the most frequent producers of anime, largely made up of adaptations of their light novel brands.
The Detective Is Already Dead is one example of the issues with Kadokawa's approach. The show is made at the Kadokawa-owned studio ENGI and has suffered several production issues throughout its run.
This wouldn't be as much of a problem if there were actually enough animators to create all of these adaptations. With long hours and low wages, working in anime isn't exactly an enticing prospect. According to the Animator Supporters Dormitory, 90% of animators quit within their first three years. Therefore, it's up to the remaining artists to shoulder this massive workload, often ending up in roles they're not quite ready for. Ex-Madhouse and MAPPA president Masao Maruyama said in 2018 that the anime industry was in its “worst situation” and believes more needs to be done to train anime creators. A year later, he elaborated, saying, “Considering the amount of creators, there are too many titles right now.”
Right now, it's important that the anime industry invests in training. This is something that Netflix has been open to, sponsoring a training school for Wit Studio animators, but the scope is limited. Many of those participating in anime today are self-taught. In fact, it's become more common for studios to reach out to foreign animators through Twitter to ask them to participate in their shows. This was rarer in the past, since directors and producers generally prefer to work with those they can speak to face-to-face, or at least outsourcing companies that they can have an ongoing relationship with.
Overproduction has meant that more people are getting involved with anime, but they don't necessarily understand the process of making it. According to Blou, who worked on Wonder Egg Priority, “Production assistants are quite desperate and can offer anyone who can simply draw (in some cases, even that criteria wasn't fulfilled). You might be happy to receive an offer when you aren't ready, but the truth is that it's a poisoned gift. Take your first job only when you're (more than) ready!”
Wonder Egg Priority was an incredibly ambitious show. Animation producer Shota Umehara was hospitalized twice during its tumultuous production.
The reality is that the demand does still exist and, unfortunately, overproduction will continue. Deep down, we still want to be able to scroll through the largest library of entertainment in human history and complain that there's nothing to watch. Responding to Variety, Parrot Analytics' Alejandro Rojas says that anime consumption has doubled since 2017, and that there's still room to create more anime titles to meet the growing demand.
Different companies have taken different approaches to this issue. Some top studios like Kyoto Animation and ufotable have held fast. They only accept a few contracts, instead focusing their teams' attention on quality, rather than quantity. This is an advantage exclusive to some larger studios—most smaller teams are more reliant on freelancers and also have less bargaining power.
One large studio that isn't scaling back is MAPPA. Studio president Manabu Otsuka has been dramatically ramping up the amount of shows produced at the studio since their 2017 slate. Instead of seeing overproduction as a problem, he sees it as an opportunity to create even more shows and grow the studio. “There are some in the industry who think that the number of anime being made should decrease, but I think that is just averting your eyes from the task in front of you. There is a lot of demand for anime, so the question is how to deliver high quality works that meet the demand,” affirms Otsuka.
Similarly, animator Joan Chung recently spoke out about working conditions at Science SARU, blaming the creative studio for spreading itself too thin across too many productions. “This year, Science SARU took on INU-OH (a feature), two single-season productions, as well as Star Wars: Visions—I do not believe this was a manageable number of productions. Its core employees range 40-50 in number, and though they liaise with many freelancers, the burden on the core team was heavier than it should have been.”
While studio heads may see increasing their production capabilities as a source of prosperity, the same sentiment isn't shared by those that create the shows. Back in May, a former MAPPA animator described the studio as having a factory-like working environment and criticized leadership for having the staff work on four shows at once. In July, a different animator criticized the studio for its low rates. He argued that the streaming service commissioning the show should take responsibility for the conditions. “For all the exorbitant amount of capital [of Netflix], it's a problem that they've started to place orders with such low rates.” Both Crunchyroll and Netflix have worked with MAPPA to create original series for their respective platforms.
It would perhaps soften the blow to learn that these creations are shared and beloved by fans across the world, but the truth is more disappointing. While most original anime will be announced on streaming services' social media feeds, subsequent marketing is often lacking. Netflix rarely even posts about anime on their release dates. Crunchyroll and Funimation rarely market anime outside of their biggest seasonal hits. These platforms aren't enriched by the success of individual shows, and are instead supported by subscriptions. Therefore, it'd make sense that it would be more important to them to develop the image of having a large amount of shows available, rather than actually promoting them individually.
This is Netflix's usual way of promoting anime. It gives the impression of quantity, but never shows the value of each individual show.
from the hottest new releases to never before seen originals, there's more exciting anime coming your way in 2021 pic.twitter.com/8vDMkEOj0M— Netflix Geeked (@NetflixGeeked) April 4, 2021
In fact, Netflix actually spends more time promoting their slate of “anime” created outside of Japan. These include Castlevania and Blood of Zeus, created at Powerhouse Animation in Texas, and DoTA: Dragon's Blood and The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf, created at Studio Mir in South Korea. If it's not based on a video game, it's unlikely to get any attention. The result is animators having to work overtime to handle the tightening schedule of an ever increasing amount of anime, only for them to become yet another thumbnail for viewers to scroll past.
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