Anime and manga creators: dream workers pushed to the limit?

Anime and manga creators: dream workers pushed to the limit?

The desk of Soushi Tory, a successful mangaka for whom, on average, a day’s work translates into one page drawn. In the image, some scenes of Tory’s work ‘Vostok’.

(Soushi Tory/Carmen Grau)

Japanese pop culture has a global reach. Anime is on the rise . Translated manga are flooding into new markets, attracting readers from all over the world. But despite their remarkable popularity and sales, the inner workings of these dream factories are unknown, especially when it comes to the creators and their working conditions. Who fills thousands of pages and shots with art, and how?

A diverse group of professionals are on the frontline of Japan’s entertainment industry. There are the creators of anime and video games, directors and producers, animation studio employees or freelancers, illustrators and authors of manga, their assistants and the publishers. There are also the manufacturers of digital devices (the latest generation of drawing tablets), the voice actors, the promoters of cosplay activities – in which participants dress up as characters – and events for fans. Most of them are self-employed.

In 2023, these professionals from Japan’s culture industry rallied to speak out against ‘Invoice’, a new billing and tax collection system adopted by the Japanese government. Introduced last October, it has triggered alarm, as freelancers will either have to raise their prices or see their incomes reduced. They see it as a tax hike in disguise.

Meanwhile, profits are booming. In 2022, the anime industry alone generated ¥2.74 trillion (around €175 billion, US$194 billion), record figures that have been on the rise since 2010 (with the exception of 2020 due to the pandemic) according to a report by the Association of Japanese Animations. Manga comic books and magazine sales reached a record ¥677 billion (around €4.3 billion, US$4.8 billion) in 2022, according to data from the Research Institute for Publications, which also shows how the electronic format is gaining ground over paper.

Organising and new trade union strategies

Animation professionals, fearful for the future of an art form that, they say, “symbolises the nation”, joined forces and founded the Nippon Anime & Film Culture Association (NAFCA). During a media presentation in May, they made it clear that the industry is “far from being a dream factory”, that “creators are kept going by their passion for the work, pushed to their limits, both physically and mentally” and “the system is on the verge of collapse”.

“If Japan wants to maintain its quality and continue to be a benchmark for the next generation, we must join forces and look to the future of anime,” says NAFCA.

It denounces the poor conditions that animators have to endure to work in the industry, leading to “the depletion of human resources and an increasing dependence on overseas production [or, in other words, the offshoring of anime]”. The result is a decline in the quality of the content and in the training for young people.

Masuo Ueda worked on the production of the popular animated robot series Gundam more than four decades ago. He is well aware of how the sector is changing and is now chairing NAFCA, to help develop solutions. The aim is to build community, lobby for resources and measures, strengthen rights and preserve culture. “New policies and a better support network are needed. Freelancers have no bargaining power with the studios. Even the big studios don’t hire permanent employees like they used to,” he says.

“NAFCA came about because one day I heard that a creator had brought together 200 animators for a meeting. I was surprised, because it’s unusual, and I wanted to meet her. Together, we, the producers and creators, can solve problems,” Ueda told Equal Times. The creator in question is Terumi Nishii, an author known for her labour activism and advocacy. In her book on the work of animators, Nishii exposes the poor pay and conditions, to help young people with dreams of joining the industry to keep their feet on the ground.

Producer Masuo Ueda blames the institutions: “The system and politicians do not respect their artistic creators. The country has a responsibility because anime is part of the culture and has an influence on people. It also has an international impact.”

Yukari Nishino, director until 2023 of the Wor-Q support centre of the Japan Trade Union Confederation (JTUC-RENGO), said last year that the self-employed “are in a vulnerable position. Their safety net is weak.” One in four of the country’s 65 million workers is self-employed, according to the national centre.

That is why, in October 2021, they launched Wor-Q Support, an online network of mutual health and insurance for those without social protection. It also serves as a consultation platform. Freelancers from the cultural sector have used it to voice their concerns about the new invoicing and tax collection system “which is complicated to manage and reduces the income received by the worker”. Nishino continues: “Many don’t want to give their names for fear of reprisals at work. Young people are the worst off.” Complaints have already been received about artificial intelligence being used to replace voice actors, for example.

“The future of work is uncertain in Japan,” fears the union. As part of the solution, “we need to share information and build more unions with young people,” Nishino advocates. JTUC-RENGO currently represents some seven million union members.

The golden age of anime? Not quite

Sociologist Renato Rivera Rusca warns that we are experiencing a “production bubble”. He explains: “The big studios’ diaries are full for the next few years. But they are struggling to keep pace; the creators are rushing and the contents are similar, they are more commercial.”

As for how these practices affect the work, he says: “In the past, it took a full year of production work to be ready for broadcast, as with Heidi (1974) or Maya the Bee (1975). Now they broadcast within three months and the pay is generally low. A job that used to be done by three or four animators is now done by 10 or 20, but the budget is the same.”

Rivera continues: “For producers, and as a business, yes, it is a golden age, but not for the content or for making a living from it,” insists the expert on the animation market and audiences. “It is a factory and those employed in it are like assembly line workers. They use their imagination and creativity, but under the instructions of the industry.” As regards the offshoring, which is affecting local talent and knowledge, Rivera says “quality is falling and if this trend gains momentum, employment in Japan will decrease and young people will not be trained [and knowledge will be lost as, in Japan, it is often the companies and the most experienced people in the companies that are in charge of training newcomers]. In a few years, there will no longer be anything special or unique about Japanese anime.”

Rivera says that, in the 1970s, Japanese cartoons became a tool for selling the toys produced. In the 1980s, children in Latin America or Europe were part of the TV audience of this pop culture. Following the arrival of Akira (1988), these animated films came to be regarded as a “subculture for adults”. The violence and sexual content gave them a negative reputation in Japan and beyond, “until the advent of the Pokémon series (1997). It was everywhere, like Mickey Mouse, Super Mario or Winnie the Pooh.”

Why this fascination with anime? “Because of the variety of genres and the large number of productions. Today, that number has increased and the fascination of consumers outside Japan has grown. It is more accessible now and anime has become a familiar term; there are no more preconceptions. Even plays are being adapted in England, such as My Neighbour Totoro (1988). It is continuing to revolutionise the mainstream,” says Rivera.

At the turn of the century, the Ghibli studio – with Hayao Miyazaki as its leading exponent – won an Oscar for Spirited Away (2001). The Japanese government tapped into the potential and launched Cool Japan, a strategy to compete as a cultural powerhouse. And yet, “there is no budget to support national productions. The situation is very serious. Support is not given to the creators but to the marketing products, events or cultural ambassadors,” says the researcher.

And of manga?

In Japan, creators often jealously guard their privacy and real identity, including their gender, especially manga artists, known as mangakas. They request not to be photographed and often decline interviews, as was also the case for this report. Many fear harassment and the reactions from fans, such as the strange letters sent to them through their publishers.

Soushi Tory, a successful mangaka, agreed to speak with Equal Times. Tory grew up in different countries and cultures and found a universal language in drawing. As a teenager, Tory exhibited an illustration in Hong Kong and was discovered by a publisher. The career of this artist, who now draws manga and illustrates, took off at the age of 15. History and fiction are the artist’s passion. Tory’s manga appeal mainly to male readers.

Tory carries out exhaustive research as part of the process and travels to the epicentre of the stories. The artist lived three years in Moscow, where Vostok was created, a work set in space, and for which the artist even entered a space rocket with astronauts. A manga report on the creative process and a new series are soon to be published.

Tory started out learning from professionals and now works with assistants. When asked about working hours, the artist replies: “I’m almost always drawing manga.” But Tory sticks to a special formula: “I don’t read other manga. I write at my own pace because I want to enjoy it and do it well.” On average, a day’s work equates to one page drawn.

On the shift from paper to digital and the disappearance of manga magazines, Tory sheds some light: “It has changed the way we work. Before, we had to stick to very strict deadlines to be able to publish on time, on paper. Now, with publishing on the web, we’re not under as much pressure and we don’t bother the others if we are late.” The Covid-19 pandemic spurred digital comics, explains the artist.

“Many things have changed since the popularisation of manga, the only thing that hasn’t changed is the generally low wages,” says Tory, for whom the Cool Japan strategy has had a negative impact:

“Japan promotes the content but does not give anything in return to manga artists or animators. The Japanese government and publishers don’t value creators. The system takes advantage of our love for the work. As someone who was born and raised abroad, I think the way Japanese creators are treated is very problematic,” Tory concludes.

Although they are separate industries, manga and anime are intertwined in popular culture. When a manga becomes popular, it ends up on the big screen. Generations of Japanese have grown accustomed to this cultural reciprocity. The world of film too.

The disappearance of printed manga magazines is already a reality (given their transition to and main consumption in digital format) but, in 2023, at the animated premiere of the legendary Doraemon, the public was given the film brochure with the manga inside, a tribute to its origins on paper and a traditional marketing strategy that was received with enthusiasm and reader interest among the younger public in cinemas.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin