JoJo character designer warns overseas fans about the hardships of working in Japanese animation.


With a two-decade career in the anime industry and a pretty good grasp of the English language, animator and character designer Terumi Nishii seems like she’d be the perfect ambassador for the medium of Japanese animation. And sure enough, the second of Nishii’s two Twitter accounts is something she set up specifically to connect with overseas anime aficionados.

However, if you’re thinking of contacting or following Nishii, whose major credits include serving as character designer for JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable, Mawaru Penguindrum, and A Town Where You Live, for insider tips on how to break into the Japanese anime industry, the first tweet of hers you should read is one of her most recent, in which she flat-out says “No matter how much you like anime, it is not advisable to come to Japan and participate in anime work.”

That’s not because Nishii is against internationalization or feels that the industry is creatively bankrupt. Rather, she’s become so upset with the working conditions for anime professionals in Japan that she doesn’t feel that she can recommend trying to make a living in it.

It’s been common knowledge for some time that working in the anime industry means low pay for many and long hours for all, and that’s definitely been Nishii’s experience, who says her very first anime paycheck was just 2,800 yen (US$25), which rose to a still paltry 60,000-100,000 yen per month after she’d gotten a year’s worth of working experience under her belt. What’s doubling concerning is that even after becoming a character designer, several rungs up the ladder from a rank-and-file animator, she still doesn’t find the working conditions to be equitable, and she doesn’t think that dissatisfaction among those with her title is unique.

Nishii also points out a sad secret of the anime industry, which is that with young animators’ incomes being far below what they need to support themselves, many have to rely on injections of cash into their bank accounts from their parents. In other words, Japanese moms and dads aren’t just propping up the anime industry on the demand side by giving teen fans allowances with which to buy anime and related merch, but on the supply side as well by effectively subsiding production costs by providing the portion of a living wage that studios aren’t.

So the question then becomes how to improve the situation. Several commenters on Nishii’s English tweets have talked about anime workers unionizing, which would be a complex process. To start with, in Japan labor unions are organized by company, not industry. For example, there’s no auto workers union. Instead, Toyota employees have their own specific company union, as do the workers at Mazda, Nissan, etc. The vast majority of anime artists, though, are freelancers, hired on a per-project basis, and not permanent employees of whatever studio they happen to be working on a production for at the moment.

One possible solution that Nishii mentions is for Japanese artists to do more work with foreign projects and overseas financial backers. Nishii herself is doing just that, as she’s in charge of character designs for Netflix’s upcoming Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya CG reboot of the classic anime series.

Another avenue is for anime artists to also have their own solo projects, such as Nishii’s manga Crown of Ouroboros, which she publishes online in both Japanese and English here.

That said, creating your own proprietary series on the side, while also working on someone else’s anime, isn’t feasible for many, who simply don’t have the time or energy to burn their creative candle at both ends, especially when, as Nishii reminds us, the huge number of anime series being produced these days already takes a toll on animators both physically and mentally.

The obvious move would be to just pay animators more and let them work less, but even that isn’t a perfect solution. Anime is, and has been for quite some time, a hit-driven industry, with many series owing their existence to keeping costs low while hoping the end result is that indeterminable mix of factors that makes it a critical and commercial success. Those low costs are what allow so many series to be produced and air on free-to-watch TV in Japan. Raising those costs, either by paying animators more or shortening their working hours (which would require either delaying release/revenue or hiring a larger number of animators to get the same amount of work done in the same number of days) means that a lot of anime series that are getting greenlit in the current business environment would see that signal change to a red one and never get produced.

From a pure consumer standpoint, that might not seem like such a bad thing. After all, who really has the time, or even the desire, to watch each and every new series Japan is putting out now? But that creates another issue, which is what happens to the animators who would have been hired to work on those low-budget anime that won’t get made if production costs go up. Is there a perfect counterbalance, where all of that work gets reabsorbed into better-paying, less stressful work on the series that still get the green light in a world where low-budget anime no longer gets produced?

Or is the offset not an exact one, and the industry producing fewer series will translate to it needing fewer people? That scenario would mean that a certain percentage of people currently working in the lower rungs of production would have to give up their anime dreams entirely as their jobs disappear, forcing them to find work in other employment fields regardless of whether or not they were talented and/or lucky enough to go on to become successful anime creators after enduring dismal working conditions for long enough to get their shot.

Again, there’s no perfect solution, and whether the industry stays as it is or changes dramatically, some people are likely to get hurt in the process. So if there’s an artist you love, remember that while your enthusiasm may warm their hearts, they can’t keep doing what they do without your fandom financially supporting their creations as well.

Source: Twitter/@Nishiiterumi1 via Anime News Network/Lynzee Loveridge
Featured image: Twitter/@Nishiiterumi1
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