Hideaki Anno And The Commercial Future

A recent comment by Hideaki Anno popped up in the news.  Now, this has also caused a slight amount of discussion.  I’ve copied it below if you don’t want to open a new link:

The Japanese animation industry has hit a dead end — it will be tough to escape unless we can make animation without commercial considerations. It may even be too late.

I haven’t seen a direct link to his comments so I’ll address the quote above.  I’m not sure whether or not a later interview addresses the exact same topics (as I note the difference between him stating it’s a dead-end in the quote above and how he refers to anime as breaking towards a recession in the second interview).

So, What Does It Mean?

As I read the quote, a major issue is the broad strokes that Anno speaks in.  I’m not sure if it’s as broad in the original quote as I haven’t seen it but I think it’s key to note how general Anno speaks.  It’s very, and I mean extremely, easy to get lost within the specifics of that sentence.  Pinning down the source of the frustration or the specific notion he speaks to is difficult and tenuous at best.  Anno, as I think most of us know, is a man with a great number of concerns and the one he highlights in his words is a steep task.  Deciphering meaning from such words is subjective at best I think.

My first question is what a “dead-end” represents.  Is it the end of the line?  A withdrawal from a peak?  A recession?  Or is it even about money and size of industry?  That’s a fairly blanket statement and the interpretation, while not a significant aspect to the quote, helps frame the rest of the statement.

The major aspect I’d focus on is whether the concern Anno raises is one of industry size or of commercial creativity.  I feel these are the two major possibilities when describing loss in terms of “dead ends”.  I would also feel though that the former is automatically removed because of the fact that Anno is encouraging anime without commercial consideration.  So, the first aspect is that he’s speaking of a creative dead-end.  Easy enough.

But that leads to an even larger question: what does the dead-end represent?  Is it a catastrophic failure or one of minor loss?  Of course, it’s fair to even question the relevance of such a question, but I’ve added it for completeness’ sake.

The interpretation I see is one of fear.  I think it’s fair to think of Anno as an artist first and foremost.  He’s a man who seemingly lashes out against fans, hates parts of the culture they attach to, and even take shots at some of them in his own productions.  Though he has made his peace with the otaku culture in recent years, he never really appears a fan of it or enjoys it himself…just that he doesn’t bitterly hate it.  The tone of his words combine with this ambivalence to create a real cynical look on Anno still…that he’s still only halfway attached to the field.

Attaching the analysis of his first few words and I think the statement is a very strong and pronounced concern with anime; Anno sees them heading for a cliff and is pressing for immediate action.  The statement at the end, that “it may even be too late”, reinforces that notion.

Personally, this comments here strikes reminiscent of many artistic individuals who look to develop and create new mediums.  The type of individual which never stays around after there is no new artistic merit left (well, in their opinion anyways.  I have different opinions regarding artistic form and originality that I may put in writing one day).  And I think this is consistent with Anno.  This is a man who does not work on a great number of projects and seemingly deliberately pushes everything he has a hand in different directions.  Or at least a more postmodern one.  Heck, I struggle to think of an anime he’s involved in which doesn’t use some bizarre surreal imagery at some point.

Moving on though.  This leads to the second, and probably more difficult to read, question: what are the “commercial considerations” to forgo?  What exactly is he warning about that threatens to suck the anime industry dry of the artistic merit?

And I think this is where knowing Anno’s background comes to assist the understanding.  He and Miyazaki, as I’ve noted previously, are seeming brothers-in-arms in regards to moe character design and their avid hate of it.  It’s unlikely, in my mind, that the statement and the seemingly significant presence of moe characters in modern and current anime remain unconnected.

Of course, this is only one possibility.  As I noted before, there is a further interview where he states that anime’s own success created an industry which is unsustainable economically.  This would stifle show quality and damage the further interest in anime until, in sports terms, it undergoes a full rebuild where it drops into obscurity, re-positions itself into a respectable medium once again, and comes back with a vengeance.

I’d personally be inclined to believe this second interpretation of the two I theorized.  It’s not secret that anime is struggling in the economics.  Salary is pretty much nothing and hours are insane so many of the claims Anno points at check out in a general sense.  The economics just don’t make sense for the animators.  You’re basically in a world where you’re doing your work because you like to do it for far too many hours for far too little money.  You can only expand so far until overworked individuals say enough and you lose talent at a painful rate.

(Side note: It’s actually kind of funny that one of the titles in an articles that I linked to in that Miyazaki article is “The freefall of Japan’s anime industry” given how I reference it in an a post about Anno’s concern with an industry ready to freefall)

And if we read more from this second interview, then Anno’s primarily concerned with non-standard anime production dropping.  I’ll quote a specific aspect that I think highlights his sentiments perfectly:

The lack of staff and finances has gotten to the point that people recognize they won’t be able to keep working as they are now. It’s not the kind of leisurely atmosphere that Japan needs to make animation. We can’t make animation at this scale without economic stability. When you’re working as hard as you can just to feed yourself, you can’t get joy out of your work. You’re more focused on your next meal. That’s the real problem.

[…]

I get the impression that the contemporary Japanese animation industry is running solely on the remaining fuel of the past’s enthusiasm towards animation. We need to be more flexible with our ideas, and think about how we can continue to make work that’s compelling. That’s what my project with Kawakami-san is all about. (source)

I feel a summary of Anno’s argument is: Anime is currently at a state where pursuit of maximum profits in conjunction with the current working conditions of anime employees will strain the network of employees beyond the breaking point of quality.  Anime’s production value will drop and result in uninteresting creations which will drive away fans.  This will create a dead end in anime and force a drop in the anime industry.

Such a statement follows each of the interpretations of Anno’s comments above and is consistent with his later comments.

But…Is It True?

This, of course, leads to the million dollar question which is lovingly listed above anyways.  Is anime heading down a spiral?  There are two moving parts to this question: the industry’s sustainability and the anime quality.

We first must look at sustainability.  There are two ways to observe this.  One is the company profits and the other is industry talent.  Company profits are likely consistent.  I’m not privy to much company information but I do not see many doors closing.  Sustainability at a corporate level, at least from what I’ve seen, is viable.  But what about for each employee?  I think this gets a bit more sketchy.  Anime industry, as I’ve always mentioned, is one of love.  I don’t think losing individuals is the issue.

The question boils down to the quality of anime as more projects come into production.  A helpful user once tracked anime by year.

Following a similar process, here are the data points I added for TV series for 2012 to 2014:

– 2012: 160 TV series
– 2013: 185 TV series
– 2014: 198 TV series

So there’s absolutely no question that we’re hitting unprecedented levels of new anime in production annually.  But the statistic we’re concerned about is employees per project.  And this is a point where I’m stuck.  I can’t find the number of anime employees by year.  And I think this is a major issue.  Since the start of that graph, the anime industry has undoubtedly grown and therefore there will be more employees to work with.  It’s not like there is a drop from 100 employees per project in 1996 to 25 in 2012.

But let’s say for the sake of hypothetical debate that it is true and that industry does not hire employees to keep the number of employees per project constant.  Is this impacting quality?

Well, I think this is a subjective question.  I certainly haven’t seen the unusual and interesting anime from before but I’m hardly a good source and I don’t think my familiarity with all modern anime is strong enough to make a real statement about changes today.

But what are your thoughts?  Are we heading towards an abyss and inevitable decline?  Or is this just the concerns of a man who might not have anything to concern himself with?

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