Dean Talks Anime:
A Frustration In Ethical Consuming
An Opinion by Christopher Kinsey
It has come to my attention that Trigger Inc., also known as Studio Trigger, has opened up a Patreon. One would think “That’s funny, Trigger is one of the hottest animation studios in Japan right now, why are they committed to asking for crowd funding?” Well they answer this question right on their Patreon page:
“So why Patreon?
We’re a studio that strives for a global audience and values communications with our fans. If you’ve been in a creative business, I bet we can all relate that a simple feedback is all it takes to make our day great. However, there’s no denying at times we wished we had an extra buck or two. There’s been one too many incidents where we had to give up a merchandise idea because it was unprofitable, or simply due to lack of funding. That’s where you and Patreon comes in! With your support, we would like to forward funds into various aspect of the studio. Possibly a new line of merchandise, attending/conducting more events, or simply providing a little more to our staff.”
Thanks for highlighting your terrible conditions with a beggar’s cup my dudes
OK, that’s puzzling right? Their business model is in a little disarray because of merchandise problems, a need to visit more conventions and their staff could use a bit of a raise. Again, they have helmed a lot of the hottest anime properties for the last few years. Surely airings, sales of Blu-Rays, and that sweet sweet streaming cash has them flush with dough? Well, no. No anime company tends to see a lot of money from licensing work because those rights are always in the hand of the publisher, so Bandai-Namco sees a lot more of the big money rather than the anime companies. Of course they also have their in house animation companies, but when it comes to third party studios the agreement usually amounts to something that made George Lucas a billionaire. The majority of the profits for an animation studio in Japan comes from merchandise sales. Not every anime studio has this problem, but the majority of younger companies and those not tied to a large company are stuck with toys and (usually) physical media sales as their only sources to recoup their production costs. Unfortunately this leads to a lot of problems for both the producers and consumers of anime, which I’ll discuss a little later.
You put them all together like that and yeah, they look creepy
But why is this model used for anime studios? Like many stylistic choices and methods when it comes to anime and manga it all comes from Osamu Tezuka. A lover of Disney animation, Tezuka really wanted his works to go beyond comics and be animated shows but it was an untried thing in the dawn of television in Japan. In 1959 there was a small live action Astro Boy series, but with studio limitations at the time it didn’t grab the audience as expected. It lasted one season. So when Tetzuka wanted to try his hand at an animated series Fuji Television wasn’t willing to put up production costs. They saw the potential in a Japanese animation flagship, but as an untested idea with most of the pre-war animators in the country not producing work anymore it was hard to get the motivation to basically re-start Japan’s animation industry. But Tezuka was determined and risked everything to produce Astro Boy asking only for toy rights in return for his investment. Every commercial would go straight to Fuji TV. It was a hit, seeing the popular comic in motion. And Japan’s burgeoning toy industry was beating down Tezuka’s door for the rights. The rest is pretty much history.
Go forth and venture into these strange lands, seeking the one thing that will make your favorite creator a few bucks!
So fast forward to today. Anime is coming out at a breakneck pace. Beyond the home market of Japan and the large secondary market of the USA more and more countries want licensing for a great many series. All that money is getting funneled right to the publisher. But for all the fans it’s still kind of a niche market. This means that while seeing your favorite anime series is easier than ever, snagging merchandise of that series is actually a pretty tough proposition. Unless the series in question is very popular there isn’t a lot out there for a fan outside of Japan to grab something that will support the anime studio directly. It’s easy to find a Naruto hoodie or a Dragon Ball Super pint glass set but something that doesn’t have 5+ seasons under it’s belt and heavy saturation on the western market? Forget it! You need both a great interest in the Japanese fandom to make sure that some merchandise is produced and then an importer middleman to make sure you get the item. Tough pickings, better than what we once had but still not great.
But OK, it’s hard to support our favorite companies directly and perhaps more of them will follow Trigger’s example and join Patreon, fine. At least we have a lot of great anime to watch every season. Back when I was at my most active in the community you could count on about 10-18 new shows every season and these days you get way more. Anywhere between 40-65. Everybody wins, right? Well perhaps you do. To an extent. It’s really easy to consume anime nowadays. There are so many streaming sites offering most of the titles you’re looking for season to season and they run anywhere between 5-10 bucks, so what’s the harm?
Yeah, this is way better than having my own personal space to get away from my job. As long as I can make those sweet sweet cartoons that won’t get a second season due to budgeting.
The harm is the demand of the consumer is outstripping it’s workforce. I watched the tweet-o-sphere jump for joy as dormitories for animators on site were cheered for and eventually won. That meant your favorite animators would have a place to rest at work while they churned out your favorite shows in a timely manner. This makes me sick. The animators are struggling to get by simply on their love for animation more than a living wage, and we, as fans, are cheering on what amounts to a factory community from the turn of the 20th century. Remember that? You’d live in a company town in a company house using company scrip to buy goods from the company store just so you can go back into the mines and scrape out coal to get paid in a worthless currency that tied you to your job for life. The dormitories program isn’t that extreme, but it gets close. Being paid so little you can’t leave your job is a disheartening fate, especially when the job is to create complex animations for amusement.
Hope you saved a lot of old VHS heads for your old age anime binges grandpas and grandmas!
There is another problem that comes with the volume of work being produced and that’s the burying of anime history. Now this isn’t to mean I’m waving around my old-anime-fan cane and telling all the youngsters to respect Robotech and be grateful they don’t have to walk uphill both ways in the snow to buy overpriced tapes at Suncoast. There is so much anime being produced it’s smothering the desire to keep popular licenses of the past alive. Some favorites will always remain from the whims of the folks who run Toonami but it’s THEIR favorites. Unless you have a healthy DVD collection from the 90s and 00s there is usually no legal way to watch old anime. Discotek Media can only do so much, and I’m glad they’re out there cleaning up and re-releasing the shows that made us, including those we never got translated back in the day. But if it doesn’t exist and you don’t want to be gouged for out of print box sets from way back when, you’re stuck hoping some pirate streaming site has what you’re looking for.
By this point you might be asking me what solutions I have for these problems. What can Mr. and Mrs. Joe Average Otaku do to make the medium we love a better place to be a fan in? Well the average things to do would be watch anime as it airs on TV. Tell your favorite companies you like what they do. Tell friends how great new series you love are. Pay for streaming from sources you trust and has the series you want to see. I’d recommend buying physical copies of series you really enjoy but something happened over the last 5 or 6 years that has slowed physical releases to a crawl. Partially it’s because of the prevalence of streaming for profit leading to only the most popular series even being considered for a physical release. And even then it’s a gamble because there is such a disrespect for physical media in anime circles today you might not even get a full release of a series to disc. My Hero Academia had a great season one release, but season two STILL doesn’t have the second half of the series released for physical sale.
Yes, they will try this kind of thing again and sometime they will package it in a way that will tempt you.
So I hate to say it but one of the best things you can do for anime is to not watch so much anime. I know of so many anime fans who pour over season listings to figure out how to watch just about everything that comes out. No one can watch so much so they get this huge backlog and run into every problem listed above when it comes to trying to be a good consumer. If you watch on pirate sites you’re not really supporting the creators and if you watch on legal sites you can’t guarantee they’ll have all the series you want to watch and the money still doesn’t go to the creators. But if you limit yourself to a handful of series instead of clinging to the falsehood of needing to support the entire industry with views we might be able to see the dynamic change. And voice these concerns! Partnerships with western companies like Netflix seems to be changing the payment dynamic and use their algorithms to figure out what’s actually being watched. But these are still small band aids for a gushing wound and they are a drop in the bucket compared to what the Japanese market needs to do to reverse these trends. But with how profitable the current model is, I can’t foresee anything changing any time soon.
I hate that we had to start this club, but here we are.
DeanTheAdequate wants to remind you you won’t get season two of your favorite series not because you didn’t pay to stream it, but because you aren’t buying enough panty shot resin figurines of all the female characters. But I’m sure if everyone in Japan working in the industry sneaks out and pilfers the coins left in the couch cushions in their in-studio dormitories you might see One Punch Man and Konosuba season 2. Meanwhile everyone gave up on the S.A.V.E. budget imprint for anime seasons on DVD. Maybe if they featured anime people wanted to buy we’d still be able to stock our shelves to this day.