The creative and commercial success enjoyed by Ghibli, with a run of films going back to My Neighbor Totoro in 1988, has afforded it a unique breathing space. For other studios, however, commercial pressures force work to be done at breakneck speed and on shoestring budgets. Veterans of the industry say quality has been sacrificed as television cartoon episodes are made for as little as £10,000.
For the animator, starting pay can be as low as £300 a month without benefits. They are often paid a pound per page, a rate that has not risen in 20 years. Producing 15 pages a day is no easy feat for a beginner, meaning 12-hour days and six-day weeks are the norm.
Many young animators rely on parental support to put them through animation schools and continue to need financial help just to afford to work in Tokyo, the world’s most expensive city. Yet, remarkably, anime has little problem attracting recruits. At the Nippon Engineering College in Tokyo, dozens of students pore over desks painstakingly producing page after page of drawings. Most say they are aware that pay is low but desperately want to work in the industry they fell in love with as children through cartoons such as Doraemon, the blue talking cat, and Battle of the Planets, which was shown in the UK in the late 1970s.
Masataka Kawai, a teacher at the school, worked for eight years at one of Japan’s best-known studios. He says that he often slept under his desk for up to three weeks, not noticing the changing of the seasons until his latest deadline had passed.
“Students need good powers of observation and have to be good drawers. But they also must have passion,” says Kawai. “To stick it out in anime, you can’t just like drawing. You have to love it.”
But reality often bites as animators reach their thirties, by which time they typically earn around a third of the average pay for Japanese their age and at lower hourly rates than supermarket clerks.
Yoshitaka Ogata of the Anime Union, which campaigns for better working conditions, says: “However keen they are when they come in, the reality is that they cannot live on the pay. There are animators with 10 years’ experience on less than £11,000 a year. In the end, they have to quit.”
More and more animation work is now outsourced to cheaper countries such as South Korea, China and India. This has led to a hollowing out of talent in Japan and the end of the in-house production system, where people mastered each element of the process as they worked their way up from the bottom.