A Fair Future for Japanese Animation

Animation. The physical movement of an object being demonstrated one frame at a time. What started out as an experiment with cameras in the mid to late 1800s had become embraced by the early 1900s. Michigan-born cartoonist Windsor McCay, who serialized the surrealist Little Nemo in Slumberland from 1905 to 1925 in the New York Herald was one of the first artwork animators in American history, creating several short silent films that were made entirely with pen, paper and ink. Eventually, by the dawn of the Great Depression, Walt Disney and Max Fleischer would pioneer new elements such as celluloid painting, layering and emulation of realistic motion, made possible with their respective inventions being the Multiplane Camera, the Rotoscope, and the Stereoscope. The creation of the first fully-animated feature film, utilizing many of the techniques I mentioned previously, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs even served as Disney’s early Christmas gift to the folks of Los Angie in late 1937, before being shared amongst the rest of the world by the following year, proving to the world that there was a foreseeable future for this medium of art. Time passed, and by the late 1950s, animation began spreading to TV tubes across America, thanks to some new pioneers, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.
Meanwhile in Japan, it was a different story. Throughout the reign of Emperor Hirohito, the Japanese Empire took every opportunity to reject Western values, and even wished death upon the West, though not everyone was on board; for those were traitors. There was one thing ironic about their views, however: they made animated short films that took inspiration from western society. There was also another unlikely traitor, Osamu Tezuka, who was one such lover of the western culture in his time, he was fascinated by how different the west was in a positive light. After narrowly surviving WWII, he dedicated his life to providing entertainment in the form of comics for children who were in need of relief from the horrific aftermath of war. Though comics consisted of still frames across several pages, they, too, took inspiration from American animation. Many of Tezuka’s early works were greatly influenced by many of Walt Disney’s early feature films, some early story arcs of his 1952 sci-fi manga serial, Mighty Atom (known ‘round the world as Astro Boy, mind you) were particularly inspired by Pinocchio(1940) and Peter Pan(1953). Japan was finally showing signs of cultural reform and restructure by the end of the period. However, there was still need to retain its own important historical tales, cultures and traditions for this new generation.
Enter Toei Doga, the animation division of the Toei Film Company that tried its hand at making full-color animated films, which was a first for its home soil, as all the films they had made were in monochrome. Their earliest successes were adaptations of the legend of Japanese ninja Sarutobi Sasuke(1959), as well as some Chinese folktales, them being The Tale of the White Serpent(1958), and Journey to the West(1960). While they were clearly influenced by East Asian values, they also mirrored Disney in terms of quality. Their studio was even structured like a school and business in one, similar to Walt Disney’s own studio when he, too, was scouting out talent for production on the Silly Symphonies and other ventures in animation back in the Great Depression era. The thing is, because of the animators’ exerting labor bringing whatever was on the drawing board to life, not to mention all other necessary procedures to ensure the finished product was of the highest quality, they were paid competitively, but fairly. New animators would be paid minimum wage upon entering Disney’s studio, but their wages would rise, and also they, themselves would be promoted to higher positions if an animated project performed well. Toei’s principles did not differ much either, since the Japanese economic bubble continued to expand, especially with the eventual commencement of the 1964 Summer Olympics looming over the modern metropolis of Tokyo, which would open up the nation to the world even further(History should repeat itself by next summer.). During that time back in America, the early 1960s, the idea of the animated feature film was no longer popular, as animation became cheaper to produce for TV, and even more commercially viable as the box shaped screens burst into the typical American household at an affordable price.
What Japan needed in the early 1960s was an animated program to be made for television in order to continue their amiable competition with the west. Osamu Tezuka had just opened up his own animation studio at that time after his contract with Toei expired. It was known as Mushi Production. Tezuka happened to figure out the reason for the cheap price of animation for the small screen. The culprit? Fairly straightforward. The number of frames which could create one second of animation of a time. Back in the early 20th century, most animated cartoons and features had a frame rate of 25 to 30 to frames of animation, depending on how slow or fast an object was to move about on the screen, which could prove costly over time since it was not done digitally at the time and resources were finite…well, for most studios that failed to generate interest and a profit, mainly. By reducing the amount of frames to create a single second of animation by half, or even 3/4, which became the standard for animated TV programs during the era, animation could still as alive as ever, even if it was a little robotic-looking and less natural. Everyone had to cut corners somewhere in order to generate more moolah again!
The final result of this predicament was an animated adaptation of Astro Boy, which premiered on New Year’s Day 1963 on Fuji Television, and became a ratings success throughout the nation. Because color TVs didn’t become affordable until the mid 1960s, the series was broadcast in monochrome. Seeing potential in the television, Toei Doga began producing content for the tube with programs such as Wolf Boy Ken and Fujimaru of the Wind which aired on Nippon Educational Television(nowadays TV Asahi) later that year and 1964 respectively. Soon, after Astro flew across the Pacific to be broadcast on NBC in September of 1963, its success planted the seeds of competition. Thus, many studios began sprouting out of the ground and began opening up for business. Yutaka Fujioka opened the doors to Tokyo Movie(now TMS Entertainment) in 1964, while the Yoshida brothers founded Tatsunoko Production two years prior. Each studio had strengths, but had a common weakness; most of their works were blatant imitations. Some were even just adaptations of already-existent manga serials. While Toei began relying heavily on adaptations of manga throughout the rest of the 1960s, Tezuka’s Mushi Production and Tatsunoko did their best to achieve originality. Tezuka’s adaptation of his 1950 manga Jungle Emperor became the first animated program to be broadcast in color in Japan. Tatsunoko’s Mach Go Go Go followed in its footsteps by 1967. Both broke boundaries by quite a margin. Sure, they were still animated at a low frame rate, but the detail applied to the celluloid frames was enough to inspire American-based studios to improve their work quality. Both shows enjoyed success in the west as Kimba the White Lion and Speed Racer on NBC and CBS respectively.
Animation had become a staple in Japan by the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the Japanese bubble just kept growing. A new noun borrowed from English was even formed: Anime. It seemed like Japan was finally ahead of the game. Innocently enough. But, gradually, the aesthetics of Anime became so different from standard American and European animation because it ventured into territory that the west dare not step into with children around, which led to many programs not being licensed for distribution, save for Leiji Masumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato, though revolutionary for 1974, it was deemed a questionable tribute to the days of the former Japanese Empire, which was adapted westward into Star Blazers beginning in 1979.
Anime in the western world did find its footing by the time the 80s began, particularly in Italy, where most of it was dubbed and localized without much complaints from parents and teachers. It was still not the case for English speaking territories, as only a small handful of programs were broadcast there, simply because they met the TV content guidelines which were implemented in the era to shield children and sensitive people from negative influences, which were brought on from rampant violence they had witnessed in the past. This led to many other Japanese programs being edited and censored for western consumption if they didn’t meet the standards the first time around. Due to the success of western animation geared towards adults such as the film Heavy Metal(1981), as well as films produced by Ralph Bakshi as early as the 70s, content restrictions eased by the second half of the 80s, which allowed the groundbreaking animated film edition of Katsuhiro Otomo’s sci-fi horror manga, Akira(1988) to be released in its uncut glory on American and European soil, provided that it was evaluated by rating boards. Even former Toei animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s Studio Ghibli implemented a strict “no cuts” policy regarding their films’ release abroad, after being upset with New World Pictures’ westernized adaptation of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind(1984), which only happened in order to meet the MPAA’s standards.
Unfortunately, despite Anime’s newfound popularity, after a few decades of a high quality economy, the bubble burst by 1986, which led to many companies, including animation studios, laying off many loyal employees, and even filing for bankruptcy. The promise of lifelong employment for the Japanese salaryman seemed broken, so they began working overtime, for days on end, in hopes they wouldn’t be laid off even further, only to die from overwork sometimes. Soon the animation industry refused to increase the salaries of animators in studios based in Tokyo.
The thing is, all workers in Japan were paid fairly during the Japanese economic bubble, but because the distribution of currency wasn’t regulated properly, asset prices began to fall and loaning became more commonplace, which led the burst damaging Japan’s economic supremacy by the beginning of the Heisei era. The era became known as Japan’s Lost Decade. By that time, there had been an interest in Asian culture in the western world, and Japan was in need of an economic miracle. Thus, they began targeting westerners as well as their own.
To combat unauthorized distribution, animation studios and publishers filed cease-and-desists on fanmade translations, but also offered them paid licenses to the source material as their original creators saw fit. This method of authorization was important to improving the pecuniary health of Japan, it was also how Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball and Satoshi Taijiri’s Pokemon captured an audience the correct manner. Sure, not every title was licensed, but the ones deemed profitable sure were! Once again, Japanese animation had a future.

And as soon as computers became available tools for the craft, many top-tier studios like Toei Animation climbed aboard, paving the way for more creative expression and exploration.
In 2003, at the 2002 Oscars, Studio Ghibli’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away(2001) became the first Japanese animated film to be nominated for and win an Academy Award, despite competition from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch and newcomer Blue Sky Studios’ Ice Age. For awhile, Ghibli animators were paid proper salaries, like at Disney back in the United States, because of how popular and profitable their films were abroad. But soon, too, Ghibli just paid them hourly or per frame, since the Japanese economy continued to struggle. No profits from future endeavors were guaranteed, especially as internet piracy began to boom, and struggled to be regulated.
That same year, Kyoto Animation, which started in 1981 as a substitute clean-up and in-between crew for many Tokyo-based studios, began producing their own original works. Sure, KyoAni tended to lean towards the Moe culture that not even Miyazaki approved of, but unlike many animation institutions and studios, KyoAni animators and artists were paid salaries, even if the economy continued to struggle. Hideaki Hatta believed in the beauty of life and humanity, and eagerly desired to have his hard workers embrace it with peace of mind, what Disney believed in almost a century earlier. It’s especially sad how life ended up for 35 of their beloved alumni last month.
Animation gave birth to the other world, where anything could come alive, whether it was fantasy, surreal, or somewhere in between. As of now, the Japanese economy is improving vastly, thanks to everyone who grew up experiencing the wonders of animation. As the economic bubble is growing again, I hope many corporations will encourage their people to continue their talent without fear, as long as they can live within their means, and as long as their work is budget friendly, yet mesmerizing.
I can only hope for the best health of the Japanese people in the era we call Reiwa.

kyoani tribute final
-Akira Takahashi

August 3rd, 2019


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