Japanese craftsmanship is behind anime’s global force.
“Japanese anime is still largely a hand-crafted art,” said Yoshio Mukainakano, successful manga artist and owner of Studio Zaendo in Tokyo. “It’s the attention to detail that only hand-drawn work can give that makes Japanese anime as good as it is, and ultimately as successful as it has become.”
Mukainakano is a more typical figure of the anime businesses than globally recognized figures such as Hayao Miyazaki, whose movies get backing from giants like Disney and gain access to mainstream audiences around the world, Hideaki Anno, or Mamoru Oshii, who are household names in Japan and well-known internationally.
Studio Zaendo has a workforce of 11 who put in grueling hours sub-contracting for major studios, working on anime such as One Piece, Nana, or Crayon Shinchan and its own original works, including Something Great.
It’s the sub-contracting of jobs that form the bread-and-butter business for smaller animation companies.
“We will take the process from the original drawing stage right through to video editing and then hand the completed work over to the TV network,” Mukainakano said.
He added that Asia remains the final bastion of hand-drawn cartoons, with anime artists from Japan, South Korea, and, to a much-lesser extent, China maintaining the practice as a sustainable industry in a field in which computer animation has become the norm.
“Japan remains the leader among these practitioners because of its originality and through being able to draw on a rich tradition shared at least in part with manga,” Mukainakano told Majirox News.
Fierce debate is common among zealous fans on the origins of anime and manga, with Mukainakano favoring the argument that they evolved from chojugiga, a series of picture scrolls dating back to the 12th century and Ukiyoe artist Katsushika Hokusai, who famously produced manga in the 18th and 19th centuries. Japanese anime continued to develop in the modern era, often initiating propaganda efforts, but boomed in the postwar period through the inspiration of Osamu Tezuka, whose Astro Boy sparked the beginning of the first wave of Japanese anime internationalization in the 1960s and 1970s.
Anime remained something of a niche outside of this country until the late 1990s as fan numbers grew. The Internet provided foreigners with greater access to the anime world and it has now become mainstream, with anime even entering the English lexicon to describe Japanese cartoons.“Anime is lucrative, with the Japan External Trade Organization calling it a multi-billion dollar business. The Animation Market Analysis Project reported on September 9 that the market for domestic and foreign animation in Japan grew 5.8% to 229.0 billion yen (about $2.55 billion) in 2010. This was the second annual increase in a row after a 1.6% increase the previous year.
Anime has also had commercial success in Asia, Europe, and Latin America and has become more mainstream than in the United States. The bulk of revenue comes from licensing TV shows or movies. Anime and manga have also become spearheads for Japanese government business campaigns both locally and overseas.
In recent years as the public sector belatedly grasped the benefits of what had been an enormous domestic business for decades, trickle-down effects have begun to be felt by smaller players such as Studio Zaendo, which is trying to sell its original works in countries such as Thailand. Mukainakano frequently travels to Europe, especially Germany, to plug his company’s wares. He noted that interest among foreigners in getting involved in the anime business in Japan is extremely high but that few can live the dream, primarily due to a lack of language ability.
Mukainakano adds that anime is not always a great industry to work in, with tight deadlines, low pay, high turnover, and grueling attention to minute detail and the constant concentration it demands the norm, shattering more than a few people’s fantasies.
As the business grows, more competitors enter, and cost-cutting demands make the option of computer animation increasingly attractive, yet Mukainakano remains convinced that Japan’s artisans can hold their own.
“Craftsmanship,” he says, “is always better than something made by a machine.”