For some years now, awareness of problems within the Japanese animation industry has been growing, both within Japan and overseas. Things have accelerated since the pandemic, with these topics being addressed increasingly frequently. There are two causes for this: the consequences of the pandemic itself on workers and studios, and the introduction of a new tax system, the so-called “Invoice System”, in October 2023.

In this context, many artists have voiced their complaints, and multiple organizations have emerged in the Japanese entertainment and animation industries. One of the most prominent and, hopefully, promising is the Nippon Animation & Film Culture Association – NAFCA for short. Since its creation in April 2023, NAFCA has been conducting many activities, the most important being the establishment of an “Animator Skill Test” meant to facilitate the training and assessment of animators’ technical abilities.

At fullfrontal.moe, we had been curious about NAFCA since we first heard about it and were anxious to discuss the many problems of the industry with people who experience them firsthand. In August 2023, just after NAFCA’s initial “kickoff event” in Tokyo, we met with two of its main members: animator and designer Terumi Nishii, well-known online for her frequent statements on the anime industry’s conditions, and voice actor Ayano Fukumiya, one of NAFCA’s spokespersons. 

If you want to support NAFCA, you can become a member of the association via their website.

This interview is also available in Japanese. 日本語版はこちらです

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“That’s why we’ve been fighting all this time”

First, I’d like to ask Ms. Fukumiya. You’re involved in the movement against the invoice system, right? How did that cross roads with Ms. Nishii and the others’ activities regarding the animation industry’s internal problems?

Ayano Fukumiya. At first, Nishii and I were both against the invoice system, I as an individual voice actress and her as an individual animation creator. It’s on that background that we went together to the National Diet to appeal, and since we worked in the same field, we started to talk.

As for NAFCA, it started from an initiative by Nishii, Masuo Ueda[1], and Naomichi Yamato[2].

Whenever the invoice system was brought up in the industry, people ended up saying the real problem is that actors aren’t paid enough or that the working conditions of animators aren’t good… These are issues, obviously, but what we’ve been saying from the start is that the new tax system is going to make all of that worse. It doesn’t cancel said issues, though, and since they’re so important, we’ve all been wanting to do something about it. So first, Nishii, Ueda, and Yamato started discussing setting up an animator skill test, but they were all busy with their own work, so they started looking for help, and that’s how I joined.

So we’ve reached the first difficult part: could you briefly explain what this invoice system is all about?

Ayano Fukumiya. (in English) Ok. It’s really complicated.

That’s why I’m asking. I’m sorry. (laughs)

Ayano Fukumiya. First, you have to understand that Japan’s consumption tax is totally different from the value-added tax you might encounter in the EU.

All goods are taxed, but until now, you could get an input tax credit based on what you wrote in your accounting books. The tax rate was originally 8%, but then it turned into two different tax rates: 8% and 10%. That’s confusing, so to clear that up, the government is asking people to write down all the taxes they pay on receipts and bills and use that for tax credits.

The original method was pretty complicated, but it becomes even more complex if you have to do all that paperwork with invoices. Basically, until now, people whose income was under 10 million yen a year didn’t have to pay consumption tax, and it went rather well. So, for example, let’s say I earned 10 million yen in a year, but half of that was used for various costs for my business. That would mean my actual profits would only amount to 5 million yen, and that without the credit, I’d have to pay 10% taxes on that amount. That’s how it worked under the old accounting system. It’s already complicated enough, right? Without the credit, people who made under 10 million yen would have had trouble making ends meet, so they didn’t actually have to pay the consumption tax. However, with the new system, you need to use a numbered document called the “qualified invoice” to receive the credit. And to do that, you have to register as a taxable entity.

Going back to the animation and voice acting industries, a lot of people earn under 3 million a year, which is very low. It’s absurd to want to tax even more people like that who are barely making it on a day-to-day basis. Shouldn’t you rather tax all the other businesses making lots of money? That’s what we’ve been saying since the beginning.

And it’s not just about money: all of this takes time. Once you’ve become a business entity, as I’ve just said, you have to file a declaration for the consumption tax, in which you have to write down all of your transactions for the past year. That’s not an easy thing to do! Because you also have to declare your earnings for the income tax separately. In other words, you have to do it all over again for the consumption tax. Creators already don’t have a lot of time for work, so they’re not really in a position where they can do that at leisure.

Finally, once you become a taxable business entity, your number gets recorded on a list available online. And your name is on that list. Your real name.

So is there a privacy issue similar to what’s been happening with the My Number Card recently, where lots of data leaks have happened[3]?

Ayano Fukumiya. There’s some of that. Really, that’s annoying… The Japanese can be real idiots.

You know, I’m working under a pseudonym. I don’t want my real name to get out there. I’m nobody, so it might be alright, but imagine what would happen to really famous actors and actresses. Stalkers would know where they live, things like that. There’s no way a system with so many flaws could actually come into effect, right? That’s why we’ve been fighting all this time.

Regarding the time and money issue, can’t animation studios and voice acting agencies cover up for the people working with them? For example, filling up the invoices for them or things like that.

Ayano Fukumiya. In the old system, if I did, let’s say, some job worth 10,000 yen, I’d be paid 11,000 yen, and those additional 1,000 yen would serve as payment for the consumption tax, once and for all. This means that, by the end of the fiscal year, when the company calculates its expenses, these 1,000 yen can be registered as an expense rather than under the consumption tax. It’s called “purchased tax exemption”. Since the company paid me those 1,000 yen, it didn’t have to be registered again for the consumption tax.

But this is going to change with the introduction of the invoice system. If I don’t register as a taxable business entity and don’t submit qualified invoices, the company that paid me 11,000 yen will have to pay the 1,000 yen again as tax. So, it ends up putting more taxes on companies. That’s the worst thing about the invoice system.

So agencies or studios might cover up for artists, also making it so that their names don’t go public. But there’s still that money problem. Because if I don’t register myself as a taxable entity, every time the agency pays me, they also have to pay more taxes.

And the thing is, agencies and animation studios don’t make a lot of money either: they’re barely staying afloat. So imagine what happens if all their payments increase by 10%: they’ll go bankrupt. Because what happens is either that we artists ask for higher pay, or when paying us, studios and agencies deduct the consumption tax fees. With the Japanese economy being what it is, salaries haven’t been going up, so asking for better pay is useless. In the end, wages will just go down.

Haven’t the wages of animators been increasing recently, though?

Ayano Fukumiya. For animators, yes. They’ve been earning a bit more because the unit price has gone up, but because of inflation, you can’t really say that their lifestyles have been improving. Of course, someone who started 10 years ago and went up the ranks would have seen their wage go up to some extent. But it’s not like someone joining the industry today would make a lot more than someone who started out 10 years ago.

Related to this is the issue of in-betweeners, right? Key animators and above can more-or-less make ends meet, but you often hear about how in-betweeners just can’t sustain themselves because of how little they make.

Ayano Fukumiya. That’s right. From what I’ve heard, the unit price for an in-between is still around 200-300 yen.

Remaining on invoices, if I understand correctly, the new system should affect all kinds of businesses and industries in Japan. Not just animators and actors, but also manga artists, for example. Have you thought of teaming up with manga artists to create something that would relay the voices of more entertainment industries?

Ayano Fukumiya. We already are. Last year, we gathered with people from the animation, voice acting, manga, and theater industries and released a joint statement[4].

From what I hear, it’s going to cause lots of problems for manga artists as well. Because even an artist who sells a lot has to pay their assistants. But I don’t think there’s one manga assistant in Japan making more than 10 million yen a year, so they’re all exempt from taxes under the old system. This means that the taxes of the manga artists employing them will go up, or that assistants’ wages will go down, and they’ll quit.

Even if you’re a mangaka earning more than 10 million a year, without assistants, you simply can’t do your job.

“It’s complete chaos now”

Thank you very much. So far, we’ve talked about the invoice system, but as we said earlier, that’s not really what NAFCA is about; it’s rather human resources development.

Ayano Fukumiya: That’s right.

So first, can you explain your “Animation Skill Test”?

Ayano Fukumiya: Of course! Actually, it’s like I’ve been talking as a member of VOICTION rather than NAFCA until now. (laughs)

Right now, the animation industry is crumbling because of the lack of staff. The cause isn’t just the lack of people. It’s also that those who are already there don’t have the necessary skills to do their job. There are so few people and so much work that animators don’t have the time to receive any feedback on their art. And a lot of people just won’t actually correct their drawings if they do receive feedback, because they’re already busy with their next job. In such conditions, people never become aware of whether they’re good enough or not and can’t improve. Such artists end up becoming animation directors, and then you have people who know nothing about animation production working in studios, and now it’s complete chaos.

Of course, not everybody can withstand such conditions, and some end up quitting. As a result, the chronic lack of staff is only getting worse, and that’s how production assistants end up recruiting people on Twitter. But such people don’t want to become pro animators in the first place, and there’s no way they’d know about the intricacies of animation production – but they still take the job, draw what they’re asked to, and consider their task done.

We have to do this because even animation schools are short of teachers. Through this test, we also hope to provide materials for teachers and develop a new generation of instructors.

Indeed, that’s something we hear all the time from animators who went to a technical school: it’s actually not very useful for their careers… Why is that?

Ayano Fukumiya: I think there are multiple reasons for that.

The first is that real, professional animators don’t have time to teach. They’re too busy with their main job for that. The other is that, if you teach something as technical as animation too seriously, it’s actually pretty difficult, and a lot of students end up leaving. Schools are businesses too, so if the students leave, they can’t make money. That’s why, to keep the students in, they make things easy for them. In that sense, part of the problem lies in the curriculums: during their time in school, students just try out each part of the animation pipeline. Of course, it’s necessary to get such a general grasp to some degree, but as things stand, it gets in the way of acquiring and perfecting basic skills.

So I wouldn’t go as far as to say that such a curriculum is entirely useless, but I believe that for aspiring animators at least, it’s necessary to get closer to what actual animation work is like. It’s necessary to teach students that it’s not just about getting paid for drawing: studios aren’t playgrounds. I actually feel bad for students who enter studios without knowing anything about how animation actually works.

We’ve already had opportunities to talk with professors, which made us aware of what things can and can’t be done in technical schools. With our own manual, we’d like to create the base for another kind of curriculum.

So that would be the next step after the Skill Test? Setting up a teaching curriculum for aspiring animators?

Ayano Fukumiya: It is. But rather than the next step, it’s something we’d like to do at the same time: we’re putting together a textbook for aspiring animators with our mascot characters, Hokuto and Kagemaru. Right now, we’re working on the storyboard, we plan to make a short of a length of around 30 shots, and even voice actors like me can dub it afterward. The making-of, from the storyboard to the layouts, key animation, and in-betweens, will be the content of the textbook.

We’re aiming for something that middle schoolers could be able to read.

Ah, then maybe even foreigners like me will be able to read it. (laughs)

Ayano Fukumiya: If you can read the kanji, I’m sure it’ll be no problem!

The thing is, if you live in Tokyo, you can get by, but it’s much harder to learn about animation if you live in the countryside. It’s already pretty hard to get into any contact with animation, so knowing about schools is yet another different thing… I have a young child myself, and I’d be lost if I suddenly had to buy them the computer and tablet necessary for animation, because these cost a lot of money. However, for our Skill Test, you just need paper and an animation desk, and parents like me could have their children pass it to help them choose. You can see whether you’re ready to spend hours sitting at your desk drawing. So it can help children and aspiring animators on one hand, and clear out people who don’t have the required skills on the other.

And then the results can be used in artists’ portfolios, right?

Ayano Fukumiya: Yes, we hope it becomes something like that.

It can help animation studios choose who they want to work with as well. For example, let’s say they’re hesitating between two animators with roughly the same ability and who both look like good people. The Test might come in handy in such situations. Of course, I don’t think just having passed the Test will mean you’ll get recruited, but having that in your CV might increase your chances.

If the Test becomes standard with time, we also wish it could be used as a way for in-betweeners to negotiate better unit prices. Something like, if you have scored a certain level on the Test, you can ask for a guarantee of 300 yen instead of 250. But that’s only possible if we get help from companies themselves…

“People have no idea what being an animator is about”

That’s a topic I want to get into, but first, I’d like to ask Ms. Nishii. As an animator and animation director, what is it that’s missing so much in animators that makes the Skill Test so necessary?

Terumi Nishii: What’s missing… Just upload some drawings on Twitter, and you’ll get studios offering you a job.

(nervous laugh)

Terumi Nishii: You tell me what’s missing when you’ve never drawn any animation! (laughs)

Ayano Fukumiya: (laughs)

Terumi Nishii: That’s why we’re doing it. 

I get it. (laughs)

Terumi Nishii: All the people who get those offers accept “because they’ve been invited”, or so they say, but they don’t know how things are actually supposed to be done and only get the other staff members angry at them. But their excuse is that they were offered the job – and because of that, they don’t even understand why other people might get angry.

This kind of situation happens a lot to foreign “animators”, but is it also the case for Japanese people as well?

Terumi Nishii: Yes, a lot. I suppose that production assistants have already exhausted their possibilities in Japan, so now they turn overseas and rely on automatic translation sites.

Don’t studios forbid production assistants to recruit people like that?

Terumi Nishii: They don’t. There are still people who do it, and whenever I go on Twitter, I still see people going, “We’re recruiting people who can do second-key animation”… It’s not that I don’t understand how these production assistants feel, but it’s not that easy to clean up the mess once you get an amateur on board.

Ayano Fukumiya: Even I could apply…

Terumi Nishii: You could. Even if you’ve never done animation before, you can get offers. People have no idea what being an animator is about. It makes me depressed… 

Ayano Fukumiya: But there’s no time to teach any of that, is there?

Terumi Nishii: There isn’t. And that’s why the animation level has gotten so low. On top of that, people who start out this way begin their career in the worst way possible, without any knowledge of the basics. The moment such people become the norm in the Japanese animation industry is the moment it collapses. It’s not like it’s those people’s fault, though. It’s the fault of the entire industry for having to rely on them. Some also say that it’s because we don’t have any opportunities to teach the basics anymore. That’s why we created the Animator Skill Test. I believe it’s important to have something open to anyone who wants to learn animation.

So, first, everybody should learn the basics. Once you’ve learned that, you can start working – but those who don’t know a thing about what it’s like shouldn’t try to get into the world of professionals. Doing that only means dumping the retakes on other people. At least, if you manage to pass the Test, that should decrease the amount of retakes a little bit.

But the biggest problem and the root of all that is that every franchise, every series, every episode is missing people in charge. There might be some exceptions, but nowadays, nobody has the time, and you end up with 10 or 20 animation directors on a single TV episode. In such a situation, you no longer have any idea of who was responsible for the drawings you’re seeing. 

Now, animators often say, “That cut is mine” on the web. They’re effectively taking that responsibility, aren’t they?

Terumi Nishii: That’s what they’re saying, but in the end, you can’t know who corrected that. Maybe all of it has been redrawn. Anyway, the problem is that you can’t tell who’s responsible for what anymore.

When someone under pseudo you’ve never heard about claims responsibility, you can’t really trust them. You really have to question how much of the animation you’re seeing is actually from their drawings.

The other thing is that now you have lots of young artists whose only goal is to become able to say ‘I did this!’ on Twitter. Rather than creating something, contributing to a work of animation, or moving people, they only want to brag and show off their ego. That kind of attitude only puts the rest of us in trouble.

That also applies to many foreigners.

Ayano Fukumiya: We also have that issue among voice actors. If you always try to show off how beautiful your voice is when you’re acting, the final performance has nothing natural anymore. People who have secondary roles try taking the spotlight.

With the pandemic, we didn’t do the recordings all together, so it’s become increasingly frequent to do each recording separately… And now it’s turned into a sort of contest for who has the best voice.

Even mob characters stand out as if they were the main characters, just so the actor can leave an impression. Of course, I understand where they’re coming from, but they don’t seem to grasp that what’s most important is the scene as a whole.

“We’re reaching the point of no return”

Related to what Ms. Nishii was saying, the staff numbers on animated productions have increased a lot over the course of anime history. Some decades ago, an episode of TV anime would have 1 animation director and something like 4 to 8 key animators. But now it’s more like 20 to 30 animation directors and around 50 key animators. How did that happen?

Terumi Nishii: I think the biggest factor is the spread of digital tools.

Back in the old days, animation was on cels, and you couldn’t accumulate more than 4 cels on top of each other. But that’s not the case with digital. That limit has disappeared, and with it, the degree of freedom animators have, as well as the work involved in each shot. Thanks to that change in photography and ink-and-paint, animators could now move things how they wanted. But in such conditions, you need more people to follow up.

As it went, complex and frame-consuming action has become almost omnipresent, and viewers have gotten used to it – that’s what they’re expecting now. Animators have also been led to think that such animation is necessary, regardless of what they’re working on.

So the first change was the digitalization of ink-and-paint, and then all of a sudden, the limits on animation itself disappeared. And to avoid any drops in quality, chief animation directors started appearing. But that started impacting schedules, so yet more animators were needed to compensate. This is when the wave of streaming hit: animation became popular worldwide, it became necessary to air some almost continuously, and the number of productions has exponentially increased.

After ink-and-paint, digitalization also reached the animators themselves. As they started working digitally, more animators left Tokyo to work from the countryside, which led production assistants to start recruiting people online, and progressively some who had never worked in animation. So today’s situation is the result of multiple factors.

What’s currently going on with chief animation directors is really wrong. Nowadays, it might take up to 6 months before the key animator receives the corrections on their drawings. By that point, the animator has moved on to something else, so you need someone else to apply those corrections. If you do that, the number of people on your staff increases, right? That’s how you end up with the current second key animation system: a single shot of animation requires yet more people. The worst is, with things like that, animators lose the opportunity to get feedback on their work and learn from it – it’s endangering the future of the animation industry itself.

Whereas in the old days, because of the limit on the number of drawings, you could have a single animation director, and, as I believe you know, the key drawings themselves were much rougher.

Right, but as you said, nowadays, key animators only do the “layout” or “rough key animation”, and the second key animation is left to someone else.

Nishii Terumi: Right. It was different in the old days because even though the key frames were pretty rough, you knew they’d be cleaned up properly by the in-betweeners during the final stages. But nowadays, in-betweens are all outsourced overseas – there are almost no inbetweeners in Japan anymore. Because the level keeps dropping, we’re getting to a point where we’re missing people who can clean up key frames, right when the cleaning-up process is taking increasing importance. Now, even chief animation directors have to draw very neatly for the rest of the staff to be able to follow. When it’s like that, it becomes harder to return the corrections in time, meaning that yet more people are necessary to compensate.

Part of the problem is that today’s key animators don’t have any in-betweening experience anymore: the most they can do is cleaning up their layouts, but nothing more. Because of that, the clean-up process has become separate, and people who can neither create good movement nor draw clean lines are becoming animators – that’s where we’re at. The few people who can do clean-up bear all the burden. Our Test is made in order to break that spiral, to ensure that people who can actually do clean-up multiply in Japan. That’s also because that’s not the key animator’s job: it’s not to neatly trace pictures all the time; it’s about acting through animation.

So we’re back to the issue of in-betweeners. What should be done for people to become professional in-betweeners and develop the necessary skills?

Nishii Terumi: It’s not complicated. You need to pay them better.

We’re in a situation where, even if you want to do in-betweens, it’s impossible because the pay is too low. Studios need to hire in-betweeners as full-time employees. In-betweening isn’t just about filling the gaps left by the key animator: it’s a very important job. The root of our problems now is that studios stopped recruiting and training in-betweeners. Even the schedule problems: it’s when you’re drawing in-betweens that you learn how to draw efficiently.

We’re hearing lots of stories about people quitting early on, but what about aging? People are growing old, so isn’t that yet another cause for the lack of staff when they retire?

Nishii Terumi: We’re just barely entering that stage, aren’t we?

I think the golden age of Japanese animation was the 1990s. And the animators from that era are now in their 50s or 60s, including, of course, all the really good ones. So we’ve got around 10 years before that generation retires…. Things are pretty bad. Because after them come all the people who can’t trace rough drawings.

We’re reaching the point of no-return. 

I’ve only trained a few people around me before, and I’d honestly prefer to keep it that way, but if we don’t act now, it’ll be too late: all the veterans will be gone. It’s now that we must reform the training system in this industry. And since nobody seems ready to do it, I have to take things into my own hands… 

However, I believe you’re not a member of NAFCA…

Nishii Terumi: I assist them. The animation people on the directors’ board are Naomichi Yamato, Masuo Ueda, and Masaru Kitao[5]. I serve as a sort of production assistant under them, for instance, helping out on our storyboard…

Why aren’t you involved more closely? Is it just that you’re too busy?

Nishii Terumi: It’s more that I’m a bit too extreme to work in a group. (laughs) But I’m involved in the Test because I was the one to suggest it in the first place.

Regarding the president, Mr. Ueda… He’s a veteran producer, but isn’t now a bit too late? Shouldn’t he have created something like NAFCA while he still directed Aniplex and had lots of power and connections?

Nishii Terumi: That’s right. I think he realized that something could be done when he saw how active voice actors were against the invoice system. At least, that’s what happened to me. Animation creators are all pretty timid, so you can’t expect much from them. But voice actors got together, created their own associations against invoices, and we realized that something new might happen if we worked with them.

In Ueda’s case, he still has lots of connections, but I don’t think he has any actual influence on companies. On the other hand, without him here, no companies would listen to us in the first place. He’s still built up the reputation of being someone respectable and responsible. In that sense, I think we struck a sort of miraculous balance with NAFCA.

But why only now?

Nishii Terumi: It was only after he quit Aniplex that he started activities to improve the situation of the industry. First, he became president of the Association of Japanese Animators, but I hear that didn’t go very well. Around that same time, I had gathered at least 200 animators for regular meet-ups where we’d receive advice from lawyers regarding our tax declarations. And then, in 2018, Ueda heard about it and came to see me to do something together.

We let that rest for a bit, and then Ueda regularly came as a guest on my YouTube channel to explain how the animation industry became the way it is. But we realized that, as much as fans and animators might complain on Twitter, they don’t actually care that much about the history behind how we got to where we are today.

And just as I was thinking that what we were doing didn’t have any effect and starting to give up, we heard the news about the invoice system. It was going to affect all self-employed and freelance workers in Japan, and yet mass media only reported on it as a problem for the animation industry. So Ueda, Yamato, Kitao, and I started splitting the work between ourselves and spreading the word in various media.

It was then that we realized that voice actors faced similar issues and that there were yet more that we hadn’t addressed. Ueda could have let it all sleep and enjoyed his retirement, but he decided to get under fire and help us workers. It’s not like he wanted to do this at the very beginning. A lot of people seem to be wondering what the former president of Aniplex thinks he’s doing, and whenever I see such comments, I feel sad: it’s not like he’s doing this because he wants to: he has to do it, or no one else will. Put more clearly, it’s not that he created NAFCA by himself, but rather that people on the ground asked him to preside it. If we ever succeed, I want us to erect a statue in his honor to thank him! (laughs)

“Studios have money but no people”

Thank you very much. That brings us back to NAFCA’s activities and the Animators Skill Test. How do you intend to collaborate with studios on it?

Ayano Fukumiya: Studios, just like individual artists, agree that if nothing is done, the animation industry is over. But they just don’t have the ability to handle training themselves.

But training new artists should be the responsibility of studios. Why can’t they? Is it a money problem?

Ayano Fukumiya: I think it is. They can’t afford it. Animation studios have always been running on so-called “bicycle business” – they have to keep taking work or close down. 

Under the so-called “gross” subcontracting system, studios receive a certain funding for one episode out of the entire budget of a series. And that funding is calculated very roughly: the estimates are done on how much producers think an episode costs, not on its actual price. So when the creators try to raise the quality, the production costs increase, and the studio gets into deficit – but they often only notice it after the fact. That’s the first issue that needs to be addressed.

Also, all of this happens without knowing whether a studio’s productions will work out or not. Let’s say your current production is in deficit, and the one after that makes a profit – that profit is used to compensate. But even if you made a profit once, you can’t know what will happen next, so you can’t risk offering bonuses or hiring new people.

That’s what I meant by “they can’t afford it”.

Terumi Nishii: On top of that, there are no teachers. The people who could teach are working on the frontline and are too busy. So it’s difficult for studios to ask them to stop working and teach newbies.

Ideally, being in charge of training should be considered work and compensated as such, but historically, training has always been done by senior artists based on goodwill and without compensation, where they’d ask younger artists to help out with their work. We can’t get out of that cycle.

For that to happen in the first place, animators need to be in the studios. However, many animators are freelance, so they can’t meet their seniors and can’t receive direct training. With that in mind, shouldn’t more artists become in-house?

Terumi Nishii: I agree. But for the studios, it’s impossible to have all of the staff in-house.

Also, animators themselves don’t really want that to happen. They don’t like desk jobs, having to come to work at certain set hours, things like that. A lot of people would prefer living as they please, as freelancers, rather than having to follow company rules. Even some veterans have that mindset and absolutely refuse to get in-house contracts. It’s related to the possibility of choosing what you work on. If you’re working on a kids’ show like Ojamaru today, you might be asked to work on Oshi no Ko tomorrow, and that’s not easy. Animators are more individualistic, so you have types that only want to do stuff like Ojamaru, and types that only want to work on stuff like Oshi no Ko. But most studios do both kinds of works, and more: things for boys, things for girls, things for the overseas market, more realistic things… So if you’re in-house, you might work on something very realistic and then have to switch to a moe series. Maybe it would be simpler if studios had more distinct identities and styles they specialized in. But in the current situation, imagine if another studio adapted your favorite manga: many people would rather quit their current studio to go work on that. That’s why it’s like that, and it’s a big issue.

Earlier, we mentioned aging. In that case, as well, being in-house is better, isn’t it? You can get insurance, a pension…

Ayano Fukumiya: Indeed.

Terumi Nishii: What often happens is that, when people get older, they get together with friends and create their own company. That way, they can also make their own rules.

But isn’t that part of the problem? Small companies have no money and no influence, and they’re powerless. Whereas bigger studios have more leeway. Studios like MAPPA have problems of their own, but can afford to bypass production committees, and raise salaries to some degree… Isn’t that precisely because they’re so big? Smaller companies can’t do that.

Terumi Nishii: The problem with small companies is rather the opposite: they have money but no people. When they get an order from production committees, producers receive money to create their own structure. But then they have nobody to work for them and don’t know what to do. That often happens.

There are too many productions today, so what tends to happen today is that even big studios can’t take offers. Production committees encourage individual animation producers to create their own companies. That’s how we get into a situation of studios with money but no people.

Ayano Fukumiya: Japanese industries have always relied on gatherings of small companies anyway. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing that so many small companies get created all the time. Though the invoice system is going to change all of that.

Nishii Terumi: True.

Ayano Fukumiya: What the government is trying to do seems to be to bring all the small companies together only to leave big corporations. I have no idea why they’re trying to do that when we’ve had this system since the Edo period…

It’s always been like that in the animation industry as well.

Ayano Fukumiya: Exactly.

Another issue related to money is the production committee system. Even if something is a success, the money doesn’t trickle down. I’d like to hear your opinion on that.

Ayano Fukumiya: Indeed, a lot of anime are produced that way now: TV stations, merchandise companies, and film distributors get together to provide money, and in return, the profits are divided. But studios aren’t rich in the first place, so they can’t participate in this and don’t get any share of the profits.

People are starting to realize how unfair this is, and starting to think that studios should hold at least part of their own IPs. We’d like to help out with that, and for instance, we’re thinking of drafting model contracts and lobbying for public subsidies so that studios can have some funds to put into training staff.

Another issue with production committees isn’t just money, but also how many new series are made.

Terumi Nishii: It’s true, but we can’t really ask for the number of works to be reduced. Of course, production staff are saying the number of works should be reduced. But the only answer you get is that companies will take offers anyway. I’d like to know who “companies” refers to, though.

In any case, studios will take work when there’s some, even if it’s too much. I wish the number of new works would go down and the individual budgets go up. Not just budgets, but subcontracting fees as well. But the problem is that, if a studio doesn’t take an offer, the committee will just create another studio to take it, and the first studio will lose its staff, making things even worse. Studios have no choice, but that’s precisely why budgets need to increase: studios are forced to accept because they don’t have any money. Basically, I wish individual productions would be taken care of more.

There was a special issue in the magazine Toyo Shinbun recently, and there was a piece titled “Animation Studios Are Far Too Poor” with an interview of TMS Entertainment CEO Tadashi Takezaki, and I’m in complete agreement with what’s written. Nothing will change if we don’t negotiate with production committees on a more equal footing.

Related to all that, I’ve been under the impression that budgets have been going up since the pandemic…

Terumi Nishii: Yes, I believe they’ve been increasing a bit. It depends a lot, but the highest budgets can go up to 50 million yen per episode, though I’ve heard rumors that some productions can get up to 100 million yen. Cheaper productions are around 30 million yen. On the other hand, subcontracting fees are getting increasingly cheap: now, it’s around 10 million yen per episode. I wish we could do something about that.

Right, the real issue is the subcontracting system, isn’t it?

Terumi Nishii: It is a problem. It doesn’t just apply to the animation industry but to all of Japan. So the only solution is to go see the government – but then it becomes politics.

So it all comes down to money and politics.

Terumi Nishii: That’s right.

I’ve been investigating all this for some time, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that, since it comes down to politics and economics, we have to go to elections. But people aren’t ready for that yet. Everybody says they want to do something about the industry, but they’re not acting with their votes. So we have to explain why it matters. Again, and again, and again.

“We’re trying to create something where we can all be together as comrades”

I see, thank you. I’ll be switching topics for a bit, but I do want to discuss politics again later on. We’ve mostly talked about studios and animators, but I’m also curious about voice actors. Overseas, we more-or-less know about the issues animators face, but not about those of voice actors. Ms. Fukumiya, if you please.

Ayano Fukumiya: The situation for voice actors is quite different. There are allegedly around 1000 people each year who apply for work as animators, whereas there are 30,000 for voice actors. In other words, it’s a far more popular application, which means that the problems and their causes are very different.

First, the 5% most popular actors take 80% of jobs, with the remaining 95% competing for what’s left. It’s the same for all acting-related professions. The result is that most voice actors are extremely poor. While we can’t do much about it, big names gather up everything.

Another change has been brought about by the pandemic. Until then, all the cast for one episode did the recording together, but because we had to keep safety distances, recording sessions are now in small groups of 3 or 4. So now, it’s become almost impossible to learn by seeing your elders perform in front of you. So it’s totally different from animators.

You just talked about the pandemic, so on Ms. Nishii’s end, what are the changes that animators and staff have seen since then?

Terumi Nishii: The biggest one has to be the shift to digital, which has accelerated. I’ve heard that it’s the same in China. Probably because it’s easier to work from home that way. Also, training has completely stopped. Nobody went to studios, so they couldn’t see their seniors, and if you can’t do that, it’s hard to know where to learn. Education has become much harder in a lot of ways.

In sum, you could say that it’s more convenient to work from home and that it has opened some solutions to the lack of staff, but that working entirely remotely makes a lot of things, including training, more difficult.

NAFCA gathers animation staff like animators and directors, but also voice actors. Aren’t you afraid that their interests might come into conflict?

Ayano Fukumiya: Precisely, we’re trying to create something where we can all be together as comrades rather than have our interests compete with each other. Usually, animators and actors never meet outside of work-related events, where they basically just exchange greetings. We want to change that and create more interaction. For example, if I were to act the part of our mascot Hokuto, the animator could use that as a reference to improve their animation.

With more communication between animators and actors, things like this would happen more often, motivating everybody. That’s why we hope to increase such occasions. That’s one of the goals of NAFCA.

We went to your kick-off event the other day, and something we noticed is that there were many veteran creators, but just that. There were no young people, or more technical staff like production assistants, background artists, compositing artists… Do you have such people joining NAFCA?

Ayano Fukumiya: Of course, we’re reaching them as well. It was our first real event, so we wanted to make things simple and bring famous people to create some attention on purpose. Regarding production and compositing staff, we also intend to organize seminars aimed at students to introduce these professions.

I’m glad you mentioned this because production staff also run into many issues. They don’t have time, they can’t evaluate the skills of animators, and in the end, recruit people without the qualifications. What should be done to improve the training and working conditions of production assistants?

Terumi Nishii: The issue here is the number of productions. Studios take on new works until production assistants reach their limits, and now production assistants have to work on multiple productions at the same time. So, of course, they burn out. I’ve also been told salaries are quite low. It’s impossible to raise people in such conditions, and the new recruits all quit.

Could NAFCA do something like an equivalent of the Animator Skill Test for production jobs?

Ayano Fukumiya: In the Skill Test, there are questions about the industry itself, and I hope production assistants will take these. It would be quite useful for them.

Terumi Nishii: There are actually two kinds of production assistants. Those who want to become producers or production desks, and those who want to become directors. 

Those in the first case always need to consult with other sections, and they need to know how much time everything takes. Production assistants who have passed the Skill Test will have some knowledge of the steps of animation production. If they don’t know anything, they’ll turn into producers who have no idea how much time and money making animation requires. It’s absolutely necessary to be aware of such things before you even start, and it’s already a pretty big problem that this isn’t common knowledge among new recruits.

Another relevant issue now is AI. I think it’s relevant for voice actors as well, but recently there’s been a short produced by WIT studio that used AI.

Terumi Nishii: There was, there was. I was surprised to see how many foreigners reacted negatively; it made me realize how unpopular AI is. In fact, I don’t think anyone expected that kind of reaction.

Doesn’t NAFCA intend to speak up against the use of AI in animation?

Terumi Nishii: That’s pretty difficult.

Right now, we’re conducting a survey regarding the use of AI among animation staff. I think that everyone thinks it’s too early and that they’re kinda scared of it. Not everyone is able to keep up with it. But as long as we take it one step at a time, I think it should be alright. The reason so many people reject AI is that so many bad people are using it.

Personally, I think that it’s alright to use AI for things that can’t be done entirely by hand – a bit like 3D layouts nowadays. However, we must be very careful so that it doesn’t replace actual jobs.

Another sensitive topic I wanted to ask about was gender inequalities. First, Ms. Fukumiya, would you say there’s a gender wage gap among voice actors?

Ayano Fukumiya: We have a ranking system decided by the Union of Japanese Actors, so thanks to that, there are no inequalities in guarantees for actors within the same rank. As for other activities, such as narration for other programs or appearances on TV shows, the guarantee is negotiated each time, as is done in the entertainment industry.

In that sense, some people earn a lot more than others, but that’s basically how the entertainment industry works, and nobody thinks there’s anything particularly wrong about it: you have to earn your bread through your own efforts.

By the way, VOICTION conducted a survey about that, and the results were that 40% of voice actors earn under 1 million yen a year, and 70% under 3 million. Only 4% of actors make over 10 million in a year.

I see… I guess it’s similar for animators because of the piece-rate system?

Ayano Fukumiya: Animators often sign binding contracts that forbid them to work on multiple productions at once, and that’s more-or-less how the most important people are paid. They basically receive a monthly salary as long as the production goes on, in exchange for not working on anything else.

In that sense, there’s a big difference between these animators and those who get paid piece-rate. It’s hard to make a living without any binding contracts, so that creates an incentive for animators to get better quickly so that they can negotiate with studios.

In the animation industry, there’s an increasing number of female episode directors or animation directors/designers like Ms. Nishii, but there still aren’t many female series directors or producers. Why is that?

Ayano Fukumiya: What I’ve been told is that there’s a difference in stamina.

As you grow older, things like all-nighters get increasingly difficult, and it becomes absolutely impossible if you have children. That’s why a lot of producers are men: they’ve got more stamina. I think that to change that situation, we should change the work culture, and make schedules actually bearable for everybody.

Do you think sexual harassment is an issue in the animation and voice-acting industries?

Terumi Nishii: I do. I’ve personally never been a victim of it, but I’ve heard lots of stories, and I think it’s a real problem.

Ayano Fukumiya: Yes, it absolutely is. We don’t get talked about as much as the actors who always appear on stage, but we’re still part of the entertainment industry and share its problems. We’re not getting out of it, and I think this issue should really be addressed.

With MeToo overseas, and recently the Johnny’s incident in Japan itself, it feels like awareness of these issues is slowly getting better. For instance, there’s the recently created “Association to end sexual abuse in the Film and Moving image industry”. Do you think awareness is spreading to the voice acting and animation industries?

Terumi Nishii: In the case of animators, a lot of people are freelance and work from home, so I’d say there aren’t many cases of actual sexual abuse. Most trouble actually comes from stalkers, and something needs to be done about that. Men often don’t have any kind of awareness of all that, so I think that at least some prevention and education is necessary so that it stops.

Ayano Fukumiya: As I just said, since voice actors aren’t as exposed as other actors, sexual abuse isn’t as rampant, and because of that, awareness of it and measures against it may spread far more slowly. However, things are becoming more regulated: sometimes, agencies include reminders and prohibitions in the contracts themselves.

Victims of harassment or assault rarely speak out by themselves. Do you think an organization like NAFCA could provide safe spaces for victims to discuss their experiences?

Ayano Fukumiya: We’re currently trying to set up various seminars with experts on topics like sexual harassment, stalkers, and online harassment. The animation industry is pretty small, so we thought it would be good to look for advice from people outside of it, especially on issues such as these.

“We need to educate people about history and collective action”

I see. Thank you very much. To conclude, let’s go back to discussing politics. I believe you want to do lobbying?

Ayano Fukumiya: We already are.

Concretely, what shape is it taking? What are you lobbying for?

Ayano Fukumiya: I briefly mentioned it earlier, but I’m going to the Ministry of Culture after this interview. And, of course, we also plan to meet individual politicians.

First, of course, we’re looking for statements of support. Then, we want a proper inquiry into the results of policies such as Cool Japan[6], which was meant to encourage the export of animation overseas. The company that has received the most money from the Cool Japan Fund is a ramen chain. We’d like to know how something like that happened.

The reason we want this to happen is that, if you give money to people who don’t understand the animation industry, none of that money is going to trickle down to the actual creators all the way down the ladder. That doesn’t mean we’re just asking for money for ourselves. Some places have actually developed, and it’s necessary to study them as well. It doesn’t mean either that you just need money to grow: you have to consider the organization and all kinds of things. But we have to put that on the table. 

Cool Japan was handled by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, right?

Ayano Fukumiya: Yes.

But you just said you’re going to the Ministry of Culture. What does that change?

Ayano Fukumiya: We’re going to both. To the Ministry of Culture to protect and develop anime as culture. To the Ministry of Economy and Trade to present anime as a commercial product that can be exported, to establish Cool Japan’s successor.

Japanese society is complex and hierarchical. Industries and projects that might seem similar are actually sometimes under different jurisdictions. We may not be able to succeed in everything, but we intend to pursue our other activities while learning about all of that and discussing things with politicians.

But do politicians actually care about anime?

Terumi Nishii: There are more than you’d think!

Ayano Fukumiya: They won’t admit it in public, but there are lots.

So this is a delicate question, but if NAFCA were to receive public subsidies, wouldn’t there be a risk of that money being mishandled? There are lots of precedents, after all.

Terumi Nishii: To avoid that, NAFCA needs to be as transparent as possible. Well, right now, we’re not making money, and everybody’s working for free, but hopefully, we can eventually recruit full-time and part-time employees at some point.

In terms of organization, I think it’s pretty fairly set up for now: factors like age or career aren’t taken too much into consideration. We have meetings once a week, with around a dozen people each time, and everybody can speak up. This has to go on so that power doesn’t get concentrated in a single person’s hands. Everybody is keenly aware of that issue and very careful about it. The fact that we have both animation staff and actors also helps out: they can respectively monitor each other. I believe that, through their involvement in the anti-invoice movement, everybody realized how futile petty negotiations and power struggles can be, so things should be alright for a while.

In terms of political activities, we’ve talked about lobbying, but I believe that Ms. Nishii has been saying for some time that a union would be necessary. But NAFCA isn’t a union, right?

Terumi Nishii: I love that question!

I think people overseas have been wondering about that. How is it different?

Ayano Fukumiya: We’re not a union.

Terumi Nishii: NAFCA is what’s called a “general incorporated association” – it’s not a union, and for instance, it can’t declare strikes.

As we discussed earlier, animators like being independent – they rarely get together for a common goal. That’s different for voice actors, who have obtained their rank salary system through collective action[7]. Sadly, it’s different for animators. A lot of people have been obsessed with drawing since childhood, and they’re not very good at such group actions. They all think studios will just do dumping and break the strikes if that ever were to happen.

People have been complaining a lot more on Twitter recently. Frustration is piling up – but nobody will actually do anything yet.

Now, with invoices, I want the young generations to realize that if they keep saying nothing, things will only get worse. Before they just obsess about drawing, I’d like students to build themselves networks. It’s because their seniors didn’t do anything and forgot about everything that wasn’t animation that we’re here today, so we need to act together. Study how to pay our taxes and get reductions together, file our tax declarations together, and do local meetups together. We need to create a community and develop links that go beyond just animation!

Young people tend to speak out more when it comes to working conditions. If they want to do that, and if they want to win, going through unions is necessary. It’s the only way to get things done, and history has proved it many times. People have always been forming things like guilds to defend their rights. We need to know more about this history.

Ayano Fukumiya: Well, a lot of young people are afraid of fighting. But what we’re fighting for is our rights. So first, we need to educate people about history and collective action. Because if we just start up a union right now, nobody will come. We mustn’t rush and skip the steps.

As things are today, it’s a time where a lot of people are afraid of fighting. Well, you’re French, so maybe you’d have trouble understanding this…

Terumi Nishii: We need a rebroadcast of The Rose of Versailles! (laughs)

Ayano Fukumiya. Yes!

Talking of overseas, we’re all feeling the impact of the Hollywood strikes. I wish SAG-AFTRA people would come to Japan and make speeches.

Terumi Nishii. That would actually make me cry. I would have wanted professors like this…

Ayano Fukumiya. There are still actors in Japan who don’t know about what’s been going on. We’re at that level, so first, we need to properly relay that kind of information.

So, in the end, it’s just a matter of time?

Ayano Fukumiya. Just a matter of time. I hope you can lend us some of your French experience for that kind of thing.

We’d be glad to.

Ayano Fukumiya. Thank you very much.

All our thanks go to Ms. Fukumiya and Ms. Nishii for their time and kindness, as well as to all the people at NAFCA for their efforts.

Interview by Matteo Watzky and Dimitri Seraki.

Transcript by Isuzumi.

Translation, introduction, and notes by Matteo Watzky.

Notes

[1] Masuo Ueda (1955-). Producer. Representative Director of NAFCA. Producer affiliated with Sunrise throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s. In 2005, he created studio A-1 Pictures, which he co-presided until 2010 and then presided on his own until 2015. He was also president and then chairman of anime producer and distributor Aniplex from 2014 to 2017.

[2] Naomichi Yamato (1973-). Director. Member of NAFCA’s board of directors. Veteran episode director active since the late 1990s.

[3] My Number Card. ID document storing individual information and relaying it to individual numbers. In March 2021, the Japanese government started issuing cards with IC chips that could double as health insurance cards. However, the program was temporarily paused in May 2023 because of multiple cases of another person’s information being displayed when the card was used.

[4] The press conference is available here (in Japanese only): YouTube

[5] Masaru Kitao (1961-). Animator, character designer. Member of NAFCA’s board of directors. Formerly associated with studio Madhouse, best known for his character designs on Death Note.

[6] Creative Industries Promotion Office. Agency established by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in 2010 to promote Japanese pop culture and cultural industries. Although large amounts of money were invested in, most projects failed to deliver earnings, and the program has been heavily criticized.

[7] Following protests in 1973, the Japan Actors Union established a ranking system for voice actors in 1986. Today, the union mainly negotiates with broadcasters and distributors to defend the rights of actors and voice actors.

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