Today, as sakuga discourse has become increasingly prevalent within anime fandom, more people have become aware of anime’s production process and some of the business behind it, notably the concept of “production committees.” Inside and outside Japan, these mysterious entities are often blamed for many issues ailing the anime industry, notably the chronic financial instability animation studios are in. The problem is that these remarks are usually made without proper historical or critical perspective. This doesn’t allow one to understand how or why production committees developed or function. This article will not defend production committees: they are as open to criticism as any capitalist venture in the art and entertainment world. Instead, I will try to provide an introduction to the business side of anime production and its history to give better tools to understand and then criticize, if need be, production committees.

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I will detail the exact nature and workings of production committees later in the article, but it may be helpful to start with a simple explanation of what they are. The idea is, in fact, straightforward: it’s basically the association of various companies coming together to fund, produce, and merchandise products. In our case, one of these products, and perhaps the central one, is animation. But as we will see, for committees, animation is but one in a series of potential productions, from toys to video games to songs. In other words, to understand production committees is not just to understand anime production: it also means understanding a large part of the Japanese entertainment industry.

The Sponsorship Model

Production committees didn’t always exist; while they have been the dominant form of anime funding since the 1990s and have existed since the 1980s, their appearance and development resulted from specific historical conditions. To understand them and how production committees work, one should first retrace how anime was financed in earlier times. 

The business model of the anime industry for the first 2 or 3 decades of its existence was established by Osamu Tezuka when he tried to find ways to produce the TV series Astro Boy in 1963. It was what one might call a “sponsorship model” between essentially four partners: an animation studio, a TV station, a merchandising company, and an advertising agency. The advertising agency was the essential actor, as it bought broadcast time from TV networks and negotiated deals with the merchandising company. The first of those companies usually sold sweets (see Meiji Seika, who sold Astro Boy-themed chocolates), stationery, and other goods for children. In the ’70s, as toy manufacturers increasingly entered the business, mecha and magical girl shows developed since they were the best shows to advertise such products.

Things were much simpler back then because there were fewer members in each business partnership, but that doesn’t mean that they were easier to navigate for creators. Sponsors and distributors held tremendous power, as directors like Yoshiyuki Tomino painfully experienced: he was taken off his first mecha series Brave Raideen mid-way because the paranormal elements of the plot were in disagreement with the policy adopted by the TV station NET. Its producer first demanded changes in the scripts and then got Tomino to step down as chief director. Then, Tomino repeatedly got his series’ runs canceled or shortened because they or the toys they were supposed to sell were unpopular. In a completely different and apparently less commercial genre, it is said that it is at the demand of Fujio Dokura, an executive from Fuji TV, that Christian symbolism was forcefully inserted into the finale of A Dog of Flanders in 1975.

Besides the issue of creative freedom, there is the financial one. In other words: was this system profitable for anime studios, and was it more profitable than the current situation is? I won’t come back here over the issue of “Tezuka’s curse” and the idea that low budgets have always plagued the anime industry – it should be the topic for another article. To be quite honest, I believe there is no answer to the question simply because providing an explanation would necessitate vast amounts of data and research. Indeed, even if we lay aside the differences in the economic situation and inflation rates over time, we would need to have complete data on the evolution of anime budgets over time. How much of profits was shared between participants in each production, all the internal management data of anime studios, TV stations, and sponsors… But the one thing that doesn’t seem to have changed from then to now is that animation studios don’t see much, if any, of the merchandising and advertising profits: they have always been given to outside companies. This is purely theoretical, but it might be argued that anime studios have more agency in the production committee system. That’s because they can participate in the committees and therefore play a more active role in negotiations. But this remains theoretical, as it ignores the fact that studios aren’t part of committees in most cases today. They are just subcontractors for them, and that’s a situation that hasn’t changed since the 60s (although, as we will see, the legal details are a bit more complex).

In any case, the sponsorship model functioned on at least some level (probably that of the sponsors themselves) since it lived on for a few decades. The transition to the production committee system was, in fact, very slow: the generally-admitted chronology says it took a bit more than a decade between Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984 and Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1995. But then, what were the factors for the change?

The Rise of Production Committees

It’s easy to point to just one event (Nausicaä, in that case) and say, “this is where production committees first appeared.” But as I just noted, the transition was so slow that it couldn’t be explained by just one or even a few dates. Multiple factors, some structural, some circumstantial, led sponsors, producers, and studios to favor a new way to fund anime.

The first factor is the growing importance of feature films for the anime industry. Except for Tôei Animation, a major live-action film studio subsidiary, most anime studios had minimal relations with the Japanese film industry in the 60s and 70s. After all, their business was TV series, not films. With the success of recap movies like Space Battleship Yamato (still distributed by Tôei) in 1977 and the Gundam movie trilogy between 1981 and 1982, things began to change. Soon, studios like Madhouse or Ghibli would exclusively produce movies, just as some others would specialize in OVAs.

This was a significant change: movies’ business and production logic are utterly different from that of TV series. It enabled the contact between anime production studios and film distributors, the latter of whom were used to different ways of funding and advertising productions. It, therefore, makes sense if the first production committees were formed to produce movies. The two most famous are Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (formed by publisher Tokuma and advertising agency Hakuhodô) in 1984, and Akira (with publisher Kodansha, the Mainichi Broadcasting System, distributor Toho, toymaker Bandai, companies LaserDisc Corporation and Sumitomo Corporation, and animation studio TMS) in 1988. However, the reasoning behind the formation of each committee was completely different. From the producers’ point of view, Nausicaä was anything but an ambitious production; the committee would allow everybody to avoid making too many losses in the case of a box-office failure. On the other hand, Akira was a behemoth, and a committee was the only conceivable way at the time to fund it and answer the ambitions of director Katsuhiro Otomo, TMS CEO Yutaka Fujioka, and movie producer Shunzô Katô.

The second factor for the rise of committees is parallel to the development of feature films. It is the arrival of the video format and the rise of OVAs. By the early 80s, anime TV series could be sold directly on video, which completely shifted the balance of power in business partnerships: animation studios and advertising agencies could now turn to video distributors to balance out the influence of TV stations and toy companies. In the end, many of the latter managed to turn things their way: this was notably the case of Bandai, which created its own video label, Emotion. Still, the way to conceive, sell, and therefore fund anime had now changed. In the words of researcher Renato Rivera Rusca, anime was no longer an advertising platform: it had become the product itself. 

Finally, spurred on by the two aforementioned developments, there was a third factor in the rise of development committees. That was the appearance of new sponsors in the anime business. These new sponsors were of mainly two kinds: record companies and book publishers. 

Music producers had always played a part in anime production with openings and endings, but it was not until the late 70s that anime LP sales really became a topic to be considered. That was thanks to the Yamato boom (the OST of movies and TV shows was released on LPs to imitate the merchandising of the Star Wars franchise) and then the TV show Urusei Yatsura in 1981: its producer, Kitty Films, was a parent company of Kitty Records, which played a significant part in the anime’s merchandising. In the following years, record companies would be the ones making the OVA boom possible, as they funded the anime that they used to promote their own artists through insert or theme songs.

As for book publishers, it’s well-known that most anime have always been manga adaptations. But, as surprising as that may sound, manga artists and publishers played little part in the adaptations of their works – notwithstanding exceptional cases such as that of Gô Nagai and his studio Dynamic Productions. Things changed when the two biggest Japanese publishers, Kadokawa and Tokuma, entered the anime industry in earnest. In 1983, Kadokawa produced its first anime movie, Genma Taisen (without going through a production committee); Tokuma answered the following year with Nausicaä. As a side note, it’s possible to read the parallel developments of studios Madhouse and Ghibli in the 80s as the rivalry between Kadokawa and Tokuma over the anime film market.

One may ask what record companies and book publishers had to do with production committees. The answer is that they made anime production incredibly complex. In the heyday of the sponsorship model, the interests of each actor were relatively simple and complementary: TV stations gained ad revenue while toymakers funded advertisements for their products. But in the 80s, doing business in the anime industry meant having to meet a much more extensive range of possibly conflicting interests: that of TV stations and toymakers, but also video distributors, music companies, manga, or book publishers…It would only worsen in later decades with the appearance of video games and light novels. In other words, things were growing increasingly complex, and in some cases, were too big for the traditional advertising agencies to handle on their own. That’s when production committees were formed.

Except for movies and particularly ambitious productions, things remained in a relative state of equilibrium throughout the 80s. But, with the burst of the asset price bubble in 1991 and the subsequent economic recession, the amount of money each company could devote to anime production suddenly diminished. OVAs were the first to do the switch, and the first TV anime to be funded by a production committee was The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, which aired in 1993. Two years later, the incredible success of Neon Genesis Evangelion, itself carried by a large and ambitious production committee, convinced all the involved parties that production committees could be an excellent way to make a profit. Since then, production committees have only become more mainstream and are now ultra-dominant, not just in anime but in most entertainment industries in Japan.

How Production Committees Work

Now that we’ve covered their development and history, it’s time to go back to the beginning of this article and ask the following question: how do production committees even work? Since they are private ventures regulated by contracts, it can be hard to obtain precise information: a committee’s specific conditions and workings are only available to those who signed the contract. Moreover, these conditions can vary wildly from one committee to another: in one case, the investment (and return on investment) may be shared equally between participants, while in another, it may not.

The easiest way to picture a production committee is to see it as a bunch of companies pooling together their interests and money and investing them in an IP. That means the business is project-centered, and not studio or creator-centered. In theory, this works for the interest of all parties: sharing the investment means sharing the profits, but also the losses. In other words, it’s a rather conservative business practice made to avoid losses – and, in an industry where up to 90% of series aren’t profitable, it’s the most sensible strategy.

If we move aside from the producers’ point of view for a second, this is, of course, an absurd situation – why is the anime industry so unprofitable in the first place? Why do we even keep making anime in such a context? But even without going so far as that, there’s another major problem with production committees: they’re the very definition of a legal grey area.

When I first heard about production committees, my initial thoughts were that they were some sort of companies that would act as representatives for the investors. This is what happens in, for example, real estate, where funding modes akin to the production committee exist. However, that’s not the case here: production committees aren’t companies, but “voluntary associations/partnerships” (任意組合). What that means is simply that production committees aren’t subject to Japanese companies’ laws and that the decision-making process is completely opaque.

Indeed, in “normal” companies, decision-making on topics such as investment, budget, promotion, but also the choice of a director or production studio are regulated: Japanese law states that they have to be taken by established bodies such as the board of shareholders or the board of directors. However, this rule doesn’t apply in the case of voluntary associations, and decisions are just taken by a simple majority of whoever the members happen to be. In practice, it means that one of the committee members will often be appointed secretary of the association and take most decisions. Not only is this incredibly shady and unfair for the investors themselves, but the consequence is that the creators are systematically excluded from the decision-making process even if they are part of committees.

Conclusion: The Meaning of Production Committees

To summarize and understand why production committees appeared and remain relevant, invoking one key concept of modern entertainment industries may be necessary: the media mix. In simple terms, a media mix means the way a single IP will be spread or transferred over different media. Considering anime history as that of the evolution of business practices in and around media mixes invites us to ask the following question: what is the product, i.e., what is the thing that producers are trying to sell and that consumers are trying to buy?

The media mix was relatively simple in the early sponsorship model: animation was not the product. It was there to support the profitable stuff that was manga and/or merchandise of all kinds. With the concurrent rise of anime film and the advent of the video market, animation itself became the product: what people went to see were anime films, and what they bought were anime videotapes. Although it lasted around 10 to 15 years, this was, in fact, but a transition period: outside of the anime industry (notably driven by publisher Kadokawa), more complex media mix configurations were taking place in which the very concept of “product” started to dissolve. These changes reached the anime industry in the 1990s, thanks to all previous developments in the anime business, the economic crisis, and the rise of new media, first video games and then light novels: animated works are now but one element in a complex web of products, all created by different but related companies – related thanks to production committees.

From the perspective of anime fans and creators, this is, of course, an unpleasant situation – after all, we’d like anime to be adequately considered and the people behind it to be appropriately rewarded for their work. There are multiple reasons for this state of affairs, but the fact is that production committees are not even one of the most important ones: the blame should instead be directed towards the general evolution of media franchises. And if we hope to see the situation changed for the better, the demise of production committees can not be an end in itself: it should instead just be the sign that anime’s role as a product has evolved.

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Bibliography

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Rivera Rusca, Renato (2018). “Toy Stories: Robots and Magical Girls In Anime Marketing”. In Introducing Japanese Popular Culture, ed. A. Freedmann and T. Slade. Routledge.

Steinberg, Marc (2012). Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. University of Minnesota Press.

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