A Development Strategy… – All the Anime

By Jonathan Clements.

In 2011, Steve Jobs signed the death warrant on Adobe’s popular Flash software, with an open letter to the developers, citing security issues and the “closed” nature of the authoring platform. But it would be another decade before Adobe finally called time on the program, announcing an official “end of life” on 1st January 2021 in which the company ceased to offer support and updates for its Flash Player and Adobe Animate software, everywhere in the world, except… er… China.

This anomaly is born from one of the intriguing asides in Takeyasu Ichikohji’s newly published book A Development Strategy for Hybrid Products: The Case of the Japanese Animation Industry, which investigates several elements of computer animation in the 21st century, and the way in which they were integrated into existing company structures. Having heard that Flash is doomed in the Japanese animation business, Ichikohji takes himself off to Shanghai in 2010, where he finds that Bosheng Culture Communication thinks that Flash animation is the best thing since non-stick frying pans. The company president, Sun Yinong, reveals that Bosheng still works largely with hand-drawn animation for Japanese clients, as they are the only people who are prepared to pay for it. For everyone else, Bosheng favours Flash, which is not only cheaper to use, but comes attached to Chinese government subsidies designed to grow a local animation industry, making it integral to the budgets of China’s big TV cartoon epic, the 2,669 episodes of Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf.

Frustratingly, most of the citations in Ichikohji’s history chapter lead to mere asides and tangential comments, rather than actual references with page numbers that can be checked. So, we only have his word for it that Kenzo Masaoka’s company collapsed in the 1930s because of the expense of adopting celluloid, that Toei’s first forays into computer animation were prompted by the company’s experience with a labour dispute in 1972 that led to the dismissal of 50 employees, or that a “symposium” of Hollywood bigwigs in 2005 determined that stereoscopic movies were the key to getting punters back into cinemas.

But this, it seems, is a reflection of the standards of the Japanese journal in which Ichikohji’s third chapter first appeared as an academic paper – the Akamon Management Review is plainly happy with the vaguest of hand-waving references, which itself suggests something slightly worrying about management studies, that anyone wanting to check a needling fact has to hunt it down from somewhere in a 400-page haystack. Fortunately, this chapter does not reflect Ichikohji’s actual research, which is based on the far more exacting criteria that form the basis of his fourth and fifth chapters: a questionnaire returned to him by 141 animators at the beginning of the 2010s, and originally published as papers in The International Journal of Managerial Studies and Research and a Japanese journal of Organizational Science.

Ichikohji’s managerial focus is interesting because of its lack of interest in specificities – much as Hiroshi Okawa was parachuted into Toei as a studio boss after previous experience as a railway accountant and baseball mogul, not everybody in the animation business is an artist who has worked their way up from inbetweening to management. Ichikohji is primarily interested in those labourers in the anime business who are at the sharp end of new technologies – hand-drawn animators complaining about the lack of haptic feedback from tablets, key animators resisting the introduction of cost-cutting Flash, and directors with no interest in making visuals “pop” for a 3D experience.

His early chapters point to precedents in other industries, including automobiles, watches and cameras, wherein small family businesses lacked the drive and adaptability to “sense, seize and reconfigure” to new technologies. Ichikohji points out the degree to which not all new technologies are fated to transform the industry, and the need for the best thinkers in the industry to understand the difference been “promising” developments, “realising” developments that have yet to prove their potential, and “declining” ones that are already on the way out. He points to the way in which different technologies thrive in different environments – expensive 3DCG gaining ground in the movie business, whereas cheapo Flash is favoured in television. Notably, his conclusions from ten-year-old papers are already more valuable as snapshots of their era than they are of general trends in Japanese animation. Plummeting computing costs have put 3DCG on many a television company desktop, whereas Flash would become famously favoured by Masaaki Yuasa for some of his biggest theatrical successes, like Lu Over the Wall. As noted in Anime: A History, the chronology of computer animation needs to take into account the fact that a software package that once cost the price of a small car can eventually end up being given away for free.

Ichikohji zeroes in on the kind of “engineer” who is most likely to adopt new technologies, although he is already wringing his hands over the difficulties of identifying which new technologies are worth adopting. [Han Solo voice: “That’s the real trick, isn’t it?”] Interestingly, Ichikohji cites “academic experience” as one of the deciding factors in being an innovative thinker, but runs up into a wall first identified in 2011’s Anime Studies – that the anime industry has little interest in academic achievement, preferring to train its minions on the job. His approach introduces a series of interesting concepts from industrial history, including “computer anxiety” – kidz today probably have no idea, but there was a time when the adoption of personal computers in an industrial environment was a matter of quasi-Luddite resistance.

For his biggest case study, Ichikohji examines the introduction of 3DCG at Toei Animation, and the huge change this caused in employee investment. Back in the 1960s, “plant and machinery” at the average anime company amounted to some desks and chairs – it was the talent that made the difference, which was why everybody was so busy poaching each other’s staff. But 3DCG involved actual computers, and employees who could not only use them, but knew how to maintain them, confronting Toei accountants with the dreaded concepts of depreciation and variable utility costs.

Although Ichikohji relentlessly focusses on the big picture, his narrative implies the existence of actual personalities who must have had some blistering complaints to voice. He alludes, for example, to the difficulties of implementing software updates when a company is trying to work 24-hour days on two simultaneous productions, which made me feel for Toei’s anonymous I.T. managers. He also identifies a crucial issue in pay awards, which is that animation for several decades had rewarded its animators per drawing, whereas 3DCG needed to reimagine skillsets for creating assets that, once drawn, would effectively animate themselves.

Again, this is a subject of great historical interest – much of Ichikohji’s fieldwork for this chapter was conducted in 2007, a whole lifetime ago in anime years. This, however, is actually really useful, because we get to see animators grappling with issues such as the required frame-rate for digital animation, five years before Kenji Kamiyama’s 009 Re: Cyborg made a big deal out animating on threes in supposed hommage to the analogue original.

One of his interviewees hits on one of the secret hacks of the 21st century, that digital assets, for example, on Digimon, can be charged to a different part of the franchise, and then put to use by the animators. Moreover, Ichikohji notes that Toei is incentivised to invest in longer term solutions because so many of its television series last longer than the standard 12 episodes of the average fanbait.

A final case study, on the uptake of 3DCG at Xebec, grapples with the corporate structures and out-sourcing deals required to get the Zoids anime made, as well as in-house tensions as the animators still working on hand-drawn segments are forced to twiddle their thumbs and look at their watches while the media-darling 3DCG department waits five hours for a robot dinosaur to fully render.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Takeyasu Ichikohji’s A Development Strategy for Hybrid Products: The Case of the Japanese Animation Industry is published by Springer.