This topic suddenly came to my mind and decided to do a couple of research regarding this topic to write an article. Here’s what I found out:
Being an animator in Japan is ruthless.
Making it to the animation industry is hard. Very hard. Only tough fellows makes it to the top to join them. One proof is Henry Thurlow , an American animator who successfully made it to the Japanese animation industry. Before this, he sends his resume to several animation studios and finally entered a small studio before transferring to Studio Pierrot.
So far, Thurlow has worked on Akatsuki no Yona, Tokyo Ghoul, and The Last-Naruto The Movie. All of them are big titles that you might be thinking that he must be really living his dream and receives a lot of money for being a part of their team. Artistically speaking, yes, he is.
Thurlow posted a Reddit thread where people can ask him how is to be on the animation industry. Here are a few question he answered:
Was it difficult to move to Japan? Such as in living there, getting around, and how different is the working world over there compared to the US?
Getting directly to Japan as an animator would be very difficult. I came to Japan first as an English teacher, learned the language a bit, and then apply for anime studios after being here a couple of years. Thats probably the best way to it in my opinion. During that time as an English teacher you can also nice and slowly get used to the cultural differences and get used to the subway system etc. It doesn’t take too long to get used to everything to be honest (at least that was my experience) … half a year maybe … and then “getting around” and stuff like that is no problem.
Were you met with a lot of resistance in getting work due to be being a foreigner?
“Most of these studios have never even had a single foreigner work for them in the past, so less then being “opposed to foreigners” … I think they just assume “hey wait, if we hire a foreigner wont we have to worry about language barriers, and supporting their visa, etc …. seems like a hassle. lets not even have them in for an interview in the first place.”
How is the pay/hour?
The pay/hours change depending on who you are and what your job is. The best position (which only the best of the best can manage) is “freelance genga-man aka freelance key-frame animator” … you can demand your own prices and actually take time off after project if you want. For everyone else (and definitely for inbetween artists like me), its as bad as the rumors. I worked at a slave-labor-in between-studio called “nakamura pro” for 8 months before moving onto Pierrot which is where I am now. At Nakamura pro we were paid $1 per drawing, meaning you earned between $5 and $25 a day. At Pierrot it`s way better… but still pretty bad. 1 drawing = $2-$4 …. so on any given day I can earn about $40. (HORRIBLE by anyone’s standards…. but, if you want to work on cool anime, there’s not much choice.)
…Each month at Pierrot I earn about $1000. …… each month at my previous “slave-labor” studio, I earned about $300 a month…
Buzzfeed interviewed him and stated that:
“Let’s just be clear: It’s not a ‘tough’ industry… It’s an ‘illegally harsh’ industry. They don’t pay you even remotely minimum wage, they overwork you to the point where people are vomiting at work and having to go to the hospital for medicine. They demand that you come in whenever they realize a deadline isn’t going to be met. That probably means about a month and a half of nonstop work without a single day off. Then you will be allowed to go back to your regular six-day work weeks of 10-hour days.”
“No one talks, or gets lunch together or anything. They just sit and work in complete silence and seem uninterested in changing this.”
Despite of his low salary and never-ending work schedule that caused Thurlow to go to the hospital for three times for exhaustion and illness, he stated that:
“Keep in mind all of this hard work was essentially all for the sake of simply being involved in and credited in the animation projects I love.”
It’s all for the art. He spends his free time animating his own short film project entitled Judgement and Justice. This is where he depicst his anger and frustration of his life in Japan.
Now, let’s look deeper into the animation industry. How do they hire new animators?
One of the most amazing test that I’ve seen so far belongs to Toei Animation. Toei is one of the biggest animation company in Japan and where some famous illustrators like Hayao Miyazaki started.
Below, you can see a drawing that, according to a 2ch user, has appeared on the studio’s employee entrance exam.
The applicants was given 2 hours to finish the test with 4-5 drawings only.
Seems easy, no? But as famed animator Yasuo Otsuka, who worked at Toei Animation as well as Studio Ghibli, explained in a 2002 documentary, it’s deceptively hard.
Nevertheless, it’s all about art and passion. Even if you experience pain, receive low salary and several hardships, as long as it is your passion and you enjoy it, it will be all worth it.