I've heard a lot of horror stories about how animation studios don't treat their employees very well (or just Japan's corporate culture in general), giving animators poverty wages, overworking them and stressing them out to the point where some commit suicide (there's even a word for that, which I don't remember). Apparantly, animators are treated like dirt over there, even though the bulk of the work comes from them. Is there any truth to that? And if yes, are there any studios with good working conditions? I'm talking mainly about pay, reasonable work schedules and good compensation.
In ANN there is an article, written by Jennifer Sherman, which talks about the financial and working condition issues present in the Anime industry. More specifically, the article talks about a specific episode from a NHK program called Close-Up Gendai+.
Below are quotes from the ANN article which talk about the financial and working condition issues that were aired on that specific episode,
NHK's Close-Up Gendai+ program aired an episode about the dark side of the anime industry on Wednesday. The episode discussed the financial problems of the industry and exposed animators' subpar working conditions. Anime director Yasuhiro Irie (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Code:Breaker), Toray Corporate Business Research representative Naoki Atsumi, and announcers Shinichi Taketa and Izumi Tanaka appeared on the program.
The episode showed a graph of increasing annual profits in the anime industry. The small yellow bars represent the portion that anime studios receive. Because production committees hold IP licenses, as well as merchandising and distribution rights, profits from anime productions fail to reach studios.
A 30-minute work requires more than 3,000 illustrations. In-between animators receive about 200 yen (US$2) per illustration and can produce a maximum of 20 pages per day. Therefore, they can only expect to earn about 100,000 yen (US$911) per month.
Japan Animation Creators Association (JAniCA) reported in 2015 that animators averaged 11 working hours per day, and they had just four days off per month.
An animator who left his job due to work-related depression kept an overtime log. He reported having 100 overtime hours in one month. The below image shows that the animator started work at 11:30 a.m. on May 22 and finished at 5:10 a.m. on May 23.
Production I.G co-founder, president, and CEO Mitsuhisa Ishikawa remarked that the anime industry lacks people with the business skills to successfully monetize the system.
20-year veteran anime technical director Taiki Nishimura reported in May that his monthly income is 100,000 yen (about US$900) for each anime that he works on. He said that he wants to concentrate on one anime at a time, but he has to work on two television anime to have enough income.
JAniCA reported in 2015 that 759 animators it surveyed earned an average of 3.3283 million yen (about US$27,689) per year in Japan in 2013.
An interesting point to note from the article is following,
The program presented Polygon Pictures as a studio with better operations. The studio, which focuses on 3D animation, turns off its lights at 10:00 p.m. to encourage workers to go home.
There is also another article by Brian Ashcraft, from Kotaku, which details an interview with Thomas Romain, a french animator, and his experience in working in Japan.
Below are quotes from that article that I thought might be useful. Note, I have also highlighted the ones that are relevant to help you answer your question.
What’s your advice for people who want to work in anime in Japan?
The first advice I usually give to people is: learn Japanese. Unfortunately finding Japanese production staff who can understand English is very rare. You won’t be hired if you cannot communicate with them, so if you want to go live in Japan, YOU need to make the effort of learning the language.
Second piece of advice is that the sooner you start, the better. Japanese studios prefer to hire young and inexperienced people. You don’t need to have a master’s degree in animation; a couple of years of basic artistic training is enough to start as junior animator. But the consequence is that the pay is very low. It’s better to consider this period as a long internship during which you will be taught by a senpai while working on ongoing productions. It’s good to be aware that drawing skills are not required to work in this industry. You can work as a production assistant, editor, or compositing artist for example. None of these jobs require knowing how to draw, even if you want to become a director. Lots of anime directors started as production assistants and never went to art schools.
The third piece of advice is to not come with empty pockets. You will not earn enough to make a living out of it until you become good enough. This can take a few years.
What surprised you about making anime in Japan?
I was surprised by how humble all the anime staff in the studio were, and how terrible their living conditions were, compared to the situation in the animation industry in the West. In a nutshell, the money don’t flow back to the animators (and other workers)—they are poor. Most of them spend most of their lives sat at their desks and are single because they have either not enough time or not enough money to build a family. Some of them are also extremely shy, like they cannot even answer you when you say hello. It can be disturbing at first.
But people are very friendly and intrigued to have foreigners amongst them willing to live a similar life. Most of them don’t understand why we want to work in anime because they are aware that it is a very difficult job with low pay and lot of (unpaid) overtime. For us, anime is exciting because it’s exotic, but for them it’s just work as usual. I do not think they can truly understand our feeling as foreigners working in Japan unless they have experienced the fact of living outside of Japan themselves, or even travel abroad from time to time, which most of them never did because they cannot afford it.
I was also surprised to realize that all the Japanese animators weren’t geniuses. You know, because only masterpieces like Ghibli movies or series like Cowboy Bebop were released in France before I went to Japan, I thought that every Japanese animator could draw like a god. I was wrong. There are animation gods like Toshiyuki Inoue, but there are also lots of low-level animators who can only survive in this industry because too many shows are produced and studios that are desperately looking for staff have no other choice but to offer them jobs.
The good thing is that if you are not too bad and have a good work ethic, you will never be unemployed.
What’s the most difficult thing about working in the anime industry?
Definitely the large quantity of work to deal with in a short time period. I was surprised by how short the production schedules are and how scarce the teams are due to the shortage of artists. Studios are open 24/7, and people are also working on the holidays most of the time. You get emails during the night. It’s totally normal to have meetings during the night or the weekends. You really have to be ready to work hard, to reach the same level of commitment as your Japanese co-worker, otherwise the risk is that they may not accept you as one of them.
I was surprised by the number of production miracles. Japanese have the ability to achieve impossible tasks very quickly, only when they have no other choices left. Although it would be more reasonable to refuse those conditions, everybody complies. This is actually how it works all the time. Nothing moves according to the initial planning. It’s only when everybody thinks that there is no time left, that the project will never be completed in time, that production speeds up. People work day and night without wasting a single minute until the very last second. When you go see a movie on its release day or watch an anime on TV, people were still working on it a few days ago, or even a few hours ago. Sometimes it’s not even finished, and the drawings are polished for the DVD/Blu-ray release.
What industry horror stories have you heard?
It’s not only that I’ve heard horror stories, I’ve seen them. Basically, most of the people are overworked. The problem is that in the traditional Japanese way to behave in society, people tend to say yes when they are asked to work under impossible conditions. For the sake of the studio and the project team, they will do the impossible, even stay several days at the studio in a row, and therefore put their own health at risk. I’ve seen people going home only once per week, or working 35 hours in a row. I’ve even met an animation director who was going home only once per year to their parents—she wasn’t renting an apartment. She was living at the studio, using the public bath and manga cafes to rest a little bit from time to time. A married couple, a director and his wife character designer, were camping in a corner of the studio, sleeping in sleeping bags until the production was finished. Some people also don’t allow themselves to take a break even if they are sick, because they don’t want to spend their small wage on health care.
Life expectancy amongst animators isn’t very old. I’ve seen people passing out at work. The worst has been people dying from karoshi (death by overwork). One of my colleagues died from a stroke 10 years ago while he was working in a different studio (staff working for several companies at a time is rather common). Another one barely recovered from a severe stroke as well. Recently I’ve heard of the death of an animator working on a pretty famous show in another studio, but everybody kept it secret, probably not to damage the company.
This said, people are very friendly to each other, because basically everybody knows they are more or less experiencing the same very hard conditions. People share the same fate, working in this terrible industry but doing a work that they deeply love. Work meetings are fun. We are laughing a lot and enjoying creating anime.
From what I have researched, I can somewhat say that there are probably only some studios which have a bit more better working conditions than other studios. But, overall, I think most studios have subpar working condition and some even lower.
Kyoto Animation is the gold standard for anime production when it comes to worker's treatments.
First, they finance and take total control of their projects, instead of just contracting out to a publisher. This is a big gamble on their part, but it has consistently paid off. A "bad selling" Kyoto Animation show like Nichijou still sells enough (close to 8k units of per-volume sales) to make most studios jealous, and their hits break 50k per-volume sales.
Then all staff are salaried. Since they aren't being paid by-the-cut, the animators are encouraged to take the time to do quality work.
The time budget is also on a longer scale than most. They often start production years out, so you don't see a the half-finished episodes or delays during the anime season. Violet Evergarden was in production nearly a year out while some studios are still working on an episode the day it airs.
Finally, they actually invest in their talent. KyoAni has an art school for new animators, and they hire the best of each class into the studio. They also founded a literature prize to promote new young authors, and to create a story pool to draw from. This was the origin of Sound! Euphonium, a novel Kyoto Animation promoted.
Studio SHAFT it another studio that seems good to work for. They consistently hire the same talent. Most of the same key animators and animation directors have been around since 2004. Artistically they're a very liberated studio, and even junior staff are allowed to run with their ideas. The flipside of SHAFT is a crazy work schedule. They have so many projects, and often with the same staff on all of them. It's almost a tradition to not get things done on time. They are another studio, like Kyoto Animation, that has invested in creating a permanent in-house production capability, with the dedicated Digital@SHAFT division that does both in-house digital compositing and also contracts on everything from Gundam to the Sword Art Online movie.