We’re in an anime boom. Between streaming-service simulcasts, digital distribution, and a more open, international market, the medium is earning more money every year. But while those numbers are up, the industry is still relatively unhealthy, with reportedly low wages, a shortage of artists, and long hours. Some studies reveal productions with an average of 230 working hours a month.
Masaaki Yuasa and Science Saru’s latest anime Keep Your Hands off Eizouken!, which is streaming now on Crunchyroll, captures the joy of animation as well as an occupational struggle from the perspective of the animators. The show follows a group of high school girls who make their own anime: the erratic lifelong enthusiast Asakusa, the rich young model and aspiring animator Mizusaki, and the more practical, acid-tongued Kanamori are positioned as analogues for the director, animator, and producer. In the series’ third episode “Let’s Accomplish Something!”, the girls have to produce an animated short to prove the worth of their newly established “Studio Eizouken” to the student council, on a very tight deadline. Mizusaki protests that she wants to take the time to make something good, but the unfortunate reality is that the anime industry is one burdened by high demand and little time.
With just 55 days to work, they already have to cut their animation down from five to three minutes, as the latter would require 3,600 drawings and sleepless nights for two months. This episode and its follow-up, “Hold That Machete Tight,” recreate the kind of high-pressure environment that has become the norm for professional animators, right down to a morbid joke where Kanamori finds Asakusa sleeping under a table in order to emulate the habits of her overworked role models. Even with reduced, manageable workloads, we still see the physical toll of what it takes to even accomplish three minutes of animation. At one point, Yuasa highlights Mizusaki’s ink-stained hands covered in cuts and bandages. This is a glimpse of the labor that anime requires, the steep asks and amount of work that artists produce for as little as 200 yen ($2) per drawing.
The low pay rates date all the way back to when Osamu Tezuka, the “godfather of anime”, was breaking ground in the young medium. The production costs of his show Astro Boy were undersold in order to land it with a network, and set a dangerous precedent that the industry never shook. Cheap anime production is now the norm, meaning that despite the amount of time and effort required to create these shows, artists are often underpaid freelancers with no safety net. (Places that use use salaried staff, like Kyoto Animation, the studio behind Violet Evergarden, are few and far between.)
Despite spending the back half of the episode finding compromises between quality and efficiency, they still find themselves behind schedule. Less than five seconds of footage, or four cuts, takes the group 20 days. With a shrinking timeline, the compromises become greater and the tension between creative impulse and necessity becomes greater. Asakusa eventually puts aside idealism and works on disguising the reuse of frames of animation, lack of detail and static or repeating backgrounds, as well as speed lines to simulate movement, strategies not typically deployed by Yuasa, but so commonly used by his contemporaries. In other words, they’re the kind of compromises that animators have made for years so they can finish work without completely burning out.
Yuasa’s anime suggests that shortcuts are part of a structural problem, highlighting the artists’ unhappiness at having to deliberately turn over work of a lower quality, and emphasizing that time is absolutely never on an animator’s side. By the end of the fourth episode, on the final all-nighter that the trio take to finish their project, the usually idealistic Asakusa comes out with a rather crushing observation, that her project is “more the outcome of passion crashing against compromise and resignation.” For a show that is mostly defined by humor, optimism, and flights of fancy, it’s a startlingly grounded moment that brings everything crashing back down to earth.
But it would be against the show’s nature to be entirely gloomy and cynical (it’s not Devilman Crybaby). The pair of episodes ends with a triumphant presentation where the audience comes to understand the worth of their work; in a fantastical touch the theatre and the screen become one, with wind gushing and tank shells flying past the student council. Of course it’s just another step, as the girls immediately pick it apart, discussing flaws and potential improvements. In the most recent episode, they still struggle with the logistical side of animation, outsourcing work even on a longer deadline. Mizusaki directly speaks about the difficulty of producing even just one drawing, and notes that, despite the extra time for their new project, she will need to work at home and on commutes.
In interviews, Eunyoung Choi, the show producer and co-founder of Science Saru, said that on Eizouken “everyone on our team shared ideas based on their experiences” and that under Yuasa, the team “can express the way they feel in the way they want to” (Choi has also been open about her own burnout as an animator on Twitter). While it’s difficult to gage the real working conditions of the series itself, it feels telling that the first six episodes have all given a platform for younger artists to work as director, for the first time in many instances — with a mixture of freelancers and in-house talent from Science Saru like Fūga Yamashiro.
The questions Keep Your Hands off Eizouken! opens about the industry ultimately remain unresolved, but the result answers why anyone would fight through such dire working conditions: the joy in seeing other people entranced by the art that you’ve created, Choi stating that while the show is meant to reflect the industry, the series’ perspective of high schoolers lets the passion for the craft shine through. While the series appreciates the art, it also asks that we recognise the blood, sweat and sleepless nights of those that brought it to us.