Helping the Anime Industry: The Animator Dorms and Its Residents

It’s easy enough to hear about the horrible state of the anime industry nowadays, and most of the time it’s not something that viewers, especially those outside of Japan, can easily help to solve. However, the NPO Animator Supporters is now, for the third year, raising money to help fund young animators living expenses with their Animator Dormitory Project!

The following interview and information were posted on Netlab on February 5th, 2017, but are still very applicable to the current state of the industry. Discussions about the P.A. Works working conditions have even taken a turn in the right direction with a pro animator training course rolling out in 2018 and an actual monthly salary program for their new recruitments starting in 2019.


“Young animators on average make 90,000 JPY per month”, “The turnover rate within three years for an animator is 90%”, amidst rigorous conditions like these in the animation industry, the Animator Dormitory Project was created. We decided to cover why a helping hand stretched out to these young animators and how to they feel about being assisted.

Animator Dormitory Project is exactly as the name describes, a dorm exclusively for young animators. The NPO Animator Supporters manages apartments in Tokyo’s Suginami district in Asagaya and Ogikubo [as of March 2017 a girls’ animator dormitory has opened in Naritahigashi]. The young animators are allowed to spend three years, while in the industry, cohabiting in the dormitory.

After graduating from Tsukuba University under the European painting course, dorm resident Tanaka Masaaki began searching for a job as an animator. Currently, newcomers are moving on from in-betweens to key frames in two years, when historically speaking, it’s taken three years.

“I want to make an anime I can call my own”
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Animator Tanaka Masaaki

— Have you always wanted to be an animator?

Tanaka: Not at all, up until I became a university student I hadn’t seriously looked at anime. I hadn’t thought too much about what I wanted to be either. At first, I thought I’d be an art professor, but then a friend recommended I watch Toradora! and I though — anime is interesting.

— Was there an instance where it changed from “anime is interesting” to “I want to make this?”

Tanaka: That was the kind of air my undergrad course had, I constantly felt like I needed to make something. Niconico Douga was popular at that time, and I watched a video and thought, “Huh, can’t I make this?” After about half a year of solo hard work, I put out a minute and a half PV. It was during the making of that anime, all by myself, that I felt I wanted to do this work professionally.

— What did you do when you decided you wanted to work in the animation industry?

Tanaka: First, I looked up how exactly one goes about entering the anime industry. I went to anime specialized schools’ open houses and listened to current animators talk, as well as searched around on the web. Finally, I got a contract of sorts with an animation company.

— Once you became an animator, what kind of work was waiting for you?

Tanaka: Animators start with what’s called in-betweens. In-betweens are the drawings that fill in the gaps from one key frame to the next — it’s a job that smooths out movement. After about a year and a half of experience from working on those, it’s possible to take the key animation test to become a key animator.

— How, exactly, do you become eligible to take the test?

Tanaka: In the case of my employer, you have to draw 1,200 pages of in-betweens in three months or else you can’t take the test. Around the end of my first year I achieved the target amount and took the test, but I didn’t pass the first or second time, only on the third try did I finally pass.

— Recently in the anime industry, word has been going around about the troubling living conditions of animators in particular. What’s your honest opinion on this situation?

Tanaka: For beginners with little experience it’s pretty straining; truth be told it was pretty difficult for me. However, the company I work at is making strides toward getting better.

— Specifically speaking, how are things getting better?

Tanaka: The details haven’t been ironed out yet, but I’ve heard that starting next fiscal year the way we work, the teaching methods, and the pay are going to change. Up till now, it had become commonplace to accept other company’s work on top of your employer’s contracted work. So I, without thinking twice about it, participated in other companies anime and had my name roll during the credits.

— What happens because of that?

Tanaka: I was rebuked. It wasn’t so bad that I went out of my contract, as much as it was that I was still a trainee at that point. It’s something that you have to bear in mind.

— Ah, so it’s a matter of ethics.

Tanaka: Yeah. Of course, some people might think, “yeah that makes sense,” but when you finish your work with your company, there is also this supplemental pay outside of your fixed wage available. Aside from salaries, some things are difficult to comprehend… For example, working for another company is prohibited, and you accept the work you’re assigned, but despite not being a full-time employee you are held to working under the same standards and rules. What it boils down to is that despite being under commission, you don’t actually control your work hours or type of work. It’s something that, when compared to other types of creators, makes continuing as an animator difficult.

— Are companies not aware of this?

Tanaka: Of course I also put 100% into my work for my company, but they probably noticed. After that, when I took a step back from the company and looked it over, I turned in a letter confessing I had worked for another company. That is to say when my plate was full at my contracting company, and I was accepting work for another company, I started feeling the pressure of not being able to control how much I got from my primary employer.

— How did they respond?

Tanaka: They listened to what I had to say. By honestly bringing up these things to companies it helps them understand what steps need to be taken to make improvements. I think they were appreciative to learn of the real world situation that the industry is facing.

— Is that so. By the way, how does one go about becoming a well-fed artist, like yourself?

Tanaka: It’s pretty doubtful whether or not I’m actually a well-fed artist (laughs). But, outside of drawing ability, speed and business know-how are necessary.

— I see. What kind of things are you aiming to improve in yourself?

Tanaka: You’ll think this is pretty cheeky, but I don’t want to live the rest of my life as an animator. What makes me happy is drawing and creating something of my own. That’s why, by following the framework of an animator I hope to one day create my very own anime.

The Animator Support Organization
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An open room in the dormitory. Rather spacious.

— How about the Animator Dormitory?

Tanaka: During my time searching for a job and information gathering that I mentioned earlier, I came to know about the organization. Just at the time that I found a job, there was an opening in the dormitory. At the dorms, there are animators from many different companies so we can swap information, and with the organization sending in people to help with studying and cooking it’s a great place to meet people. People are there to comfort you and tell you things will be alright, so it sets your heart at ease.

— There are no disadvantages?

Tanaka: I, personally, don’t feel any kind of disadvantage, but as one of the people receiving the support, there are things I have to do. Stuff like drawing thank you illustrations for our backers. There is also staying active on social media, which could be exhausting for those who are bad putting themselves out there.

Animator Dormitory Initiative

Tanaka is one of the many animators in the dorm under the management of Sugawara Jun, a CG creator and representative organizer of the Animator Support who wanted to assist aspiring animators.

Sugawara established the NPO Animator Supporters in 2010 after he thought, “Why is that a young CG creator has no issue feeding himself after being employed, but young animators do?”

“If a manga creator makes a hit he receives the royalties, however, in the case of an anime becoming a hit, it’s the committee that yields profits, not the animators. I want to change that situation.” Sugawara went on to say that next time an anime becomes a hit his goal is to have a portion of the profits go to the animators.

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One of the residents allowed us to look at their room.

Animator Supporters first step was a contest aimed at new animators, the Starting Out Animators’ Grand Prix where one winner receives up to 600,000 JYP in assistance. Winners of this have been Tamagawa Shingo, a key animation director for Gundam Reconguista in G as well as Kawano Tatsuro, an action animation director for Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.

As of 2014 the winner of the Starting Out Animators Grand Prix winner also can live in the dorms for 30,000 JPY, which includes the cost of rent, utilities, and internet. What started this initiative was the problem that having all the anime companies concentrated in Tokyo puts pressure on those from out of town who have to live alone.

Sugawara said he wished for the dorms to resemble older boarding houses, but looking at the size of each room — at eight jou per — it is surprisingly comfortable. With everything from pencil sharpeners to crystal display tablets readily available and boxes filled to the brim with materials, it gives off the impression of a place for animators.

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The easily accessible pencil sharpener gives it that animator flare.

The fees for managing the dorm are collected via crowd funding donations, but Sugawara himself has contributed 1,000,000 JPY a year to the project.

As of 2017, the number of girls in the dorm has risen to eight, so on the day of the interview, a meeting about a new girls’ dorm was underway. From here on will be an interview with three of the new animator residence.

Choosing Employment by Work Condition

Ms. A is an animator that works under contract for an anime company. During college, she won many awards and decided that she wanted to have a fixed income from a company.

Ms. B, a 20-year-old soon to be a vocational university graduate, will be moving into the girls’ dorm, along with Ms. A. Her favorite animator was a participant in the Starting Out Animators’ Grand Prix, which sparked her interest in the organization.

Mr. C, who is right in the midst of his final graduation project, has a contract lined up to work with his first pick anime company. He finds mechanical and striking productions very alluring and aims to be an animator himself.

— What was the deciding factor in choosing your respective company?

Ms. A: I chose based on the work conditions. Of course, you have to think about the company’s reputation, but a stable income was the deciding factor for me. I don’t think many companies start off their animators with a fixed income. And if all goes well it’s possible to become a full-time employee after a year of apprenticeship.

Ms. B: It’s the company of my favorite anime. After joining there is a training period where you have to finish every assignment within a set amount of time. I’ve heard it’s rather difficult so I have to give it my all.

Mr. C: They created my favorite anime. They were my first choice, so I was ecstatic when it was decided I would apprentice there. They have a series that they work on and I’m going to try and join that team.

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Ms. A, who answered our questions in good spirits.

— Recently a P.A. WORKS new animator released information about the poor working conditions of animators in the industry. How did you all feel about that?

Ms. A: I saw that. I’m thankful that they let everyone know. When something like that becomes a topic of discussion, the rest of the world pays attention and, maybe, something can change for our generation.

Ms. B: Ah, yes. I didn’t see it as a negative when I got my job but thought about how tough the animation world is.

Mr. C: I saw that. I also didn’t see it negatively, but for a world I’ve yet to enter I thought, “ahh they have these kinds of issues.”

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Ms. B who is going to give it her all from here on out.

— Did your family have anything to say about becoming an animator?

Ms. A: My family is pretty unfamiliar with the creative world, so at first they were taken back that I wouldn’t be a full-time employee after making it through college. However, they are 100% supportive of my decision and cheer me on now.

Ms. B: They told me that if after three-year it looked like a job I could feed myself with, then I could continue. Until then we planned to have them support me by sending an allowance, but there isn’t any kind of celebratory feeling.

— As an animator how do you want to grow?

Ms. A: Regarding the future, it’s my dream to create a theatrical work, so first I have to step up from in-betweens to key animation, and finally become a director. And this is a bit ambitious, but I want to start up my own company where newcomers can be in an environment where they can prepare themselves to make an anime.

Mr. C: I want to be an episode director. For the time being, since I like making things, I want to try and make my own work.

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Mr. C who is interested in directing.

— Up till now, all of you have been on watching anime from the viewers’ side, are there any thoughts you have about recent anime?

Ms. B: Rather than having more anime, there should be more lines drawn within a single show.

— Again this year there were anime that were unable to completely air, how do you feel about this.

Ms. A: It just has to be frustrating to be a situation where something goes unaired.

Mr. C: It’s not exactly the same but, the schedule for my final graduation project is tight, so I kind of understand how an anime staff might feel about possibly not making airing their anime on time.

Whether it’s the skills or the wages, working as an animator is rigorous. “Each year the number of applicants decreases, and at this rate the anime industry will decline,” is the alarm that those working with the NPO want to raise. On the day of the interview, I heard of even harsher conditions from those gathered about companies that plan to have newcomers go unpaid in the months following their inability to meet training deadlines or not raising prices since it will cause people to work slower.

To this Sugawara says that “First and foremost, the establishment of status for animators in companies is essential” and plans for a new Animation Supporter’s original work to begin production in spring.

It is essential to deal with protecting the anime that Japan takes so much pride in, and NetLab will continue to bring you interviews with animators. Please continue to speak out if you have information.

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