Cartoon dreams: Netflix’s Japanese animation school targets booming demand


A student drawing at the Sasayuri anime school in Tokyo.
Image credit: AFP

Cartoon dreams: Netflix’s Japanese animation school targets booming demand

Tokyo: Armed with a set of pencils and a feather to sweep away eraser dust, Hitomi Tateno trains the next generation of anime artists at a new academy funded by Netflix as global demand for the Japanese genre soars sharply.

From the box office triumph “Demon Slayer” to the recent Cannes sensation “Belle”, the anime has shaken its reputation as a geek subculture, drawing hordes of new fans during virus lockdowns.

But Japan faces a shortage of skilled animators, in part because most have to work for years in low-paying jobs to learn the ropes, which means that much of the painstaking picture work per image is outsourced abroad.

That’s something the US streaming giant believes it can change with its WIT Animator Academy, which gives a group of junior artists free training and a living allowance while they learn.

George Wada, president of top anime production house WIT Studio, which runs the training with Netflix, compares it to other fast lanes in demanding industries.

“If you become an apprentice to a great sushi chef, it may take years before you master all the recipes, but you can go to a sushi academy and complete the whole program in a year,” he explained.

The six-month course focuses on “in-between” art – the frames between each “master” image that create the illusion of movement.

Tateno, who worked on the best tracks from Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” to the cult classic “Akira”, has built a successful career in between.

“This job is like weaving a carpet. It’s very delicate and it takes patience,” the anime veteran told AFP, checking the lines drawn by a student.

“Many aspiring animators want to move quickly to a key facilitator position, and while some want to specialize in the in-between, few can survive.”

Intermediate

There is no doubt about the growing demand for animators.

More than 100 million households around the world watched at least one anime on Netflix in the 12 months leading up to September 2020, a figure that rose 50% year over year, according to the American entertainment giant.

The firm hopes that the academy “will help the future of Japanese animators to spread their wings to the world through their works”, with possible plans to expand and offer tracks in other animation specialties.

“We will continue our efforts to nurture and strengthen the talent that sustains the animation industry,” Taiki Sakurai, Netflix chief anime producer, told AFP.

It’s part of a strategy to compete with Crunchyroll, the world’s largest online anime library, purchased by Sony this year in a $ 1.17 billion deal.

With the first six-month program completed, the WIT Academy is now welcoming its second cohort of students.

Graduates will be offered jobs at the WIT studio or one of its affiliates to produce Netflix shows as a team.

But they will enter an industry where staff retention is a serious problem, with salaries still dismal and middlemen only staying for four years on average.

Most intermediaries in Japan are self-employed or part-time, with only 18% of them in full-time positions, and 80% of intermediary work is sent overseas, mainly to China or South Korea, according to the Japan Animation Creators Association (JAniCA) says.

The safety net offered by free training, funding and a career path is scarce, and WIT Academy student Maki Ueno said it “felt safe.”

“I have a friend who works for another studio, who tells me that the training program is much shorter and that there is no remuneration during the training,” the youngster told AFP. 22 years old, one of the 10 students of the first cohort.

Daisuke Okeda, lawyer and secretary at JAniCA, says the academy is part of a trend that could change the industry.

“It is commonly accepted that the quality of animation increases when a studio keeps qualified intermediaries on the team,” he told AFP.

“The best studios have also started to invest in the region. The industry is already recovering.”

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