The Anime Industry's Changes In Production And Distribution : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Anime is a twenty-billion-dollar industry and it is growing fast. But traditionally, anime is produced in Japan. What happens when other countries try producing Japanese-style animation?

Japanese Anime, Made In China

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Today, we have a story about anime. That is the classic Japanese animation like "Pokemon" or "Dragon Ball Z." But unlike Saturday morning cartoons, a lot of adults are also into anime; like the recent series "Attack On Titan," which was this really big hit on Netflix.


LINKED HORIZON: (Singing in Japanese).

HERSHIPS: It was actually 35 times more popular than the average TV series in the United States. So try to compete with that, "This Is Us."


This is happening all over the world. It's getting so popular that this traditionally Japanese artform is now being produced outside of Japan. The industry is now worth more than $23 billion globally, and it's expected to keep growing.

HERSHIPS: But is anime produced outside of Japan, like in India or Korea, still anime?

CHRISTOPHER MACDONALD: It's a bit like, say, champagne.

HERSHIPS: Christopher Macdonald is publisher and CEO of Anime News Network, which, FYI, is, like, the Rolling Stone or Variety of the anime world.

MACDONALD: There are really amazing bubbly wines coming from California. Some of them are better than Champagne out there. I'd rather have a good bubbly from California than a crap Champagne, but that bubbly will never be called champagne because it's not from Champagne.

WOODS: Chris says that anime really just means Japanese animation. So technically, no, you can't make anime outside of Japan. But that's what's happening.


HERSHIPS: And I'm Sally Herships, in for Stacey Vanek Smith. What's the impact on the industry and consumers as anime becomes international?


HERSHIPS: The thing about Japan's anime industry is that it is really uniquely Japanese. Anime is not produced the way, say, a Disney film in the United States would be.

WOODS: In the U.S., one studio typically owns the production. That studio then hires a bunch of other companies to do the work. But Chris says it's really important to understand that the studios who are doing the animation in Japan, doing the actual artwork, they don't own the shows. They're contractors.

MACDONALD: So anime production committees are a really complicated process.

HERSHIPS: Wait a second. It's a committee?

MACDONALD: It's a committee, so...

HERSHIPS: (Laughter) Oh, no.

WOODS: Everyone knows that committees are the best way to make art, right, Sally?

HERSHIPS: Love a good committee.

WOODS: And it's because that in Japan, anime productions are organized around projects, not companies. So say you're in Japan, and you want to produce an anime movie or a TV show. You'll go out, and you'll search for a bunch of partners - music companies, say, to do the soundtrack, a talent agency to do the voice actors, maybe a merch company to make the toys. And then you and all these other individual companies get together, and you form a corporation. And that corporation, that's the committee.

HERSHIPS: And then the committee, it is the corporation. And it hires the production company, the actual artists who draw the actual anime and who are very often at the very bottom of the anime industry pyramid. And they've been hired to make these two kinds of drawings. The first is called a keyframe. They are the first and last frame of any transition.

Ryotaro Mihara is an anthropologist at Keio University in Japan. He studies anime.

RYOTARO MIHARA: So if you want to, you know, smash the table, the keyframe should be - the first keyframe should be, you know, like, you know, the - raising the fist - right? - raising a fist. And the next keyframe should be, you know, the fist, you know, smashing the table.

WOODS: Until recently, artists in Japan have mostly done what was considered the more advanced work, those keyframes. But there is another kind of drawing. Those are the drawings that you need to fill in the little steps in between raising a fist and smashing the table. So, like, every single little tiny movement that the hand does, those are called the in-between frames. And Ryo says that some of that work has always been outsourced to other countries.

MIHARA: It is a kind of, you know, relatively easier part of the anime creation.

HERSHIPS: But Ryo says now, the growing demand for anime means that this traditional division of labor, it is totally changing. Talent and funds are now starting to come from outside of Japan. Countries like South Korea and China now have their own anime industries, and they have their own stories to tell. And Ryo showed us an example from a Chinese movie.

MIHARA: It's called "The Legend Of Hei" in English.


EMI LO: (As Luo Xiaohei) I'm not a cat. I'm a spirit.

HOWARD WANG: (As Fengxi) Don't be afraid. You're one of us.

CALEB YEN: (As Luozhu, laughter).

HERSHIPS: Just in case you have not seen "Legend Of Hei," let me give you a mini description of the movie. So fairies seem to be just legends, but they really exist in this world. Fairies are not all scary and bad. Some dress up as humans. And there's even this cat fairy who looks kind of like an anime version of Felix the Cat. He's all black, and he's got these really huge eyes.

How do you say his name?

MIHARA: Luo Xiaohei. So it's really - it's a really Chinese name.

WOODS: And the style of this animation, it looks pretty Japanese anime. I mean, there's those big eyes. All the characters look very cute. The backdrop is beautifully depicted. But the architecture and the buildings you see and the themes and some of the characters themselves, they're all Chinese.

MIHARA: I mean, this is a Chinese production, so it is a Chinese product.

HERSHIPS: Ryo says in Japan, there are always going to be some people who are kind of nationalistic and patriotic about anime, but a lot of fans are really just focused on story. And "The Legend Of Hei" was a big hit. It was dubbed into Japanese. Ryo says the storyline in a lot of these productions made outside of Japan have universal themes, which means fans around the world can relate.

So what's the universal theme here?

MIHARA: Yeah (laughter). How do I explain? So, I mean, it's about, you know, the conflict of the human beings and fairies.

WOODS: And in case that particular theme doesn't resonate, here's another example of an anime made outside of Japan with cross-cultural appeal. The series is called "Suraj: The Rising Star," and it was a Japanese-Indian co-production. The original story was a classic Japanese baseball anime, but because it involved India, they just changed the plot from baseball to cricket.

HERSHIPS: Ryo says the movie was really innovative. Chris, who publishes the Anime News Network, says demand for anime is so high, the anime pie is just getting bigger. There's work for almost everyone in the industry around the globe. Japanese artists are not losing out to foreign competition.

Here in the U.S., Netflix and Amazon Prime have also been sinking money into anime. But Chris says that does mean one change, at least in Japan. Remember all those committees?

WOODS: How could I forget?

HERSHIPS: Chris says Netflix stepping in and taking total control does mean bad news for them because now Netflix is in charge.

WOODS: So now, no more talent agency saying that this voice actor is really popular, please make sure she gets a part in the show. No more merchandise company saying, can you change the designs in the show so we can sell more toys?

But there could be some good news for the people drawing those characters. So there is now all this cash flowing into the market. And Chris says that, traditionally, anime artists are notoriously underpaid.

HERSHIPS: Like, how much are we talking?

MACDONALD: So they're paid on a per-image basis. A full-time animator toiling away at home, producing hundreds of images a month, might be making $800.

HERSHIPS: A month?


WOODS: That low pay is creating a problem. It's discouraging people from entering the anime industry in Japan. So it's possible that all the new demand could see pay go up both in Japan and elsewhere, but that script has not been written yet.

HERSHIPS: But to get back to anime fans and how they're reacting to the changes in the industry, let's go back to our champagne comparison for a minute. One of the things about champagne is that the flavor of a specific vintage is impacted by soil and weather and climate.

WOODS: The terroir.

HERSHIPS: And that's one of the reasons why you will never get Champagne from California. Chris says one of the cool things about seeing Japanese-style animations made in Korea or China is that they have their own flavor.

MACDONALD: So you'll never get the identical show from Korea. And hopefully, that's not what people want. Hopefully, they want something that's in the same vein, but also unique and original in its own sense.


HERSHIPS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and Michael He, who also fact-checked the show. It was engineered by Isaac Rodriguez. Our editor is Kate Concannon. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

WOODS: All right. We need to get some California bubbly and some French Champagne. We need to sit down and look at some anime from around the world for scientific purposes, Sally.

HERSHIPS: Totally for scientific purposes.


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