Anime – Quality Concerns & Complaints

​2019 has been another year in a sequence of several where a number of people have made the comment to me that “quality” in general for anime is noticeably going down.

I completely agree. Matter of fact, the root causes behind the decline in quality are why I do what I do.

By itself, this is a somewhat relative term. I mean, quality is really determined by a variety of different subjective things in the eye of the viewer, and for a large range of reasons, too.

As such, I’m going to make an effort to not focus on things that would mostly fall down to individualistic preferences, and instead focus on things that can be readily recognized, and agreed upon by most. More importantly, I want to take a look at the why behind the decrease in quality, because the reasons behind it all ultimately point to the core problem in the animation industry that Otaku Central aims to fix:

Money.

Step 1: First, Let’s Examine The Problem

Let’s identify some of the more outstanding areas where quality has taken a notable downswing in recent years, summarized into a quick list:

  • Raw animation quality
    • High amount of animated mistakes that made it past QC and into the finished product
    • Lower/choppy framerate on many animes as compared to 30/fps standard
    • Limited or reduced shading, edge contouring, or poor distance scaling
    • Different studios contracted for different seasons, causing quality changes
  • Storyline/plot quality
    • Minimal amount of new, fresh, and exciting storylines; lots of “re-hashed” content
    • Needlessly excessive fanservice to fill airtime and try to maintain viewerbase
    • High reliance on “tropes” that have historically been crowd-pleasers
    • Attempting to broaden audience demographic has partially resulted in very shallow plots
  • Rewatch quality
    • Most modern animes are only re-visited for ecchi content, or “trope” value
    • Lackluster “polish” on animes makes most of them pretty unmemorable
  • Audio quality
    • Many animes lack a solid soundtrack, as it’s one of the easiest ways to save money
    • Mangas to be converted to animes are often favored based on the cost of audio production, forcing a heavy degree of genre and slant bias

​These items are a mixture of things that I’ve noticed personally, others have mentioned to me firsthand in conversations, representatives within the anime industry have put forward as concerns in meetings, or anime viewers have complained about on web forums and other resources.

​As an exhibit towards a number of these, consider the below examples:

Historically, these types of quality issues didn’t exist on any real scale. This makes sense because the underlying financial issues in the anime industry are a more recent trend that we’re starting to see the effects of more and more. That’s not to say it never happened – but it was a “once in a blue moon”” occurrence when it did.

For some of these quality issues (such as the ones from Date A Live III), the producer was forced to change studios in a nightmarishly quick fashion prior to the delivery date for the anime, which put the new studio into a hellish grind to try and create the new product on the former product’s timetable. The end result was a plethora of issues in the overall anime quality; in my honest opinion, Date A Live III is one of the most obvious examples of corners being cut in terms of quality to rush a product to market.

In other examples, you can readily gauge animations that are “low budget” in comparison to others that have more money behind them – and the difference in quality is noticeable. There’s always been a seemingly invisible “baseline” standard of quality that studios wouldn’t creep over in an effort to plot out budget, but that baseline seems to be pushed progressively lower and lower these days.

Step 2: NOT Assigning Blame

It’s very easy for fans to “flame” studios or producers for cutting these kinds of corners. From a brief cruise around on some of the MyAnimeList, CrunchyRoll, and FUNimation forums, you can pretty readily see a lot of “Internet opinions” being thrown around about how studios are dropping the ball on many anime productions.

Is it really the fault of the studios, though?

You have to understand that it’s pretty easy to immediate point the finger at the studios. As in so many other industries, cheapening a product due to market globalization, competition through outsourcing, or simply keeping up with inflation is nothing new – and it’s always a conscious choice on the part of the vendor that does it.

Guitarist Rob Chapman described the thought behind this concept pretty well in a discussion regarding quality in choosing whether or not to be truthful when showcasing products:

“I’d like to think that I retain a standard of integrity in what I do, and I don’t want to say that other people deliberately DON’T, but sometimes, you’ve simply got to eat.”

If you’re in an industry that’s practically a sinking ship, and you’re left with a choice to throw away your ship’s cargo in an effort to keep yourself alive, or to sink with the ship, you’re going to eat an emotional bullet, throw out your pride, and throw the cargo overboard.

​On top of this, I think a lot of the residual arrogance that fans possess with regards to studios being fully at fault for their quality issues lies purely in not understanding how bad the financial crisis in anime really is. While a number of studies have been done by sizable organizations on how rough it is for anime producers, (KotakuVoxQuoraJapan Times) it can be easy to dismiss all of those things under the guise of “Well, I’m sure their circumstances are different than mine”, or “Well, it’s on the other side of the world anyway, so I can mentally relegate it to ‘third world country’ status, and then it doesn’t matter so much”, and so on.

Thing is, this is happening in Japan. Japan is a first-world country. They have the second-largest stock market value in the world (barely behind that of the United States), and are the largest foreign banking and hedge fund investor in the world market by far. Tokyo is the second most expensive city in the world to live in, and Osaka follows it at number five. Their technology industry is easily in the world’s top five, if not top three.

​To live in one of those two cities (which is where the vast majority of Japanese animation is produced), and have to settle with a pittance of a paycheck and insane work hours would bring a lot of people to the point of considering their options:

  • “Can we not do the shading quite so well around those edges? We have people working until past midnight on all the shading, and it would help them get home sooner and would cost us less money.”
  • “The voice acting is taking too many tries to get right; we need to draw the line at five attempts, and then either settle with the best one of the five, or stitch something together.”
  • “What about outsourcing some of the coloration work? I know it’ll bring up a lingual gap between our staff and the outsourced agency’s, but it could cut our production costs somewhat.”
  • “We’re going to have to lay off some of our staff – we simply can’t afford to keep them on board with how tight the financial year is going to be for us. It’s going to be hard for the remaining team to pick up the slack, but it’ll only be for this one year while we get back on track.”

Step 3: When Things Build Up To The Point They Break

On July 18th, 2019, the Kyoto Animation studio in the Fushimi ward of Kyoto was set on fire by an arsonist on accusation of plagiarism. The fire took the lives of 36 workers, injured an additional 33, and destroyed most of the Studio 1 work space for the organization. This incident was one of the worse tragedies the anime industry had ever seen in Japan.

There’s several lessons to be learned from what happened to KyoAni. For all of us.

Firstly, without trying to pick sides on whether KyoAni did or did not infringe upon someone else’s work, we have to admit that in the anime industry today, it’s extremely difficult to not infringe in some way, shape, or form. Tropes are recycled between so many animes today that countless animes seem to blur together. Hair colors, eyes, facial styles, and expressions are reused regularly. Even storylines or universe settings are blatantly “stolen” between animes (being trapped in a video game or alternate world, schoolgirl harems, girls taking on the personas of classic Japanese warships, etc.).

What I’m trying to get at is that if I was in the anime studio business, and someone accused me of plagiarizing, I’d have to honestly admit that in some fashion, they’re probably right.

Secondly, resorting to harsh measures doesn’t solve anything – it only makes existing problems worse, and adds new ones in addition. This is true of everything from pointedly accusing anime studios of terrible quality in itself, even up to setting a building on fire and killing dozens of people over a trademark concern instead of settling it in court.

The arsonist of KyoAni didn’t resolve his plagiarism concern, and instead murdered people and confined himself to prison for the remainder of his life. As I’ve said countless times to coworkers and to OC contacts, “don’t point fingers at people, but rather, point the way towards solutions”.

Thirdly, and in a less public light than many other aspects of the tragedy, the spokeperson for KyoAni commented after the fire that they’d “lost everything in the fire”. What he’s referring to is that they lost all of their work archives and server storage for the projects they’d contributed towards for years in the course of the fire, and they had no backups.

Let that sink in for a bit. It’s 2019 – what company doesn’t have offsite or cloud-stored backups of their digital work, or some form of recovery process for things in the event that a disaster struck? Especially for an organization the size of KyoAni?

The answer is the reason why this detail has stayed out of the limelight for the most part: they didn’t have backups or disaster recovery procedures because they couldn’t afford them. Their budget was that narrow.

Yes, I’m making this assumption on their budget based on the information they’ve put forward. Yes, I understand that it is an assumption – but it’s one that makes sense, right? Why else would a company not have offsite backups of any kind?

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly to our discussion, the solution for everyone is to move forward together. KyoAni raised over $20 million from around the world towards a relief effort and to help rebuild. While the money cannot replace the loss of life that occurred in the fire, it went quite a ways towards getting them back on their feet. That money came from a diverse support base of different races, cultures, languages, nationalities, and religions – and it’s a testament to what anime means to so many people.

Step 4: The Otaku Central Solution

So, if the problem anime is facing, as well as all of the symptoms of the problem that sprouted up too, is caused by money – then anime needs more money, right?

While that’s not an incorrect statement, the Otaku Central approach to a fix looks at a very specific aspect of the anime industry’s cash. Namely, why anime isn’t scaling its gross income as it continues to globalize.

You see, Japan’s anime market is fairly level in terms of growth. It’s been around so long on its home turf that there aren’t really any new prospective demographics it can appeal to that it hasn’t appealed to already, and the viewerbase doesn’t really spike or sink in terms of headcount. The way for anime to grow its income threshold, as is the case with many industries around the world, was to globalize.

So, anime globalized – really starting in the 1980s with Japan’s industrial revolution, and continuing on into the present. So, why hasn’t that fixed things in the long-term? Ultimately, in my opinion, globalization of anime isn’t providing the solution it needs to for two reasons. First, because distribution middlemen and needless legal hoops are laying claim to a lot of money that could be going back to studios, and are making a simple process vastly more complex than it needs to be. Second, because it’s become very easy with the advent of the Internet to simply watch anime in bootleg fashion off an ads-drive streaming website.

Let’s spend some time on both of these issues.

By distributing middlemen, I’m referring to companies such as Netflix, CrunchyRoll, FUNimation, and Hulu. Companies that license anime from producers in Japan, and then resell it to a viewerbase in the Western world in either digital or physical format. Let me immediately precede any further discussion by saying that I don’t want to come across as though I’m painting these companies in a negative light, or that I’m implying that the root issue is directly their fault. I don’t think it is; they’ve simply contributed to it somewhat because of their passive way of thinking and desiring to make good money as businesses.

Are distributors taking too much money, or are they treating anime as a “cash cow” in some kind of evil American corporate get-rich-quick scheme? Not in itself, no – although most people will openly admit that the main goal of an American megacorporation is to make as much money as possible.

It’s not a problem limited to distributors with regard to anime, but it’s from a business model that rubs off on anime as one of things under its scope of business. For example, having your headquarters in an expensive region to live in, and driving pay up as a result (Netflix, Hulu, CrunchyRoll), paying a cloud hosting provider for a leased cloud instead of driving your own private cloud, which increases hosting costs by a factor of six to eight (CrunchyRoll, FUNimation), even on down to things like not adopting efficiency standards for operation to clean up workflow and lower operational costs, (ISO, Six Sigma, etc.). And, to top it all off, there’s the passing comment that distributor’s monetary kickback rates to studios could probably be better.

​The Otaku Central approach to these factors was to base the organization in the midwest United States, a region that has a lower operational cost for businesses, a lower median living expense, and subsequently a lower pay median – this means that we aren’t having to pay people an extra $30,000/year just to compensate for the fact they live in a very expensive region, and that fact gets reflected into the organization’s cost to operate. We host our own, company-owned private cloud for our streaming resources, and build/manage it in-house, but still use Tier 1 backbone bandwidth and facility resources to ensure the infrastructure is well-taken care of.

We also base our frame of mind around knowing that process efficiency is the single greatest value “add” that an organization can have, and when you’re building a company from the ground up, you have the liberty to weave efficiency into everything you do. The icing on top of the cake for us is that we’re a financially-transparent non-profit, which gives studios and all our vendors visibility into who we are, and what we’re about – it helps everyone know that we’re playing fair, and we’re playing to help anime win – as an industry.

And, finally, no discussion of money and anime would be complete without looking into the red-headed stepchild of it all: bootleg anime streaming websites.

I can’t harp on bootleg streaming services as hard as you’d think. After all, Otaku Central was originally intended to be one of those bootleg sites many years ago, and I know a number of people who still adopt this approach today. Bootleg streaming sites were also a big player throughout history in terms of popularizing anime in Western culture to the extent that it current is. As with everything we’ve looked at thus far, let’s examine the “why”, instead of the end result.

When I surveyed friends, peers, and even anime conference-goers anonymously in the past as to if they used bootleg streaming services, many people admitted to using them from time to time, even if they had a subscription to a paid-for service as well. Further investigation revealed that the reason they used these “free” anime streaming sites wasn’t actually because the service was free, but rather because it had a great selection.

While I won’t dance around the fact that many people do watch bootleg anime because it is “free”, it doesn’t seem to be the main reason people are attracted to it. It stems more from a distaste of otherwise having to juggle four to six different subscription services just to try and get a somewhat well-rounded list of the anime they’d like to see. I can completely relate to this perspective, myself – I’d struggle to bring myself to pay $8/month just to grab the couple animes out of the year that a specific service offered that no one else did. When you’d add up a few different streaming services’ worth of these, you’re paying $480/year for anime when you’re actually watching around $60-$100 worth of that cost in what you really want to see.

CrunchyRoll and FUNimation attempted to solve this with the VRV platform and sub-license streaming, but it’s only complicated an old issue even further for most people because they still end up juggling multiple services in the end. To their credit, it wasn’t a bad idea from a business perspective – it just didn’t do enough damage in terms of solving the root issue and too few players adopted it. Too many distributors have exclusive licenses for certain animes, and aren’t willing to trade them or give them up because they’re too lucrative in a business sense for them.

I’ve termed this phenomenon “anime crossover”, and while it’s generally unwanted by the viewer demographic, it’s historically been a boon to some studios because it’s been a means of getting more upfront money to fuel the project that an exclusive license would go towards. It also gives some distributors a competitive edge.

Otaku Central has an idea to solve this equation once-and-for-all, and although it won’t be an instantaneous solution, it does aim to be a much better long-term solution for the industry as a whole:

If the main cause of anime crossover is due to exclusive licensing and businesses holding on to their “flagship” franchises, what if the industry was changed to make franchise licensing wide open to any distributor, and leave the decision up to the production studio as to who to go with based on who was offering the most money?

You may be questioning why the industry doesn’t work this way right now, as it would seemingly solve the inherent problems that got us to this point. Keep in mind that anime studios have very thin profit margins and financial outlooks right now (KyoAni), and losing the substantial amount of front-end money that exclusive licenses and project backing provides would be disastrous with the current state of the industry in Japan.

But, if there was a non-profit anime streaming service that was giving you over five times the financial kickback that other distributors were, it could slowly open the possibility for a studio over time that they could gain the monetary footing to start to throw their own weight around in the area of removing exclusive licensing. It’s not a guaranteed solution, and we certainly can’t force a given studio to support this train of thought, but it stands to logic that it would solve the anime crossover argument if it could gain widespread acceptance.

Step 5: Understanding Cause & Effect

With a measure of “give”, there is also a measure of “take”. Life’s a game of checks and balances, after all.

What happens when you take an industry setting that throughout world history has always been filled with only “for-profit” players, and inject a non-profit organization into it purely to try and equalize the playing field?

It’s never before been attempted in the history of the human race. It’s difficult to tell what long-term effect it will have. While it will likely be a positive thing for animation studios and other aspects of the anime industry, what effect will it have on other distributors?

I can’t say. While I’d like to believe in a world where everyone can win, I’ll be honest in that if Otaku Central gets off the ground and starts moving forward, other distributors who haven’t placed assets in other industry vectors may start hurting, and hurting badly.

For distributors who’ve started putting stock in dubbed anime (which Otaku Central, by our policy, will never do), they may be able to shift their operations purely into that niche to stay afloat. For others that offer far more content than just anime, they have the option to move their market around somewhat. For everyone else that lies beyond those two things? I’m not sure.

The question I’ve had to ask myself in the face of all this is: Will anime be worse off going forward for the initiative that my organization is willing to take?

I don’t believe so. I think we’re going to cause far more good than prospective harm.

And it’s that belief that makes me look forward to what tomorrow brings; for me, for those around me, for anime, and for us all.

Caleb
Caleb Huggenberger is a 31 year-old systems engineer, owner of the non-profit animation streaming service 'Otaku Central', and Eastern culture enthusiast. Outside of long work days, he enjoys electronics engineering, cast iron campfire cooking, and homesteading on his acreage in the Indiana countryside.

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