Each and every season, anime viewers who keep up with the trends and airing shows speculate about which one will prove most popular and/or well-received. On a personal level many feel somewhat compelled to compare the various series, but on a collective level, this subject becomes the battleground for fandom warfare.
Such an experience seems indelibly tied to the current culture of seasonal watching itself, along with all the hiccups of dissent, discourse and problematic displays. From a western perspective, new fans can sometimes judge these struggles to hold some manner of weight in the actual animation industry. More informed and/or realistic viewers may instead deem them largely irrelevant, given how large the separation often is between western forums and the anime staff members (sometimes thankfully so).
And of course, this is neglecting the fact that for many productions, western revenue sources still hold a bit too little weight to justify taking in much feedback.
The reality is that the Japanese sphere of viewing is not that radically different from its western counterpart, and subjects like “which show will be the most popular” are evergreen. As such, this concept of “supremacy among the airing shows” finds its way into industry dialogue as well. It may not hold as much weight as fans would imagine, and the metrics for evaluating supremacy may differ greatly from their expectations, but those conversations seem to take place nonetheless.
I gleaned some of my understanding regarding this topic from my journey through Anime Supremacy! (覇権アニメ！), written by Mizuki Tsujimura and translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm, and with art by Hwei Lim.
A story about the anime industry that draws details from interviews with several staff members to create a fictional representation, but one with a seemingly sharp and accurate eye. This was a tale of many stressful and exhausted lows, punctuated by precise and timely highs. Beyond the trivial matters of discussions regarding popularity, this book is a small window into the troubles of anime production. To any fan that’s well informed about the conditions in anime studios, it’s no secret that workloads and wages are two big problems. The protagonists weave their way through an industry unfortunately peppered with misogyny and sexism, and this fact is present in the work as well.
In total, the story focused on three different people. Firstly, the passionate and kind producer Kayako Arishina. Tied up in messy affairs of matters of scheduling and formalities, she struggled to appease unhelpful staff members while babysitting a talented but infantile director. Secondly, the inspired and asocial director Hitomi Saito. A blunt and shy visionary, she carried her show from its early steps to the finale, side by side with a ruthlessly efficient, profit-oriented producer through the many troubles of anime production. And lastly, the skilled and introverted animator Kazuna Namisawa. Content to be a cog in the machines putting out wondrous works of animation, she finds herself in unfamiliar ground taking part in a local tourism initiative connected to anime.
One look at the staff members interviewed (listed in the back of the book) makes it very difficult not to trace lines and connect each of the main characters to the real people they were likely inspired by. I won’t be making those connections visible here, save for just one – the talented, princely director who endangers an entire production and gets some well-deserved scolding in the first section, is very clearly based on Kunihiko Ikuhara of Penguindrum and Revolutionary Girl Utena fame. These notions about the characters at times added quite a bit of flavor to my reading experience. However, the tale is ultimately fiction based on reality, and the individual stories shouldn’t be taken as truly representative of any of the people that inspired them.
Rounding things out, given that the industry displays so many issues on a structural level, it makes sense that the main reason why so many still embark on the animation galley is closely linked to their love for the medium. Anime Supremacy shows readers the passion that moves Kayako, Hitomi and Kazuna as well as countless other industry professionals into doing their work, even under the nightmarish work conditions. “Everyone is vulnerable to love”, the love for inspiring and touching works of animation.
Their continued production and efforts are an incredible example of how long people can subsist while strongly powered by these feelings, for across many industries and societies it is often the case that people burn out and eventually leave those professions.
This is not to say that anime studio staff are immune either, nor is it an attempt at glorifying their struggle. This is one of my main issues with Anime Supremacy. In its attempt to brightly transmit the essence of what drives people forward, it ends up leaving behind the jabs about industry problems found throughout the book. While by no means a horrible flaw, it is regrettable that the overall feeling becomes very much one of “in the end it is worth of it because of passion”. No amount of satisfaction derived from personal desire should be held up as justification or payment for the conditions that professionals must endure in this field, both the ones regarding sexism and the ones regarding schedules and payments.
All in all, it’s still a very recommendable read. While the terrain found while traversing the book was hilly, by the end it definitely felt like a very positive and cheerful experience; the kind that warms your heart and brings a smile to the face. I am forever thankful that animation professionals like those interviewed continue to work and power through this shoddy status quo, at times delivering such powerful and touching works of art.
And even more so, I hope for a future in which they are properly and sustainably paid for their efforts, and afforded the quality of life they sorely lack.