This article is the English, slightly extended version of an article that came out on August 28, 2022 on the Italian website Dimensione Fumetto and which you can find here. All my thanks go to the DF team for allowing me republish it here.
What is it that makes Japanese animation unique? What is it that makes it stand out from other traditions of animation, such as animation as it is or was practiced and made in the United States, Western or Easter Europe, other great countries or regions with a long and rich animation history? Many answers have been offered to this complex question, but for me, one of the most appealing is the one arguing that commercial Japanese animation, or anime, has a specific “production model”. By that, I meant that anime is made, sold and distributed according to specific methods that differ from how animation is made, sold and distributed in other parts of the world. However, when one investigates anime history more deeply, this answer quickly seems overly simplistic: indeed, there is no singular “anime production model” which has existed since the 1950s and has stayed the same until today. Some elements have remained the same, but there are just as many variations. There is not one, but many production models which have coexisted through time.
For this reason, it might be tempting to immediately abandon the idea of “production model” to focus on each individual pipeline and its own idiosyncrasies. Such an approach is certainly valuable and has its place, but by focusing on each single variation, we risk getting lost in details. In other words, our understanding of anime and anime production might dissolve under an avalanche of raw facts. It is why, in my view, the concept of “production model” remains a good middle-ground between excessive detail and excessive generality. But where, precisely, does this middle-ground stand? In other words, what is its actual scope? To answer these questions and provide an application of how the concept of production model can serve inquiry, I propose to put the focus on one specific model: the one established by studio Zuiyo Eizô, then renamed Nippon Animation, around its famous “World Masterpiece Theater” series.
Before investigating what it is that makes the WMT special, however, it is necessary to make a few clarifications. First, what do I mean by “production”? Looking at anime credits, one can encounter two different words that can both be translated as “production”: プロダクション (production) and 制作 (seisaku) – or, alternatively, two spellings of the word seisaku, 製作 and 制作. In any case, and although meanings may overlap, generally, the first (プロダクション/製作) covers the financial and managerial aspect of production: bringing together the money, infrastructures and people who will make an animated work. Then, the second one (制作) means the actual, material development of the animated work: the way in which the people brought together by the producer(s) will create something. Both meanings – the financial and material – are essential parts of a given “production model” and one can’t exist without the other. An animated work, like any object, doesn’t appear out of nowhere: it has to be made by people. But these people just don’t happen to work together by pure chance: they have to have been brought together – and the “bringing together” can perfectly have been done by creatives rather than businessmen. As we will see later on, the WMT’s artists teams were as connected to other artists as they were to production staff. In other words, artists sometimes do production and producers sometimes do seisaku: I don’t intend to establish an “art vs commerce” kind of distinction.
In any case, trying to understand a given “production model” means covering concrete “behind-the-scenes” elements (who are the artists, what did they contribute, how did they work?) as well as the preparatory stages that make these elements possible (why did they work together in the first place?) and their purpose (how was their work made profitable? or, more simply, how did they earn their money back?). All these can be separated analytically, but my point is that, in reality, they are not: they are all part of the same process or flow.
The second clarification is rather a question: what is the WMT? This is an important question in itself, for historical purposes, and for the methodological purposes of this piece: if the WMT must be defined as a production model, delineating one is delineating the other. But, as is well-known, the actual bounds of the WMT are not clear: is it only the shows that were aired under the “World Masterpiece Theater” stamp? Those produced by Nippon Animation? Those produced by Nippon and its predecessor Zuiyo Eizô? etc. In my opinion, the most simple answer one can provide is that the WMT isn’t a franchise or series: it is just a TV program, covering the timeslot from 19:30 to 20:00 on Sundays on Fuji TV. As such, the program existed from 1969 to 1997 under multiple names, with some revival attempts in the 2000s. Here, I am specifically going to focus on the TV shows aired on that program between 1973 and 1997, since they were all made by the same seisaku company: Zuiyô/Nippon.
This reminder is important for the purpose of this piece, since it helps us navigate between production and seisaku. If we only focus on seisaku, then that means we will mainly discuss one entity, animation studio Nippon Animation and the other people and studios associated with it. However, opening our eyes to the production dimension allows us to consider other actors: TV station Fuji TV and the sponsors of the program, the two most important ones being the two companies Calpis and House Foods. This matters for multiple reasons: first, it’s thanks to the sponsors that the animated series could exist in the first place. Then, as we will see, it’s thanks to the special relationship between Nippon, Fuji TV and the sponsors that the WMT could exist as something special in the landscape of TV animation. Finally, these other actors sometimes had a direct role in the series itself: for example, it is said that it is at the demand of Fujio Dokura from Calpis that Christian symbolism and angels were added at the end of A Dog of Flanders.
Going back to the point I just evoked, what does it mean for the WMT to be “special in the landscape of TV animation”? To understand this, a short recap of anime business history is necessary. During half of anime’s history (from the early 1960s to the late 1990s), TV series were funded by what I call a “sponsorship model”: an agreement was reached between 3 or 4 actors, which were a TV station, a sponsor, an animation studio and an advertising company – in the WMT’s case, the advertising company was Dentsu. The TV station would air the series, the sponsor would pay for it, the animation studio would make it, and the advertising company would handle the negotiations between all the actors. At first, the sponsors were generally food companies which sold sweets to the children watching the show: the most famous in the 60s were Glico, Morinaga Chocolates and Meiji Seika. But, in the late 60s and early 70s, a major change happened: new sponsors entered the anime business. These were toy sellers, which would promote a new kind of works which have now become emblematic of Japanese animation: magical girls for girls and mecha for boys. As time went by, yet new actors came in, such as music companies.
How does this relate to the WMT? The link is that the WMT kept relying on TV anime’s original production model even after it had mostly vanished – to put it bluntly, WMT shows were not toy commercials. In a way, one could say that they weren’t commercials at all: of course, if the program was initially called “Calpis Manga Theater”, it was to encourage the viewers to buy Calpis products (1).
But Calpis products never appeared in the show themselves – whereas, in any mecha series, the robots are literally the toys, but animated. As a result, the WMT as a program represented something very different from most other TV anime of the time: it defended a specific image, that one may call “quality television”. Since sponsors’ products weren’t directly present in the anime, they had little direct control over the contents: but at least, they would ask for things to be done in such a way that it gave them a good image. In other words, they put a high insistence on the artistic quality of the works.
This wasn’t just a demand of the sponsor, but also of the animation studio – which shows that the studio itself is not just made up of creatives, but also of businessmen having a hand in production. Indeed, WMT shows have often been exported outside of Japan, and have been so since the beginning. That Zuiyo Eizô renamed itself Nippon Animation, that is “Japan Animation” in 1975, is very significant: they were the representatives of Japan to the outside world, through animation. Adapting classics of Western literature did give the series international appeal divorced from any culturally-specific Japanese elements, but this doesn’t mean that Japanese-ness was totally abandoned, on the contrary. In such a context, “quality television” wasn’t just a way to stand out in the competitive field of Japanese television: it was a matter of national pride.
This is where we move from production to seisaku: the members of the production sphere had certain specific demands, and these could only be met by a certain organization of people in the seisaku sphere. And in that regard, we could say that in the WMT’s history, a miracle happened: in 1974, the demands of the producers and the ambitions of the creators met and worked together. Calpis wanted to fund a high-quality program that Zuiyo and Fuji TV could export, and Isao Takahata wanted to push the artistic limits of TV animation: the product of that miracle was Heidi, Girl of the Alps. If people often mark Heidi as the start of the WMT, it is for good reason: it is there that the seisaku model of the WMT was established, to remain more-or-less the same for the next 20 years. What, then, were its characteristics? Let’s go through the most important items one by one. In each case, it will be important to note how seisaku elements are never divorced from the production that (analytically) precedes them or the actual works that they give birth to. The process of production and the product itself are not separate entities. In other words, production goals translate themselves into seisaku configurations, that is specific ways of directing creative and non-creative work, in order to create a product with distinctive aesthetic qualities.
Director-centered organization. This term is borrowed from the words of Nippon producer Shigeo Endô talking about the production of Anne of Green Gables and the fact that all the staff let Takahata have complete control and freedom over the entire work. At first glance, then, it might seem that “director-centered” only applies to Takahata’s infamous dictatorial tendencies: on each one of his three series (Heidi, Marco and Anne), he would direct every episode and often write or at least correct the storyboards and scripts. But we shouldn’t be blinded by Takahata’s auteur image: although he was perhaps less authoritarian, other WMT veteran Hiroshi Saitô was just as omnipresent. He did not just direct series: uncredited or under a pseudo, he would often write episodes, direct and/or storyboard them. On Tom Sawyer, just as Takahata, Saitô directed every single episode himself; two years later, on Lucy, he storyboarded 30 of the 50 episodes under the pseudo Jirô Kiyose. On Katori in 1984, he would storyboard 44 episodes under the same name…Regardless of the personality of each director, such heavy directorial presence had multiple consequences. First, naturally, directors had very strong control and were in very close touch with the day-to-day operations on the ground: their role was not just to supervise work from above (as it is usually the case with series directors), but truly to drive it along by delivering storyboards, reviewing the animation, etc. The other consequence is consistency – a central idea to the WMT which we’ll find again later. What I mean by this here is that the director’s vision rarely met that of other creators: as an omnipresent figure, the director could have a hand in almost everything that would air. In that sense, their vision was rarely hampered by anything else but production problems such as lack of time or resources. Put bluntly, the hierarchical organization in Nippon favored auteurs. Then, this might contribute to explain why the WMT pioneered continuous narrative in TV anime storytelling: the continuity of a single story translated the continuity of a single artist’s vision. As the WMT relied on such a restricted pool of directors – initially just Takahata and Saitô, and then mostly Saitô and Fumio Kurokawa – it meant that their work on the program can be taken as a cohesive whole of its own (2).
Writers from outside the anime industry. The scriptwriters for anime series and episodes have not always been working just on anime. In fact, during most of the time the WMT was on airwaves, anime was just one kind of work among others for scriptwriters: most of them wrote for TV series, and it didn’t matter much whether the end result was animated or not. However, it could be argued that the WMT pushed that tendency further than the industry standard. To cite just a few of the most major names: Seijirô Kôyama, one of the most regular scriptwriters on Anne of Green Gables, was a live-action film director. Although he wrote scripts for many anime series, and worked a lot with Nippon even outside of the WMT, Ryûzô Nakanishi had originally been one of the most prolific writers in film studio Nikkatsu during the 60s and 70s. Finally, Fumio Ishimori was everywhere on Japanese TV, from tokusatsu series like Kamen Rider to jidai-geki and drama.
To sum up, many of the people who wrote episodes for a WMT show had sometimes never worked on anime before and would never do so again. This, alongside the fact that the WMT is of course made up of adaptations of Western novels, helped make it stand out: it featured very little of the standard “anime-esque” elements one may find in any other Japanese animated TV show. This was perhaps part of the WMT’s international appeal. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the shows are “better” than regular anime: for example, I am personally a very vocal critic of A Dog of Flanders which I find poorly written and animated. Still, the WMT was unique in the Japanese and even worldwide landscape, and was notably the starting point of the slice-of-life genre in animation, thanks not just to the ambitions of genius directors like Takahata, but also to the choice of original works and the scriptwriters’ original approaches.
Staff rotation. One notable thing about the scriptwriters, however, is that they didn’t stay for long on the WMT: most of them remain on board longer than a single series. There is, of course, the exception of Akira Miyazaki, who wrote almost every WMT series between 1977 and 1992 (and who was also originally a writer for movies and live-action TV shows). But in any case, scriptwriters remain the exception in terms of staff, where there is remarkable consistency over the two decades in which Zuiyo Eizô/Nippon was in charge of the program. This doesn’t mean that the same people always worked on the WMT, but that many names and teams come back over and over again, following a double rotation system. Each individual series would see 2 or 3 teams (usually one for each subcontracting studio) doing their own episodes in rotation. These rotations could actually be quite complex, as scriptwriters, animators, background artists and photographers didn’t necessarily follow the same rhythms. Then, at the scale of the WMT as a whole, many teams only worked on one series in two, making it possible to make a difference between an A group and a B group (with a third, C group, occasionally coming up to assist the others in case of trouble). This is especially visible during the 70s, as the animation team working with Isao Takahata (the A group) was completely different from the one working with Hiroshi Saitô (the B group).
This is another element that makes it easy to consider the WMT a consistent whole rather than just individual shows that followed each other without continuity. We can see, over the series, the same people coming back, developing their skills and hierarchical positions within the company: this is the case, for example, of artists like Michiyo Sakurai or Hidemi Maeda, who began as simple key animators or in-betweeners, slowly rose to be in charge of layouts, animation direction and even character design. Others, such as in-betweener Kazuo Ushikoshi, remained pillars within Nippon and remained in the same position for more than 20 years, supporting the rest of the team and teaching the new, younger members. The yearly schedule of the series and the high pressure did not make things easy – when the system collapsed on Anne of Green Gables in 1979, the results were disastrous – but always working with the same people was probably a big help for both creative and management staff. They knew the exact abilities or problems of each one of their colleagues, whether they could rely on them or not, precisely how much they should ask of them… This isn’t to say that Nippon Animation was an ideal workplace, but that things were organized in such a way to foster relationships and encourage efficiency.
Another positive effect of this organization is consistency, both inside each single show and across the WMT as a whole. Of course, some series look better than others, and some have radically different looks – see Peter Pan’s Adventure. Even inside an individual series, some episodes will look better: most of the time, you can put your trust in those animated by studio Oh! Production, whereas those by Trans Arts are generally not as good. But, because after the first painful years of training, artists had become used to what was expected of them, they could generally meet that standard. In other words, they became specialists in what WMT series usually featured – lush natural landscapes for the backgrounds, lots of character movement for the animation, etc. This sense of consistency, not just in creative training and skill, but in their coordination, was also considerably helped by the next decisive element in the WMT’s “production model”.
Layout system. One of the most famous innovations brought in by Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki on Heidi is the “layout system”. “Layouts” are a blueprint of the action that happens on the screen, with detailed indications for the animators, background artists and photography staff. Until then, they had mostly been done by the animators and there was no standard for how to do them. On Heidi, layout creation was established as a different position, and the series’ main layout artist (Miyazaki) would serve as the intermediary between the storyboarders, background artists and animators. This system was heavily centralized but considerably increased efficiency and communication within the studio, as well as the quality of the final product. If Heidi is such an artistic masterpiece, it is in large part thanks to the layout system.
The exact way in which the layout system was carried out throughout the long history of the WMT varied over time. The Heidi system itself was only respected on Isao Takahata’s series during the 70s; on Saitô’s, it is not rare to find multiple artists in charge of layouts instead of a single one in charge of an entire show. Then, around the mid-1980s (most probably on Makiba no Shôjo Katri), it seems that the layouts were put back in the hands of the animators, and a new position was created: that of layout check, that is someone that would not create the layouts from the ground-up but just supervise and correct them. By the next decade, even that position had disappeared, because of industry-wide trends that even Nippon, as exceptional as it might have been, could not totally avoid.
In any case, the layout system (as well as other production idiosyncrasies, such as the fact that most series often had just one animation director to supervise all drawings, or the creation of the in-between check position on Heidi, just as vital but not as celebrated as the layout system) is a good example of how the production objectives translated themselves in seisaku practices and then artistic results: the layout system is the product of a top-down approach, which entails closely controlling and supervising the work of each creator. The end result, thoroughly consistent visuals, is synonymous with “quality television” or “quality animation”: just as it is today, inconsistent animation or off-model drawings were long (sometimes wrongly) considered to be a symptom of “bad animation”. The very centralized organization of the WMT’s production model was there to ensure that such “bad” animation didn’t exist even if the actual artistic quality of the movement wasn’t always excellent.
Taken individually, many of the elements of the WMT’s seisaku system aren’t unique to it or Nippon Animation. For example, the rotation system has been characteristic of the anime industry and still remains so, especially for long-running series (3). Just like Nippon, big studios such as Tôei or Sunrise have always relied on small, trusted teams from different subcontracting studios which developed as years went by. What makes the WMT’s model special, then, is the meeting of multiple elements in one single place: director-centrism plus non-anime writers plus staff rotation plus layout system plus some other elements that I haven’t even mentioned. The other special thing is that all these specificities were there, and there together, because of one specific goal that superseded them: it was the goal imposed by the production sphere to create “quality television”.
This is ultimately why we can consider the WMT as a more-or-less consistent object, that is a single “production model”. For multiple and complex reasons, its elements formed a combination that one would not find elsewhere, even though other combinations shared many of the same elements. For example, I mentioned how the WMT could be seen as a precursor to studio Ghibli’s own production model; but why aren’t the two one and the same? I will only point out two of the major differences: one, that the business relationships between the animation studio and other actors have always been different, all of Ghibli’s movies (even Nausicaä, which can in that sense be considered a Ghibli work) having been funded through a production committee. Two, that Ghibli’s organization is entirely geared towards feature film production rather than TV series, which entails very different rhythms of work and production. On the other hand, Future Boy Conan could perfectly be considered to be a WMT series, as it shared the same production model, with the only (major) difference being the length of its run.
However, this shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that the WMT (or Ghibli) represented an absolutely unique, perfectly harmonious system where everyone and everything worked as good friends. The aesthetic goal of consistency was often achieved through blood-chilling practices, as any testimony from the production of one of Takahata’s three series makes clear. Moreover, as I explained with the layouts, things evolved through time for reasons that were both internal and external to Nippon Animation; the fact that the WMT entered a long phase of decline from the late 1980s onwards shows that both the production and seisaku models aged and lost touch with the wider context around them. This is why closer, more detailed analyses are always necessary, as they allow us to understand each little variation, innovation and conflict for itself; but on the other hand, these cannot exist without a general outlook that contextualizes them. Hopefully, this piece has filled that latter gap.
(1) Of course, the actual situation was slightly more complex, as animal mascot characters were often inserted in order to sell plushies and make each series more iconic, or as multiple kinds of merchandise accompanied the series, such as picture books, records, toys etc. Such practices also existed for more conventionally “commercial” anime, but only reflect the fact that there rarely was just one unique sponsor for a given series. But what’s really important to note is that, in the WMT’s case, the sponsor mostly adapted itself to the contents of each series rather than making their own products the raison d’être of the shows themselves (as in mecha series, where the titular robot has to appear or the series just has no point existing)
(2) The WMT’s “auteurism”, alongside most of the other elements listed below, is one of the ways in which its production model works as a predecessor to studio Ghibli’s. The consequences are that any discussion of Takahata and Miyazaki’s careers should not just consider their works in Nippon as formative creative experiences, but also decisive moments in their “self-actualization” as auteurs and stepping stones towards the creation of their own structure. I would even go so far as to argue that those years spent in Nippon may have been more important than their time in Tôei and its union, which is the most often discussed when relating to both men’s approach to labor organization; that is in part because labor issues are only restricted to seisaku, whereas Nippon and Ghibli as a whole also involve the production side of things
(3) The rotation system is yet another example of the interrelation between production, seisaku and aesthetics. It relies on subcontracting by big studios to smaller structures, essentially to reduce costs (production). This in turns creates a very decentralized pipeline where each part is produced independently and only put back together by management (production assistants) and technical (photography) staff (seisaku). The result is a sense of visual diversity and a multiplication of the breeding grounds for creativity, especially in the animation department (aesthetics).