When talking about the process of making anime, it’s often tempting to do so through the lens of production studios. We talk about the era of Gainax, the latest blockbuster anime by A-1 Pictures, or the breathtaking movies of Studio Ghibli. Big, familiar names, to which we credit the creation of the anime that we love so dearly. Even though, when you think about it, these businesses actually do very little.
Anime production is a big, complicated process. Hundreds of individuals, from animators to sound engineers, all cooperating to get another episode out every week. And those people oftentimes aren’t exclusively employed by any one studio. Freelancers are brought in from outside the studio or entire workloads might be handed off to (foreign) support studios.
Companies may be in charge of strategic decisions, but to say they “made” the anime is at least a little deceptive, even if it’s far easier to do so. Keeping track of so many people and figuring out what they contributed to any show they worked on is tough. Long-time readers might recall that I used to list directors in my review, but even that is selling the background artists, key animators, assistants, composers, and designers short. I didn’t want this site to be a repository for staff credits. Also, I quickly realized that nobody actually used those categories.
Still, companies are not wholly useless. They make strategic decisions and foster an environment in which their staff can create the best anime possible. The culture they create can have a monumental impact. For example, consider the massive success and popularity of Kyoto Animation’s series; a studio renowned for its great treatment of staff in an industry otherwise driven by crunch and project-based employment.
However, even great studios can fall from grace. Gainax was once one of the most beloved anime studios around. They were responsible for Neon Genesis Evangelion, Diebuster, Mahoromatic, Panty & Stocking, FLCL, Tengen Toppa, and so many other acclaimed series. The image of Gainax was closely-linked to these franchises. We apparently still refer to “Gainax endings” too, even though the studio hasn’t produced anything fitting the trope in years now.
But Gainax was just a corporation. A fancy name to stand in the spotlight, behind which dozens of people toiled away in a studio that, increasingly, wasn’t meeting their needs. Hideaki Anno founded Studio Khara in 2006 and walked away with a number of Gainax veterans. Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masahiko Otsuka did the same, creating Studio Trigger in 2011. The company managed a few more mediocre productions under He is My Master director Shouji Saeki, but even he went freelance as work dried up.
Yet, even as Gainax turned into a pathetic shell of its former self, its old talent continued to produce anime. Kill la Kill and Promare are the true descendants of Gainax’ legacy. Neon Genesis Evangelion has continued to be a cultural milestone of anime for over 2 decades, thanks mainly to the efforts of Anno and his team at Studio Khara.
I won’t tell everyone to quit talking about animation studios because it’s still useful to do so in the right context. The history that these companies created and the impact they had on anime are fascinating topics to study or discuss. Eliminating their influence on the creation of anime entirely wouldn’t be right either. However, we should be careful of what we get attached to. Anime is a form of art, so when possible, we ought to praise the actual artists that make that possible. Not the faceless legal entities that juggle the intellectual property and furnish the office that the artist uses for their 30-hour shifts.