In 2016, co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki, responsible for beloved anime classics like Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service, made headlines around the world for his . “I would never wish to incorporate this technology into my work at all,” Miyazaki told the software engineers who came to show their creation to him. “I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself.” A half-decade later, artificial intelligence and the potential role it could play in anime productions is once again in the spotlight.
This week, Netflix shared Dog and Boy, an animated short the streaming giant described as an “experimental effort” to address the anime industry’s ongoing labor shortage. “We used image generation technology for the background images of all three-minute video cuts,” said Netflix Japan of the project on , according to a machine translation. The short is touching but was immediately controversial. As , many Twitter users accused Netflix of using AI to avoid paying human artists.
Netflix アニメ・クリエイターズ・ベース×技術開発のrinna株式会社×WIT STUDIOによる共同プロジェクトアニメ『犬と少年』のショートムービー。— Netflix Japan | ネットフリックス (@NetflixJP) January 31, 2023
Others took issue with how Netflix and Wit Studio, the company that produced the short, credited those who worked on Dog and Boy. As you can see at the end of the video, human animators were not only involved in the creation of the short’s backgrounds, but they also revised the AI’s work. However, the background designer is listed as “AI (+Human).” The credits go on to list Rinna Inc, an AI artwork company, and a handful of AI researchers.
Many artists worry about the potential for AI to devalue their work, but that concern is particularly acute among anime creators. The labor shortages Netflix points to are the result of unsustainable labor practices that see the majority of Japan’s animation studios depend on essentially unpaid freelancers to complete much of the work that makes anime possible.
According to from the Japanese Animation Creators Association published in 2018, , the workers who draw the frames that make a scene look fluid, earn about ¥200 (or less than $2) per drawing. With many frames taking more than an hour to produce, the average in-between animator can expect to make about ¥1.1 million (or $10,000) per year. For context, in 2019, Japan’s poverty line was at ¥2.2 million.