Nowadays, it is not uncommon for there to be long time gaps between seasons of anime. For instance, there was a four-year gap between the respective first and second seasons of Attack on Titan and One-Punch Man, but it only took five years to get three Iron Man movies from Marvel Studios. Although the reasons for Attack on Titan's four years are very different from One-Punch Man's, they're by no means exceptional cases in the world of anime. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why some anime take such a long time to get another season.
Scheduling Isn't as Simple as You Might Think
During a Sword Art Online panel at Anime Expo 2014, the author of both Sword Art Online and Accel World, Reki Kawahara, was asked about future anime plans for Accel World, which was adapted into a fairly popular anime by Sunrise in 2012, meaning it was natural to assume that it would receive a second season.
Kawahara’s response was both funny and pragmatic -- it turns out that Accel World's production studio was also responsible for the wildly popular idol series Love Live!, which they were (and likely still are) fully occupied with, leaving no time for Accel World. Unfortunately, a studio change was also difficult due to other studios' busy schedules. One of the key animators in Sword Art Online, Yuu Aoki, recently shared his experiences with animation production on the voice chat app Clubhouse, and his story echoes that of Kawahara’s. His speech is detailed in this Twitter thread.
Aoki noted that since most animation studios are busy with projects, it usually takes at least two years to plan an anime project in advance. If a Season 2 is immediately announced after Season 1’s conclusion, this means it was already planned a long time ago. Otherwise, the production will have to wait at least two years for the same staff to return and produce Season 2.
Director Hiroshi Nishikiori, whose work includes A Certain Magical Index, which also had long breaks between seasons, chimed into Aoki’s conversation and points out that, in order to have the same staff across seasons, the production will have to wait until everyone’s schedule fits. This gets harder the longer they wait, since many animators infamously work ridiculous hours, meaning their schedules fill up very quickly. If the same staff is not able to return for Season 2, as was the case for One-Punch Man Season 2, the outcome could be quite disappointing.
Scheduling is especially problematic for original anime that don’t have the clout of a popular source material behind it. Since original anime are not guaranteed to succeed, production committees are only willing to give one or two seasons of resources and will not commit to producing more episodes unless Blu-rays and merchandise sell very well. Some original anime, such as 2019’s Stars Align even got one of its pre-planned seasons cut due to lack of budget, leading to a major cliffhanger ending. Then, there is always the issue of the anime catching up with the progress of the source material. However, the popularity of shows like Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia proves that audiences are willing to wait a bit longer for high-quality productions.
Production Committee Issues Can Cause Delays
Scheduling also brings up the earning structure issue at anime studios. Anime production committees usually look for sponsors to fund the production before a show is ever produced. These sponsors can include TV stations, publishers and toy and figure makers. The sponsors expect returns for their investment, usually through selling merchandise, DVDs, Blu-rays, licensing deals and related source materials.
Even when an anime receives a lot of audience attention and acclaim, if the sales of related merchandise are not up to par, the anime will still not be considered a success by the production committee’s standards. These “failed” productions will not likely receive a timely second season, if any at all. Overseas investors such as Netflix and Crunchyroll could change this situation, but for now, the traditional profit structure still dictates which anime are produced.
The Human Cost of Anime Production
It is always important to remember that animation is a very labor-intensive industry, and Japan still produces most anime via hand-drawn animation -- and drawing each frame by hand requires a lot of time and effort. Even though Japan now outsources a lot of the minor in-between animations (as in, what fills the frames between cuts) to countries with lower costs of labor, the wages animators earn in relation to the amount of work they produce is extremely unbalanced.
According to the latest statistics, Japan’s current hourly minimum wage is around ￥902 on average (~$9). In-between animators earn around ￥200 (~$2) per page, and one page usually takes about one hour to complete, meaning these animators can’t earn a living wage no matter how hard they work. Even a key animator for the massively popular Demon Slayer only earns ￥4,000 per cut.
The problem is partly related to how anime studios make profits. According to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, most animation studios do not keep the rights for secondary usage of their products, meaning merchandising and licensing rights (see graph above, light yellow means 0% usage rights). The Association of Japanese Animations (AJA) reports that in 2019, the market size of Japanese animation in the broad sense, including secondary usage like merchandising and licensing, is ￥1.27 trillion ($24 billion), while in the narrower sense, animation production companies’ revenue is ￥300 billion ($2.88 billion). This means 90% of the anime industry’s revenue does not go to the production companies.
Even so, the amount of money the animators are paid is abysmal compared to any average worker in a billion-dollar industry. More animators nowadays are changing to working part-time due to being underpaid as a result. This problem ties back to the first point of scheduling and also leads to fewer resources left for the production to plan for second seasons. If production companies continue to overwork and underpay their animators, fewer talents will be willing to join or stay in the industry and the issue of prolonged breaks between seasons will only increase.