Fans of One Piece have long harped about the quality of the anime and often disparaged Toei Animation as villains who don’t care about the quality of their product when the reality could not be further from the truth. The staff associated with One Piece and its production have at length shown their commitment to the series and Oda’s own world with animators putting in insane hours working on the anime. However fans often rave about the “Bad Animation” of One Piece and decide to pin the blame Toei Animation as if it were a single monolithic entity that just spews episodes of anime without regard for the the quality of the work they put out. The truth is when dealing with a long running series like One Piece, there are various stakeholders involved who fund and manage the project. These stakeholders all have a say with regards to their requirements for the TV anime and provide funding to ensure that their needs are met.
Interestingly enough I do find it worth looking into how One Piece is made but first let’s take a quick look at how most anime are produced. Nowadays the common method of producing an anime relies on the Production Committee system.
To produce an anime a joint venture partnership is formed by various companies who pitch in funds. For the companies involved, the system provides a way to produce more varied titles and the risk associated with the production is minimised so if a failure occurs with the title the losses incurred is reduced. On the other side if a title succeeds, they get their share of the profits and on top of that, by being a part of the committee they guarantee their own ability to exploit the series in other means.
However, One Piece doesn’t rely on the production committee system. Whilst the production committee system originated from film productions and were more widely adopted during the late 90s for TV anime productions, prior to that a title required sponsors. This system had quite a few pitfalls though. Studio Pierrot’s managing founder Yuuji Nunokawa says that there were a lot more problems such as “not having enough sponsors to produce a show”, “taking too long to find sponsors and have only one month left to produce a show”, “having to accept the sponsors’ demand to advertise their products in the show”. These were all compromises that had to be made to allow anime to be produced and it limited the studio’s ability to create anime programs based on free ideas.
Despite these pitfalls, the system works well for properties that are inherently successful. One Piece relies on the Sponsor system with its sponsors being Toei Animation, the publisher of the original manga Shueisha and the Japanese broadcaster Fuji TV.
The reason I bring this up is because fans often say why doesn’t One Piece air seasonally so that the anime can deliver 25 high quality episodes a year whilst mistakenly assigning the blame on Toei for being money hungry. However, Shueisha, Fuji TV, and Toei all have a stake in the franchise and unless a consensus can be reached by the stakeholders who sponsor the show then a decision can’t be made. In the case of having the series air seasonally, it would cause an imbalance on Shueisha and Fuji TV’s side, as Fuji TV would have to change the Sunday morning time slot for One Piece which primarily keeps long running series such as Professor Layton and GeGeGe no Kitaro at the moment, whilst previously hosting series like Dragon Ball Super and Toriko.
For those fans who’ve kept up with the One Piece anime for a long time, you may recall that it wasn’t always airing in this time slot. One Piece began broadcasting on Wednesday nights at 7:30PM, then moved to primetime on Saturdays at 7:30 PM however the show wasn’t doing well during Enies Lobby and almost ended up off the air. In fact many affiliate networks stopped airing One Piece and the series was moved to the Sunday morning time-slot after Episode 279. Despite that the sponsors managed to keep the show on the air and continue broadcast when odds were stacked against them. Sadly, when the switch in time-slots occured, the move from primetime to Sunday morning took away many of the opportunities that One Piece had to go on break throughout the year. With the new timeslot One Piece has to deliver 48 episodes a year and only has 4 weeks off whereas the old timeslot had 40 episodes on average a year with more breaks as a buffer.
More recently, fans are often quick to criticise the animation of One Piece and outright demonize Toei as a company calling their works lazy and sweatshop-like. This is undoubtedly and egregiously false. For an animator starting out in the industry Toei Animation is one of the most attractive companies to work. Out of all the major animation studios, Toei offers the highest base salary for new animators. The base salary for an animator at Toei is 226,000 yen per month with housing aid included already. Furthermore, this salary also applies to new trainees who are just getting started in the anime industry. The industry as a whole is plagued with overworked animators and salaries that don’t keep up so for someone entering the industry Toei is one of the most attractive options when it comes to an animation studio to work for. To give some contrast, Madhouse doesn’t offer a proper training period for new animators and staff are compensated based on how much they animate. As such this leaves experienced animators with enough leeway to earn income but new animators are put under pressure to earn their income. Another example is Studio Bones which fares better than Madhouse but pales in comparison to Toei in this regard. They offer 80,000 yen per month regardless of output during their first year and offer great mentorship for new animators. However, Toei is a multimedia megacorporation and with a union that was fought for so there’s historical circumstances at play with how things turned out for Toei.
However, the rhetoric that Toei is hoarding cash and leaving animators by the wayside is completely false and bares no weight when you look at the facts at hand. Not to mention that “budget” isn’t really what causes animation to turn out great or bad but rather a multitude of more important factors such as the schedule and staff on a project. Often, fans look to series like One Punch Man and say “oh they must have spent their whole budget on the episode” which could not be further from the truth. According to the Chief Animation Director, Chikashi Kubota, “People tend to think that One Punch Man must have a huge budget, but that’s really not the case. In fact it’s extremely average. The reason the animation is so good is thanks to the passion and love for the source material the animators have. That’s why they put their all into every part of One Punch Man. Please continue to support the One Punch Man anime from here on out!”
Furthermore, in the case of One Punch Man specifically, the project had a really good schedule and was mostly done before the season aired. The quality of a project tends to have a correlation between the schedule and the staff, and as season 1 was directed by the highly regarded Shingo Natsume and supervised by the aforementioned Chikashi Kubota many top industry freelancers were attracted to the project. However, Season 2 will be directed by Chikara Sakurai and produced at JC. Staff who notably have a lot on their plate at the moment so it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up compared to Season 1, but thankfully we still have Chikashi Kubota as the Chief Animation Director and Character Designer. It’s just worth mentioning since when we do get around to Season 2 I expect fans will compare and contrast the two productions and possibly misattribute it to being JC. Staff’s fault if it doesn’t stack up but I sincerely hope that’s not the case.
When it comes to a long running show like One Piece the most important factors come down to staff and the schedule. If the schedule is bad then the quality of the episodes goes down however if the schedule is good then staff have more time to produce work of a higher quality. However, if there’s not enough staff then it puts pressure on the staff that are working on the series to deliver faster and the quality can suffer. This can be evident when staff are working on multiple projects within the same timeframe. For example, when One Piece gets a TV special it generally means that a segment of the staff dedicated to the TV anime move to the TV specials’ production which can impact the quality of certain scenes in the anime. A key example would be the late Dressrosa arc around the Gear 4th transformation. The output of the anime during that time-frame was heavily impacted due to the TV special that was broadcast in December 2015. Similarly, the Episode of East Blue special impacted the Luffy vs Cracker and Sanji vs Judge episodes of the One Piece anime as staff were moved to work on the project. The very nature of a long running series means that producers have to account for staff and deliver work under deadlines so its important to maintain a good staff rotation and schedule. These days the average One Piece episode takes about 2 months to animate, with animators appearing on episodes in rotations every 8 weeks or so though some episodes can be in production for up to eleven weeks which is quite healthy. As such, it’s important to allow each animator enough time to produce their key animation by maintaining a good schedule and also have enough manpower through staff to deliver without unnecessary pressure.
To address the elephant in the room, some dedicated One Piece fans often cite Toei for ruining OP due to the nature of its pacing. The simple comparison drawn is that Toei used to adapt 2.5 chapters earlier in the series and now the pace is reduced. Whilst there is some truth in that, it undermines the reality that these days a single One Piece chapter is a lot more dense than earlier in the story. Oda has gone on record saying that he condenses the content per chapter so that he can complete the story and leaves any elaboration to the anime production team. This leaves the production staff a lot of opportunities to elaborate on elements that Oda condenses which does wonders for maintaining a gap between the anime and manga. As you know One Piece maintains a 35 chapter gap from the manga so it’s important to maintain the gap as to not overtake the manga.
Towards the end of the Dressrosa Arc, there were two episodes (#737 and #738) focused on the Sabo’s back story, and the anime extended the his story compared to the manga and gave some much needed characterisation that Oda couldn’t draw in the manga. In fact, Oda mentioned in the SBS column that the anime would show more of Sabo’s story, and the official website published two pages of the screenplay with Oda’s notes prior to the airing of #737.
Similarly, the staff confirmed that they contacted Oda before adding more action scenes in the Zou arc when pertaining to Musketeers in Zou Arc, and in the WCI Arc Oda also shared his design notes and sketches with the anime staff. Furthermore, included in all these insider notes Oda provided the detailed data of all the sons and daughters of Big Mom. These examples show that Oda is frequently collaborating with the anime staff to ensure that the anime and manga are effective in conveying the story for the mediums they’re presented in.
Some fans may at this point be wondering, ‘how about more fillers’. If the pacing is important why doesn’t Toei create more fillers to increase the gap between the anime and manga. According to the current producer Koyama in an interview, before Toei was going to make the Marine Rookie filler arc after Zou, they had to get unanimous agreement from all the stakeholders of One Piece anime.
However, on a weekly basis the effectiveness of managing the pacing in the anime can depend on the skill of the director as well as the schedule. If the schedule is bad, then directors have to prioritise speed over polish which may lead to bad pacing. However, a talented director can enhance the direction of the episode to ensure that the story is delivered as effectively as possible for the medium of animation. For example, episode director Aya Komaki is highly regarded in the fandom with an emphasis on timing, storyboarding and music placement as well as a general polish to allow for scenes to transition cohesively. In Episode 824 the scenes featuring the strawhat juxtaposed brilliantly with the visuals and music. In Episode 830, Komaki returned and delivered a unique character introduction with a musical number which was well directed and enhanced the potency of the storytelling ability in the manga.
In general, the series director Toshinori Fukuzawa along with the rest of the production team have really been working hard to up the quality of the anime and along with the introduction of Chief Animation Director Keiichi Ichikawa the anime has gained a lot of polish with the art looking more consistent overall thanks to his corrections. I honestly believe One Piece currently is in the best place it has been in years thanks to the efforts of the staff whose passion for One Piece has allowed it take strides forward.
For the fans, whilst its easy to pick apart the animation and call it lazy or ‘no budget’ the truth is producing weekly episodes on a long term basis requires a lot of dedicated and talented staff spending their weeks toiling away even going as far to sacrifice their own holidays to work on productions they’re so passionate about. Hopefully this video is enlightening to those who never knew about what goes into a production and provides some much needed context and insight into what’s going on at Toei and in particular One Piece so fans can avoid the rhetoric that has plagued the community at large when it comes to the discourse behind Toei and their productions.