Animator Henry Thurlow is, as far he knows, the first American to work at one of Tokyo's greatest anime studios. And he's paying the price.
Like most American kids, Henry Thurlow grew up watching cartoons on television. At age 12, he first saw HBO's Spawn, and it opened up a darker world of violent animation geared toward adults. He soon discovered the anime section of his local video store and started renting series like Genocyber, Yoma, Ninja Scroll, and Demon City Shinjuku. It was the graphic torture scenes in these films that set him on a decade-long trajectory into the dark heart of the anime industry itself.
After graduating from Pratt Institute, Thurlow spent a few years working in New York City's unstable animation scene on web games, kids shows, music videos, and Adult Swim's Superjail. But he found it mostly unfulfilling.
"With the exception of Superjail, I felt like I was wasting my talents/life on crap instead of 'true art.' Where are the 2D feature films? Particularly high-quality boundary-pushing TV shows? Where is any 2D animation being produced in America that takes the art form to its limits? Nowhere."
So he decided to pursue his lifelong dream: He headed to Japan to make anime.
It wasn't easy.
"I would apply to a bunch of anime studios, and get rejected. Then, for the rest of the year I would redo my portfolio entirely, learn more Japanese, and try to make any connections I could with people working in the studios. Summertime would roll around again, and I'd repeat the process. It took four years, but finally the studio Nakamura-Productions told me that my portfolio was good enough, and if my visa was valid, and I was mentally prepared for the never-ending work-hell I was about to enter, that they'd let me work there. I told them yes."
Henry soon became "the first and only Westerners" working at Pierrot Studios, one of Tokyo's premier animation house.
He discovered that the animation industry in Japan is very different from back home.
"The projects are amazing and there's a sense of pride that you're among (or at least surrounded by) the best of the best. Unfortunately, as far as 'good things about the anime industry go, that's about it."
Before getting hired, interviewers would warn Henry that it was a "tough industry". The hours would be long and the pay would be low. He soon discovered just how much of an understatement that was.
"Let's just be clear: It's not a 'tough' industry... It's an 'illegally harsh' industry. They don't pay you even remotely minimum wage, they overwork you to the point where people are vomiting at work and having to go to the hospital for medicine. They demand that you come in whenever they realize a deadline isn't going to be met. That probably means about a month and a half of nonstop work without a single day off. Then you will be allowed to go back to your regular six-day workweeks of 10-hour days."
And, unlike the friendly camaraderie of American studios, in Japan they are completely silent. Thurlow says, "No one talks, or gets lunch together or anything. They just sit and work in complete silence and seem uninterested in changing this."
It's all for the art.
For a salary that's been as low as $100 a month, the never-ending work schedule has landed Thurlow in the hospital three times for exhaustion and illness.
"Keep in mind all of this hard work was essentially all for the sake of simply being involved in and credited in the animation projects I love."
The few hours a week Thurlow has for himself is spent animating his own short film project from a mattress on the floor of his closet-sized room. The film, entitled Judgement and Justice will be, in his own words, "unwatchably gory." It's the culmination of all his anger and frustration of his life in Japan.
"I treat it more like a piece of fine art I'm just trying to satisfy myself with rather then make enjoyable for other people."
He plans on completing and releasing the film later this year.
So has it all been worth it?
When posed with this question, Thurlow doesn't hesitate: "When I was working as an animator in New York I could afford an apartment, buy stuff, and had time to 'live a life.' But the artist inside of me was screaming at the fact I wasn't making really high-quality feature films and series. Now everything about my life is utterly horrible, however the artist in me is completely satisfied."