Crunchyroll Criticized for Underpaying Voice Actors

Heather Qin '24

In the Japanese animation industry, stories of animators, particularly free-lancers and in-betweeners, enduring overwork and meager pay are commonplace. In 2019, Studio Madhouse was accused of violating labor code by an animator claiming he worked nearly 400 hours in a month without receiving a single day off [1]. More recently, an in-betweener at Studio Mappa claimed he was only paid 250 yen, or $2, for working on a trailer for Chainsaw Man that has amassed over sixteen million views to date [2]. However, as Western companies such as Netflix begin to enter the market, these problems have surfaced on the English dub side as well.


In late September of 2022, Kyle McCarley, the English dub voice of Mob Psycho 100’s psychic-powered protagonist, announced that he would not be able to play the lead role due to the streaming service Crunchyroll refusing a union contract. Under the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA, contract, performers can have a say in work hours, wages, and safety precautions for vocally stressful work— for example, protagonists in the shonen demographic geared toward teenagers tend to do a lot of yelling. Although the platform was willing to pay a union wage, McCarley suggested that Crunchyroll was unwilling to set a future precedent for better pay and benefits [3]


A similar problem plagued the English dub voice actors in the movie Jujutsu Kaisen Zero, adapted from the prequel of popular shonen manga by Gege Akutami. Upon its release in the domestic box office, the film made almost $28 million in ten days [4], but Anairis Quinones, voice of the character Rika Orimoto, tweeted that she was only paid $150 for her role in the film. Other voice actors such as Chris Tergliafera have echoed similar stories, stating that negotiations for higher wages were unsuccessful [5]. Compared to animators, the work of voice actors tends to be less visible, and consequently, these performers are easily blacklisted and mistreated [6]. Such instances have prompted widespread criticism by fans, with many reexamining the role that Western corporations such as Netflix and Crunchyroll play in the industry. 


Ippei Ichii, a Japanese animator, blames Netflix for paying “dirt-cheap” prices to animate an increasingly large body of work, consequently lowering the unit price for animators [2]. Likewise, fans often blame the aforementioned companies for not only mistreating workers and translators, but also “ruining” Japanese shows by forcing certain standards or tropes onto entertainment. Netflix’s 2022 film, Bubble, was created in collaboration with Wit Studio, famous for animating Attack on Titan and the first season of Vinland Saga. Bubble flaunted a team of cast and staff that seemed to good to be true, featuring Yuki Kaji and Mamoru Miyano, two seasoned and wildly popular voice actors: Araki Tetsurou, who directed Death Note and three seasons of Attack on Titan, and Gen Urobuchi, a dark fantasy novelist famous for creating series such as Fate/Zero, Psycho-Pass, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Hiroyuki Sawano, arguably one of the most famous composers in the anime and video game industry, and Eve, a Japanese singer, served as composer and theme song performer respectively.


However, despite its stacked cast and a beautifully animated trailer, the film ultimately received relatively low ratings on various websites and left the community disappointed— how could a movie with such a promising lineup go so awry? Although embellished with outstanding production quality, the film’s Disney-esque plot and characters became a subject of debate that left much to be desired. Perhaps Netflix was trying too hard to appeal to a wider audience, or neglected substance for style. Either way, the film became a prime example of a foreign company forcing artists to collaborate in a way that did not necessarily highlight their merits, but instead prioritized name recognition. 


Ultimately, underpaid voice actors, overworked animators, and exploitation by large companies exist as part of a slew of problems burdening the animation industry. Companies across both the US and Japan have pulled shows, reduced artist visibility, and paid wages below the poverty line, all while streaming services and merchandise companies walk away with disproportionate profits. Furthermore, these platforms’ subscription plans and low variety of anime leave frustrated fans with no other option than to resort to piracy. As CGI usage and AI-generated art become subjects of controversy, it also becomes increasingly important for fans, companies, and producers to appreciate and uplift the hard work of artists that often go unnoticed.