This is something between a continuation an add-on to these posts on the 17 writers responsible for 43 of the 99 non-sequel 10k+ hit anime over the history of the medium. It contains a few observations that I made while putting the list together.
1. Some writers wait a long time for their big break.
On average, it took 9±5 years (and ~4 shows helmed) after getting into the industry for a writer to helm their first hit. Masahiro Yokotani is probably the most extreme example. Took the longest chronologically to break out, and when he did it was with 2 shows within one season of each other. True, these shows were ones in advantageous positions from the get-go; Hataraku Maou-sama was a decently popular LN which got above 20k in 2 weeks prior to the anime’s debut and Free was done by a studio known for smooth animation. But neither of those advantages is a guarantee, and shows with similar advantages have failed to come up big at times, so it’s still a very impressive achievement.
2. Yousuke Kuroda is the archetypical do-anything grizzled veteran.
You don’t even have to count his work on Gundam 00 to make him one of the two most successful writers in anime history. If you do count it, he’s got a 10-year stretch where he was churning out hits like clockwork every other year, and he got his chops with originals (Infinite Ryvius and Please Teacher) before even getting involved with “easier” manga adaptations (in quotes because, while making manga adaptations that attract attention is easy, making ones that sell well is really hard), without ever getting locked into one pattern of story. He’s currently relieving Gundam’s aging fanbase with younger viewers via the impressive Gundam Build Fighters and creatively freestyling his way through Super Sonico.*
Edit: Sam pointed me to the yearly character goods sales data for Bandai Namco. The sales of Gundam character goods (page 2, chart 1, row 1) jumped by about 20 billion yen from 2012 to 2013, presumably in large part thanks to Build Fighters. Another impressive plus on the resume.
3. Writers who got into the industry prior the age of late night were lucky that they did.
Anime may have 50 years of history (counting the 1963 original Astro Boy series as the rough starting point), but, until the late-90s Eva-fueled boom in late-night anime, the majority of “serious” anime were in theaters or on tape, not on TV. Writers who got into the industry in the decade before this happened had the eventual opportunity of being able to pick from a much larger selection of extremely ambitious TV jobs. Of the 17 in history to make 2 hits or more, 10 picked up their first credit between 1987 and 1996. Of those, 2 picked up their first hit in the 1997-1999 initial boom period.
4. Everybody’s got high points and low points on their resume, more so the more points said resume holds.
While Ichiro Okouchi may have to some extent avoided the dregs-of-the-resume stink (Shigofumi isn’t any kind of black star), he was a combination of lucky and skilled enough to have a big hit on his resume within 3 years of his debut. Most other writers were not that fortunate, and it was trivially easy to dredge up a couple of points for each that would get an intern fired if he included those titles underneath of “From the director of:” in a promo trailer. The longer someone’s been trying to make it in the industry, the more likely we are to have evidence of their fallibility. I say this not to diminish what they’ve achieved, but to highlight the fact that there are plenty of younger, less experienced writers currently in the part of their career arc that makes Kodomo no Jikan look like an attractive job. One or more stinkers on their resume doesn’t prove someone incapable of winning the big one.
In essence, extremely low points on a resume are common enough that their presence doesn’t say much about the writer’s true ability. Only when they’ve got nothing but low points after 5 or so shows does that lack of a big hit start to become a talking point. If they’ve failed to impress after 10 shows, that starts to become a real issue.
5. Writers who create multiple big successes tend to do so across genres.
It would be tempting to slap some writers with the label “specialist in genre X”, but anime writing seems to be a very potable skill. From Soji Yoshikawa on Lupin III and Armored Trooper Votoms in the pre-OVA era to Ichiro Okouchi on AzuDai and Code Geass in DVD era, there are countless examples of guys who made a living by multiclassing. This may be an effect of the same career phase that leads to low points on the resume. If young writers are in a state where most of them will jump at any opportunity they get, then they’re likely to wind up picking up experience outside of a single genre, since no one dominates the market. The general effects of experience, whatever they are, seem to be reaped regardless; the people examined here are by definition successful.
There are two reasonable theories one could posit about the significant time writers take after their debut to get involved in a big hit. One is that, as writers keep working in the industry, they build connections and a resume that causes them to be considered for projects with bigger budgets and bigger names in other key positions, projects where the majority of writers in the industry could succeed to some extent. Call this the “Seniority Leading to Chances” theory. The other is that as writers keep working in the industry, they actually get better at writing. Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is an elegant way of expressing it, but it’s not exactly a secret that many high-level skills are ones that need to be learned over long hours of work. So it stands to reason that people who have worked longer hours then have more ability, to a point. Call this the “Seasoned Veteran” theory.
Both theories above follow lines of logic that suggest that time (either to get a chance for a big break or to get the skills for one) plays a big role in making writers successful. Add that aspect to the number of difficult jobs writers take on, and together they serve as a somewhat strong caution against over-judgement of a writer’s resume. Sure, resumes do contain useful information, and checking one for prior success is a good way to get excited for an upcoming series by the same creator. But to more generally criticize a writer because they’ve delivered a stinker or two, or because they haven’t made it big yet, is to ignore that a lot of resumes of writers who have been unsuccessful to date match up with those who are hugely successful at present. Still, without naming names, I’ve seen critics do so on a very frequent basis.** It’s dangerous to abide by the same principles as a fan just looking for weak indicators of what else you might want to watch when offering serious commentary on a creator’s long-term legacy. Many factors play a role in determining who ends up with the “best” resume, even at elite tiers of staff.
*I undropped Sonico after giving up on about half of this season’s lineup, a move that has paid off in spades. It’s the best kind of episode series where each week they try out a new, unique angle. The best part is the 6-7-8 stretch where it goes from zombie horror to travelogue to mystery without skipping a beat.
**The type of commentary I personally find the most distasteful is when people look at a resume and single out a subset of shows they personally hated as evidence that creator X is a hack, and ignore anything that might be an indication to the contrary. I’m admittedly biased as can be about this; director Kishi Seiji is my personal favorite and every critic’s favorite punching bag. I’ll get into this in more detail in the corresponding column on directors, but the narrative exists because of an atmosphere that allows people to ignore the fact that so much of the man’s work has been on game adaptations (the toughest type of adaptation to make – you lose the player interaction aspect and have between 1/2 to 1/10 as much time to tell the same story) or with a less-than-ideal supporting cast. When he has even decent material to work with, as he did on Angel Beats, Kamisama Dolls, and Arpeggio, he’s been superlative with the timing and camera angle sides of production.