In their last year of high school, animation aficionados Aoi Miyamori, Ema Yasuhara, Shizuka Sakaki, Misa Todo, and Midori Imai made a short anime film called The Seven Lucky Gods and vowed (over donuts) that they would enter the anime industry and one day make their dream into a reality. Several years later, all of them have work in anime, but they're nowhere close to achieving their goal. Ema is a key animator, Misa does computer graphics for video games, Midori is a researcher aspiring to be a screenwriter, and Shizuka works part-time while attempting to land voice acting jobs; Aoi, meanwhile, has become a production assistant at Musashino Animation, a once-lauded studio that hasn't produced a hit in years and is, therefore, under more than a little pressure to make their current series, the magical girl tale Exodus, into a success.
It's no real secret, at this point, that to work as an animator in Japan is to have a thankless task. The people who make it possible for us to consume as much anime as we do earn a pittance for a living, especially when compared to the salaries of animators on this side of the Pacific, work in an environment that, by all accounts, is brutal, high stress, and often simply miserable, and, from what I understand, get virtually no respect from wider Japanese society for their efforts. Heck, one of the darkest and most horrifying episodes of the notoriously dark and horrifying Paranoia Agent was set in an animation studio, in which the late Satoshi Kon used anime production as a backdrop for exploring human anxiety in a bizarre combination of an exposé and a love letter to his roots.
I bring this up because whether we like or dislike a show, whether we watch it casually or devotedly, and whether we find fault or merit with its production values, it’s alarmingly easy to forget what anime ultimately is made of: the energy of the people who write, draw, voice, and edit it. And like many anime fans, and anime reviewers especially, I’ve been plenty guilty of forgetting this while simultaneously doling out criticism, over the years. Because of this, 2014’s Shirobako is more than just one of the best anime whose subject is its own industry, standing alongside the aforementioned segment of Paranoia Agent. It’s something that I see as nothing less than essential viewing, for it is the testament of the people who, while often thought of in only the most abstract of terms, make it possible for anime, and thus for sites like this one, to exist.
I originally was hesitant to watch Shirobako because the promotional art hinted at something resembling K-On!, but for animators, and I wasn't too keen on watching a show that had more to do with high school antics than the actual subject matter. The show, however, subverts that expectation somewhat, for one of its main points is that the girls' experience making an independent movie at their high school (which occupies only part of the first episode) almost certainly won't mirror their experience working on other people's projects in the industry. There's an ultimate sweetness to those scenes, thus, in that their desire to one day turn The Seven Lucky Gods into a movie does, indeed, serve as a reminder of why they entered the industry in the first place, and why holding onto some sort of hope might be essential to survive in such a world. Because the main characters certainly need it: Misa, for example, is burned out on being unable to make a living with her 3D animation skills by doing anything besides animating car wheels for video games, again and again, and aspiring voice actress Shizuka, probably the show's most down-and-out character, is shown attending tens upon tens of auditions, but with no results to show for it.
Indeed, all of the main characters and virtually all of the characters whom the show lingers on exhibit pain, emptiness, and frustration at some point. There's a strong hint as to what the girls could turn into later on, if jadedness were to get to them, when Shizuka drunkenly sits in her apartment and bitterly lambasts a voice actress for saying that she's "too busy" in a TV interview, her tone and expression strongly resembling that of Daisuke Shiraoka, a now washed-up, apathetic, and bitter animator at Musashino who was clearly once as passionate as Aoi and the others. The point is, I suppose, not that a good attitude and an overarching dream will cure every problem associated with the industry, but that it's simply something that one needs to hold onto if they aren't going to end up sounding and looking like Daisuke. Indeed, as Shirobako gives several of Musashino's veteran animators spotlights, we see the various ways in which those who've managed to stay and thrive have found a passion to follow: one of my favorite episodes centered around Rinko Ogasawara, a veteran key animator who dresses in gothic lolita wear, who recalls how she once began dressing as such when she realized how much it helped her stay in the mindset of a gothic lolita-themed anime she was drawing, and how, even working on other projects, it's helped her maintain a sense of poise and self-confidence that gives her inner strength.
And the show is ultimately about Aoi's own, similar arc of personal growth. At the beginning of the show, she's a staff member with relatively few managerial responsibilities and little self-confidence, a character who's passive in her own show. In fact, if there's a flaw to Shirobako, it's that while five characters are billed as constituting the "main cast," it's ultimately Aoi's story, and although I didn't mind this later on, it was a problem in the early stages, when I hadn't yet warmed to her. Even then, I still was a bit disappointed that we didn't spend more time on some of her former classmates, since I found their stories (Shizuka's especially) equally compelling. Regardless, the show's two halves very cleverly pursue different purposes, with the first half of the show beginning with Musashino Animation in the middle of producing the PreCure-esque Exodus and functioning to introduce us to the studio and its staff (with their names and positions helpfully illustrated with subtitles); in the second half, once we've had a look into the nuts and bolts of the studio, Aoi is given a much more prominent role, as a newly-anointed manager thrust into the mess of adapting a new show, Third Aerial Girls' Squad (a Last Exile-esque fantasy). If, in the first half, she's stuck dutifully but frustratedly carrying out mundane tasks, such as driving around to pick up animation frames, it's in the second half where her challenge comes: she has the chance to take charge of a production, and she absolutely must not blow that one and only chance. Indeed, one aspect of Shirobako that I rather liked were her internal dialogues, acted out via a pair of dolls she keeps around her office, a teddy bear and a gothic lolita figure, who verbalize the confusion she experiences and the emotional highs and lows that she, in her manager's persona, has to keep under wraps.
It's frankly amazing how far she eventually does come. One of the best episodes of the series, episode twelve, focuses on her gaining the confidence to track down an animator who is essentially Hideaki Anno in all but name, in order to have him draw a sequence that the studio is convinced only he can handle; a brief shot of one of his past works is a clear reference to Mr. Anno's work animating the fire demon from Nausicaa, which essentially kickstarted his career. It's basically the first episode in which she is left to do something like this on her own, and to approach and track down a famous animator no less, with her trepidation being tangible throughout. She handles herself gracefully (if a bit nervously), however, and even when Mr. "Kanno" turns down the job, they've established enough of a rapport and have been able to talk about anime, like colleagues, to the extent that when he finds out that her favorite show, growing up, was Andes Chucky (modeled after the obscure Rocky Chuck, The Mountain Rat), he's able to turn her towards a veteran animator at her own studio, Sugie, who essentially had made that show as great as it was but whose work is now all-but-forgotten. I have no idea whether Mr. Anno is as encouraging or sympathetic towards younger animators (or to female animators, for that matter), as he comes across here, but it's a nice moment: Aoi builds her confidence and her skills at building connections, and in a later episode, when she's forced to enlist the help of a much less friendly animator who subtly but distinctly prods fun at her age and gender during their exchange (in addition to hitting on her inappropriately), she's able to do so without batting an eye. I'll leave more of the details to imagination so that you can actually watch the show, but ultimately, the degree to which Aoi grows is nothing short of triumphant, and this applies to her friends' smaller but no less significant arcs, also.
When Shirobako isn't centered on Aoi, which is more the case in the first half, it's a show focused on the politics and intricacies of the anime industry, and it's one that ANN founder Justin Sevakis has described as eerily accurate on multiple occasions, including once in response to one of my own Answerman question. If there's a point to Shirobako, it's that just as in the real anime industry, nothing ever pans out as planned: whether it's Aoi being forced to scramble to track down animators to tackle a particularly finicky sequence at the 11th hour, or the author of the manga you're currently adapting abruptly telling you that he doesn't like the ending you've written, or said mangaka's condescending and unhelpful middleman making it near-impossible for the staff to even talk to him directly, the show is all about the curveballs the industry throws. And indeed, while the people of Shirobako do ultimately pull two adaptations out of their bag that are frankly pretty damned good, the pressure for them to be successful is real and tangible, especially since it's established that Musashino is in need of a hit; Shirobako seems to be telling us that some anime aren't good simply because it takes superhuman strength and cunning to overcome these sorts of surprises. When our director, Seiichi Kinoshita (apparently based on Fullmetal Alchemist director Seiji Mizushima), literally bats down the aforementioned middlemen, shounen manga-style, while striving to at last meet with the mangaka and discuss the ending, it's absurd, and yet it's a fairly accurate representation of the strings these people pull and the lengths to which they go to get their work done. Heck, Aoi's scenes of delivering her storyboards to key animators are done in the style of Initial D, with her racing against animators from rival studios and trying to bring her work first. The stakes really are that high.
Ultimately, however, the most interesting aspect of Shirobako is its examination of studio politics, including gender politics. The aforementioned director was, aside from Rinko, one of my favorite characters, being lovable and devoted in his otakudom, particularly in literally imagining himself doing what his characters are doing (in women's clothing) on several occasions in order to better envision them. Nonetheless, a common thread throughout the show is that he, and several of the other higher-ups, can only actually do their job because of their staff. Indeed, Mr. Kinoshita is childlike in his own navel-gazing, at times, and in his letting the failure of his previous show derail Exodus and Third Aerial Girls' Squad; at one point, his chief production assistant literally locks him in a room to get him to finish his storyboards (a practice that I've heard actually happens a fair bit in manga production). The show tells us time and time again that its characters like Yuka Okitsu, the show's undeniably awesome female General Manager, who keep things in line, and that it's often the female characters on the lower rungs of the hierarchy who actually keep the wheels of the production system turning. Indeed, one of the show's few outright despicable characters, the perpetually lazy, immature, and lackadaisical Tarou, is so annoying and yet so essential to the show because he's the textbook example of how much easier it is for males to succeed, much less break into, this industry, even when they slack off. Another telling scene involved a series of casting directors coming up with the most superficial and sexist possible criteria for choosing voice actresses, among them her "cuteness," her singing ability, and, most horridly, the "size of her boobs." I could go on and on about these aspects of the show, but I'll just say that they make Shirobako into one of the most nuanced looks at the industry that I've come across.
I'm going to echo an urging that I've come across several times: watch Shirobako. It's a fascinating and utterly indispensable look at the anime industry, P.A. Works' finest show to date, and one of the finest anime I've seen in recent years. Although I rarely say that one "must" or "has to" watch a given show, I'm inclined to do so here: if we're going to watch and review anime, then I think we owe it to ourselves to look into the world from which it comes.Shirobako, as far as I'm concerned, might be the best means of doing so.
The testament of the animator that, I think, that constitutes essential viewing for anime fans. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: The show itself is very tame; characters (of-age) do consume alcohol and get mildly tipsy, and there are a few crude jokes, but that's about it. There's a bit of fanservice in some of the shows that Musashino is working on, but it's very brief. Shirobako is geared towards older anime fans, overall, but there isn't anything that kids really shouldn't see.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of crunchyroll.com (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (24/24)
Shirobako © 2014 SHIROBAKO PROJECT
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