After enough time spent watching anime, it’s to be expected that you’ll be curious as to how it’s actually made – and not just the art of animation, but also the production aspects of it and more besides. It’s unfortunate then that there aren’t really a lot of resources to learn about it. Or at least, not in English. My limited understanding more or less comes from a few Answerman posts on ANN, the occasional bit of info the sakuga nerds retweet onto my timeline, and baseless intuition.
And I have to admit, I was not expecting Shirobako to fill in that educational gap. After all, the premise given before it aired was more or less “a group of high school girls made an anime in school, and now aim to make one together as professionals!” which, y’know, still sounds like a cute-girls-doing-cute-things show just transposed into a working environment. A nice bit of fluff that captures some of the fundamentals but is only really a shallow take on it, because it’s just context for the character-driven meat of the show. Kinda like Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, but anime instead of manga and moe instead of romantic-comedy.
Christ was I wrong.
Shirobako starts out so nicely. We see the girls still in school, in their animation club, working their hardest to get their original short film ready in time for the cultural festival. They’re all pitching in, with each of them focusing on their speciality, and making their dream a reality. There’s smiles, donuts, hopes and happiness everywhere, and you can tell from their joy when they show the finished product that that’s when they decided to commit to this for their future. So much optimism for the creative, artistic path that lies ahead of them!
Flash forward two years. Reality has hit, and it has hit hard. Apparently, making anime is actual work. Tiring, stressful, underappreciated and overburdened work.
It isn’t smooth sailing for our gang of five. Misa Toudou is working on 3DCG, Midori Imai is in university, Shizuka Sakaki is a struggling voice actress, Ema Yasuhara is a newbie key animator at Musashino Animation, and Aoi Miyamori – our protagonist – is a production assistant alongside her. They know now that their dream of turning their rough little high school animation project into a feature length product is going to be so much harder than they had originally imagined.
With not much else they can do, they work on the jobs in front of them while trying to further their dreams – both their individual and collective ones – in any way they can.
Shirobako is, at the absolutely very least, an excellent workplace sitcom. It not only has the comedic chops to make professional work achingly funny, but it also captures the stress and anxiety of deadlines, pressure and endless expectations without losing any of the humour. It helps that anime production lends itself to this quite well – it requires a huge number of wholly different roles all depending on each other, creatives butting heads with business-minded suits, and tight scheduling that’s constantly threatened to be thrown out of whack by even the smallest thing, making for a huge amount of conflict and catharsis which Shirobako doesn’t fail to capitalise on.
It’s all well and good having a large number of varied characters ‘given’, but if they can’t be handled well then it’s more of a draw on the show than anything. Fortunately, Shirobako had no problems with that at all – more than that, it excelled! Looking at just the main 5 already mentioned, we see a group all with their very well-defined tastes, anxieties, flaws and ambitions, along with the compromises they’ve had to make to get where they are. Miyamori, being the main character, obviously gets the most development and depth out of them, but the other four are hardly shallow either. Midori ‘Diesel-san’ Imai arguably gets the short end of the stick, being sidelined as a student for the first half and all, but by the end it’s obviously only for lack of exposure – not lack of characterisation.
This extends to many of the secondary characters as well. If they’re at all prominent they’re more than likely to be given some backstory and motivations, rarely to the point that they’ll accidentally dominate an episode but more than enough to give them an extra dimension or two. And given the sheer size of the cast (it starts out big, then they hire more), this is nothing short of impressive. But to really give an idea as to how good Shirobako is with characters, we need only look at two individuals.
First, there’s Tarou Takanashi. This fucking guy. He starts out as a complete self-aggrandizing prat whose wilful lack of focus almost ruins everything on more than one occasion, and who you might end up seeing facetiously referred to by the actual anime industry when they hit production issues. But by the end he’s… well, he’s the same, but it’s clear that he’s sincere, enthusiastic, genuinely well-meaning, too upbeat and optimistic to dislike, and is actually capable of getting shit done when against the ropes. I’ll still bemoan his presence, but it’s because he creates more work for Miyamori and is an almost constant spanner in the works that everyone’s somehow learned to work around, not because I hate him personally. Trust me, if you saw Twitter while Shirobako was airing, this is not light praise.
And second, Daisuke Hiraoka. If Tarou was hated not for his personality, but for fucking everything up, then Hiraoka is hated because of his personality, and also because he fucks everything up. But what do you expect from an insufferable, cynical, selfish man who has no love for the art, only cares about speed at the expense of quality, doesn’t even try to cultivate any interpersonal skills, and is just generally unlikeable? I shouldn’t need to say that this is all setup for his character arc, the end of which leaves him incredibly sympathetic – both in and out of universe.
A major theme that’s interwoven wonderfully throughout Shirobako, one that unifies the cast, is the theme of ‘dreams’ – the hopes and ambitions that the characters hold for the future, as well as the ones they held in the past, and obviously the impact they’ve had and continue to have. Virtually every character has a dream, and in the cases of more prominent characters those dreams are very relevant to the story.
Take Katsuragi, the director at Musashino Animation. After doing some well-received adaptations in his youth, he decided to create his dream project which suffered one production setback after another and ultimately turned him into a joke. He lost his wife, gained weight and has been stuck doing nothing of note, but he nonetheless sticks it out because it’s his dream to create anime! Or how about Honda, the production desk during ‘Exodus!’, who ends up leaving to pursue his dream of becoming a patissier, putting a lot of difficulty on the team as none of them have his level of experience. Tarou never shuts up about his dream to become a director, which informs a lot of his actions and distracts him from his work. And Hiraoka’s dreams of working in the industry he loved met face first with reality and came out the worse for it, leaving him in the state he’s in when he’s introduced.
Hell, even the in-universe series tackle this theme – in Exodus! the story is apparently about a group of idols fulfilling their dream of going on stage together, and in Third Girls Aerial Squad why they fly and what they hope to achieve by doing so seem to be major aspects of the plot. These also reflect what’s going on in the studio, in an abstract fashion – Exodus! can be seen as mirroring Katsuragi’s desire to create something again, and Third Girls Aerial Squad’s main character bears similarities to Miyamori, insofar as attitudes towards dreams go.
These are just a few of the more notable examples from the secondary aspects of Shirobako, but once you start looking at the main five the theme becomes a lot more involved.
The five of them share a dream of making an anime together professionally – specifically, remaking their dumb high school project as a feature length film – and by having them pursue different aspects of the industry we get to see this dream explored in many different ways, as well as how they each handle their own dreams.
Ema’s dream is to become an excellent animator, and is on her way to fulfilling that by working as a key animator at Musashino Animation. However, while she’s talented she isn’t experienced at all, causing a lot of stress and necessitating a lot of retakes. That coupled with her fairly shy, introverted nature meant that she was almost seeing her dream slipping away as she wasn’t able to improve fast enough – that is, until she starts receiving mentoring and experience. Shirobako does a great job at showing the self-doubt and onset of imposter syndrome that can occur when you start making inroads on your dream, and realise just how much work you truly have ahead of you. It really is a reflection on the very personal, very inward feelings most people have.
Like Ema, Misa also wants to become an animator, but took the pragmatic decision to get into CG animation instead of traditional animation as she saw a lot more growth and potential in its future. Post-graduation, she ends up getting stuck modelling tires day in and day out, as the studio she works for specialises in creating CG cars. Despite the stability and decent money it provides, she hates it because it’s soul-destroyingly tedious and not the kind of thing she wants to waste her talents on. Misa’s character arc is all about her career trajectory and professional aspirations, and the risks she has to take to get them on course for her dreams. Something I imagine quite a few people could relate to strongly.
Dreams surrounding a professional future are also explored through Midori, even though she’s still a university student at the start. Scratch that – because she’s a student. Work is still ‘the future’ for her, an intangible that she has no real experience with yet. Initially, it seems that she’s going to be the optimistic and naïve one, the one who’s looking forward to starting work with her friends despite the experiences they’ve been having and telling her about. But in practice Midori (later, “Diesel-san”) is all about the hard work one has to put in to simply get your foot in the door, how you have to hustle relentlessly early on just so you can get yourself the best possible start when you actually start pursuing your dreams. She gets a chance at an opportunity through luck, more or less, but she was the one that forced it into being an actual opportunity.
Contrasting her strongly is the ever-suffering Shizuka, aspiring voice actress who just can’t land a role. If Midori is about working hard to make opportunities work for you with a bit of luck, Shizuka is what happens when you simply don’t have that luck. She’s working just as hard, pushing herself into as many opportunities as possible, but it just doesn’t work out. She hasn’t given up on her dreams, but it’s nonetheless painful to watch her watching way younger voice actresses become celebrities while she’s left in the dust. Let it not be said that Shirobako is all sunshine and roses; it’s optimistic and positive, but it does not shy away from showing the hardships and agony that turning your dreams into your work can cause.
Finally, and most crucially, we have Aoi Miyamori. She does not have a concrete dream. She doesn’t have something to work toward. No matter how skilled she becomes, it’s not necessarily going to prove useful; she can’t change tracks when there’s no destination in mind; and no matter how much effort she puts in, how can she make any opportunities work for her? All she can do is focus on the job ahead, but that’s obviously not enough. Especially when you’re surrounded by friends with such clear goals.
So naturally this is source of anxiety and grief for her. Production assistant is a vitally important job, with tons of responsibility and stress to accompany it, but she struggles to find meaning in it. She’s not making anime, just keeping the engine ticking! Her character arc is about finding meaning and satisfaction in her work, and how it fits into her dream – and what her dream might even be, beyond “make an anime with my friends!”. If there’s a single overarching plot in Shirobako, this is most certainly it – not only is Miyamori the main character, but a lot of the other characterisation and discussion comes about through her search for meaning. If the theme makes the separate elements of Shirobako consistent, Miyamori ties it all together into a purposeful whole.
What makes her just so important and vital, above her narrative contributions, is how easy it is to relate to her. Almost all of us have at some point or another felt like we were just drifting along aimlessly, taking a job because it’s somewhat similar to your broad, vague ambitions but mostly pays the bills, or having no idea what you’re going to do after you get your degree, or being clueless as to what degree to go for because how are you supposed to know what to commit to, wondering what the hell you’re trying to accomplish and why you’re doing what you are all the while. It’s a textbook quarter-life crisis, and as someone who’s somewhat in the throes of one himself, she adds a whole extra layer of enjoyment in Shirobako for me.
And that’s how Shirobako makes this theme succeed so well. Each of the main characters acts as an exploration of a different facet of having and pursuing dreams, and the intersection between the personal and professional sides of it. These are very real struggles and situations that are dealt with every day, and Shirobako does a fantastic job delving into them and providing everyone with someone to relate to.
Evidently, Shirobako shows a great deal of care and attention towards its narrative and characters, and it shows even more towards anime and the industry. The accuracy of its portrayal of the process of creating anime is remarkable, with everyone who knew anything about that already having extremely little by way of criticism. The worst I’ve heard is that it makes things like key animation look simpler or less time-consuming than in reality, but this can be – and is! – excused as a necessity to make it entertaining at all. It’s not surprising that everything was as correct as it was – who knows what working on anime is like than people who work on anime? – but what is surprising is that they managed to do it so thoroughly and informatively while keeping it so engaging and entertaining. Shirobako delves into some serious minutiae, but at no point is it dry and dull about it.
It’s so clear that the people who made this have a serious amount of love and respect for the medium and the industry, and it shows not only through how passionately it shares its ‘behind the scenes’ look but also through the insane number of shout outs and references to various important individuals and series. It honestly feels like anyone who’s anyone gets a cameo, albeit under a false-but-obvious-who-it’s-referring-to name. One memorable example is when Miyamori visits not-Hideaki Anno, who has furnished his place with sofas bearing the colours of the Eva units. It’s rife with what I can only assume are industry in-jokes between the key players.
And as for the love of anime itself… well, let’s just say the in-universe series Andes Chucky (based on the real Rocky Chuck the Mountain Rat) is meant to be a series from the 70’s, and it fucking looks like it. Despite animating it 4 decades later, with wildly different tools and techniques, the look, feel, animation and art style are all more or less spot on, even recreating many of the analog artifacts you’d expect from the era. And then there’s the theme song! Yeah, the people who made Shirobako freaking love anime, no question.
This does end up being something of a double-edged sword though, it must be said. As great as it is to watch it show off how much it loves everything about anime, Shirobako does get a bit much. It not infrequently gets side-tracked explaining what Minor Anime Creation Thing #12 is, to an almost fourth-wall breaking extent (avoided primarily by having Miyamori be the audience surrogate). While not tedious, this has a tendency to disrupt the flow of the episode and even felt a little shoe-horned in.
More distracting than that were the sheer number of industry personality references. Like, I get that I’m not really the target demographic here, by virtue of being a dumb gaijin and all. Shirobako was clearly made for Japanese anime nerds, because unless you’ve completely thrown yourself into learning the names and histories of just about every prominent individual prior to watching you will not pick up on even half of the references. Irritatingly, Shirobako works on the assumption that you do happen to know all that, leaving a lot of scenes mildly confusing as a weird amount of prominence and reverence is placed on a dude whose real life counterpart you couldn’t even begin to guess. Of course all the characters know who he is, however, and act accordingly – leaving you even more mildly confused. I feel like I missed a big part of Shirobako’s appeal, and that I’m just unable to appreciate a significant layer of it as a result.
While I’m criticising, there are chunks of the series that I can’t say I recall, implying that they weren’t particularly prominent or memorable, and also I didn’t fall madly in love with it until the second half. But at this point I’m more or less clutching at straws here – Shirobako has just so few real flaws in both intent and execution that I’m having to include moments of it being simply good and not great against its favour.
Shirobako really is a spectacular piece of work. It’s an excellent workplace sitcom with fantastic characters, you can learn everything you could want to know about how anime is made in a remarkably engaging and entertaining manner, and it stops just short of being an honest to God love letter to the medium, the industry, and everyone that populates it. If you love anime, you owe it to yourself to watch Shirobako. Not only is it one of the best series to come out recently, but it’ll deepen your appreciation, admiration and respect of all anime. This is truly the anime geek’s anime.