Anime Review: Shirobako

Aoi Miyamori and her friends Misa, Ema, Shizuka, and Midori dream of making an anime together. After screening their club’s short film for the Cultural Festival in their last year of high school together, the girls are determined to chase their dreams with renewed passion and vow to turn their short into a full-fledged anime one day. However, the reality of the working world doesn’t allow for much dream-chasing. Two full years after debuting their club’s film at school, the girls find themselves struggling to even make ends meet in a grueling industry. Stressed-out and unsure of herself, Aoi works as a Production Assistant at the floundering Musashino Animation studio. After a long hiatus, Musashino has plans to make a big comeback with their new show, Exodus. They’re banking everything on Exodus being a hit, and it’s sink-or-swim time for Aoi. Nothing is ever easy, though. As mounting problems threaten to throw the entire production into chaos, Aoi will have to hold onto her sanity and take charge if she and her friends ever hope of making their dreams come true…

Shirobako is an anime about making anime. Which is surprisingly unexplored territory. Ironically, I can think of plenty of anime about making manga, but only a handful of shows about anime production. There’s the dated but fondly-remembered Animation Runner Kuromi OVAs, which are more of a comedic skewering of the industry; and that one episode of Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent where the stress of deadlines and production delays literally drives someone to raving madness. And that’s kind of it, really. A show like Shirobako, that offers a somewhat candid middle ground between Kuromi and Kon, has basically never existed until well, Shirobako. And watching Shirobako, it’s not actually very difficult to imagine why that is. Anime production is fucking complicated. The manga industry is still largely a creator-driven one, where it’s possible that a single mangaka can be the writer, illustrator and editor of their own work. So it’s no surprise that it lends itself so well to character-focused industries like manga and anime. Anime production is a different beast entirely. Animation involves dozens of different disciplines, hundreds of hours of work, multiple layers of deadlines and oversight, and lots and lots and lots of people.

Which brings me to what is easily Shirobako’s most prominent element: the characters. Shirobako has an enormous ensemble cast, one that would certainly prove too unwieldy for a lesser show. Aside from Aoi and her friends, there’s the entire staff of Musashino, their subcontractors, voice actors, family members, and sometimes even the fictional in-story characters of the various anime that appear in the show. Even though having such a large cast means very few individual characters will get a decent amount of focus, Shirobako is meticulous enough to give most of its characters distinct personalities and mannerisms.

Though some characters don’t even show up for more than a single episode, they still manage to feel like fully-realized people. They give the impression that even after they’ve left the spotlight, these characters simply continue to go about their daily routines in the background. Shirobako’s sprawling roster of characters is like one living, breathing organism. Which is obviously something the show makes a point of conveying. Anime production doesn’t hinge on one single person, not even the Director or Producer. It’s the result of a massive collaborative effort, and even the quirky sound technician recording dinosaur noises for that one episode is an important part of the process.

The one word to describe Shirbako is “consistent”. Not just consistently watchable, but a consistent production overall. While most shows tend to have obvious peaks and valleys in terms of storytelling, artistry, etc., Shirobako plateaus around episode 4 and stays pretty constant for its entire run. For most shows, this would likely be a death knell. Thankfully, Shirobako’s natural state exists far above most other productions. Which seems almost miraculous considering how much we learn about the up-and-downs of anime production in the story itself. Although it would have been the pinnacle of irony for a drama about the mishaps of anime production to itself have production problems, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Shirobako is not only consistent on the writing front, but also in overall production values. It’s not exactly a frenetic show, but it moves fluidly and never strays off-model, even during frequent crowd shots. It’s a consistently good-looking show, with the possible exception of some very noticeable CG cars(though it’s possible that this is actually a shout-out to Initial D).

The character designs, like the characters themselves, are all distinctive and brimming with personality. Shirobako is the rare show where all the characters get to wear actual outfits, and own a wardrobe that isn’t just various kinds of uniforms. Combined with some wonderfully expressive faces and gestures, Shirobako manages to convey quite a bit about its characters through visuals alone. Which is certainly a boon for a show that has so many characters to begin with. Shirobako feels like a very grounded, lived-in world. Excluding some occasional bouts of mass delusion and magical realism, that is.

Shirobako’s down-to-Earth quality is what elevates the show from merely good to something that feels important. Shirobako isn’t just grounded, it’s real in a way that most fiction purposefully avoids. Shirobako is a Slice-of-Life that understands life isn’t always tea and cakey. Especially a life in the arts. Chasing your dreams often involves a lot of painful stumbles and dead ends. This is most exemplified by Aoi’s friend Zuka, the fledgling seiyuu of the group. Unlike the other girls, Zuka doesn’t even have her foot in the door. She works as a waitress at a noodle bar, taking auditions for bit-parts and background characters. After one audition, Zuka has to put on a brave face while drinking with her friends, knowing all the while that she totally bombed it. It’s a painfully human predicament, watching her friends get closer to their dream; their sincere encouragement only a stinging reminder of her own failings.

Shirobako is a Light Drama, with emphasis on “light”, but it doesn’t pull any of its punches either. It’s a story where conflict arises from very human, very true-to-life places. A perfectionist director changing scenes in the middle of production. The jackass in the office who has no fucking idea he actually is the Office Jackass. A stubborn mangaka unwilling to sign off on adaptation choices. These are people we’ve all met, in one form or another. Shirobako is like the anime equivalent of that one story your friend always tells everyone at parties.

In other words, Shirobako is pretty much squarely in studio P.A. Works’ wheelhouse. A studio that I’ve taken to keeping an eye on, P.A. Works seems to have carved out pretty comfortable niche in the Slice-of-Life Light Drama category with shows like Hanasaku Iroha, Nagi no Asukara, and Eccentric Family. P.A. Works is generally known for their distinctive background art, which doesn’t get much focus in Shirobako’s more mundane urban setting. Though Shirobako easily makes up for the lack of visual flair with clever functionality.

The environments the characters tend to gravitate towards speaks volumes about them as people, and their roles within the story. A grungy, decrepit office presages an ultimately unreliable subcontractor; the stark, almost laboratory-like uniformity of Misa’s CGI workstation reflects the unsatisfying monotony of her job; Zuka’s dimly-lit and disheveled apartment serving as an obvious reminder of her continued despondency. Shirobako doesn’t exist in a fantastical realm or a picturesque hamlet, but the environments are all minutely detailed, lived-in spaces. These aren’t interchangeable digital sets to just plop characters in front of. They’re extensions of the characters themselves, with just as much nuance and personality.

Shirobako is the kind of show I feel like I should love more than I do. It’s certainly unique, at the very least. There’s nothing else out there quite like it. It’s a great ensemble character piece, and an eye-opening look into the actual process that gives birth to some of our favorite anime. Watching Shirobako has definitely made me more appreciative of my favorite shows, knowing just how many variables there really are in any given production. It seems almost like good shows are more a product of blind luck than creative passion, but Shirobako wholeheartedly refutes that notion. Anime is an enthusiast industry where only the truly dedicated can even survive the torturous conditions, and Shirobako illuminates the sad reality of that. But it’s also the show’s most poignant throughline. The people who make anime do so out of sheer fervor and reverence. They make shows to recapture the moments in time where anime changed the course of their lives forever, and that passion inspires new fans and new creators in an endless cycle. Shirobako is a love-letter to anime and the people who make it possible, but it’s a show I respect more than I actually like.

Shirobako is a good show, but it’s ultimately missing some of the nebulous spark that makes for truly great shows. Maybe there’s just too many characters. Maybe it’s just a little too focused on production-side inside baseball. Or maybe it’s just that the show ends after what feels like the first two acts of a three-act story. Shirobako is a grounded, unusually grown-up Slice-of-Life drama, and it seems like the kind of ground-breaking genre prototype that paves the way for future shows to work all the kinks out of. If you like Slice-of-Life shows, have an interest in the production of anime, or just want a grown-up story that doesn’t take place in a school, Shirobako is more than worth taking a look at. While I absolutely don’t regret my time watching Shirobako, it is ultimately a little outside my comfort-zone, I guess. Third Aerial Girls Squad would be more my speed, probably.

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