Monday Anime: Shirobako

As we wrap up Behind The Scenes month, we turn our attention to what I, with no small amount of respect, happily call one of the greatest animes I’ve ever seen, and perhaps the most comprehensive look at the anime industry ever made. It is, from first frame to last, both an unflinching look at the industry as a whole, and a gushing love letter, all at the same time.

Running 24 episodes, this 2014 series is the result of a partnership between Warner Entertainment Japan, and studio P.A. Works, that really, truly, pulls back the curtain and tells you just what the anime industry is really like. An original series, not based on a manga, both the frustrations and joys of those who work in the industry shine through with such passion and power that it makes the series as a whole incredibly engaging, a lot of fun to watch, and truly heartfelt at every turn.

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The story follows five friends who, during high school, were pretty much the entire animation club. After working themselves to the bone to produce an anime in time for the school’s cultural festival, they all swore that they would one day work in the anime industry, and be on a project together.

Two and a half years later, the central character of the group that we spend most of our time with, Aoi Miyamori, does work in the anime industry. It’s thrilling, too. Everything she imagined, and then some.

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Yeah, it’s actually pretty crushing.

Aoi has become a production assistant with Musashino Animation, a small studio that teeters on the brink of collapse after a massive project a few years back almost bankrupted the company. The director on that project, Seiichi Kinoshita, has struggled to regain his career, which was once filled with accolades and awards, but is now mostly just the butt of a lot of jokes. Having found a chance to rebuild his career with the moe heavy original series Exodus!, Seiichi spends most of his time being a petulant brat about everything.

Including changing the animation for entire scenes days before voice recording, and completely re-writing the ending. This puts Aoi in the unenviable position of having to co-ordinate everyone in the studio to get things done, as the production manager, Yutaka Honda, is too busy making the whiny Seiichi do his storyboards to be of much help.

What follows is an up close and in depth look at the many, many, many, many problems an anime studio faces in the course of production, and I promise you, it will make you a little more generous towards even the most mismanaged anime out there. No matter how crappy an anime is, a lot of people poured a lot of effort into just getting it made, and Shirobako never balks at showing just how hard it can be.

Aoi struggles with her childish director, lazy staff, and a wide host of eccentric personalities in her day to day work, and while she is frequently frantic, and exhausted, she always gets the job done. Just watching her makes me feel tired, as a production assistant’s work is never done, it seems.

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The first season of the show follows the troubled production of Exodus!, and introduces a ton of characters. Way to many to get into. Of note, however, is one of Aoi’s high school friends from her animation club, Ema Yasuhara, who is a now a key animator at Musashino Animation. Much of the show also follows her struggles, as the career she envisioned as fun, turns out to be grueling work.

Also of interest is Rinko Ogasawara, the main character designer for the studio, who is more commonly referred to as Goth-Loli sama, because she is always dressed in gothic apparel, and known for her cool demeanor. When the show decides to explore her as a character, it’s an amazing trip.

Seriously, though, there’s a crap ton of characters in this show, and if I tried to tell you about all of them, we’d be here for a few days. Each and every character, however, is important.

That said, despite his childish attitude, Seiichi, the director, is such a standout character it’s amazing. Haunted by his past failure, he knows he has to get Exodus! perfect, or it really will be the end of his career. Despite the difficulties he forces on others with his sudden decisions, he really is an incredibly gifted director. The abrupt changes he wants to make to a scene, once you see the end result, elevate it so much I can’t even find the words to describe how much better it became. He knows his shit, but after his massive failure in the past, he’s constantly second guessing himself, fearful of every choice he makes, and frequently just plain petulant when he does make a decision.

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For all that, the man is pretty much never wrong. Watching him regain his confidence is a huge part of the show, and has a direct impact on Aoi as she struggles with her own duties, and tendency to second guess her decisions. The two mirror each other in many ways, as Aoi is able to feign great confidence, but is quietly fearful of every choice she makes, while Seiichi is openly terrified, but deep down, knows exactly what to do at every turn.

Because Shirobako is more than just an in depth exploration of the anime industry, it’s also a character driven story about the kinds of people who feel compelled to enter the industry. Who they are, why they do it, and how they deal with the immense stress they face every single day of their lives.

The second season, follows Musashino landing a deal to adapt a highly popular manga, and this is where the show really struts its stuff.

Aoi finds herself promoted to the production desk, which means she’s basically in charge of making sure everyone does what they are suppose to. It also brings in another of her school friends, who is now working for the CGI company that will be doing all the CG animation for the adaptation. As Aoi has a lot of fee reign, she loops in another of her school friends, Midori Imai, who is still in University, to work as a research assistant.

Though Midori ends up getting nicknamed Diesel, for reasons that would take a while to explain, she quickly becomes an integral part of production, as her research skills prove invaluable to Seiichi, who wants to get everything right about the adaptation they are working on, Third Aerial Girls Squadron.

Which just leaves the fifth and final member of the team, Shizuka Sakaki, an aspiring voice actor, as the only member of their high school club not involved in the production. The show gives plenty of time to Sakaki, too, and lets us see how hard it is to catch a break in voice acting. While it isn’t as in depth as Seiyu’s Life, it is a fair representation. Sakaki ends up missing being a part of Third Aerial Girls’ Squadron by only a little, too, getting hedged out by another voice actor who was just slightly better.

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I’m a voice actress in an anime being voiced by an anime voice actress.

As production moves forward, the staff struggles with a lot of new problems, including not being to get the character designs to please the mangaka, who’s editor is also making life hell for the staff with unrealistic demands, and last minute orders. Such as a demo reel for a convention that’s only two weeks away, when the studio doesn’t even have any finished animation at all.

Not to mention the various investors who all want things done their way, especially when it comes to casting voice actors, leading to a long meeting full of yelling and screaming. Finally, Seiichi gets his way just by not letting them leave until they reach a decision, and they give in to him so they can go home.

Because that’s a thing that happens in the industry. Yup. It’s a magical place, ya know.

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Complete with trolls!

Further complicating matters is the publisher of the manga won’t let Seiichi meet with the mangaka to discuss how to handle the finale of of the anime, which is based on an ongoing manga, creating all kinds of delays and problems.

Basically, adapting a manga isn’t that easy, and the show really gets into just how difficult it can be. The entire second season is devoted to this, and is almost a blunt response to fans who scream and yell about any change from the manga, as Shirobako really does go into the hows and whys of these decisions to do things different.

Of course, that’s all the hard look at the actual business side. The love letter side is just beautiful.

Frequently, when Seiichi is at odds with the staff over a direction to take Exodus! in, we are treated to passionate speeches about the importance of being true to the characters. During the production of Third Aerial Girl’s Squadron, there’s a ton of incredibly touching moments that focus on how it feels to succeed at something that seemed insurmountable before.

The struggles with the character design, and the eventual success of getting it right, is addressed in how it feels to the animator doing the design, by having the character she struggled so hard with, move on her animation page, smile, and salute her. Getting the demo reel done in time, and shown is also handled this way, as Aoi looks up, and sees the Squadron fly over to fireworks.

Greatest of all, though, is Seiichi’s shonen style battle to get to a meeting with the mangaka. It’s epic, glorious, and done in a way to address show it feels to have to fight past editors and publishers just to talk to the man.

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There’s a reason he’s dressed as a cowboy. Sorta.

The meeting itself is also amazing, by the way. As is the result, as Sakaki lands a new role, created for the anime, and Aoi’s heartfelt reaction to listening as she records her lines. That moment of knowing, their dream came true.

Honestly, so much goes on in this show, in just 24 episodes, it’s staggering. I’ve not even scratched the tip of the iceberg. It never feels cluttered, though. Frequently frantic, yes, as it should, since we are looking into the absolutely frantic nature of the anime industry, but not cluttered.

Oh, and there’s a massive Evangelion shout out, as Aoi gets a meeting with a thinly altered version of Hideaki Anno. Seriously, it looks just like Anno, and he’s even known for doing a thinly altered version of Evangelion. Nor is he the only famous anime industry insider who gets referenced.

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Hideaki Anno approves this anime

Figured I should mention that, as despite my own feelings on Evangelion, there’s no arguing the massive cultural impact it had, and continues to have. That Shirobako would take the time to gt Anno’s permission to use his likeness, and reference him at all, is really one of the moments that you get just how much a love letter Shirobako really is.

For all the pain, for all the stress, for all the sleepless nights, those who work in the industry truly do love what they do, and that is the real joy of Shirobako, and the only thing it wants to tell you. They love what they do, even when we hate it. They wouldn’t want to do anything else, even when they really would. It’s worth it all, and then some.

From an animation standpoint, Shirobako is actually quite lovely to watch. The set designs are gorgeous, and the character designs inspired. Considering the massive cast of characters, that it’s easy to keep them all straight just by looking at them is nothing short of amazing. Everything in Shirobako is vibrant, with bright colors used all the way through, and fluid action at every turn. You can tell the animation crew over at P.A. Works put their very best into every single frame with this, and genuinely cared about making it the best they could.

Which is extra amazing, as they also had to animate huge chunks of the two shows the cast works on. Big parts of both Exodus! and Third Aerial Girls Squadron get shown, and the animation is different from what is used for Shirobako, making it stand out all the more. That’s some highly quality work, there, folks.

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Mo motorized moe!

Shirobako was directed by Tsutomu Mizushima, known for xxxHolic, Big Windup!, Blood-C, Another, and Prison School. This, though, is probably going to go down as his masterpiece.Every shot, every angle, every frame tells his love of the industry, and his own struggles as a director. The show is just drenched in his passion for directing anime, and at no point does he falter in delivering both a harsh look, and loving gaze, at himself, and the industry he loves. Really, this is the best thing he’s done, and if he can top it, damn, I’d love to see that.

The script work was done by Michiko Yokote, who also did the script work for Seiyu’s Life. Where that was an adaptation of a manga, this is hers through and through, and damn, does it show. If you’ll recall, I praised her as a writer in my write up on Seiyu’s Life, but here, she shows her real chops as a script writer, and lemme tell ya, this lady is a badass with a keyboard. Shirobako fits so much into so short a span, all without ever feeling cluttered or confusing, with characters that have distinct voices, and snappy dialogue start to finish. It’s probably one of the best written animes I’ve ever seen.

Of course, she was a writer for Cowboy Bebop, so there ya go. What else would you expect, am I right?

Overall, Shirobako takes on the entire industry, touching on manga, voice acting, animation, and does so with a honest eye to the trials of working in the industry, as well as a passion for it that nothing I’ve talked about this month quite meets.

It is, without a doubt, an anime you really do need to see. One of the few I’ve ever said is a must watch. If you love anime, then Shirobako is a series you need to experience.

Trust me. I’m a random guy on the internet. Would I lie to you?

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