Anime is the shorthand word the Japanese use to describe animation. Like films, animation is an art form that tells a story with many different elements coming together, composed by so many people who work on them, to entertain us. I have reviewed many kinds of anime on this blog, from many genres, critiques, and purposes. But of all the anime out there, there are only a few that describe exactly what the anime industry is all about!
Here is one such example of an anime that deals with the very subject that made it come into being. There are a lot of elements that go into creating any anime that we enjoy, and this series covers a great deal of the art that is involved in the making of anime while also telling a good story. And while I will attempt to talk about most of them in detail as I see fit, even I can’t cover everything this show has to offer.
Currently, it is my recommendation for Anime of the Year 2015.
So without further ado, here are my thoughts on Shirobako.
Shirobako literally translates to “White box,” a nickname for the test run of a film production so that producers can check to see if there are things needed to be changed, improved, or removed; and if it’s okay, it gets sent out for distribution. But before we can get to the white box phase of this anime, we need to talk about its central theme: the staff.
If you don’t know how a PA Works animation like this one works yet, they are famous for putting together multiple themes and subjects that don’t seem to be related on the surface, in a meticulously orchestrated way that tells a beautiful, yet very personal story. Of course they’re going to tell Shirobako’s story in a similar fashion! That’s why a lot of the niches of Musani Studios in this series are inspired by references from real people and events that PA Works is most familiar with.
Shirobako is an honest way of telling the staff’s side to animation, not only because it’s informative, but one can easily tell that this is a very personal take. I mean, how could they not get personal? They’re talking about themselves! Every person who was involved with this anime has a unique story to tell in the making of it, and that personality comes out of everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE, in Shirobako.
The series not only informs us how meticulous it is to make anime, but it also takes into consideration some of the conflicts that occur in the industry. Some of these conflicts are ongoing, while others are very much up-to-date with our current times.
Hironori Madoka of the sound department has to listen to so many voices for auditions, but can only select one for the part.
Director Seiichi Kinoshita is notoriously known by the industry for his work on Jiggly Jiggly Heaven, an original anime that flopped under his watch!
Nobody likes clowns that slack off like Tarou Takanashi, not even new staffers like Tsubaki Andou.
Arguments aside, there are plenty of conflicts and budgeting issues for everyone on an anime staff, much like anywhere else, to be honest. How to settle these conflicts before meeting those deadlines is not an easy task at all, but sometimes it does help to find common ground.
In the example above, Aoi Miyamori helps smooth over the conflict between the key animation supervisor Ryousuke Endou and 3D lead animator Yuuichirou Shimoyanagi. The debate over which one is better is very much a conflict in the industry as a whole, seeing that the demand for anime projects have gone up exponentially, becoming taxing on animators’ time and talents. But one thing that these two animators can agree on is their love for Idepon (a parody take on Space Runaway Ideon from the 1980s), a mecha series that was less about the robots and more about the human condition, that inspired both of them to become animators in the first place!
See? I haven’t just been making up these critiques this whole time! Even the industry admits to the underlying messages behind the stories they create! But what really makes Shirobako a truly personal narrative is our five main heroes, the women who once made an anime of their own in high school! Together with their donuts and their respective talents in the industry, they each vow to someday succeed in their field, and perhaps someday work on another animation together.
While I’m not all that sure if Aoi, Ema, Shizuka, Misa, or Midori are based on real people, each one embodies the very spirit PA Works puts into making all of their anime.
Midori Imai is a college student and interning as part of Musani’s writing staff. Being a girl doesn’t make anyone better in this industry. In fact, statistics show that more women in the anime industry are shoved out of their creative work over time. If anything, knowing she’s more likely to fail is all the more reason Midori works harder!
Misa Toudou landed the perfect job at a 3D animation firm, but wants to leave her job because all she works on is animating wheels for cars. What she really wants to do with her talents is make something that I believe all of PA Works’ projects reflect, despite being publicized in the Seinen market.
Shizuka Sakaki is a part-timer who takes on several jobs at once. She works long hours everyday, hoping to get parts, only to be cast aside for some fresh, young voice actress out there. Still, she doesn’t give up on that dream, and she has diversified her talents in customer service, stage acting, and working with children.
Ema is a newbie in the key animation department, a field within the anime industry that is notoriously underpaid for their time and talents. When trying to figure out her own style that appeals to directors, she learns from her senior, Yumi Iguchi, that copying what’s already been done is more effective than trying to make something new.
Aoi Miyamori may be working under Musani’s production management staff, but she doesn’t know what direction she wants to head in herself. She often takes an observant role in Shirobako as the series’ main character. But over time, she learns a great deal of experience from others as well as herself, and is rightfully considered the star of the show.
Shirobako is a personal take on all of anime, something that is alive in all who work on it. Not only from the new staff members like our protagonists, but their seniors before them, and the “old guard” from the past generation, still working on projects to this day. Shirobako has plenty of very inspiring quotes and tales that I think speak not only to those in the anime industry, but to just about anyone!
President of The Born animation studio, Masahiko Inami, hates people who say they’ll do anything. It shows that they haven’t really thought about what they want in life, and will likely perform even worse when asked to do something.
Rinko Ogasawara is one of Musani’s senior character designers. When she first started, she learned quickly that her own creativity would be set aside for the demands of producers that want a very specific look from her drawings. Inspired by a strong heroine she drew back then, she dresses in the gothic lolita style as a form of battle armor to this day.
Mari Tateo is a senior voice actor, now an acting coach. Currently directing a Waiting for Godot stage play with an all-women cast, she reminds Shizuka (and us) that sitting around, waiting for something to happen will get us nowhere!
Shigeru Sugie is practically old enough to retire and is considered deadweight in the key animation department because he lacks the talent to draw the currently trending moé style. But he’s perhaps the only person on their staff who knows how to draw animals with incredible detail, having worked on one of Aoi Miyamori’s favorite anime of all time. He may be considered a mentor among all the staff, but this old dog still has plenty of new tricks!
Masahiro Ookura is a washed-up set designer in the industry since the dawn of computer animation, which many projects utilize today. While hand-drawing in this hand-drawn scene, he actively does field research to capture exactly what he wants to convey with every scene he paints by hand, no electronic technology required!
Shirobako is very progressive in terms of how their story is told, whether it is through animation, innovation, sound, or script. But it doesn’t move forward without gaining wisdom from looking back. In one of the more fantasy-oriented parts of the series, Aoi Miyamori steps back in time to a world when the old guard of Musani worked on one of their first projects.
We consider a lot of the anime from our childhood to be the “classics” of anime, things that will forever be great in our hearts, and continue to inspire us today. Some believe that the newfangled stuff out there can never compare to the old, and those who worked on projects then are considered masters of their craft with time.
But as Aoi Miyamori discovers, the same problems she faces now with the current staff are the same problems these experts faced back then. The only real difference between them is experience. Everything we considered classic was just another project to the creators that made it, and they struggled to make deadlines and perfections just as much as we do today. If you were to ask any of these masters of anime what their favorites were or what inspired them to become part of the industry, I’m sure they would mention things that are even older!
And besides, even the old guard likes to geek it out as much as we do!
Anime isn’t so much a rip-off of the things back then, but an ongoing inspiration of all the things made back then, combined into new ideas put together in a new, creative fashion. Shirobako appreciates how much the past influences their latest projects, and will continue to inspire other projects in the years to come.
I realize there are still plenty of things to talk about from this beautifully inspiring series, but I also think that you should just watch it for yourself, as words alone can never do justice to how alive anime is in this series. And so to end, I would like to make reference to some, but not all, of the possible anime projects that came up throughout Shirobako.
And of course, the girls who will continue to make amazing anime, Shirobako.
So if you have a deep appreciation for all things anime and want to learn more about how your favorite things are produced at a very personal level, watch Shirobako! And yes, I am painfully aware that I missed a lot of good points and characters. But I hope that you will always continue to be inspired by the things you enjoy, always having the desire to learn more.