Making Dreams Real in Shirobako

shirobako cover

  • Genre : Slice of Real Life
  • Episodes: 24
  • Studio: P.A.Works

In high school, Aoi and her friends had a dream. A good one. They wanted to be part of a world that brought so much joy to their lives that they were willing to dedicate their futures to spreading that joy around. In Japan anime is more than simple entertainment, it’s a tradition and a cultural touchstone. But it’s also a demanding and rapidly changing industry with a reputation for exhausting all those who dare enter it. Now that she’s all grown up, will Aoi be able to make her dream a reality and bring new dreams to the next generation of anime watchers. Will hardships and disappointments end in disillusionment or serve to steel her determination?

 I’ve made no secret of my fascination with the mechanics of putting anime together. I’m one of these people who really likes taking things apart to see all the moving parts. Sadly, although I can bluff my way through discussing visual elements or narrative structure, my knowledge of the mechanics of anime production was always rather spotty and I have been meaning to rectify that for ages. Turns out, Shirobako was the documentary I was looking for!

shirobako-116501

yay meetings said no one ever…

I recently went on this Kyoto Animation journey of rediscovery, here I sang the studio’s praises for excellence with conventional visuals, but P.A. Works is not that far behind. Their animes tend to look great as well, if a little less exciting when it comes to color palette. They also take small risks with their art designs from time to time, which makes their series less predictable in appearance. I think they also deserve recognition for consistently pretty shows.

As for Shirobako, it’s not one of those risk takers. It’s very pretty and very typical looking. Considering the in-show discussions about traditional art, the future of anime and the impact of art styles and technique, I think choosing a traditional look really serves the narrative. If I could change anything about the visuals in question, it would be to put Yuka in the background of every shot. I really think this needs no explanation.

Fact is, Shirobako is a wonderfully produced series. After watching it, I have a much greater appreciation for what that means in practice. And let me tell you, I’m impressed! I suspected anime was magic for a long time, but now that I’ve seen a tiny glimpse behind the curtain, I realize it’s pure witchcraft!

shirobako-drawing

wondrous

 There will be Spoilers in my review. Yup Spoilers for Shirobako. I got skillz!

 One thing that struck me pretty quickly about Shirobako, is that it can be slightly misleading with its opening episode. The series starts off on 5 high school girls, enthusiastically putting together a student made anime for their school’s fest. Everything about this opening act leads you to believe that this will be a CGDCT show with an anime emphasis. And that’s not entirely wrong but it’s pretty wrong.

First off, forget about the 5 girls. The story really focuses on Aoi and her experience as a production assistant. We do see all of them at various points with their own career struggles, but they are less present then Aoi’s coworkers. Even Ema who is an animator at the same studio, doesn’t get as much air time as the director for instance. Some of the girls are completely absent until the second half of the show.

shirobako22

here’s a picture to completely undermine my point

Second, remember that director I just mention, well he’s definitely not a “cute girl”. The cast is very diverse, and time is dedicated to characters of various genders, ages and levels of cuteness.

Finally, and what delightfully surprised me most, they are not doing cute things. Animation is a very competitive business and it requires a lot of hard work. Most of it is unglamorous and repetitive. As a production assistant, Aoi has to coordinate and bring together all the different elements (an people) that make up a series. And Shirobako feels very authentic in its depiction of grueling production schedules, last minute complications, endless meetings and small celebrations. I say feels, because I still don’t know enough about anime production to validate any of this, but everything is just so likely.

People grumble about details, pride and feelings get hurt but the show must go on. Veterans see themselves slowly get left behind as their skills whiter and their style no longer reflects the current standards. And when dealing with so many creative personalities that are forced to conform to a rigid corporate structure, things are bound to get difficult at times.

shirobakoAoi

I’ve been there

Everything we see in Shirobako is fairly run of the mill office reality for anyone who works on big, schedules projects. It’s present in a casual, relaxed matter with no flights of fancy and only slight exaggerations for comedic purposes. And it’s fascinating. The subtle difference between computer movement and traditional one. The importance of key frames. The difficulties of anime character design adaptations from 2d mangas. I could go on for a long time. I didn’t want it to end.

In case you didn’t pick up on it – I loved it. This is the adult workplace comedy I was waiting for. And it’s worth noting that the dramatic tension was entirely derived from the struggles and quest for personal fulfillment of young women in the workplace. Not a single mention of romance or physical attributes. Aoi and her friends have just started their professional lives and they are entirely dedicated to them. Shirobako is very career oriented and that’s a novelty I find. One I really appreciated.

The only reproach I could find is that the five “main” characters were sort of interchangeable. To me, they all sort of seemed like the same character in different skins. It’s a bit odd as Shirobako features a lot of colorful and varied characters of all kind, yet Aoi and her friends share a single personality. This isn’t a big issue since, as I mentioned earlier, most of them aren’t that present, and the personality in question is pleasant and nice to watch, but it felt like a missed opportunity.

shirobak computer

Aoi has weird hair, I’m not the only one who sees it, righ?

While I was watching it, I particularly latched on to Shizuka and her difficulty at breaking into voice acting. Of all the characters, she was the one struggling the most with her career, working as a waitress and waiting to land her first role. We see her audition and fail time and again. Get overlooked and discarded without so much as a phone call. It’s one of those cruel realities of showbusiness I’m afraid and Shirobako nailed it. As the episodes went by, I remember thinking to myself how impressed I was that the show was resisting the urge to give Shizuka her happy ending as it really looked like the series was going to wrap up before she ever got that first break. It takes a lot of guts to add in a bummer storyline like that (a fact the show itself pointed out). But I respect guts and I thought it was great of Shirobako to give a nod to the ones that don’t make it.

Remember when I said there would be spoilers. Here they come! You would think that I’d be disappointed that Shirobako caved in and Shizuka was cast as a last-minute character out of the blue. Not only that but they really poured it on real thick. Showing us Aoi reacting to her friend’s emotional performance, after seeing her survive years of disappointment and hardship. I would be disappointed, but it was so perfectly executed that I couldn’t help but cheer and cry a little. The scene is just downright beautiful. Here is a little bit of it:

 See, see!!??!! I bet that even out of context you thought that was touching. Now imagine if you actually cared about any of them. I’m saying you should probably watch Shirobako. If you love anime, cute girls, cats, donuts or working hard – you’ll find something to like.

 Favorite character: Yuka

What this anime taught me: Every subject should be taught in anime format.

Home is where the wine is waiting

Suggested drink: Work in Progress

  • Every time anyone drives like a maniac – take a sip
  • Every time production is delayed – take a swig
  • Every time anyone works ridiculous hours – be grateful
  • Every time we see donuts – get a snack
  • Every time sleeps at work – take a sip
  • Every time we see a production cell – take a sip
  • Every time anyone goes drinking – join them
  • Every time there’s a production meeting – sigh
  • Every time the president cooks – get a different snack
  • Every time someone says “key animation” – take a sip
  • Every time we/hear about Andes Chucky – take a sip
    • if we hear the OP – sing along!

sirobako drunk

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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26 Responses

  1. YumDeku says:

    I really have to watch this now. Thanks Irina

  2. Brooke Cannon says:

    WOW!!!!!!!!!!! This looks REALLY fun and REALLY inspiring… Though the ending sounds horrible. I hate having hopes so high and then they just crash because something bad happened or it just wasn’t working……. Then I get really sad.

  3. Something that occurred to me later was also they showed how certain production tasks like in-betweening and cel checking were farmed out to free lancers. Elsewhere I’ve read that these people are paid by the unit and not the job or the hour, and that struck me as being a really lousy way to make a living.

  4. As an ex-animator I loved this show, but yeah, the characters are SOOO bland. Apart from Aoi I can’t remember their names. I did like how Diesel-San, the writer, got her foot in the door as a researcher, and once she was in they found more work for her. That’s typical of the film industry generally.

  5. Jon Spencer says:

    I’m looking forward to seeing the film. Enjoyed reading your look as well 🙂

  6. Dawnstorm says:

    That scene you showed us in the clip? I’ve completely forgotten about it. In fact, the only ones I remembered of the pallette-swap girls (as I used to call them, unfairly) was CGI girl who didn’t like doing tires and key-animator girl who went to look at cats. I did feel that group was dragged down the show for me, and not because they weren’t well executed (that scene is great, upon rewatching it out of context), but I because I got a sort of style dissonance that I never managed to integrate, well.

    It’s not as simple as making this a point of criticism, though. Aoi works as a bottle-neck for their plot, which has a whiff of “mascot culture” to it. You can’t reduce any of the five girls to mascots; they were written into the story with the same care as the others, but they’re not individuated as much: it’s a style issue, rather than a plot issue. And because they set them off stylistically like that, the happy ending works without claiming that it’s actually like this. Their designs stand out: their characterdesigns are also rather compatible with shows like True Tears or Tari Tari; on a meta-level, they’re PA-Works girls – while the others are modeled after real employees [or so I think remember hearing, I might be wrong] – and you get guest appearances by people like Hideaki Anno, for example. And because their designs stand out, they feel a little more fictional: the story focus – the spy girls, the plane girls, the anime-making girls. And because of that, I didn’t actually mind the ending (If I had minded the happy ending, I’d have remembered it), in so far as I accepted the girls themselves on the same level as the rest of the show, which I never quite managed. However at roughly half-time I made peace with that element and got into the show.

    When I got unconditionally into it, Shirobako is some of the best material PA Works ever made, but because of the style dissonance I experienced, that didn’t happen as often as I would have liked. It’s still a great show, but I like it somewhat less than nearly everyone else who’s written about it, it seems. For example, on the whole I prefer Uma Musume to Shirobako, even though it doesn’t even come close to Shirobako at its best. Uma Musume has a better through-line, for me, though, and is easier to see as a fun show in retrospect, than Shirobako which is more like a series of extremely high highlights, linked with okay-to-fun connective tissue.

    And that’s because it took me half the show’s runtime to make peace with the palette-swap-girls aspect (who are sufficiently individuated for other shows, but not for this), and never completely managed to forget it. I’m happy to see other people didn’t have the problem to the extent.

    I’m a huge PA Works fan, btw. They’re one of my favourite studios, and I definitely like them better than KyoAni.

    • Irina says:

      For me the color swap girls (which I did not believe to be individualized enough at all) actually served as a single narrative framing element. Because it’s unrealistic to have a single character do all the jobs, they simply divided the same easily likable and fairly neutral character (a bit underdeveloped) into a bunch of different ones so that we could have our audience insert POV chara explore more facets of the animation process. Basically, a slightly personified narrator. It worked super well for me.
      I know that the fact that they chose to make that chara a bunch of cute girls is pure marketing but I don’t have enough associations with the designs to find it distracting.
      For instance, that scene I linked works as a scene. I don’t have much emotional attachment to any of the characters portrayed at all, and they could have put in any other characters really. Moreover I think the happy ending it is narratively weak and it would serve the character developpement much better to have then deal with giving up a dream but as a set piece it’s a wonderfully executed scene. Paced so well, acted beautifully, lit just right. The release is great. Like a really good commercial.
      Also to me, and probably only me, the okay-to-fun connective tissue which was essentially a slightly goofy explanation of the anime process was fascinating. I wish they would have stripped away the cuteness and the silly jokes and just told us more about the art but I guess that would have made it an actual documentary. As it is, I found it pleasant to fascinating.
      Perspective can really completely change the impact of a series.

      • Dawnstorm says:

        There’s nothing in your reply i really disagree with. The ending is narratively weak, but narrative isn’t the point of the show, and something dramatically strong might have distracted from the show. When I go into an anime about making anime, I’m pretty much not expecting them to show things as they are, as that could make it difficult to continue working in the industry, especially in Japan, where you don’t want to wash your dirty laundry in public. So, in a sense, if you go down in detail the way Shirobako, you sort of need a softener for the stress. The result is worth it. Hard work pays off. etc. I actually respect Shirobako for making the throughlines transparently encouraging. These throughlines are never portrayed realistically (well, in a sense; voice actors do get their break), they’re just framing all the chaos as worth it. It’s more a pat on the back then anything else, the way I see it.

        Perspective does change everything. I’m fairly sure how much I like a show often depends on when and how I saw it first, too. It’s not all just the show. But it’s sort of hard to separate out. (Sort of like this season’s Boogiepop would probably have left a better impression if marathoned, something I’d never have considered if they hadn’t dropped 4 episodes all at once.)

        • Irina says:

          I know that for me binge watching vs weekly watching makes a huge difference. I probably shouldn’t be reviewing shows. My impressions are almost completely separate from the actual show..
          Except for Natume. That’s 100% objective…

  7. DerekL says:

    Aah… that scene brings the waterworks every time. And it’s a perfect ending to Shizuka’s arc. It wasn’t really out of the blue though, it was foreshadowed and worked well into the plot. (IMO.)

    • Irina says:

      It was completely foreshadowed and expected – a very Disney ending which would have anoyed me a bit if it wasn’t so well executed

  8. This looks like a lot of fun. I actually used to find Slice of Life shows to be really dull, but I’ve been finding more and more i nrecent years that it meshes with me a lot more. The couple of TV spots I’ve seen on anime production were really interesting too, so seeing it presented in an anime feels right somehow. I’ll have to check this one out.

  9. David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

    I dearly love this show, and purchased it immediately once it became available. And I learned a lot while watching it! I had no idea how many different studios/companies might be involved in the production of a single anime–but now that line of 5-6 production companies at the end of any TV show makes a lot more sense to me. When I reviewed Shirobako, I mentioned that it made me even more appreciative of the anime I watch, because it was suddenly hard to believe that anyone would bother to make it. I loved the story’s dedication to realism while still allowing the girls to support each other. It is a terrifying yet oddly warm and welcoming series, one that I’ve rewatched several times.

    • Irina says:

      I was very fond of it as well. I would have liked to see some of the supporting characters a bit more though

      • David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

        While I agree, I also think that added to the show’s realism. Since it turned out to be mainly Aoi’s story, it made sense how people constantly came in and faded out. It also made sense that, even though they kept in touch, the five girls themselves had different levels of involvement in the story. (Btw, you’re not the only one who was moved when Shizuka finally caught a break!)

        • Irina says:

          I don’t think it’s a failure of the show at all – I simply want another season emphasizing more on sound design for instance….

          • David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

            Personally, my fantasy season of Shirobako is the Ghibli or Ponoc version, where the original 5 characters get together and found their own studio. At that point, realism be damned!

            • Irina says:

              I found their personalities to similar to really play off each other in a lot of different ways

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