I’m off at Smofcon 33 this week and won’t have a chance to watch streaming anime, so this week, let me give you a special look at a recent show that should be required viewing for every anime fan…
Once upon a time, five girls in a high school animation club made their very own short film. Aoi, Midori, Ema, Misa, and Shizuka loved the experience so much that they decided after graduation, they would all realize their dreams by working the fabulous, magical anime industry!
A few years later, Aoi is a production assistant at Musashino Animation, working frenetically to keep a pastiche of quirky and sometimes obstinate freelancers, in-house talent, and contractors all on the same page. Production on Musashino’s latest show, Exodus, is hitting snag after snag. The director is struggling with self-confidence after his last show bombed, and he’s waffling over whether a crucial scene in episode 3 is coming out right. The finale should be entering production, but the storyboards haven’t even been started yet. One of Aoi’s co-workers is flaking out, her boss is questioning his life choices, and the sound effects department urgently needs to track down a rare folk instrument. Then a server crashes at the worst possible moment.
Sometimes, the Goth doll and the teddy bear that sit on Aoi’s desk come to life and talk about her problems.
Aoi’s former classmates face their own struggles: Shizuka has trained to be a voice actor but is following the grand acting tradition of working as a waitress while waiting for her big break; Ema has landed a job as an animator at Musashino, but struggles to meet the challenges; Misa has gone into 3-D animation but finds herself on a monotonous, dead-end path. Midori, still in college, is planning to be a writer and dying to help out any way she can.
Through this range of viewpoints, Shirobako is able to give a complete, multifaceted tour of modern anime production. When Exodus is finally complete and in the white box– the shirobako holds the final completed version of an episode– Musashino takes on the even bigger challenge of adapting a popular manga, giving a chance to show you all the work that goes into a show before animation even starts.
Every aspect of production gets its due. Does a dawn-to-dusk meeting of sponsors arguing over casting sound like riveting TV? Shirobako manages to make it so. Even a simple drive to the freelance animation supervisor’s apartment is enlivened by Aoi’s ongoing rivalry with a production assistant at another studio.
In between crises, a huge cast of characters reflects on why they love anime and how they wound up where they are. Aoi got into it through a popular classic called Andes Chucky (a fictionalized version of a real show called Yama-nezumi Rocky Chuck, or Fables of the Green Forest in English); the people involved in it and the relationships formed by it keep popping up in unexpected ways throughout the series.
Shirobako does not depict an idealized world. People burn out and leave, or burn out and stay and make life unpleasant for everyone around them. Some people are temperamental artistes barely tolerated because they put out amazing work when properly motivated. While many of Aoi’s challenges stem from honest mistakes or bad luck, sometimes she has to grapple with sheer incompetence. But grapple with all of them she does, through tenacity and patience and, sometimes, sheer desperation.
Shirobako is a brilliant, funny, dramatic, exhilarating, and immensely educational love letter to all that is anime, made by the people who see it up close and love it anyway for all its warts. And one thing that makes it even more special is that, though creative people love to valorize other creative people, the heart of this show is Aoi, the one working in a noncreative job. It comes across as a thank-you to all the people who focus on getting stuff done so that the creatives can be creative.
Shirobako is essential viewing for every anime fan. Whether you’re deep into the geeky aspects of animation, or just wondering why your favorite show always seems to be delayed at the end of the season, it will give you a deeper appreciation for the great big crazy nutball of an industry that so manages to entertain us all.
Somewhere in Japan tonight, a production assistant will be working long after the trains have stopped running. Somewhere, a character designer is fretting over fifth rework on the characters for her latest show. Somewhere, a director is putting all his creative energy into an elaborate escape plan rather than the task at hand. Keep them in your thoughts, and be amazed that the shows you watch every week manage to be produced at all.