With a lovable cast of characters, in-depth look into the world of anime production, and numerous references to famous creators and works, SHIROBAKO has been a darling of the internet anime fandom, particularly among those who consider themselves to be, if not among the most informed anime fans, then at least those who desire to be more informed. While SHIROBAKO is not the first anime to delve closely into its own industry, I believe it is the first full-on 26-episode television series to do so, and this allows it to show multiple facets that are involved when making anime, while also giving them room to breathe and to garner appreciation.
SHIROBAKO centers around Miyamori Aoi, a young animation production assistant at Musashino Animation Productions (aka Musani), a once-renowned anime studio that is trying to rebound and recover its reputation. Back in high school, Aoi and her friends in the school’s anime club created their very own animated short, with the hope of someday working together professionally to create it for real, which has led them each into different areas of the anime industry: 3DCG, voice acting, writing, 2D animation, and of course production. As each of them deal with their own struggles in trying to get closer to their dreams, which include wondering if anime is right for them after all, Aoi and the others learn about what it takes to make an anime, and all of the joy, stress, and sleepless nights that go into it.
P.A. Works, the studio behind SHIROBAKO, has a reputation for producing very specific sorts of works. Whether it’s True Tears, Tari Tari, or Hanasaku Iroha (which I love), many of their shows involve cute high school girls and a lot of emotional drama. It’s a formula that works for some but is like poison to others, and with SHIROBAKO we have a work that successfully toes the line between the two. These aren’t high school girls but rather young professionals, and though many of the women in the anime are purposely designed to be attractive, there’s more than enough focus on anime production that the show hardly feels like a cute girl/melodrama delivery system. In a way, because of how taxing anime production is (as has been revealed in numerous articles and interviews over the years), a bit of melodrama doesn’t seem surprising between people fighting back their tears so that they make an absurd deadline.
A more cynical part of me thinks that the girls are there to an extent to be the gateway to introduce those anime fans obsessed with cute girls to what goes on behind the scenes, and that the series in general is very much designed to promote the anime industry and encourage people to join. It’s also a problem that they don’t really acknowledge the enormous component that is the anime industry’s outsourcing of in-between animation to other countries including Korea, the Philippines, and India. However, there’s no denying that the series is rife with genuine information to learn and appreciate, and that the characters, regardless of their base intent have convincing personalities and stories as to why they’re in the art and business of making anime in the first place.
For the record, my favorite characters are Imai “Diesel” Midori (one of Aoi’s old club mates who possesses a strong desire to write for anime, a thirst for research, and an ever-enthusiastic personality), Toudou Misa (another club mate who works in 3DCG and has to decide if she wants to play it safe with her career or take a chance), and Sugie Shigeru (the oldest veteran animator at Musani who, while enormously skilled, doesn’t quite fit into the current era because he “can’t draw moe”).
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, SHIROBAKO is rife with references to both real people and real anime. Aoi’s favorite series is Mountain Hedgehog Andes Chucky, based on Mountain Rat Rocky Chuck. One episode centers around the importance of the Idepon films, or Space Runaway Ideon. Numerous posters seen in the background throughout the series include parodies of Casshern, Lunlun the Flower Child, Ghost in the Shell, and much, much more.
As for people, this is probably what gets people to scramble to anime production staff lists the most. The above-mentioned Sugie is based either on MADHouse founder and animator Akio Sugino, legendary animator Mori Yasuji, or some combination of the two. The real identity of Musani president Marukawa Masato is blindingly obvious to anyone who’s been to Otakon in Baltimore and attended a panel by MADHouse and MAPPA founder Maruyama Masao. Evangelion director Anno Hideaki and voice actor Itou Shizuka are among the many, many real industry veterans to appear in slightly altered forms in SHIROBAKO. Combined with the anime parodies it makes for a somewhat addicting game of “figure out the reference” that, unsurprisingly, appeals to a lot of fans who have devoted themselves to learning about anime.
The day after I finished SHIROBAKO I had a thought: often times when it comes to anime or other forms of media that fictionalize a given craft, technology, or profession, people who are deeply involved in those areas can easily nitpick these series in terms of accuracy. While I don’t have firsthand experience in the anime industry (though I’ve done a bit of work as an animation production assistant myself), I almost feel as if SHIROBAKO is defying the “well actually’s” of the world to say something. Who better to talk about creating anime than the people who create anime? Perhaps the answer is those whose voices haven’t been covered. Maybe we’ll next get a series from the perspective of the in-betweeners.
PS: I recently found out that the Japanese terms for in-betweens and moving images in general are the same: douga, just like what you see in Nico Nico Douga. Nooo, this isn’t confusing at all.
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