When SHIROBAKO The Movie was first announced, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. The original TV series is one of my favorite anime from P.A. Works, as its romanticized look at the Japanese animation industry through the P.A. Works formula (cute girls doing X in a town) delivers some pretty deep-cut in-jokes while working to encourage viewers to consider joining the anime industry. I looked forward to reuniting with a fantastic cast of characters and seeing how their careers in anime would continue.
A few pandemic-induced delays on both sides of the ocean later, and I finally got my chance to attend a one-night-only screening through Fathom Events.
SHIROBAKO is about five girls who make a promise to join the anime industry and turn their club project into a full-fledged anime, and enter the field by specializing in different aspects of anime production. The movie takes place four years after the TV series, and sees them still working in the industry but suffering from stagnating careers. In particular, protagonist Miyamori Aoi is dealing with the decline of her studio, Musashino Animation Productions (aka Musani), after a disastrous show cancellation. As Aoi wonders if there’s any way to bring it back to its old glory, a proposal comes her way: take a risk and start production on an anime film.
A Theatrical Feel
In many ways, the film feels like it’s trying as hard as possible to indeed be SHIROBAKO…THE MOVIE. Just as the TV series is about making shows, this involves the characters working on a feature-film. And because one of the biggest appeals of SHIROBAKO is its cast of characters, a lot of the movie is about bringing the old team back together and rediscovering the energy and inspiration they’ve lost. A couple of musical numbers—a feature absent from the TV series—also get thrown in, as if the staff is saying, “We’re doing this because we can.” It’s definitely the experience I was looking for, from reuniting with the cast (writer Imai “Diesel-san” Midori being my favorite) and it ends in a satisfying and uplifting way, though ironically, I wish I could have spent more time with them.
Rosy, Yet Not without Criticisms
SHIROBAKO can be thought of as a story about people within an industry, as opposed to the industry itself. It peels back the curtain enough to show the strain of deadlines, creative clashes, the perils of overwork, and many other things that can go wrong during an anime production. However, it doesn’t point any fingers at the systemic issues that cause these to be common problems, notably chronic underpayment of staff. SHIROBAKO is willing to deliver a few lumps, but holds back the ugliest parts. Though, given that it’s not meant to be a hard-hitting work, I don’t really mind. At the very least, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in SHIROBAKO.
This approach extends into the movie, but this time, it’s willing to show a bit more about how precarious everything can be within anime production. Part of the reason Musani fell from grace is because the studio’s owner (who, as a reminder, is a parody of legendary industry figure Maruyama Masao) tried to get ahead of schedule by starting production before the ink had dried on the contract, and got burned for doing so. In other words, trying to be more responsible came with an inherent risk, which on some level indicates an unforgiving industry. This also ties into the direction the movie goes, as well as Aoi’s role in the process. Like Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!’s Kanamori, Aoi is a producer, and the dramatically reduced time span to finish the film seems like a recipe for disaster. Aoi has to know how to best use previous resources and experience to allow for some shortcuts, and when to put your foot down to keep on schedule vs. when to encourage and allow for greater creative flexibility.
SHIROBAKO The Movie is more or less what I wanted and expected out of it, and the challenges it presents its characters—trying to get out of their respective ruts and reignite their passion for anime—helps to paint an image of the anime industry as complicated and full of ups and downs. Though this is clearly a film from before COVID-19 was an issue,
I have to wonder if it was meant to be P.A. Works‘ giving a pep talk to itself, trying to provide some hope when things feel hopeless.