I’m not the biggest expert on anime out there — there are plenty of other writers here on the platform who have watched much more of it than I have. And there are some personalities on YouTube that are very knowledgeable as well worth watching if you can look past all the weird drama those types sometimes find themselves in. I’ve watched a decent amount of it since growing up as a kid in the 90s, back when watching anime wasn’t as socially acceptable as it is now (and I am thankful those days seem to be at least sort of over.) But one aspect of it I never knew much about was how it’s actually made.
This is partly why I’m happy I finally got around to watching Shirobako (lit. “white box”, referring to the copy of an anime episode distributed internally in a studio before release.) This 2014-15 24-episode original series centers on Aoi Miyamori (center with the light hair) and her four high school friends who make up their school’s anime club. Anime club at my school just involved watching it (or that’s what I heard — as weird as this might sound, I never joined it) but this club creates anime, doing everything: the drawing, coloring, animation, sounds and voices. At first, Shirobako looks like it might stick around in high school following these girls’ antics for a while before they graduate. But three minutes after the opening, they all swear a pact on a bunch of doughnuts (???) that they’ll work in the industry as professionals and make anime together, and then there’s a jump forward a few years to Miyamori sitting in her car with a binder full of work and an exhausted expression.
Shirobako is an adult show, but not in the lewd sense — rather in the sense that it’s about a bunch of adults trying to make it in the world, and in this case, the world of anime production. The narrative doesn’t always stick to Miyamori, but she is the most central character among the show’s large cast. Her job as a production assistant at Musashino Animation requires her to coordinate with many other staff members and contractors, including animators, character designers, 3D modellers, sound engineers, and episode directors. And perhaps most critically with the series director himself, who’s talented but also lazy, requiring Aoi and her colleagues to constantly prod him to keep working. While she shares her duties at the production desk with a few other assistants working under the chief producer, there’s more than enough work to go around that she often feels stressed and has to work out how to cope with her schedule.
Of course, Miyamori can’t only think about herself: her responsibilities as a production assistant force her to consider the schedules and workloads of many of the studio’s other employees. The way in which she and her colleagues at the production desk have to stay on top of their other colleagues makes their jobs very delicate, but also extremely important — they have to be understanding of the other creators’ workloads while also keeping them motivated and moving along at a regular pace.
On the surface, Shirobako is about an anime studio turning out two series, one in its first 12 episodes and another in the last 12. But it’s really more about all the personalities working on the shows, personalities that sometimes clash violently. Both within Musashino Animation and outside of it, conflicts flare up around the production of these two shows that Aoi and her production desk coworkers have to sort out. One such conflict involves a fight early on in the production of an action magical girl-looking show called Exodus! between a 2D and a 3D animator. The two fight over the use of 3D instead of 2D for a particular key action scene, with the 2D artist essentially storming out in protest. Eventually the two manage to find common ground and get back together on the team, but it takes some skillful diplomacy by Aoi and a couple of her colleagues to make this happen.
There are several other character clashes like this throughout this series, and all of them feel very genuine, as if they could have easily been pulled out of real life. The same is true for the bonds of friendship we see develop, thanks largely to these employees all being thrown into the apparent meat grinder of anime production. Even when clashes occur, they manage to keep their professionalism and smooth things over. This is for the sake of the anime they’re putting out, but I also got the sense that the writer meant to express a sense of common respect among them. Anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to work in an office with a good, productive culture can probably relate. Deadlines are tight and demands can be difficult to meet, but when everyone pulls together things usually work out (by contrast, in a dysfunctional office with a toxic, backstabby culture, it’s usually just the opposite — you instead wonder how the hell the company is still operating.)*
For that reason more than any other, Shirobako feels like a very real-life show. This is true even when it shifts into its frequent fantasy sequences. Most of these involve two of Aoi’s keychain characters, a bear and a gothic lolita pirate captain-looking girl, coming to life and commenting on whatever problem she’s dealing with at the time — sort of like seeing two sides of her mind trying to work that problem out. It looks goofy, but it’s actually a great way to depict Aoi’s thought processes without just constantly going into internal monologue mode (not that that’s always bad, but I appreciated the different approach here.)
Of course, it’s not possible to sustain a constant pace of work without burning out. To its great credit, that’s another aspect of working life that Shirobako addresses. Deadlines in anime production are apparently very tight, with one small delay in one piece of work potentially causing a massive ripple effect down the line. It’s very easy to see how this could result in extremely high levels of stress and burnout in those employed in the industry, especially at companies with reputations for high-quality work to uphold (the stories I’ve read of just how stressful working at Studio Ghibli can be, for example, make even more sense now, and not just because of Hayao Miyazaki’s apparently really complicated character.)
All these pressures often foster doubts in Aoi and her young colleagues just getting their starts in the industry. Even the veterans aren’t immune from the stress, but the natural doubts many younger people carry around about their talent and their goals in life can be hard to bear in these high-stress situations.
Instead of just pushing through and eventually suffering from a stress-induced attack, Aoi and her colleagues find ways to cope with the stress while still maintaining their professionalism and work ethics. Part of this involves what some people now call “self-care”, stuff like exercise and walking around outside, along with Ema’s dance routine on the roof that makes for one of my other favorite scenes. Of course, there’s also plenty of drinking together to wipe that stress away, though I don’t think anyone in the show ever drinks to excess (aside from one freelance animator later on, whose drunkenness comes in handy when the team needs someone to agree to help with their series on short notice. Agreements made when you’re drunk aren’t enforceable where I live, but it all works out for Aoi and friends.)
It’s also admirable to see Aoi’s old friends from school sticking together, even when some of them aren’t quite making it yet. This sort of thing can sometimes inspire bitterness, but not here. While the five friends are mostly doing their own separate things throughout the show, they all eventually come together in the end in a way that’s satisfying, though I won’t spoil exactly how that goes.
I wouldn’t call Shirobako a “feel-good” story exactly, since it does acknowledge all the awful bullshit that can occur when you’re working. However, it also has a positive message. Hard work isn’t quite enough to make it, but if you have the support of your friends and colleagues and manage to keep your ego in check, you can create great things. It’s a mature and realistic series. But it’s not deadly serious or overblown either; there are some pretty nice and relaxed stretches as well, and even in the high-pressure chaos stretches of the show, there’s some comedy.
So I highly recommend Shirobako. It’s a fascinating series to watch if you have an interest in anime; I learned something about the technical aspects of anime and some of the inner workings of the industry by watching it. However, even if you’re not interested at all in that, or even in anime in general (in which case thanks for reading my post about an anime series this far!) I’d say it’s still worth watching, since a lot of that message can be applied just as easily to most any industry. I think Shirobako has a really wide appeal, even if it might seem to be about a bit of a niche subject. And of course, the most important reason to watch: it’s entertaining. I don’t have a clever (read: stupid) way to end this review, so that’s it. I liked Shirobako and I think you should watch it.
* One of the reasons I think I connected so much with Shirobako is that I’ve had the good fortune to have worked in both kinds of offices. Thankfully, I’m at the good sort of company now, but I learned a lot from my time at the bad one, lessons that I might not have learned otherwise about the extreme importance of reading character and building professional relationships of trust. Shirobako really gets into the psychology of work in that sense.