Don don donuts, let's go nuts!
Today marks the five-year anniversary of one of my favorite shows, SHIROBAKO! I still remember tuning into the first episode in the spirit of the new anime season, that special mix of hope and morbid curiosity. The beginning gave me what I expected, cute girls in high school making animation together for a school project. But then there's a time jump: two and a half years later, we meet one of those girls again on the road, hungry and frantic, listening to voice actors on the radio promoting the show she's working on as she races another production assistant across the mean streets of Tokyo to be the first to a freelance animator's apartment. You can almost see the staff of SHIROBAKO rubbing their hands together in glee. “Ha, you thought this was another treacly drama about high schoolers? This is a workplace sitcom, baby!!”
Despite its slice-of-life inclinations and cute character designs, SHIROBAKO is a fast-paced workplace comedy/drama in the vein of The Office and Scrubs. Except that instead of being set somewhere boring like an office or a hospital, it takes place in a down-on-its luck anime studio called Musani, staffed with employees who bear a suspicious resemblance to real-life figures in the industry.
The producer is an older man who cooks curry for his staff, just like industry legend Masao Maruyama; the director is a talented but very indecisive, and looks just like the director of 2003's Fullmetal Alchemist, Seiji Mizushima. Maybe it's this reason that while it aired, SHIROBAKO made a reputation for itself as being an invaluable resource to understanding how anime is created, an unsparing depiction of how the sausage is made.
Of course, the world of SHIROBAKO is a fantasy. It is a place where men take many shapes and sizes but women are all conventionally attractive; where dolls talk and animators hallucinate their characters while in the throes of creativity; where Musani's director can put on a cowboy hat at the studio's lowest point and snatch history from the jaws of defeat. This of course, is all to SHIROBAKO's benefit. The show is unapologetically a cartoon, about cartoons, and smarter people than me have already written about how it uses its medium as a fulcrum to leverage the power of animation to its best effect. But if Miyamori and her friends are larger than life, there's a grain of truth to them that those in the workplace will recognize. Like the plight of Shizuka Sakaki, who works a dead-end job while she frantically hustles behind the scenes to find the career she really wants. Or the animators at Studio Titanic, incentivized by an industry that prioritizes speed and quantity over quality to pump out shoddy work. Or Taro Takanashi, a production assistant so bad at his job that he must have been drawn from real life (and he was: according to the director, Taro was modeled on his own past self! At least he can admit it.)
SHIROBAKO still has a devoted fan following since airing, enough so that a movie sequel is on its way. I'll personally always love the show for its memorable characters, cheeky nods to anime history and the story's willingness to let its cast face real danger in their struggle to make art. But some have criticized the series for being unrealistic. Not for being exaggerated, or calibrated for marketability (both true) but that it is “too optimistic” a portrait of the industry. Said one writer I followed at the time, “in the real world, Miyamori would have hung herself under the stress.” It's a grotesque statement, but not fully removed from reality. In past years there have stories of animators dying of overwork. Stories of directors abusing their connections to sexually harass voice actors, freelance animators not being paid by their studio contractors, and companies refusing to compensate their employees for unpaid overtime because their work was deemed insufficient. The world of SHIROBAKO has its problems—difficult co-workers, a competitive industry, clueless and self-absorbed producers. But it is undeniably a kinder world than the one we live in.
That said, I personally believe that the optimism of SHIROBAKO is earned. After all, the staff who worked on the series have weathered their share of disasters. SHIROBAKO itself faced a difficult production, resulting in the subbed release of the final episode being briefly delayed on Crunchyroll. I'd imagine the staff who worked on the show know what it's like to toil in the trenches on a series nobody likes, or do career-best work on the adaptation of a light novel that everybody forgets about in a month. SHIROBAKO features its share of genius characters, from the secret animation powerhouse Shigeru Sugie to eccentric and feared director Hidea—I mean, Mitsuaki Kanno. But it has just as much sympathy for the less obviously glamorous jobs: production assistants, sound designers, background artists, CG designers, script researchers and the countless other hands creating an animated series. All of them ordinary people doing the work in an unforgiving industry.
This to me is the great lesson of SHIROBAKO: Anime is made by people. They draw, they eat, they struggle, they do exercise routines. Some of them have great fashion sense, others are fearless drivers. But they all have names, and they're all important. I've seen a trend recently of companies reducing “anime” to a brand, another marketing label to better enable the collection of consumer data. This year's Netflix documentary Enter the Anime gives us glimpses of a handful of directors, but never lets us into the studio. This is a mistake. Anime is never just one person, or a synopsis on a page. In this industry, the existence of any animated series that makes it from beginning to end is a miracle, enabled by the hard work and tears of countless dedicated staff. Not everyone reads the credits, but there is a story behind every person whose name is there, and behind the names of those left out.
You might be a fan of anime, a fan of cute girls, a fan of animation for its own sake. There's something in SHIROBAKO for all of those folks. If you're a fan of jokes and daring escapes, there's plenty of those too! But SHIROBAKO is also a story about people, made by people. A love letter written to a very difficult and demanding job. Five years later, the airwaves adrift with countless beleaguered productions like paper lanterns, that job has never been more difficult or demanding.
Are you, like me, a fan of SHIROBAKO? Do you ship anyone in the cast together? Do you know a Taro at your workplace? Let us know in the comments!
Adam W is a features writer at Crunchyroll, and the world's biggest fan of famous animated porcupine Andes Chucky. He sporadically contributes with a loose coalition of friends to a blog called Isn't it Electrifying? Follow him on Twitter at: @wendeego
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