This is an anime series that I had to review due to its premise, although it did take a bit of brain-twisting to get a finger on its strengths and weaknesses. Shirobako seemed to be on a mission to show the animation industry in a more honest light, and it seems that P.A. Works succeeded there. It may have started slow and hard to follow, but it did finish strong. If you’re fascinated with art or animation and have some patience, you won’t regret watching this series.
Shirobako is an anime about making anime, which makes it a “meta-anime.” There have been manga about manga artists in the past, so it was about time that the same was done with anime. Wrap your head around that premise first and imagine the possibilities. It’s kind of a semi-autobiographical account of how the Japanese animation industry works, told through the experience of the animators and producers themselves.
NOTE: This is a full review, so here be spoilers. You’ve been warned.
It seems that due to the premise, this story sort of wrote itself. Shirobako is composed of two full arcs, each involving a project that the studio must finish before a deadline. Every episode shows the struggles faced by the studio and its members, as well as the different facets and processes of animation. Despite the number of other feasible ideas that could have materialized, P.A. Works chose the down-to-earth slice-of-life route similar to Lucky Star and K-On, having five girls fresh out of college as their protagonists.
(Personally, I would have gone with a Spinal Tap-style mockumentary.)
However, it’s the central theme that serves as the engine and the true main character of this story. Most of the conflict is from the roadblocks that the studio encounters during a project, as well as having to get the right people to do the best job they can. It could have portrayed the animation field as a Garden of Eden where everyone is happy and nothing went wrong, but it’s the troubleshooting and problem solving involved that make it interesting.
There are also the situations with individual characters that may affect their work and dealings with their colleagues. This story works because of how close to reality it gets without trying too hard. Shirobako is something that a mostly adult audience can appreciate because of how it portrays the setting as a workplace with familiar phenomena and character archetypes not uncommon in real life.
The lineup is like that of someone else’s Facebook profile, high school yearbook, or a page of Where’s Wally?. There are the five main characters, then a whole slew of characters coming from all sides. There are those within Musashino Animation, then their peers and acquaintances, top-level people from other studios, and so on. For the first few episodes, it becomes a struggle to remember all these names and faces, as well as their roles and personalities, even if they’re introduced with their names on screen (multiple times for some of them).
The best thing to do is to keep track of the main characters since Shirobako is about their journey in the industry. But even if you do that, they drift around so much that you may even forget their names at first. Many of the secondary characters are based on actual people, who you can find out more about online. As long as you’re paying attention, you start remembering them one by one through their quirks, habits, personal struggles, and so on. Perhaps it’s a lot like how people are remembered in real life through their interactions with others and how they carry themselves.
They gave each of the protagonists her own specialty, which is a simple but effective way to add a ton of breadth to the story, and it really works out as the show progresses. Their interactions with the secondary characters and how they react to their input, as well as how they handle situations as they go, is what makes for most of the character development. Many of them learn from their experiences, letting them become better at what they do and overcome their weaknesses.
There are some characters who may be nails-on-chalkboard grating due to immaturity and other shortcomings, and some even get fired for it. There are some whose hearts are not that into the field anymore, some transfer to other studios, and some leave the field altogether to do something else. But there are those who become a lot better, especially in the later episodes. The best thing this anime did was showing the feelings of self-doubt and apprehension and how they’re able to overcome them.
While most viewers may be confused with who is who since there are so many characters being shown all at once, one thing is constant — most of them truly love animation. That kind of passion is rare in this world, even with all the wonderful things that seem to sprout out amid the chaos and confusion of reality. It may sometimes be depicted rather clumsily, but that actually emulates much of the enthusiasm of real people who are fortunate and/or smart enough to love what they do.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t make a good impression with its first episode, which is a fair introduction to the show but doesn’t do well to hype it up. It’s true that Shirobako and most other slice of life anime are supposed to have a more subdued atmosphere due to their nature, but a major purpose of the first episode is to build up some excitement for viewers so they’ll want to watch the rest of the series. (There’s also that thing with the donuts, which is kind of puzzling for me. Mind you, I do like donuts.)
Another little gripe worth mentioning is that a lot of what the characters talk about is their current project, which viewers have to picture in their head to understand where they’re going. While the show does a pretty good job with updating on the progress of whatever they’re working on, there still seems to be a bit of a disconnect along the way. It’s already hard enough keeping a track of the many characters in the show, but you then also have to learn of the characters in their fictional anime.
But what makes up for it is the level of detail throughout the series. Through the numerous characters that share screen time and the many different things that seem to go on, the attention to detail was what brought it all together. P.A. Works had a mission to show as much of what goes into animating something like a whole anime series (including Shirobako itself) as they could, so they told this story through a high level of detail.
It’s not just about specifics, but also references strewn all over each episode in an effort to make the characters as close to real life as possible. On the other hand, there are those segments showing imaginary figures and “fictional” characters coming to life. With all the zany and off-beat stuff expected since Shirobako is still pretty much an anime, this treatment taps into a big part of being an artist — muses. They’re not just scribbles on a page, but are treated as separate entities with their own lives and personalities.
The way Shirobako turned out shows just how much the people who made it actually cared. They planned for 50 episodes, but it would most likely have overstayed its welcome since the plot is straightforward for the most part. Keeping it at the standard 24 episodes was key to the overall quality of this package.
- Interesting meta-concept
- Numerous interesting characters and relationships
- Shows the challenges of working in the industry
- Surprisingly good character development
- Clever uses of animation tricks to further "meta-anime" status
- Good attention to detail
- Could have overstayed its welcome, but didn't
- Earnest for the most part
- Lackluster first episode
- Boring for non-fans of animation as an industry
- Hard to keep track of characters
- Some characters are annoying
- Structure for each arc stays mostly the same
- Puzzling pre-occupation with donuts that seems forced
You may think the concept is so good that no one may ever screw it up, but it could have easily been done badly through a number of ways, like making it too long or short and not having enough focus. Mind you, they did a bit of the latter to a certain extent, but not enough to totally ruin it.
There was a debate on the final score, but it was certainly going to be above average at least. The question was whether it was the best treatment the premise could have ever gotten, so all the factors involved had to be considered. What ultimately came through was its honesty, even in the face of its own flaws.
People who are not fans of the industry, unfamiliar with the either the creative field or the workplace in general, or just downright cynical may not take to Shirobako that well, and some may even nitpick whatever it got wrong. However, it can be agreed that it's earnest above all else.
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