In my post on the Fall ’14 season, I only got around to talking about half the shows before life intervened in the form of a big fat novel deadline. Amagi Brilliant Park, which I mentioned, turned out to be really good, but I never talked about my favorite show of all!
Shirobako means “white box”, and refers to the original master copy of an anime. (Similar to the gold master we refer to when saying a game has “gone gold”.) The show is about Miyamori Aoi, who works as a production assistant (read: gopher) at Musashino Animation, a medium-sized anime studio struggling to deliver on a comeback show. At the most basic level, it’s a show about the process of making anime today, with all the messiness that entails.
Meta-shows like this one are always tricky. (Someone once told me, “Never trust a writer who writes about writing.” But I digress.) While Shirobako takes the opportunity to shove in dozens of sly references and sight gags — slightly tweaked names of shows, studios, and people, parody posters, and so on — they never take over the show entirely. In-the-know fans will get a laugh from some of these bits, but unlike many of this kind of show, which can be impenetrable to newbies, Shirobako works on its own as well as a meta-narrative.
First and foremost, this is because it feels real. Shirobako captures so much of what it’s like to work on a big, multi-person creative project that at time it almost made me wince with recognition. Little genuine moments of triumph over mundane problems, crises that spin out of control from a few careless words and a personality conflict, the dangers of poor communication — it’s all there, and it generates just as much drama as alien monsters coming to destroy the world. The pacing is expert, giving us all-hands-on-deck crises followed by quieter smooth sailing where they work on the character beats. For me, the truest test of an anime is whether I’m impatient for the next episode to release, and Shirobako has that in spades.
It also has wonderful characters, who feel like real people you might have worked with once instead of tropes or stereotypes. While Miyamori is basically an enthusiastic go-getter, she has her moments of doubt, and she visibly grows over the course of the show from a newbie into a competent professional. Her friends and the rest of the staff at MusAni are impressively memorable, given the massive cast of the show, and if you’ve ever done a similar kind of work I guarantee you will find some of them eerily familiar. They struggle with real issues — lack of confidence, imposter syndrome, the shock of finding a different industry then they’d envisaged, the difficulty of short deadlines and small paychecks.
Equally important, at least for a long-time anime-watcher like me, is they way the show avoids some well-worn tropes. It starts with Miyamori and her four friends in their high school anime club, but cuts immediately to their post-college careers. The focus is squarely on the actual work of making an anime happen, rather than incidental gag comedy or romance. (I don’t think any of the characters even have a romantic arc.) It runs for 24 episodes (23 of which are released as of this writing) which gives it time to let its characters grow, but also to arc towards a definite conclusion. It gives us mostly women in the leading roles, but without the leering view of a harem show.
It’s also impressive visually, which was really surprising to me. A show of this kind — modern-day, talky, character-focused — could easily have cut corners on animation, but Shirobako is beautiful to watch. In particular, they have great character designs, letting us distinguish between a wide range of people who fall well outside the anime norm. (Old people! Fat people! Ugly people! The world isn’t just pretty teenagers!) The show-within-a-show segments are done in various animation styles that will get laughs from any old-school otaku types. Miyamori’s stuffed animals, who talk in her daydreams as her subconscious or a sort of Greek chorus, are a lot of fun as well.
Basically, Shirobako is awesome and you should all watch it. (As it’s still airing, you can find it over on CrunchyRoll!) A friend described it as “the best show since Madoka“, and I think I might have to agree. My only caveats would be if you have absolutely no interest in the anime-creation process, some of it might get a little obscure, and the number of different characters can seem overwhelming at first. Fortunately, the show provides subtitles with names and jobs for almost everybody for the first several times they appear, which helps a lot. For me, this is definitely, definitely the best thing to come out of the last few seasons.