To myself and other anime fans from the west, the actual medium of anime can feel far-off and obscure compared to things we know about. Not much information is out there to actually understand the anime industry without crossing the language barrier from English to Japanese. As it happens, Japanese is ranked as one of the hardest languages for any English speaker to learn by the United States foreign service institute, making it hard for anyone to just jump into learning about the depth of the anime industry without heavy translation. The information we have from the few people who not only took the time to learn Japanese but also were interested enough in anime to document it and the processes behind its creation had been the source of any and all information English speakers had about the anime industry. Everything changed in Fall 2014 with the airing of Shirobako.
I will prephase this with a warning that Shirobako is NOT a comprehensive deep-dive into the anime industry and it should not be taken as one. Shirobako is a show about a group of friends who reach the end of high school all wanting to pursue creative careers and relating through their passion for anime in their club in school. The show mainly focuses on the lives and interactions of this group as they pursue their dreams within an anime studio and its related industries like CG outsourcing and voice acting.
The genius of Shirobako is how it manages to wind a legitimately engaging and interesting narrative into a surface-level exploration of every aspect of anime production. Each character in the main group is very likable to the point where I was always interested to see their growth and increased skill and understanding of their individual roles and talents within the industry surrounding them. Each one faces troubles and stepping stones to grow as people, but in the end they always find each other drunk at a small family-run bar near the studio they work at.
Shirobako takes each aspect of anime production very seriously, and makes a concerted effort to display every aspect of it in enough detail for the viewer to not only understand it but also its role in the rushed, frantic process that is the production of an anime. For anyone who does not know already, anime is produced at lightning speeds on a very strict and tight production schedule in comparison to much of Western pop media. There are stories from studio Shaft, who has notoriously run up to the very last minute with the episodes of some of their anime, occasionally unfinished until the Blu ray releases after it finishes airing. This is the process explored in Shirobako, where through the frantic and exhausting role of a production assistant, Miyamori Aoi learns the truth of the industry surrounding the medium which she loves.
Anime production (with the notable exception of its artistic parts) is not at all an elegant process, and involves high-stress long work days for every member of a team with the high chance that it could all fail and fall through underneath them. The anime industry is one that it is an unspoken prerequisite that you are passionate about it, because no one else would be crazy enough to work in the kind of industry that works you close to death for Japanese cartoons nearly always aimed at a tiny niche audience.
To top to this extensive dive into the nuances and difficulties of the anime industry, Shirobako also contains one of the largest casts of characters I’ve ever seen in an anime where I can still distinctly remember every character. Every single person in this show is vitally important to its story, in much the same way that they are also vitally important to the actual production process of anime.I will not dive deep into each individual character for the sake of keeping this fairly short, but just know that they are all incredible charaters who all deserve a writeup of their own.
Ultimately, Shirobako is a story of what every anime studio wants to happen to them. Everyone wants their show to succeed and for it to not fall behind schedule and for it to gain traction and gain success. In a brutal industry like anime, Shirobako represents the success that everyone yearns for, and represents the reason that anime is ever made in the first place. The harsh reality of the anime industry is that this is often not the case, as those who work the hardest are often the least rewarded. I’m referring to animators here, who are often illegally overworked and grossly underpaid. Something important I noticed in the show is that in the studio that it takes a lense to, not one person dislikes their job to an extent where they slack off. Everyone who works in anime works there out of sheer passion and joy for what the wonderful medium of animation can bring to you.
Shirobako is a testament to what hard work on something you love can bring you. In a world as harsh as the anime industry it feels even more gratifying to see this in action. As a heartwarming drama and incredible showcase of the cogs beneath the machine of anime production, Shirobako shines out to me as something truly special and worth remembering. 10/10