Slice of Hectic Animation Life – Shirobako Eps. 1-3

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Shirobako is my favorite show of the fall season so far! Watch it on Crunchyroll:

On the last day of September, I made bets against several of my friends and family that I could put out a full video every single day throughout the month of October. With only four videos having been planned before the month started, this has meant searching for something to make a video about every day, then scrambling to get it done as fast as possible; and it’s been a pretty wild and, at times, stressful ride. But that’s just me, working alone, with about seventy bucks on the line if I fail. Imagine doing the same thing, but with a massive team of people who all rely on one-another’s abilities–with all of your jobs, reputations, and the quality of your art at stake. That’s what it’s like to work in anime production, and Shirobako is a show which perfectly communicates the stress, chaos, and underlying passion that somehow manages to generate an animated series.

Make no mistake, almost no one gets into the animation industry if they aren’t passionate about animation. Anime staff are notoriously paid like shit, and it’s among the most stressful jobs imaginable. Unlike many American cartoons, which might have an entire season completed before any of it goes to television, anime episodes are often completed the same day that they’re supposed to go on air, assuming they can even be finished by then. It’s a race to beat the clock, and somehow manage a huge number of personalities and temperaments into working together and getting something done. If anyone fucks up even a little, the entire project is set back, and there simply is no time to deal with that kind of thing.

The first episode of Shirobako shows us the backstory of five bright young high school girls who passionately want to work in animation together, and awesomely supercuts from their most brilliant moment, into the image of a half-conscious adult main character too busy driving angry to even ask if she’s really living the life her high-school self dreamed of. No one makes a profession out of their passion without experiencing some disillusionment, though I’ve found that at the end of the day, asking yourself if you’d rather be doing anything else is always a great incentive to keep going.

Episode two half-convinces us that the director of the show these characters are working on might be insane for wanting to change the animation mere days before the episode goes on-air, but then it shows us a passionate discussion which reminds us that these people aren’t just doing a job, but trying to create a work of art they can be happy with. The result at the end of episode three is gratifying, even if that gratification is all too brief. Shirobako often cleverly uses its editing to undercut emotional moments at their height, so that we feel just how fleeting satisfaction can be in this industry. It feels fast and hectic, sometimes even hard to follow with all the names and technical terms being thrown around, yet it seems like we’re only able to follow along at the same speed that the characters are. Can’t keep up? Then you’ll never make it as a production assistant.

Shirobako is great for anime fans to get a behind the scenes look at the medium they love, but it’s even better for those of us who follow the production side of anime. Most of the characters and names are based on real people and companies. If you know your studios, G.I. Staff will be an obvious portmanteau of Production I.G. and J.C. Staff, and Musashino Animation will sound a lot like MushiPro. Hell even the title, Shirobako, which translates to white box, may well be a reference to White Fox studio. This show is animated by P.A. Works, but the producer on the show within a show is quite obviously the famous former president of Madhouse and current president of MAPPA, Masao Maruyama, whom, as Omoikane points out, feels like a mainstay of anime production for those of us who’ve seen him at Otakon every year. Fans of voice actresses will be excited to see a bunch of them playing themselves with slight name-changes.

At heart, Shirobako is a slice-of-life story, but it’s a slice of hectic, intense adult life, similar to the likes of Hataraki Man. Sometimes it’s a comedy, sometimes it’s a drama, sometimes the characters are hot-blooded and passionate, and sometimes they’re losing their fucking minds. While none of the characters have been particularly fleshed out yet, the show has done a fantastic job of making all of them seem like distinct and realistic people, despite how massive the cast is and how often it has to jump between them.

Shirobako is not for everyone. It deliberately withholds gratification and can be stressful to even keep up with. It doesn’t let you know where it’s going, and it doesn’t hold your hand as it goes. How much you enjoy it may depend on how interested you’ll be in seeing an animation staff portray the harsh yet passionate reality of their lives. It’s a show that doesn’t have time to be uplifting or depressing, or to dwell on one thing–it’s got a god damn deadline to meet. And while I can’t pretend I’ve ever worked that hard in my life, it comes at a good time for me to appreciate it, and is easily my favorite show of the current season so far.

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