ANIME OF THE YEAR 2016: Girlish Number

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If you’ve been following my channel for a long time, then you may be aware of my particular vendetta towards modern light novel adaptations. Back in the mid-2000s, a lot of my favorite anime were light novel adaptations–creative and interesting shows that often played with unique styles of narrative presentation, and were all-around a bit more unhinged with their ideas than the other stuff that was on TV. Unfortunately, the success of certain series created a market boom that lead to media companies putting publishing deals in the hands of every twenty-year-old web novelist with a stupidly long book title–and attaching popular pixiv artists to their work for the sake of marketing. This in turn lead to cheap-ass TV producers trying to turn a quick buck by hastily adapting every trash-tier property in their purview into low-effort late-night schlock, and letting every unexpected success be the inspiration for yet another insipid cash-grab attempt–most of which blew up in their faces anyways.

But really, how can you blame them? In a chaotic industry wherein random chance and marketing seem to be the driving forces behind sales (as opposed to the quality of the product), what would motivate anyone to put real effort into their work? If the odds of selling twenty-thousand blu-rays by shitting out Infinite Stratos are just as good as putting in the effort to make an actual product, then what’s the point of trying? Every failed light novel dumpster fire that you could point to is only as helpful as pointing to a show with actual effort put into it that didn’t sell for shit.

Two years ago, Shirobako showed us an in-depth look at how an anime series gets made, exploring many of the ups and downs of working in the industry, and how even a production that runs relatively well and generates a great product still is a clusterfuck of an endeavor. However, in spite of all the pain that the show’s characters experienced, the ultimate message of the story was that anime is pretty cool–and that the people working to bring these shows to life are passionate, hard-working, and full of a desire to make something worthwhile (even if they can’t always do their jobs as well as they’d like to).

But Shirobako is only one story–the story of that rare moment when the planets align, and good people do good work to produce good results. Its message is uplifting, and it makes the viewer appreciate the anime that they love that much more than they did already.

Girlish Number is a very different beast.

It’s the story of lazy, incompetent fools, doing lazy, incompetent work, and producing a pile of garbage; and while it is all presented with a sense of goofy, irreverent humor that reminds me of Gintama’s occasional dives into cynical meta-humor, it nonetheless rings every bit as true as Shirobako ever did–and is exactly the follow-up to that show which I’ve been waiting for.

In the time since Shirobako aired, there have been two other, somewhat similarly-styled workplace comedies which take a like-minded but more laid-back approach. The first was Sore ga Seiyuu, which similarly explored the inner-workings of the industry (this time from the perspective of young voice actresses), and also made their jobs out to be a lot more grueling and difficult to cope with than what, say, some teen idol show would have want to do for careers in this industry.

However, that show still presented all of its characters as good-natured victims of the circumstance that is the industry. It was not willing to actively cast shade on any of the people involved at any level of production for perpetuating these systems that make the industry such a hard place to work in, and presented that hardship more as a natural force which just can’t be helped. New Game, which was even more comedy-focused and light-hearted, took a similar approach to the gaming industry; the girls were always behind schedule and working overnight, but not for lack of everyone doing the best that they could–it was just the way that things were.

I have nothing against this approach to telling the story of these industries, and I think that all of these are good shows–in fact, Shirobako is one of my top five favorite anime of all time. However, I really don’t think that these shows tell enough of the story.

In Shirobako, there are bad guys working within the industry, but they are ultimately defeated. In New Game, all of those overnight sessions pay off, and the game actually gets made on time. These shows seem to send the message that as long as you do your best, things are going to work out, and good can come out of all of it.

Girlish Number, again, is not that kind of story. For its protagonist, doing her best basically means doing nothing at all, because she is a fundamentally inept person. For the anime studio that is worked to the bone on constant re-drawings and acquiescing to the demands of publishers, all of their hard-work gets them a barely-watchable trainwreck of a product that hardly anyone buys. This is the story of an anime production that fails on every single level, regardless of what it means to any single person involved, or how much effort the do-gooders on staff put into it–because at the end of the day, the entire core motivation of making the series is fundamentally misguided.

Girlish Number is kicked off when a couple of garbage producers get together and decide to make a light-novel adaptation because those things are all the rage these days. It doesn’t matter what the product is–one of the producers has never even heard of a light novel–but if it can sell, then who the fuck cares? They choose a book pretty much at random, and their first concern isn’t actually getting the anime made or producing a product of any substantial quality; instead, the producer Kuzu is worried about his marketing strategy. He concludes that attaching a cute, no-name young actress to the series and putting on a lot of live events with her and the crew will be the path to success. He doesn’t bother to check whether or not this no-name actress is even capable of acting–which she is not, even remotely, nor does she have any real interest in being able to do so. In her mind, the fact that she’s gotten the part means that she is already great.

This actress is Chitose, and she is the most perfectly dangerous compliment to Kuzu’s madness. She’s lazy, entitled, bratty, and completely unpersonable–but she gets what she wants, so none of that matters to her. Her older brother, a former actor who gave up on performing out of disillusionment towards the industry, now works as a manager for her and several other actresses; and through this connection, Chitose stumbles cuteness-first into getting a leading role on Kuzu’s show, even though she has done nothing to deserve it, and her brother wasn’t even really trying to promote her useless ass on this level. But none of it matters–because remember, the chances of success are totally random. Who’s to say this couldn’t have all worked out?

It doesn’t, but this fact just rolls off of Kuzu and Chitose. Each of their failures is just recontextualized into an excuse for them to hatch another cockamamie success scheme. The idea of creating a good product or putting in effort never crosses either of their minds–all they care about is branding, image-crafting, and believing in the idea that success will just happen. Any positive spin that they can put on the situation constitutes a “win,” and this bumbling carelessness carries them through production on two entire seasons of a split-cour light novel travesty that should never have existed.

And the funny part is that even though it isn’t ultimately a success, it’s not even that massive a failure. Were it not for going over-budget with its troubled production, it might’ve actually broke even. There were still blu-rays sold, still fans piling into events, and, despite her total inability to act, Chitose still has like ten-thousand twitter followers just through sheer force of shitposting. Suffice it to say, it could have actually been worse–and that’s saying something, because it’s bad.

One of my favorite moments in the series comes when a new voice actress is brought on-board the show towards the end of its second cour. She’s bright and energetic and legitimately cares about doing good work and making this show the best product that it can be, and the shocking part is that she’s a bona-fide fan of this anime. She enjoyed the light novels, she is willing to look past the almost total lack of animation, and she even looks up to Chitose because she admires how her voice work improves over the course of the show (from abysmal to merely mediocre).

And these are all completely legitimate things. These are all reasons that real people form real connections with terrible, cynical works of fart that should never exist; because for some people it’s their first, or something in it speaks to them, or they just don’t see things the same way that I do–and so they can have this very sincere, personal and real appreciation for a show that could not possibly give a single fuck about them beyond how fat their wallet is.

All along the way throughout this story, the light novel’s original author is getting strung along and bullied by everyone around him into approving of every terrible decision that these people are making with his work; because there’s just nothing he can do about it. He’s young, he’s terrible, his book is terrible, and he knows it–even though he obviously cares very deeply about this work and would love nothing more than to see it brilliantly brought to life in animation; but reality is as cruel to this poor, broken bastard as it could possibly be. And while it’s easy to be sympathetic for this guy, he really probably doesn’t have any talent, and his book is probably shit. If his book even breaks even off of this show, then he’s making more money than he probably deserves. But really, it’s the industry at large that chews these people up and spits them out onto piles and piles of unsold merch littering the tables at the anime shops. And yet, even when all is said and done and his beloved story has been trashed and scattered across every message board and streaming site on the internet… at least some people liked it–and at least he finds inspiration in the end to go and write another book–so maybe he’ll be the lucky bastard in the long run after all.

If the thought of a shit light novel author launching a career from the ruins of a terrible anime that he himself hates isn’t sad enough, the fact that three of the main voice actresses legitimately need this anime to launch their own careers is even sadder. None of the five girls who make up the fictional show’s harem cast have any interest in the source material whatsoever, and all are well aware that the show they’re making is an ass pile; but nonetheless, for Chitose, Koto, and Yae, it’s also their big break.

In Chitose’s case, it wouldn’t matter what the show was regardless–she doesn’t give a shit about anime to begin with, and is only concerned with the fact that she’s got the leading role (and all the bragging rights which come with it). And really, since quality boils down to a matter of taste, and sales boil down to a random number generator half of the time, it’s hard to even call her out on it. You could tell her how bad her acting is and how she was chosen for practically no reason, but it won’t change the fact that she got the leading role in a TV show. Can you even imagine how this tragedy could’ve been magnified if the show had been a big success?

Thankfully, Koto and Yae are actually good people who probably deserve to have a lead role attached to their names, even if it’s for a terrible show. When it comes to the film industry, after all, the actual quality of work being done is almost secondary to the fact of having experience. Once you’ve got a credit by your name that you were a lead actress, no one can take that away from you, and it’s certainly going to be easier to get more and better work from there on out, since you’ve been tested and proven.

Sure, on a production this bad, these girls weren’t just going to skate into their next jobs without audition; but in the case of Koto, this animated enema is practically a saving grace for her career. At age twenty-six, and after half a decade of unsuccessfully trying to break into the industry, she was about to head on home back out to kansai if she couldn’t get a leading role soon–and that’s when this amalgam of random-chance ideas plopped down into her lap. The experience alone of getting to work with well-established actresses full time, going out to put on events, and getting her name out there is enough to invigorate a near-death career; so she can hardly complain about how bad the product is, even as a hardcore sakuga enthusiast who knows its production faults better than anyone.

Yae is much younger, but kind of in the same boat career-wise; it’s her first main-cast role as well, and gets her off the ground in much the same way. What’s great about Yae is that she’s a very good-natured and kind person, whose kindness is strained to the point that she can hardly maintain it by recognizing what a human waste her non-friend Chitose is. It doesn’t help that Chitose has no respect or acknowledgement for Yae’s politeness and platitudes, telling her that her compliments are worthless because “[her] words are cheap, and [her] soul is a bitch.” What she really means is that of course Yae, like everyone else, sees Chitose for the monster that she is; but only she doesn’t have the heart to tell her to her face that she can’t consider her a friend–and yet, in the end, Yae’s overpowering goodness and inability to simply dismiss Chitose outright is instrumental in jumpstarting Chitose’s development and rescuing her career–and that brat will probably never even appreciate it.

The other two actresses are a lot more seasoned, and are pretty much just working on this show because they were hired to do it and they don’t turn down work–Kazuha because she’s still building up steam as a mainstream actress, and Momoka because she just doesn’t give a fuck and will do every job she’s offered for the money. Each of them has their own sort of fascinating side-story that lets us peek into the different ways that trying to maintain your sense of self in such a cynical industry can be difficult and disheartening.

Kazuha is the legitimate anime fan who just wants to be an actress–but certainly not for an endless string of bullshit harem adaptations, and definitely not with the consequence of having to participate in frivolous swimsuit blu-ray bonuses because the producers need a way to shill their FUBAR anime that they haven’t bothered to make watchable on its own. When I think about her, I inevitably think of my favorite youtuber, Endless Jess–an artist through and through who finds the artifice necessitated by youtube’s user base and algorithms to be antithetical to the art that he wants to create; yet who is constantly forced to compromise to the scant extent he can bear just because there’s nowhere else to fucking go in this world. Some viewers have expressed disinterest in Kazuha’s arc, and how the minor drama that she gets into with her parents over mutual misunderstandings and her own frustration with her work isn’t all that dramatically fulfilling–but if you ask me, aside from the fact that I think Kazuha is a fun character to spend time with, the real point of this arc is about the parallel that it draws to the far less easily understood pathos felt by Momoka.

Unlike the other girls, Momoka’s career is already completely set; after all, she was born to and raised by actors–(her mother being a veritable industry legend)–and she’s already got enough roles booked to work them like a full time job; and mind you, she’s only seventeen years old. Momoka’s conflict, rather, is in the fact that she’s already being treated like a professional adult, and everyone around her has such a cutthroat and cynical work-oriented approach that she isn’t really sure how to decompress or to just be herself. Her identity was shaped before she really had time to think about it–and when she takes a step back, she can’t decide if she actually should be upset about the work that she’s allowing herself to do. At the sight of Kazuha’s parents expressing legitimate concern over the fact that she’s working on a potentially demeaning video which they know she’s not okay with, Momoka can’t help but be a little bit jealous. Her own mother isn’t even concerned–because to her, all of the shit that Momoka’s doing is normal. Even if she takes pride in the work she’s putting in, and in the career that she’s built around her talents, she can’t help but survey what she’s doing from the perspective of an outsider and wonder if it’s okay for her to be doing this. After all, she’s doing the exact same shit that Kazuha is having this whole existential crisis over, and yet it never seems to occur to Kazuha that it might be insulting or confusing to her coworkers for her to constantly suggest that they shouldn’t be proud of the work they’re doing–and Momoka is too busy trying to be the strong, cynical one and to help her through it all to say out loud that maybe all of this bellyaching is just a little bit upsetting for her, too.

For this very reason, if there’s any character whom I find myself connecting with the most in this series, it would be Momoka. It’s not as though I think it’s okay for youtube to be the way that it is, or that I enjoy the fact that I have to work so hard to game the system with eye-catching titles, thumbnails, and subject matter just so I can make a living off of what I do; but I also have been doing it for so long and have mastered the system so well that I can only view it all as a joke at this point. Recently, on my vlogging channel, I made a video called “How To Make A Successful Sword Art Online Video.” The content of the video was a vlog about how if you make a video with Sword Art Online in the title and give it a relevant thumbnail, then you will automatically have a proportionally successful video. I even made a bet that it would net fifty thousand views in three to five days–which would be five times the average view count on that channel–and, of course, it did; to which I shouted, “I Win! GAHAHA!” But even if I can cynically bankroll the inherent idiocy of the broken system that I operate inside of and be congratulated for it, I still at the end of the day have to look at someone like Endless Jess and remember that this system is fucking disgusting, and that I almost wish I wasn’t a part of it. At least, until the paycheck comes.

Earlier on I mentioned an actress who joins the cast during the production of the fictional anime’s second season–this is Nanami, and her introduction sort of splits the show into two parts. A lot of viewers have expressed a waning interest in the series when it comes to the second half, because it shifts from an all-out cynical takedown of the industry to more of a character study of Chitose, slowing down a bit in the process–but personally, I think that this may have been the most honest direction for the series to take at that point.

As hilariously biting and necessary as the cynicism of the early show is, I think that holding onto that all the way through, and having the anime that the characters produce turn out to be a big success which allows those clowns to keep perpetuating their cycle of idiocy, would’ve been just as dishonest as ignoring the cynicism altogether; because it isn’t the way that most of these stories end in real life. Yes, they could’ve gone full Wolf of Wall Street with it and had the bad guys walk away with all the money, and it would’ve been a painful but true story–but it also would’ve been a rare one. Most of the time, these cynical cash-grab shows do crash and burn. Careers are put on the chopping block, and the fat that’s weighing these productions down is cut.

Compared to most of the Japanese workforce, the jobs of the show’s two biggest fuckups–the producer, Kuzu, and the voice actress, Chitose–are surprisingly meritocratic. That merit is determined in sales figures and popularity rather than in the subjective craftsmanship of their work (which is why they both thought that they could get away with it), but the fact is that the show doesn’t sell. Kuzu is very clearly the problematic element, and as his assistant producer grows more and more self-confident and takes over more of the workload, it starts to look even to Kuzu like he’s on the fast track to irrelevancy. Chitose, meanwhile, is so lacking in self-awareness that while all of the other young actresses that she works with are continuing to practice and improve their craft, and are going out there in pursuit of auditions and new work; she’s at home laying around, wondering why her starring role hasn’t made her a career voice actress yet–and why these assholes are still talking shit about her on the internet.

What Nanami brings to the series which upends it so heavily is simple, straightforward sincerity. She’s practically made of the stuff, and when the people around her witness someone genuinely doing their best and actually caring about making a good product out of this show (which she is perplexingly a die-hard fan of), then they can’t help but remember what they’re actually supposed to be doing here. Nanami reminds us that while, yes, cynicism and luck can work sometimes and get you places that you never should have been, hard work is almost guaranteed to get the job done much faster; and to build up a hell of a lot more wherewithal and job security on your path to pursuing it. In the same way that it never occurs to Chitose to put effort into anything that she does, it never occurs to Nanami not to do so–and her career rockets past Chitose in such a blink of an eye, sweeping everyone else up along in her tornado of good-naturedness, that Chitose is left far behind with no one to pick her up but herself.

And that’s not even for lack of others trying. I would be remiss not to talk about Chitose’s older brother, Gojou, who seems to be more disheartened and disillusioned by the cynicism surrounding him than anyone, but trucks along just trying to do right by others and to help out, even when his sister is hardly doing anything for herself. Gojou does as much as he reasonably can–and really, so does everyone else–but it’s a slow-burn for Chitose to understand that no one is going to sweep her off of her feet and to carry her to the finish line. At some point, she’s gotta get up on her feet and start running if she doesn’t want to be left in the dust.

For that matter, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that this story is entirely centered around Chitose and her perspective, because she really is the person with the most at stake in every part of this story. No one else is absolutely being forced to change in order to participate in this–for most of them, this shitty anime is just a footnote in their lives and careers, or the forgettable experience that launched them into being able to continue on to better things. Everything about this production was about as random as life tends to be, but everyone else is poised to either reap the benefits and continue on their way, or to try and forget about this as fast as possible while moving on to the next thing. Chitose is the only one who needs to grow in order to take advantage of this situation, and who will absolutely fall behind if she doesn’t.

Given the kind of show that this is, it would be so easy to imagine a much shittier version with Gojou as the main character, who cynically offers his critique on each situation from the perspective of being above-it-all, and rants internally about how broken this industry truly is if someone like his sister could participate in it. In that show, it somehow would’ve been him being reminded of sincere effort by Nanami that allowed him to inspire a change in Chitose. Thankfully, that isn’t the show that we got, because Chitose is the perfect vehicle to explore this particular scenario, and it’s that much more of a blindside to watch her get dragged through the mud when there’s no other narrator to obfuscate our view of it. In the early part of the show, it’s the fact that Chitose is so on-board for all the terrible shit that she and Kuzu are getting away with that makes the show hilarious and even a little skin-crawling, because it asks us to bask in their victories without getting to say that we’d do things differently, or that we’re better people than them; and in the later part of the show, the arcs that these two characters undergo have power because we’ve been in their shoes for so long that we also can feel how the rug is sliding out from under them.

Girlish Number is not a perfect or even monumental show. By the way, the title is in reference to the fact that Girlish and Garish are both pronounced the same way in Japanese, because Chitose is a Garish Girl… I guess. I can only dream of how this show could have been as densely layered and detailed as Shirobako, or of getting a second season of that show which is willing to let its characters plunge to the depths that some of these ones reach–but at the same time, it’s the brisk and light-on-its-feet atmosphere that keeps this series from crunching into utter depression like what I’d feel if I had to watch any of Shirobako’s main cast suffer any more than they already do.

I know I’ve been ragging on Chitose this whole video, but she is an absolutely delightful character to watch, and probably my outright favorite anime character of 2016. Her design is phenomenal, as are every single one of her myriad adorable and hilarious facial expressions, and actress Sayaka Senbongi performs her role phenomenally with just the right tinge of obnoxiousness and bouncy self-aggrandizement that would almost contrast just how lethargic her character is if not for the level of pride that Chitose seems to take from getting away with doing nothing. So much is great about this show on a technical level–even if the animation is a bit inconsistent in the second half; but it’s a worthwhile trade-off for the bizarre mix of sakuga style that comes up in the trailers for the show’s made-up anime. It’s an overall impressive piece of work from a first-time director; and for me, a chance to actually enjoy Wataru Watari’s writing.

I know that Girlish Number isn’t a show that’s going to vibe with a massive number of people, even among those who are into it conceptually. It means a lot to me as a content creator with not only a very cynical view of the industry that I work within, but also of the one that I’ve dedicated my career to observing–and which is represented in this show so perfectly. To me, just getting a series that seems to confirm all of my suspicions about how these bullshit light novel adaptations that I’m always trashing get made is exquisitely gratifying, and would’ve been worth the price of admission alone. It’s a hell of a bonus that I got to watch a character as fun as Chitose, and to relate to all of her coworkers, and even to laugh my ass off at all of them getting wasted every other episode and trying to piece together how the hell they got here like they’re trapped in a Talking Heads song–which is pretty much my life’s story.

Obviously if you still haven’t seen this show yet and you somehow made it this far into the video, then I highly encourage you to watch it. Use my crunchyroll link and watch it there if you somehow haven’t used someone else’s link already. Stick around on my channel for more videos like this in the future, and contribute to my patreon if you’d like to help those videos get made. My editor deserves to get paid better for when I suddenly drop these twenty-minute videos on his desk. If you really wish I updated more frequently, then you obviously aren’t subscribed to my vlogging, podcast, and let’s play channels–because if you were then you’d be wishing you had time to watch it all. Check all that stuff out, and thanks again for watching–I’ll see you in the next one!

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