Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Shirobako: Collection 1
Aoi Miyamori and her friends in her high school animation club all dream of one day making it in the anime industry. Succeeding as a writer or animator or even producer, creating shows that'll inspire a new generation of fans… it's a dream job, and with their whole futures ahead of them, they're sure they can succeed. The sky is the limit!
Now three years have passed, and the limit is actually next Tuesday, because if Aoi doesn't get the director of animation to approve this episode's cuts, the production she's working on will go up in flames. It turns out “dream jobs” aren't all that different from regular jobs when you get down to it, and jobs are hard. Working as a production assistant at Musani Productions, Aoi is going to have to fight to survive in an industry where everything seems to be falling apart all the time at once. Making anime really isn't all it's cracked up to be…
The opening song of Shirobako gives you a pretty clear hint of the journey you're in for. “I still remember the feeling of excitement that made my heart dance as a child. No doubts or insecurities, with overflowing hope… I felt like I could be anything I wanted to be.” The first few minutes of the series embody that feeling of excitement, as high schooler Aoi Miyamori and her friends Emi, Zuka, Mi-chan, and Ri-chan work together to put on an anime production for their school festival. The production is a success, and as Aoi prepares to graduate, she makes a promise with her friends that one day, they'll all make a real anime together.
Then, in the first of hundreds of funny/painful jump cuts to come, we switch to the present day. As Aoi sits stuck in traffic and checking her work files, she listens to announcers on the radio talk about how anime is currently in a bubble, and will likely soon crash to the earth. That's her bubble, too - she's now a production runner at Musashino Animation, and currently trying to make sure that at least her assigned episodes don't fall apart entirely. Between taking harsh advice from her several bosses, yelling at key animators to finish their work on time, and dealing with the constant screwups of Taro, her fellow production runner, Aoi doesn't have much time to think about dreams anymore. She's just trying to make it through the day.
Shirobako is a very rare show among anime - a legitimately grounded adult drama, full of human characters dealing with everyday troubles in a believable professional setting. On top of that, it's also something of a grudging love letter to the anime industry; it features thoughtful reflections on where anime has come from and is going, along with constant little insights into the animation process and cute references to specific classic anime and creators. If you're interested in the work that goes into your favorite shows, it's basically a must-see - I can't think of many anime that include references ranging from one character being inspired by the Itano Circus to another referencing the current activities of Hideaki Anno (an offhand airplane noise poking fun at his recent voice-acting adventures). But even if you're not interested in the mechanics of animation, Shirobako is just flat-out one of the best anime of recent years.
The show doesn't waste time slowly integrating Aoi into Musashino Animation; it drops us right in the middle, as their new production's first episode debut is contrasted against Aoi rushing to get the key frames for episode four, check in on the scripting of nine, and possibly make sure the director has decided how the show actually ends. Name and title cards introduce us to a wide range of characters at the pace Aoi engages with them, from the episode directors and key animators to Aoi's high school friends, who are making their own tentative steps into voice acting, animation, and scripting. The show is busy, but never feels confusing; though we're introduced to many characters quickly, the key narrative threads are always easy to hold onto, whether a given day's trial is “Taro managed to screw up so badly the director of animation quit” or “Ema was assigned a cut of animation beyond her abilities, and feels like she's slipping behind.” There's always some new frantic adventure to follow, and yet the overall production proceeds at the believable pace of a true workplace environment.
Much of Shirobako's success likely comes down to its all-star team. Its director Tsutomu Mizushima is building a strong reputation as a miracle worker; his recent shows include Girls und Panzer and Witch Craft Works, both of which turned out to be far stronger shows than they frankly had any right to be. His presence is clear in the focus and momentum of Shirobako's constant scene transitions, and in the way its busy sprawl of narrative threads come across as totally understandable through the storyboarding and pacing. Mizushima is joined on this production by series composer Michiko Yokote, who he previously worked together with on Genshiken's adaptation. Their collaboration there seems like a strong template for Shirobako; the two share a brilliant ability to capture everyday drama in a way that makes it seem real, as well as a strong knack for offhand, incidental humor.
That humor is key in Shirobako - even though its characters are stressed and overworked at basically all times, the show always finds ways to keep things light. When it seems like everything is going to fall apart, Aoi oftens takes solace in talking in the “voices” of her two dolls, as the pair plot murder and destruction or simply rant about the unfairness of her job. When the show director fails yet again to finish the storyboards for the last episode, his desk manager actually locks him in a cage in the supply room. And when Aoi can't find an animator suitable for the last episode's climactic finish, her attempts to poach one from elsewhere frame her as the little match girl, staring sadly in on the bright animation work being done in other studios. Between the overt gags and whip-smart pacing, Shirobako never wastes time in landing a joke and then moving on to the next thing.
But even beyond the strong direction, consistent humor, and steady pacing, it is Shirobako's beating heart that makes it great. The show loves its cast, but it doesn't pull punches; these characters have hard lives, and they don't always win. Aspiring voice actress Zuka spends this entire set of episodes seeing her auditions end in failure, and Ema bluntly frames her need to improve as “either I learn to draw faster or I don't get to eat.” Those opening lyrics about dreams and memories don't conclude in guaranteed happiness - instead, the resolution is “treasure that one scene. I want to commit it to memory.” It's only the love of what they do, and how their passion was once sparked by the great anime of the past, that keeps these characters going. It's only the ways they all carry each other that keeps them standing tall. Scenes like Aoi microwaving one more dinner as she assures her mother she's eating right, or an elderly animator offering a heartfelt thanks for being given the chance to do great work again, ring true to a universal experience of passion and adulthood. There is a thoughtful, poignant humanity in Shirobako's stories of personal drama and production mishaps, an emotional core that makes it hard not to love its broad, awkward, endearing cast.
The show's aesthetics are not as strong as its vivid storytelling, but they're perfectly appropriate for a show that's more about grounded drama than visual creativity. The character designs are distinctive and expressive (I particularly like how every character has a diverse wardrobe that all fit into a specific character "style"), and though the animation is fairly limited, the show is full of great silly faces and fun visual fantasies. The backgrounds are understated, neither ugly nor beautiful, and largely just convey the mundane bustle of Musashino's office. It's only when the show takes occasional trips outside that the backgrounds get to breathe, at which point you see the show has a strong altered-photography style somewhat similar to Dimension W or Sekai Seifuku.
The music is also more of a role-player than a highlight, but it performs its job very well. The show features a lively soundtrack that mixes classic instrumentation and upbeat electronic tracks, along with a few diverse genre motifs for the show's dips into classic anime genres. And the opening and ending are both endlessly hummable- I can personally confirm that Aoi's “happy beer dance” moment from the opening has gotten stuck in my head for many days at a stretch.
Shirobako's packaging is unfortunately as minimal as packaging can possibly be. The first half's twelve episodes are all crushed together onto one single disc, meaning the quality is inescapably lower than it should be for a bluray release. The visuals feel flat and rough-edged, and there's even some ugly artifacting that crops up from time to time. Given the already-stressed data compression, the lack of any dub or extras feels more merciful than disappointing, but it's a serious shame that such an accomplished work receives such a bare-minimum release.
Overall, in spite of the issues of the show packaging, Shirobako is a show I could not recommend enough. If you're at all interested in character dramas or shows about adults, Shirobako is a rare gift - and even beyond genre tastes, Shirobako is funny, propulsive, and full of neat insights into the anime process. It's heartwarming, dramatically engaging, and laugh-out-loud funny - pretty much all you could ask for in a show.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Full of endearing characters, engaging vignettes, and hilarious jokes, Shirobako is a simultaneously unique and exemplary drama. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll probably want to hit Taro.
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