by Rose Bridges,
Shirobako might be the ultimate in otaku wish fulfillment. "You love anime—now see how it's made, and how you could be there making it, too!" That's what it looks like on paper, anyway. In reality, Shirobako at least tries to show the everyday trials and tribulations that real anime production goes through—from animators falling ill at the drop of a hat, to directors completely changing their minds about the main character at the last minute.
"Expectations vs. reality" is the theme here, and it permeates the story in both these first two episodes. We start out with a group of wide-eyed, moe high school girls who all love anime, and work to create their own production to show at their school cultural festival. They each have their own role, from drawing to voice acting, and as they vow to create their own anime together over a round of donuts, we think we're going to be watching the anime-club version of K-ON!. Instead, it cuts to donut-loving club head Aoi Miyamori all grown up, getting together with her coworkers to watch the first episode of their studio's new anime and stressing out over putting together another one. Later, we see two guys talking over lunch about the dubbing session for their anime, and one of them gasps at how exciting it must be to "meet over a hundred voice actors!" The other tells him that it's actually pretty exhausting to watch them voice the same lines over and over. The message here is "be careful what you wish for!"—or at least, "be sure you REALLY love anime before deciding to work in it, because it'll get hard very fast."
As someone who's struggled in creative fields herself, this is a premise I find particularly resonant. Moving from the carefree world of after-school clubs to studying my passions professionally at a conservatory was a rude awakening for me. That real-life experience, though, is precisely why I think that Shirobako shouldn't be taken too seriously as a window into the anime industry. For one, the characters are already in their dream jobs, right after high school. There's none of the struggling through minimum-wage service jobs while pursuing your dreams on the side, waiting to get good enough that they could become your day job. Perhaps the animation/film industry works a little differently in Japan than it does in the United States with our much smaller social safety net. From what I do know, though, and what I've heard from people with a better finger on this, Shirobako shouldn't be taken as the accurate, warts-and-all version of what it's like to pursue your anime dream job. It has enough tribulations to be believable, but it's still firmly in the world of fantasy.
It's also clear that it knows its audience. Even when the girls grow up, their moe aura never completely disappears. In fact, they still look girlish and bug-eyed as 20-something working adults—and this is easily contrasted with the designs on the male characters, which are more realistic and less flattering. While very few of the characters have much personality so far, when they do, they tend to be cutesy stuff like "Aoi REALLY LOVES DONUTS!" (The series repeats this joke way, way too often). Other than donuts, perkiness, and dependability, there's not much more to her--and she's the most developed character in the series. That said, most of the characters (both male and female) are some degree of otaku. The show does spend time depicting lighthearted downsides to this (as when a director completely reverses direction on the protagonist in their magical-girl series Exodus, because he's decided she's not cute enough to appeal to "the boys",) the tone is still dominated by a feeling of "Look, otaku viewers, they're just like you! You could do this, too!"
You can only criticize the show so much on these grounds, though. Most workplace comedies aren't accurate reflections of day-to-day office struggles, or nobody would want to watch them. Shirobako presumes a lot of insider knowledge that it couldn't really get away with if it was a more grounded "documentary insider look" at the industry, and this is also where it finds most of its humor. The series pokes fun at common anime fan debates (is moe "dead" or "making a comeback"?) and at the ridiculous titles and premises that we see in so many series (as with a script titled "I Think My Harem is Falling Apart (But I Might Just Be Imagining It)"). One of the funniest sequences happens in the second episode: while the camera focuses on Aoi grabbing sweets in the foreground, her coworkers can be heard in the background gabbing about how to deal with online fandom. "It's not a hit! Who would think it's a hit?" "The citizens of the Internet!" "Don't they only look at the Internet?" With wacky music playing the whole time, it comes off as quite surreal—even though this is a struggle people in creative industries deal with all the time now. The show definitely acknowledges the fantasy in its particular depiction of the anime industry when a breakthrough in character creation leads to a dream sequence of the characters materializing in front of the staff.
With its combination of gorgeous production values and interesting musical variety (if sometimes misplaced or overcooked, as in the argument about making the main character cuter,) Shirobako should whet any otaku's appetite for learning what goes on behind the scenes of their favorite shows. Exploring the various divisions of anime production should provide enough material to fill a season of workplace comedy and drama with a little K-ON! flavor. Shirobako is legitimately like nothing else out there, and as long as it keeps looking and sounding good, that novelty should be enough to make up for its lack of realism.
Shirobako is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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