The Mike Toole Show Shirobako Prime
by Mike Toole,
Out of all the great men and women steering the production of Japanese animation, Akitarō Daichi is probably my favorite director who I never, ever think about. For something like twenty years, he's been omnipresent; from Nurse Angel Ririka SOS on, he's always been there, in the background, directing a gag comedy or a soap opera or occasionally an action show. There was a time when I'd eagerly look forward to his work—the inspired lunacy of Sexy Commando Masaru-san led straight into the unlikely zaniness of Jubei-chan and the freezing cold war drama Now and Then, Here and There. He seemed to be capable of directing anything; in the early 2000s, he stepped away from TV to do innovative OVAs like Grrrl Power, a middling affair that nevertheless had surprising features like a global simultaneous release schedule and a character who communicates using accurate sign language.
But eventually, like I said, he kinda seemed to settle into the background, directing a succession of shows that slipped under my radar, possibly because streaming wasn't a thing yet. So I missed out on shonen adaptation Legendz, soap opera We Were There, and a gag comedy with the highly descriptive title Gag Manga Biyori. This weekend, I stood in line with my favorite of his works, so I could get the director to affix his classy-looking signature to it. (He was dressed as a ninja to promote his upcoming Nobunaga no Shinobi, which was a bonus.) It was while I was waiting in line that I realized something: Akitarō Daichi can see the future.
As I approached his table, I remarked that the DVD I was holding, Animation Runner Kuromi, was “Shirobako before Shirobako,” a sentiment he wryly agreed with. There was something about that quickness, and the look on his face, that made me run back and re-watch Kuromi, just so I could see how it really stacks up to Shirobako.
A lot of you readers like Shirobako, I expect. It's a surprisingly excellent-looking show from an established studio, directed by a guy who'd been red hot for years. Discs sold so fast that Amazon Japan themselves couldn't keep 'em stocked up, and it became a huge hit in Japan, with fans clamoring for director Tsutomu Mizushima to finish up the eight things he's directing at any given time and give them a sequel. Despite being loaded with arcane knowledge about the animation process in Japan, it's remarkably accessible, and quickly amassed a cult following overseas as well. Watching the exploits of production desk manager Aya Miyamori and her peers is part sitcom and part documentary, and it's really engrossing at its finest.
Animation Runner Kuromi is an altogether different animal, bolted together by Daichi and a small staff as a stand-alone OVA in 2001. But it was good—good enough to win the Best OVA award at that year's Tokyo Anime Fair, and good enough to attract attention from Central Park Media and net a stateside release. Its story hits some of the same narrative beats as Shirobako, about an idealistic youngster new to the anime profession who gets a hell of a rude awakening when she realizes how slipshod and peculiar the creative side of the business is. But it all happens on a smaller scale; shunted into her new job as production desk, Mikiko Oguro interacts with a handful of oddball key animators, an overenthusiastic script and dialogue guy, and a chain-smoking veteran director. The studio head quickly grants her the nickname “Kuromi” (she loudly objects, to no great effect) and informs her that her boss, the production manager of Time Journeys, a hellish-looking portmanteau of Time Bokan and Pokémon, has had to go straight to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. It's her first day, and the new production assistant is now production desk!
This highlights one major difference between the two stories. Shirobako is affectionate, even gentle at times. Kuromi's a little harder-edged; you'll laugh at the seriously ill manager throwing the schedule at Kuromi on his way out the door, but it'd be funnier if I didn't know that animators have, in fact, died under similar conditions. Shirobako's fresh-faced PA Aya Miyamori and her peers are mostly anime fans, because of course. Kuromi isn't; the only anime she liked as a kid was Louis Monde III, a hellish-looking portmanteau of Lupin the 3rd and Patalliro!. Miyamori learns the ropes and succeeds because she has the skill and the will. Kuromi flails desperately and only really makes it over the finish line because she knows if she doesn't, she's freaking doomed.
I think my favorite parts of both shows, aside from the thinly-veiled celebrity cameos (they're less obvious in Kuromi, which employs older, weirder side characters than Shirobako), are the fictional anime that the characters are working on, which make up most of the pictures in this column. Kuromi's Time Journeys is a popular, long-running kids' show, it's not going to be ending anytime soon, and the pressure to deliver a good-looking episode on time is enormous and omnipresent. Kuromi and her small team labor under this cloud; the horror of not being able to deliver something on time is a feeling I'm quite familiar with!
Meanwhile, over in Shirobako, Miyamori works at a larger, more established studio. Their big series is Exodus, a thing with cute girls in maid costumes, which means it's a late-night show that can afford more room for mistakes and missed deadlines. But then both shows converge a bit; they each have funny stories about veteran animators (while I love the gentle homage to Yasuji Mori in Shirobako, I also like the 70s Toei grunts in Kuromi who complain vociferously about modern techniques; in one scene, a guy correcting keys keeps crossing out highlight details in hair. “Listen,” he quips, “highlights are immoral. Why didn't you just not draw them?!”). They both have parts where the director burns out and can't do the storyboards, and each production includes a legendary story about the one episode that really went bad. People love Shirobako now, but it's time to wind back the clock and appreciate Kuromi, the show where Akitarō Daichi correctly predicted that anime fans would love an anime about anime. That's not all, either—his adaptation of Gag Manga Biyori comes from a series that just beats out Gintama to the same comic wellspring, in the way it sets up absurd situations and then forces the show's hapless protagonists to deal with them.
Daichi would later supply a sequel to Animation Runner Kuromi, which also won the same Tokyo Anime Fair Best OVA award, in which Kuromi and her staff are stuck working on three shows—all of them god-awful pastiches of Magical DoReMi, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, and the Avengers. (and not the good Avengers, either – the weird, ugly 2000 one with Wonder Man.) Those choices definitely beat out Shirobako's Third Girls Aerial Squad, which comes off as Mizushima adroitly and gently mocking his own Girls und Panzer. Shirobako's best fake anime only appears briefly, an imagined sequence all about a team of Gothic Lolita girls winning baseball games on the way to Koshien. Hey, I'd watch that in a flash!
Both shows are still nicer to the animation business than the one episode of Paranoia Agent which features an actual, literal "shiro-bako," a master screening videotape to check before sending the show on to replication and broadcast. But despite being shorter, Animation Runner Kuromi seems a little savvier, and sharper with its jokes.
Here at the con, Daichi premiered his October series Nobunaga no Shinobi to great acclaim; later he'd comment, “I'm sure the subtitles help, but I'm really relieved that you all laughed at the right parts! Animating comedy really is telling a joke and waiting three months for the audience to laugh." He was right about that, because he can see the future. And he's always been prescient; in this 2005 interview on ANN, you'll read him extolling the virtues of Osomatsu-kun, and not being shy about pointing out that the 80s TV anime doesn't translate the humor of the comics properly. How did he know that, a mere eleven years later, Osumatsu-kun would be so suddenly and dramatically resurrected as Mr. Osomatsu? Maybe he's just playing a long game. Through the panel, he repeatedly admitted that gag comedy is perhaps his greatest strength, a strength he's used expertly in fare as recent as Tonkatsu DJ Agetarō. I'm looking forward to his next big under-the-radar prediction.
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