Final Thoughts: Shirobako

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After countless schedule slips, crushed dreams and mental breakdowns, Aoi and her colleagues at Musashino Animation have finally wrapped up production on their adaptation of The Third Aerial Girls Squad. Join Aqua, Gee and Marlin as we go don-don-donuts and look back on Shirobako, a one-of-a-kind phenomenon no self-respecting anime fan should miss.

Aqua’s Final Thoughts

Great things can come from the most unlikely of places. Oddly enough, it’s a bit of a miracle that Shirobako ended up as phenomenal as it did. It’s show that seems unaware of its own brilliance at times, as it delivers profound wisdoms on creativity and relatable witticisms without batting an eye. It’s more empowering, charismatic, profound and engaging than most other anime, and it doesn’t even seem to have to try. That is what makes Shirobako‘s appeal so hard to explain. It’s more than interesting enough as look behind the scenes of anime production, but carried by its tons of characters and perspectives, transcends any kind of singular description. It’s a documentary, an autobiography, an artistic statement and a plain old anime comedy all at once. Superficially, Shirobako is — and was probably intended as — yet another P.A. Works original moe vehicle about doe-eyed and slightly overenthusiastic girls achieving everything they want with the power of hard work and friendship, à la Hanasaku Iroha and Tari Tari. In reality, however, its cast and intentions are far more diverse than the positively generic promo materials might have made it look.

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No actual anime would ever animate a scene this low-key with such detail. Then again, no actual anime would bother to write a satisfying original ending in the first place.

Shirobako staunchly refuses to take the easy way out. It doesn’t whitewash anime production into some kind of marshmallow wonderland comprised entirely of cute girls making cute girl anime for your entertainment, nor does it boil the entire scene industry down to a bunch of perverted hacks it is free to spew its bile on. Shirobako is homage and satire in equal parts, a meta-commentary that loves all anime, from old-school mecha over educational kids shows to the kind of moe light novel science fiction that comprises 75% of the medium nowadays, but isn’t afraid to take a critical gander. It’s no surprise that the shows Musashino Animation produce are the kinds of shows I wouldn’t be want to found dead watching at first glance. Shirobako is more nuanced than most anime fans would call themselves. It will happily lash out against shady executive meddling, lazy production ethics, half-assed excuse plots and lousy fanservice — just a few of the many flaws making anime so damn hard to like, sometimes — but at the same time will defend even the industry’s absolute low points against any and all claims of dishonesty. Call it hopelessly naive, but in the end Shirobako is not an essay on how anime should be made or enjoyed. It’s a fantastic show about how work, passion, dedication and friendship can strengthen you as a person, regardless of the actual results.

Gee’s Final Thoughts

As an artist myself, there’s just so much I could say about Shirobako. It’s been a marvelous ride and one I have not regretted a second since I got on board. I guess as the guy from the creative background, I should focus on that first. Shirobako impresses on many fronts, from its sincere respect for the medium to its heartfelt character moments. What really grabbed me though was how in depth the show was willing to go, at the expense of accessibility. While I personally loved Shirobako’s willingness to share the nitty gritty of anime production, I can understand the apprehension. While Western television has made an industry of the “show about work that you watch after work” genre, anime has always been about escapism. Not to say Shirobako isn’t fantastical in many ways, but it never shies away from the content that sets it apart from the other slice of life shows. It’s that core of sincerity that sees it through from start to finish.

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The two fundamentals of a Japanese company: awkward PR talks and booze.

As a work about artists made by artists, it makes sense that it retains such a degree of respect and adoration for the medium. At the same time, it’s totally fine with exposing some of the reasons why anime is such a flawed medium. Whether it’s incompetence, resources, or sheer apathy, there are so many reasons why anime doesn’t reach the heights it’s capable of. And while Shirobako is fine exposing this to the masses, it never attempts to make excuses for it. Yes, some people in the industry are stupid and shortsighted. Yes the bureaucracy is shitty and gets in everyone’s way. Yes animation doesn’t pay for shit and you are literally financially better off working at a McDonalds than working in animation. But at the end of the day, there are people who truly love what they do, and no matter how creatively bankrupt anime might seem sometimes, there are people pouring their hearts and souls into it. Shirobako doesn’t ask us to forgive anime’s missteps, but instead to merely understand where they come from. It’s a powerful message and one that deserves the utmost respect from the people who consume and enjoy anime.

Subsequently, the character moments feel so emotionally engrossing specifically because they’re not divorced from the subject material. So many slice of life anime fail specifically because the slice of life aspects are completely separated from the actual life aspects. Not the case with Shirobako. All five of its main heroines along with their entire supporting cast are a part of the greater whole of what Shirobako is. Their trials and tribulations are animation related trials and tribulations. Their struggles and their victories are all connected to the overarching narrative itself. As a result, the plot and the characters move forward in parallel, making the other all the more compelling.

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One more, for good luck.

Overall, it’s this sense of sincerity and passion that makes Shirobako such a special piece of work. Just like the cast of the show are throwing everything they have into the anime they create, Shirobako itself feels like something born out of genuine hard work and love. While it never gets too kinetic, the animation is solid and consistent across the board, displaying a kind of visual competence that few shows can match. And of course the characters themselves feel so fleshed out as well. It’s clear that nearly every character was written with time and consideration, from Aoi to Tarou. Nobody feels like they were shoved in for no reason or written without a lot of thought. Each character inhabits a specific role, yet feels like a wholly organic part of the production.

Again, there’s just so much I could say about Shirobako. From its intelligent approach to tense creative topics like 3D vs. 2D, to its fantastic voicework, to its masterful directing and visual composition, to the emotionally satisfying moments that cap it off, there is just so much that Shirobako does right. Taken as a whole, Shirobako is easily one of the best anime I’ve watched this year. It’s sincere, heartfelt, passionate, and above all, i respects you, the audience. It doesn’t waste your time and it doesn’t ever try to make excuses. If you consider yourself someone who really loves anime, not just the medium but the craft, you owe it to yourself to give this wonderfully unique show a watch.

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No 60 fps? Where’s my 30-minute long TotalBiscuit rant about this?

Marlin’s Final Thoughts

Coming right off the hot mess that was Glasslip, my confidence in P.A. Works to make a competent original story was at an all time low. And that’s really saying something for P.A. Works. Imagine my surprise when not only did an interesting new show develop, but was like nothing I’d ever seen from an anime. Documentary in approach, motivational in theme, it was an interesting take on an industry we get to know so little about. While some people can be easily put off by the technical detail put into describing production, I feel it’s a must watch simply to understand just why anime has become what it is in the modern day. A mix of modern day technology and anachronistic networking practices made for a fascinating glimpse into how the sausage gets made.

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Will our heroes be able to accomplish their dreams without politicians telling them they should start having babies? The world may never know.

The show’s portrayal wasn’t perfect, though. While it did a pretty good job of showing some realistic problems a company could run into, it seemed like the solutions always had to be outlandish. I always felt like Yano’s character was a bit of a deus ex machina in a can, always there to make sure people were doing their jobs, and apparently having connections with everyone in the friggin’ world in order to remind them of their old work or give them some kind of pep talk. The end of the Donut Kawaiis’ story always seemed a little too optimistic to me. I get that this show was never going to end on a downer, but it just seemed to come together too perfectly. Not even any of the  side characters get to see any consequences for their behavior. We see Tarou and Hiraoka redeemed in like two episodes despite their clear incompetence or contempt contributing to vast problems in the studio’s productions. I suppose this can be chalked up to Japan’s bizarro work policies, but it rubbed me the wrong way.

As Gee can tell you, often times after watching Shirobako, I would find myself dumbfounded at the very idea that anime still exists as an artform. From the heavy time commitments its asks of its staff to the paltry wages they receive to the very corruption and defective social hierarchies that plague japanese culture to this day, I would come back asking “Why do they even bother?” What I realized through the second arc of the show was that the anime was asking this very question upon Aoi herself. Constantly she would be buffeted by the unreasonable curveballs and commitments her new responsibility required. As she would debate through her imaginary stuffed animals, she was battling for her drive to continue. What I just was unable to grasp is how one can still find legitimate joy in their work despite the hardship. In the end, it’s not about the pay, it’s not about the conditions. It’s about making something with your own two hands, seeing your work come to fruition. In the end, the real victory wasn’t just that they got the anime out in time, or that the Donut Kawaiis all were able to come together on this project, it was that they all made peace with their place in life.

Shirobako is available on Crunchyroll for viewers in North and Latin America, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, Scandinavia, Turkey and The Netherlands.

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