Review: Shirobako

[Synopsis]: Miyamori Aoi (Kimura, Juri), a young production assistant at the animation studio Musashino Animation, entered into the anime industry in order to pursue her aspirations of making an animated feature with her high-school friends. Two years after graduating, Aoi and her friends have taken various career paths within the animation industry in order to reach their goal however their respective professions are far more challenging than they once imagined. Shirobako follows the day to day struggles of Aoi and Musashino Animation as well as the members of her high-school animation club as they all try to progress within the industry, meet deadlines, and create a compelling animated feature.

[Characters]: 

Shirobako has an enormous cast of characters and so rather than going one-by-one and talking about each one of them individually, I’ll use this space to address the cast as a whole and highlight certain aspects of it with the exception of our main character Aoi who deserves her own description due to her central role in the show.

Miyamori Aoi serves as our eyes through which we view Musashino Animation and therein the anime industry itself. She exhibits the enthusiasm and the uncertainty of someone new to the industry while still having a bit of time under her belt so that we aren’t presented with an entirely novice viewpoint. She is hardworking and her determination makes her endearing in the face of the studio’s many struggles and obstacles throughout the show. The one eccentricity that may come off as odd or ineffective within the show that concerns Aoi is her tendency to fantasize about her stuffed toys (a toy bear and a pirate girl) who share dialogue with one another and often speak to some element of the show sometimes in an explanatory manner. I didn’t find their presence to be particularly helpful or funny and so they felt a little unnecessary and intruded upon an otherwise realistic setting but luckily they don’t appear all that often and they are not nearly the main method of explanation.

The members of the cast that the show most frequently features are the members of Musashino ranging from the director to the key animators on top of all of the support staff involved. Each character has some history in the industry and their experiences and knowledge make them who they are as characters as well as their individual personalities and quirks such as the director’s traumatizing last project Jiggly Jiggly Heaven and his tendency to always complete storyboards late. While the cast doesn’t quite allow for full on character development of every member, there are more than a few that receive quite substantial attention and grow considerably throughout the course of the show. The cast is realistic, compelling, and lovable and a strong point of the show. One quick thing to note is that Shirobako makes constant references and homages to various voice actors, industry members, and other shows which can be interesting and fun to pick out.

Lastly I think it is an important thing to note that Shirobako plays out somewhat unconventionally in regards to Aoi’s friends from high-school. While Yasuhara Ema works alongside her at Musashino her other friends are far less present than one might think based on the premise of the show. They each have their own struggles such as working an unpleasant job and breaking away from the pack and making an impact however the action and attention of the show is spent first and foremost at Musashino and so the full cast of Aoi’s friends shows up less frequently than one might think. I think these characters were treated extremely fairly and there is still plenty of them to go around – they just aren’t the central focus of the show. Their progression or lack thereof at times helps reinforce the daunting nature of the industry they work in and went well with the realistic setting of the show as they struggle to find jobs or determine what they want to do.

[Art/Animation]:

I can hardly think of a better studio than P.A. Works to do a show like Shirobako which revolves around and discusses art and animation within itself. The quality of the show never drops noticeably, the character designs are unique, varied, and dynamic, and the setting itself, while having the potential to be bland, is anything but – the office setting is interesting and littered with various posters and utensils that give the setting life alongside the characters. The animation of the show is fantastic as well as the facial expressions of the characters especially in the infrequent emotional scenes. Shirobako, by means of its premise, felt highly aware of what it was attempting to do in this department and P.A. Works executed things excellently.

[Story]:

While Shirobako has a handful of sub-plots within it, the main story is quite straightforward – it follows Aoi and Musashino Animation as they work on the studio’s latest animated features, detailing each step of the process from the voice acting, to the key frames, to the impressions that the director wants the ultimate product to express and convey. Because of this, Shirobako ends up being quite informative of the process and techniques present in anime however it does so in clever ways and without hamfistedly explaining itself to the viewer. Nobody is going to break character, look directly at the screen, and lay out the finer points of key animation or why recuts are necessary – the work and the characters are mostly allowed to speak for themselves and this upholds the natural and realistic slice of life setting depicted in the show. The only instance where this might feel infringed upon is in the case of Aoi’s stuffed toys however they exist more as a gag and to speak to her adolescence rather than as informative insert figures and the scenes where they end up explaining something are highly infrequent which I was thankful of.

I think one of the strongest points of the show is in its depiction of the anime industry and the work done by Musashino Animation – Shirobako, for the most part, does not glamorize the process and speaks to a good many of the harsh conditions and inherent problems within anime and in this way becomes far more interesting as a show than if it tried to fully romanticize the stressful process. Despite the slice of life approach of the show which is normally associated with a relaxing atmosphere along with the other tenets of the genre Shirobako is often nerve-racking and anxious in its delivery which I thought was executed perfectly. I felt stressed along with the characters and between the realistic struggles depicted, the music, and the characters themselves I felt myself most drawn in to these tribulations. One of my favorite elements of Shirobako is its use of emotion and drama. I hardly think these moments are frequent enough in the show for it to truly deserve the drama tag however when these scenes roll around they are absolutely astounding and heartfelt. The show has a tasteful avoidance of melodrama which is something P.A. Works has struggled with in the past. Each stressful moment, character meltdown, and teary-eyed scene felt absolutely legitimized and their infrequency lent itself well to the realistic setting and characters.

While the show has a great number of outside references and homages to other works and real life people there is other interesting work being done within the shows Musashino is working on – the sub-shows. I think these shows bring a few things to the table, the first being that by being dramatic or action-based in their own right, Shirobako is allowed to experience these genres and scenes vicariously which can liven up the far more mundane setting of the show. Secondly, there are often parallels drawn between the characters and situations present in the sub-shows with those existent in Shirobako itself. One of the recurring themes or questions in the show is how those at Musashino Animation as well as those at other studios can rationalize working in such a difficult industry given all of their day to day struggles and this uncertainty plays out within the show’s sub-stories in interesting and effective ways.

All in all, Shirobako takes an otherwise mundane setting full of complications and breathes life into it as well as its large cast of characters expertly. The show does a fantastic job of conveying each characters wonderment and enjoyment of their work while still presenting a difficult environment in which they struggle resulting in an ultimately realistic yet hopeful tone.

[Music]:

The music in Shirobako was pretty par for the course insofar as it did not take center stage hardly ever and remained more or less unnoticeable throughout with a handful of exceptions. This approach felt typical due to its slice of life elements however I think the show does an admirable job in that, while the music existed simply to add to each individual scene without stealing the show, its presence greatly benefited certain individual scenes especially in the cases where there was a turn of events, a dramatic moment, or a stressful circumstance. There is not much takeaway in this category however the music does what it needs to and works well for the show.

[Final Thoughts and Rating]: 

Shirobako was fun from start to finish. Miyamori Aoi was an especially fantastic character and the greater part of the cast was highly enjoyable as well. The adult characters were a breath of fresh air in a medium rampant with high-school characters and clubs. I think Shirobako is a show that is far more enjoyable than its initial premise might let on and while it does not follow Aoi and her friends as they attempt to make a place for themselves in the anime industry as closely as its premise might suggest, I think the end product was more entertaining than it might have otherwise been. Definitely a must-watch for anyone interested in any of the elements present in the show.

Rating: 8

I gave Shirobako an 8 because it was one of the better slice of life anime I have seen and deserves a high rating to match this praise. It was informative without feeling overly pandering to the uninformed individual. The emotional moments and self-doubts that the characters experienced were excellent and well-founded, avoiding the potential use of melodrama in full. The cast was full of unique characters and the vast majority of them avoided falling into one archetype or another which, along with every other element of the show, worked perfectly in order to bring about the realistic setting in which the story unfolded.

[Recommendations]:

I would recommend Shirobako to any lover of the slice of life genre however would caution that while the show’s approach does mirror that of a slice of life show its setting and tone do not necessarily follow suit – it is stressful and uneasy more often than not and so it doesn’t entirely capture the relaxed tones often present. That being said, it is still an excellent show in respects to that genre. While it does not rely on specific jokes or gags, Shirobako is a pretty decent comedy on top of everything else and the characters of Aoi and the director are quite fun. Lastly, anyone interested in learning about how anime is made and what kind of conditions and complications are present in the industry should absolutely pick up this show as it offers a unique and mostly realistic approach to the subject while remaining interesting on so many other levels simultaneously.

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