Shirobako is more than an anime about the medium itself. It is a story about aspiration and apathy; success and failure; talent and ineptitude. But above all else, it is the best show I have ever seen.
Shirobako’s story revolves around five girls who took part in their high school’s animation club, with their end goal being simple – get jobs in the anime industry and work together on a professional production. These girls are Miyamori Aoi, a production assistant for Musashino Animation (Musani); Yasuhara Ema, a key animator for Musani; Sakaki Shizuka, an aspiring voice actress; Toudou Misa, a 3D CG (computer graphics) animator; and Imai Midori, an aspiring scriptwriter and current college student.
The story follows Aoi and co. as Musani produce two shows – first is an original series written by the director, Exodus!, while the second is a manga adaptation of Third Aerial Girls Squad. The more involved characters at the core of Musani include Aoi and the other production staff, the director and episode directors, and the key animators, among several others.
As an anime about creating anime, those curious about the creation process have plenty to sink their teeth into – the various steps between being just an idea and being a finished product on-air are shown through the creators themselves. Most emphasized are the trials and tribulations of creating a good show, requiring manpower, dedication, and skill. However, the show takes an optimistic approach, emphasizing the fruits of labor over the woes of despondent failure. Characters push for success, even in trying times, never being weighed down by circumstances.
Despite the obvious focus being on the studio’s work, the story is about far more than just anime.
One of the primary themes of the show, particularly during the second half, is the existential question “What do I want to do?” Aoi continually revisits the question as others around her work towards their life goals, and it is paralleled by Aria, the protagonist of Aerial Girls. As the director, producers, and writer work towards creating an anime original ending, the main roadblock is developing Aria’s purpose, her reason for fighting.
The synchronization between these two answers coming together results in the most satisfying conclusion I have ever seen to a show, a logical result of prior events that still manages to hold weight. In a situation that could have ended in a staler state, everything that had built up to the conclusion results in the perfect moment. In a show where each episode is better than the last, the final two episodes eclipse anything else I’ve seen.
Despite the large and eccentric cast, the show is never bogged down by the multitudes of characters. The core of Musani has the most screen time, and while many other characters seem to come and go quite frequently, their purpose in the grand scheme of things is easy to understand – everyone from the director to in-between animators to composers are in the show to some extent, highlighting their role and how it affects the final product. For example, the sound director is present when discussing the soundtrack or voice acting, but he obviously doesn’t have any involvement with visual design decisions, so he won’t be as prevalent as the animation directors.
The characters themselves are always interesting to watch, infusing the ideal degree of realism and bombastic anime antics into the show. The majority of the dialogue focuses on the necessary work or everyday happenings of the characters, but the exceptions to these standard conversations are where the characters shine: the director pushing for changes to the story mid-season, an episode director trying to run away from his work, or Aoi’s flabbergasted reactions to the problems surrounding her. The characters never fail to be intriguing with their approaches towards their work or relationships with others, and with how well the viewer is drawn into the story, emphasizing with their struggles comes naturally.
Among several references to different anime, many of the characters are actually based on people involved with the anime industry. Some which are more obvious than others.
Even as far as locations go, they didn’t choose Musashino as the setting just for the name – the characters frequently visit notable landmarks in the area, such as Kichijoji Station and the nearby Sun Road shopping arcade, or Inokashira Park, with its distinctive swan paddle-boats.
The story and characters of Shirobako come together into an enjoyable and interesting experience, as the topic of the show itself will be a significant draw to many viewers, but it goes well beyond being just a show about anime. The pursuits of Musani’s employees are always amusing and become more compelling to watch as the show progresses.
Visually, Shirobako is effective and consistent, but far from groundbreaking. Stylistically, it’s relatively simple with its character design, details, and lighting, looking fairly standard in those regards. But when there’s a lot of character motion, or more detail-oriented scenes are being shown, the quality is always up to par.
Since a lot of characters are commonly on screen at the same time, their movement is handled very well. During something like a meeting, it isn’t as if all of the characters besides those speaking are completely stiff – the others will react naturally, turning their gaze from one person to another, or reacting individually to different things that are said or happen around them.
The soundtrack is certainly good, and when a track is there to add to a scene, you will absolutely notice it as it achieves its desired effect. The music is utilized at the absolute best points to hammer in the importance of events, normally for an emotional impact. More often than not though, the background music is not only very quiet, but also fails to add much to the situation. For most of the show, it’s easy to miss that any music is actually present, as attention is drawn to the dialogue or character actions instead of external factors. Fortunately, since the absence of music is hardly even noticeable at most points, it never actually becomes a problem as there is always something happening to listen to.
The voice acting is excellent for the entire cast. For such a diverse group of characters, each voice actor delivers a performance that feels true to character, natural, and with every ounce of effort put towards it. One of the standouts is Aoi’s voice actress, Kimura Juri – as Aoi is frequently plagued by Musani’s problems, her reactions sound authentic, whether stressed, authoritative, or simply irritated. On the other end of the spectrum, she’s able to perfectly encapsulate her more joyous moments of relief and accomplishment, remaining energetic and optimistic as she pushes forward.
While the visuals and sound of Shirobako are very good, one of the greatest merits of this show is its actual portrayal of anime creation. The viewer is frequently shown the attention to detail required to put together a show through everything from character design to location scouting.
From a visual standpoint, one example is the character design of Aria from Aerial Girls. The first attempt is rejected by the source material’s author, so the character designer has to keep reworking it until it meets his standards – the before and after comparison shows the type of minute details that can make or break a design in someone’s eyes. Beyond this, there is also consideration over background design, color palette, and the utilization of CG, along with the basics of what is required in key animation.
As with the art and animation, the sound extends beyond simply being a part of the show, but is also a part of its story. This is most clearly shown with the voice acting, particularly from Shizuka’s perspective. As an aspiring voice actress, she sees what veterans have from their own talent and experience, and how, as a beginner, she pales in comparison. However, instead of simply being a depressing aspect of adversity, it leads into one of the most satisfying moments of the entire show – a culmination of everything that had come before into the perfect scene.
In a show where the characters themselves are paying rapt attention to every minor detail of the series they’re creating, it’s interesting to note that this same attention to detail was focused on Shirobako itself. Deliberate decisions were made to bring everything that you see into the show.
Everything builds upon the main story, supplemented by the visuals and audio to emphasize both the creation of anime and the main plot. The show is consistently funny, taking realistic occurrences and adding the perfect dose of unpredictability for added effect, and as a drama it eschews tear-stained dramatics in favor of believable developments from the characters. It’s extremely easy to be drawn into their exploits, sharing in their joy and despondence – as the characters reach their goals and a new episode is put on air, their sense of accomplishment is shared by the viewers who also took part in the journey.
If you thought that a story about anime, working adults, and doughnuts could not be the best thing you would ever watch, you would be mistaken. Instead of being a dismissible novelty, Shirobako does the absolute best to exceed the sum of its collective components, becoming an entertaining experience that just keeps getting better and better.
Rating – 10/10
Recommendation – Watch it.