Before Shirobako

December 6, 2023 · 0 comments

By Andrew Osmond.

Shirobako is an animated series about making animation. You might think it’s something only Japan could do, as anime can go so boldly into real life. Could you imagine someone going to a Hollywood studio like Disney or Pixar and pitching an animation about animators?

Actually, though, Shiraboko has precedents in some of the first American cartoons. That includes the most famous silent cartoon of all, Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914. Many documentaries just show the animated part of the film, with the frolicking brontosaurus. That was the focus of McCay’s “live” vaudeville performance, where the artist appeared on the stage in person and pretended to interact with the film. However, the version shown in cinemas has a long live-action opening showing McCay drawing the ten thousand pictures that were needed to make Gertie move. There’s a bit of comic business where a reluctant boy porter is given these pictures, the paper stacked higher and higher over his head, and he must totter off carrying the lot. Of course, the boy promptly falls down some steps, sending the reams of drawings flying.

Other silent cartoons depicted animators as magicians, such as the Fleischer brothers’ Out Of the Inkwell series (from 1918). In this long series, which ran through the 1920s, the live-action artist Max Fleischer creates a cartoon clown, Koko, out of ink. Koko then starts gallivanting around, often escaping into the live-action world to cause mischief. However, it’s notable that the film doesn’t show an important part of how it was really made. Koko was created by filming a live-action performer – Max’s brother Dave – in a clown suit, then tracing over the frames one by one to turn the clown into a cartoon. It was the very first use of rotoscoping, but maybe it didn’t feel magic enough to the Fleischers.

Another early example is Alice’s Wonderland in 1923, where a live-action little girl comes to an animator’s studio and asks if she can watch the animator draw “funnies.” The smiling artist shows her cartoon characters darting around in the studio, including a cartoon mouse poking a live-action cat with a sword. Mice loomed large in this kindly artist’s future – he’s a very young Walt Disney.

Soon, though, animators would mostly disappear behind the animation, as Disney and other artists strove to make their cartoons feel more “real.” These older films were echoed a little in some cartoons that broke the fourth wall, like the brilliant 1953 Duck Amuck by Chuck Jones. Daffy Duck finds himself persecuted by an unseen animator who continually puts in the “wrong” backgrounds, sound effects, and props – like an anvil that’s replaced by a missile just as Daffy hammers it. The animator, as you might guess, is finally revealed as Bugs Bunny (“Am I a stinker?”)

In stark contrast, Satoshi Kon’s 2004 series Paranoia Agent brought animators into the real world. The tenth episode of this darkly comic series, “Mellow Maromi,” is set in an anime studio where the staff is racing to deliver a TV episode for broadcast. The joke is the staff members are being whacked one by one by the show’s supernatural killer, Shonen Bat, but they’re so exhausted that they’re oblivious to everything except their deadlines. Finally, the show’s production manager is delivering the completed episode when he fatally crashes his car at the TV station. The station staff snatches the tape from his dying hand and the episode ends with the broadcast, in which a cartoon dog encourages viewers, “Take a rest.”

Kon mentioned in interviews that he’d once considered making a live-action/animated film about the animation industry. He added that when he came to make “Mellow Maromi,” there was talk of the episode being mostly live-action, with Kon himself appearing as the director of a series called Paranoia Agent. However, Kon said, “This idea remained a joke and I lost my opportunity to debut as an actor. Well, too bad.”

Shirobako itself was broadcast from 2014 to 2015. As it happened, 2014 saw a Japanese novel with a similar premise, called Anime Supremacy! It focuses on three young women who all work in the anime industry, though unlike Shirobako they don’t know each other at first. One woman is a producer, one a director and one an animator, and eventually their different stories overlap. Written by Mizuki Tsujimara, the book is available in English; it became a mostly live-action Japanese film in 2022, with some animation supplied by Production I.G. (Tsujimara also wrote the fantasy novel Lonely Castle in the Mirror, which was translated as well; it was adapted into an anime film by Keiichi Hara).

Then there’s Sumito Owara’s manga Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, which began serialisation in 2016 before being animated in 2020 as a series by Masaaki Yuasa and Science Saru. This feels like an expansion of Shirobako’s prologue, showing three girls setting up a high-school club, the titular Eizouken. As you’d expect from Yuasa, the series works in more fantasy than its Japanese predecessors. The animators are forever roaming their dreams, presented like watercolour sketches in which the girls ride robots or Miyazaki-style flying machines. An enraptured audience watches an anime tank fires its cannon; a huge spent shell materialises beside the audience.

Shirobako never goes that far, but it doesn’t quite forsake the mischievous, fantastical legacy of cartoons about cartoons, going all the way back to Koko the Clown. Most of Shirobako’s characters are grown-up professionals, but there are also a couple of living toys that pop up all the way through, a teddy and a pirate girl, offering commentary on the action. They’re both voiced in Japanese by Jiri Kimura, who also voices the harried protagonist Aoi who imagines them. Shirobako may convey something of what it’s like to be an animator in the real world, but cartoon creatures will still find a way in.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Shirobako is released in the UK by Anime Limited.

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