February 1, 2024 · 0 comments
By Andrew Osmond.
Shirobako opens… misleadingly, actually. Its first minutes show an animation high-school club where five close-knit girls are making their own anime mini-epic. Once that’s been done, they promise each other, they’ll join up again to make something else. And then… the story skips forward two and a half years. Two of the friends, now young adults, are working at the same Tokyo studio, but their friendship isn’t the focus. Instead, there are loads more characters for us to meet. There are naïve newbies, and veterans who can be genial or forbidding, and they all have their own issues and conflicts. This is the adult world of anime, way more complex than a high-school club.
Shirobako is mostly set in an anime studio, Musashino Animation. The studio is fictional, but Musashino is a part of central Tokyo, and it’s home to several real studios, including Production I.G and the studio it grew from, Tatsunoko. In Shirobako, we see the staff struggle to make TV anime through the eyes of young Aoi Miyamori. Once she was the leader of the school club. Now she’s just a production assistant, which means she’s racing around the various departments, trying to liaise between people who can be very, very hard to deal with, while the clock’s always ticking down to deadline.
Aoi can occasionally grab a drink with Ema, her former clubmate who’s also at Musashino as a rookie animator. They’re joined by their other former clubmates, who offer glimpses into other sides of anime. There’s Misa (“Mii”) who works at a CG studio; Shizuka, a struggling voice actor; and Midori (“Rii”) who’s a university student and budding writer. But other characters are just as important, including the high-strung, childlike director Kinoshita, on whom so much depends, and his production manager Honda, who must physically force Kinoshita in the right direction. At first these men are visually linked by their tubbiness, though eventually that changes.
The 24-part series covers Musashino’s production of two different anime – one an original show, and the other adapted from a popular manga. As you can guess, each kind of production throws up its own curveballs, although there are some similarities between them. For example, one of the worst tortures for everyone is getting the end of the series right.
Today, many Anglophone anime fans are savvy about the industry’s production process. That’s largely due to the rise of sakuga fan commentary – fans who break down a piece of animation into the individual shots and movements, and celebrate the many artists behind them, often translating Japanese sources or interviewing creators themselves. As of writing, the prominent English-language sakuga sites include sakugabooru, fullfrontal.moe and Animétudes, all well worth visiting.
For readers less familiar with anime’s production, some basic terminology is handy. For instance, a “cours” refers to a three-month TV season. As used in Japan, a “cut” is what we call a shot, rather than the end of a shot. Then there’s a lot of talk of “key” and “keyframe” animation, alternatively written “key frame.” These are the frames of animation that shape and define movements on screen, and passages of movement too. These bits of animation can be simple, or bogglingly complex. The frames of movement that connect key frames are called “in-betweens” (or tweens for short). The convention is that experienced animators will draw keyframes, while beginner animators supply in-betweens.
Anime doesn’t start with the animation, though. Before that, it’s drawn as a comic-strip style storyboard – this may be done by the anime’s director, though that’s not always the case. (Storyboards are sometimes made available as extras on anime home releases, or else they’re published as thick books in Japan.) In Shirobako, the director Kinoshita does indeed do the storyboards, and the agony of drawing them is a big part of the early episodes. After the storyboards, there’s the layout stage. Layouts are visual guides to the animators and background artists, showing where characters will be placed in a scene, the details of camera movements, directions on action, and so on.
It might all sound dry in the abstract. Shirobako, though, dramatises the process by showing the artists struggling to get it right – for instance, we see the devastating effect on the newbie animator Ema when her key animation is rejected. That judgment is made by an animation director (AD), a woman freelancer called Segawa who’s quietly brilliant, though we’ve already seen how thin she’s spread. In part one, the Musashino staff beg her to draw a heap of keyframes at the last minute after a botch-up. Rough keyframes will do, they say, but Segawa’s not having that. She’ll do them right, or not at all.
Is that about having professional integrity? Or is Segawa being childishly precious about “her” bit of a group enterprise? That question will mushroom later, when one of the studio’s production team openly scorns artists who won’t wave through work fast and want it done better. Shirobako is built on such conflicts. For instance, there’s a male animator called Ryosuke who walks out of the studio in high dudgeon when he hears that a cut (or shot) that he was preparing, involving lovely, lovely explosions, will be made in CG instead.
Anime is about more than just the visuals. We get look-ins at the colouring department, and at the people who tirelessly provide all those footsteps and door-slams that you don’t register consciously, but would miss instantly if they were gone. As for voice-acting, that gets its own running strand as we follow the struggles of Aoi’s friend Shizuka to get a voice part, her confidence shaken by every stumble. There’s a scene where she’s with a bunch of other actors to provide voices for a background crowd (what’s called a “walla group” in America). But Shizuka tries too hard, shouts too loud and humiliates herself. If she can’t be a decent voice in a crowd, what hope is there for her as a voice actor?
Later on (part 14), the voice-actor strand brings in a bitingly sardonic portrait of a production committee. Those are the company sponsors who’ve invested in an anime series and expect their due returns. One sponsor rep insists the lead must be voiced by a singer who can pump out tie-in songs. Another wants the heroine to be voiced by a sexy model who can do live events and bikini shoots, and so on. In the second half of the series, Musashino Animation adapts a popular manga, which is hugely prestigious. But it leaves the studio at the mercy of the manga’s powerful and inaccessible creator, who can capriciously veto what the studio’s done and throw everyone into chaos.
While names are fictionalised to protect the innocent (and guilty), some of the anime’s references are obvious. For example, in part 6 two rival animators bond over their common love of a classic robot anime called Idepon. That’s modelled on Space Runaway Ideon, an epic 1982 anime space opera that was apocalyptic even by anime standards. It was created by Yoshiyuki Tomino, the father of Gundam. Shiraboko episode 12 sees the appearance of an industry legend whose identity will be instantly obvious to many readers – even his name is only a letter away from the real one. The only pity is he’s not voiced by the real person, who’s done anime voice-acting elsewhere. No, it’s not Miyazaki, though there’s a hilarious Miyazaki gag worked in too.
One of the most important episodes, though, is part 19. Aoi is taken by her genial studio president, Marukawa, to a shuttered old studio where he worked decades ago. It’s a tribute to a bygone age when CG was just sci-fi and everyone worked with physical paints and plastic cels, making masterworks to inspire future generation. Judging by the “vintage” animation that we see, the old studio was operating in the 1970s, maybe even the 1960s, when it made a wonderful cartoon about a brave Alpine hedgehog, smacking of Heidi and The Moomins. If only it had been real! As for Marukawa, his name’s a giveaway. He’s surely based on Masao Maruyama, who’s been in anime since in the 1960s, co-founding Madhouse in 1972 and founding MAPPA in 2011.
These references are just the start. For a far deeper dive, there’s an article by Kevin Cirugeda on the sakugabooru site, called “Shirobako’s Secrets.” Among other things, Cirugeda reports how the childlike director Kinoshita was cheekily modelled on Seiji Mizushima, who directed such 2000s shows as the first Fullmetal Alchemist and Gundam 00. As for a crazy piece of animation in Shirobako part 12 – it involves police cars, flying, and lots and lots of horses – that was actually guest-drawn by Toshiyuki Inoue, who’s animated everything in his time from Kusangi diving down a building (Ghost in the Shell) to a little witch in flight (Kiki’s Delivery Service).
Shirobako is an upbeat series, showing Musashino Studio rising in the industry. That’s surely a little self-promotion on the part of Shirobako’s real studio P.A. Works (which is not based in Musahino but outside Tokyo, in the mountainous Toyama prefecture). Founded in 2000, P.A. Works spent its early years doing below-the-line support work, before breaking out with shows like the exuberantly tragic Angel Beats! (2010).
Since then, P.A. Works has had made a wide range of work, from the heartrending fantasy film Maquia to the delightful 2023 school show Skip and Loafer. But one strong running strand for the studio has been its “workplace” anime, about people in grounded jobs. P.A.Works has made the series Hanasaku Iroha, set in an onsen inn; Sakura Quest, about a tourist board striving to promote a remote village; The Aquatope on White Sand, about an seaside aquarium in Okinawa; and the 2023 film Komada: A Whiskey Family, about a distillery. Sliding in among them, Shirobako isn’t just about the rise of an anime studio, but the rise of the studio which made Shirobako.
One last issue is raised by the show’s title. “Shirobako” means “white box”; in the industry, it refers to the box that carries the physical copy of a completed animation, usually a TV episode. Once these would have been videotapes, though when a “shirobako” box is glimpsed in part 3 of the series, it’s plainly for a disc. A digital file is one thing, but a tape or a disc is concrete proof of a studio’s efforts.
Indeed, Shirobako shows the perils of assuming that everything is digital now. In an early episode, a server goes down at a crucial moment, meaning vital data can’t be sent and a hard drive must be couriered to Tokyo from an outsourced studio in the sticks. The series goes further, though. At the climax, there’s a madcap scene where characters are taking tapes (not discs) of a finished episode and rushing them to broadcast studios around Japan, by plane, train and automobile. This isn’t because of a network meltdown. Rather, the script indicates, the broadcasters need the episode in a physical format. (There was a similar situation in the “Mellow Maromi” episode of Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent, though that was ten years before Shirobako.)
Viewers may be befuddled. Even when Shirobako was shown in 2014, wouldn’t an anime studio just send episodes to broadcasters’ hard drives? Actually, Japanese TV stations were using betacam tapes (with material in digibeta form) as a standard format until at least 2011, when the facility making those tapes in the city of Sendai was damaged in the catastrophic Tohoku earthquake.Granted, Shirobako may have been using a little dramatic licence, and shifting the clock back a few years.
The show’s last episodes also include hilarious excursions into “anime” reality, such as a crucial creative meeting in a high-rise building that plays like Sergio Leone meets Shonen Jump. As for the mad rush to get the tapes to the TV stations, it enters Charlie Kaufman territory. Even while you enjoy the climax, you’ll be clocking the huge number of shots and backgrounds and characters and thinking how exhausting it all must have been to make. Behind any artistic licence, perhaps this is the reality of the anime industry that P.A. Works wanted to show, as frenzied as any car chase.