Shirobako occupies a liminal state between reality and fantasy. Here’s a show that purports to tell How Things Are in the anime industry, that makes accessible information that up to this point has been closely guarded by sakuga buffs. At the same time, it’s about the emotional journey of five girls making a name for themselves in the work force, working among people who resemble but aren’t quite real anime luminaries. Our heroine Myamori’s studio Musashino Animation is led by a producer who looks eerily similar to legendary former Madhouse producer Masao Maruyama; its chief director is an exaggerated (but ultimately sympathetic) caricature of Fullmetal Alchemist director Seiji Mizushima; in the mid-season finale, Myamori seeks out a certain director named Mitsuaki Kanno to save the day. Meanwhile, references to other anime abound: sci-fi mecha epic Idepon (a clear reference to Tomino’s highly influential Space Runaway Ideon); brilliant light novel pastiche “I Think My Harem is Slowly Falling Apart, but I Might Just be Imagining It“; and most notably, Andes Chucky, a homage to talking animal shows such as its likely inspiration Rocky Chuck.
We’ve already seen spats online between people who believe Shirobako Is The Truth and people who believe Shirobako is Fiction, between the scheduling problems that plague Musani and the “budget” which 90% of modern anime fans assume is the reason for all production ills. Both sides have made good points: Shirobako rewards both newbies wishing to better understand how the industry works as well as hardcore fans with memories reaching back to the 70s. But taking the series as the gospel truth rather than really well-crafted fiction studded with in-jokes is likely a mistake. Shirobako isn’t a documentary, and doesn’t bother to disguise its concessions to market realities (its core cast of five cute girls, the presence of varied male body types versus a female cast that hews far closer to standards of moe). Of course, one of the show’s most endearing qualities is how it uses its own medium as leverage to engineer moments that would be impossible to produce in live action. See how the cast of Exodus appear in front of Musani at a moment of creative harmony, how Andes Chucky and his friends are utilized in one memorable episode as parallels of Musani’s old guard, or the director’s Final Showdown when the production of Aerial Girls faces its greatest challenge. Shirobako may be fiction–and animation at that, a further abstraction from the real–but it’s wholly aware of its own fictional status and uses it as an effective means of delivering its message. Who could argue with that?
Well in fact, some have gone further than take the series to task for simple “realism.” They’ve argued that Shirobako sugarcoats Japan’s anime industry, that it’s ultimately far too nice to its cast. Myamori climbs through the ranks, each of Musani’s projects avoids total disaster at the very last second, and those who initially seem incompetent (like Tarou, who the director of the series consciously based on his younger self) or irresponsible (like Hiroaka, who is very unlikable for much of the second season) are redeemed. What about overwork, poor management, unmitigated failure? Should Myamori have hanged herself halfway through production of Exodus? Shizuka was the last of her friends to properly break into the anime industry, but would it have been more realistic for her to leave it entirely? Why is Tarou still employed by Musani when he’s such a terrible worker? How can Shirobako purport to be even a halfway accurate portrait of the anime industry when it whitewashes its hazards to such an extent?
At this moment in time, working in Japan’s anime industry is one of the most hazardous jobs imaginable. Animators are paid a dollar a drawing, reportedly less than workers at McDonalds in the country. They’re kept long hours and expected to work until they pass out, and then keep working until the project is finished, or at least labelled acceptable. Worse, the industry is filled with producers who are simply poor managers even if they mean well. Countless studios resort to outsourcing from other studios, either because they lack the manpower to finish their work or because (in the case of resident giant Toei) they’re managing so many franchises at once they can’t possibly do justice to any of their current projects. And this isn’t something that has happened in the anime industry, this is happening now. This is how Sailor Moon Crystal is bungled and how Digimon tri is delayed until later this year. This is how the initially promising Rolling Girls dies a slow death on the vine of Studio WIT, how the staff of Yatterman Night were made to release the last episode of their show in such a poor state they begged their viewers on Twitter to wait for the video release. How Shirobako itself was beset by enough production trouble that officially subbed versions of the last few episodes were delayed up to a whole day each. All this for minuscule wages, no safety net, and the shows that make the most money having titles like “I Think My Harem is Slowly Falling Apart, but I Might Just be Imagining It”.
All that said: I believe that Shirobako‘s optimism is a choice. The staff acknowledge the difficulties of breaking in (Shizuka), financial independence versus creative freedom (Misa) and the subtle horror of hitting a creative plateau (Ema). The constant stress of production (Myamori) and disillusionment upon seeing the industry at its very worst (Hiroaka). The possibility that best-laid plans may be ruined at the last second by people who are terrible at their jobs (Tarou) or artists so jaded by their work they no longer care (Studio Titanic). But none of these people are wholly bad, and more than anything Shirobako gives us a world where these people all care deeply about their jobs even if none are wholly perfect. Director Tsutomu Mizushima has toiled in the anime trenches for years, producing mainstream hits (Girls und Panzer), disposable fluff made tolerable by sheer verve (Witchcraft Works) and legitimate disasters (Blood-C, Another). Writing team Michiko Yotoke wrote the scripts for the excellent Princess Tutu, but also adapted the far less successful Red Data Girl. These creators have stood on both sides of the divide, and in creating Shirobako I think they choose consciously to believe that anime production is worth it. That the joy and necessity of artistic creation is worth any amount of suffering.
It’s a view of the business that some could see as naive, and others as calculated. But if the anime industry is to survive–if any creative industry is to survive, really–this kind of perspective is desperately needed.