Ever wonder how an anime is made?
Good -- Dreams Versus Reality
Shirobako is the story of five girls who, after making a short anime while members of their high school animation club, promise to come back together as adults and make their own full anime. Aoi, the main lead of Shirobako, dreams of being an animator -- as do Ema and Misa. Shizuka, on the other hand, wants to be a voice actress while Midori wants to be a scenario writer.
Five years later, four of these five high school friends have managed to break into the industry -- though not necessarily into what they dreamed of doing. Aoi, deciding her art wasn't up to snuff, majored in economics before becoming a production assistant in a small anime company -- though one with a long, illustrious history. Ema, on the other hand, has achieved her dream and works at the same company as an animator. Misa, deciding that 2D art is the way of the past and has less job security, works at a different animation studio as a 3D animator. The other two are still trying to break into the industry as Shizuka is more a waitress than a voice actress and Midori (younger than the others) is in college with no idea how to become a scenario writer upon graduation.
Good -- How an Anime is Made
If you have ever wondered what a producer does, this anime will teach you. Aoi, as a production assistant, is basically the one in charge of making sure everything is coordinated -- that all that needs to get done gets done. She maps out schedules, picks up animation cells from the off-site freelancers, and generally is expected to solve all problems that come up in the production of the episodes she is assigned to manage.
From the scenes in which we follow Ema, we learn about life in the trenches. As a key frame animator, it is her job to produce the key moments -- so to speak -- and then pass those on to freelancers to produce the frames that come in between. Her struggle is one of speed versus quality -- and the fact that one bad drawing by her affects all those produced by the freelancers.
When focusing on Shizuka, we see the industry through the eyes of a struggling voice actress. We share her determination, along with her disappointment, in going to auditions with no chance of getting the part and in being an extra in an anime -- literally just another voice in a crowd.
Perhaps the best episode of the series so far is the story of when the director, at nearly the last moment, decides to change a single scene in the anime to better fit the character's heretofore unwritten backstory. Of course, this throws the production into chaos and it's up to Aoi and the rest of the production staff to pull it off. At the end of the episode we, the audience, are treated to the re-done scene in full -- which, despite the massive amount of time and work, runs a grand total of 12 seconds. It's more than a little enlightening.
Good -- How Anime Has Changed
One of the supporting characters in the anime is Shigeru, an animator in his sixties who has been working for Aoi's company since its glory days. However, as he is unable to draw in today's anime style, he finds himself as somewhat of a relic. As the studio rushes to put out its first original anime in years, he is instead working on contracted projects outside the company.
Even when he tries to help out the younger artists, he finds that his advice has the opposite effect from what he intended. Moreover, when his name is brought up as a possible solution to manpower shortage problems, the reaction from his coworkers is always the same -- "he'd never agree to animate that." In a lot of ways, he is a person whose job has outgrown him; and though no one mistreats him or wishes him any ill will, we see as we get to know him that he regrets being stuck in a job where he is no longer useful.
Through Shigeru we are able to see the history of anime and its forgotten arts. At the same time, through a conflict between the 2D and 3D animators, we also see how anime is changing once again and how the whole 2D staff may one day feel like Shigeru -- a relic of an age gone by.
Good -- Just the Right Amount of Comedy
Most of the comedy in Shirobako comes from the director -- or rather, the situations surrounding him. As a young director, he had two big hits back-to-back. Unfortunately, his subsequent anime was so panned that he has spent the last seven years relegated to specials and OVAs instead of TV productions. The anime produced in the first half of Shirobako, "Exodus", is his big chance at a comeback. Of course, he is more afraid of failing again than anything else. This causes him to be incredibly irresponsible -- so irresponsible that the Chief Production Assistant locks him in a cage and forces him to draw storyboards so that production will be able to continue.
Another source of comedy is Aoi's favourite doll and stuffed bear, who regularly come to life in her mind and act as devil and angel on her shoulders, respectively. While comedy like this is obviously a bit outside the "real world" that is set up by the anime, it still remains grounded enough to not seem completely out of place. It's a fine line between comedic and suspension of disbelief-breaking, but Shirobako walks it well.
Mixed -- Jargon Breeds Confusion
You better have a dictionary on hand because Shirobako suffers from what I like to call "proper-noun-itis". The show throws around terms like production assistant, key animator, and scenario designer, and completely expects you to at least have some basic knowledge of these jobs -- not to mention an understanding of the basic methods and equipment used in each job as well. If you watch long enough, you'll eventually pick up what each new word means on your own, but expect some initial confusion if you know nothing about how a movie/TV show is made. Shirobako wastes no time on expository dialogue.
Bad -- Taro
No other aspect of Shirobako is half as aggravating as Taro. Like Aoi, Taro is a production assistant. Unlike Aoi, he's simply incompetent. He is the cause of numerous problems throughout the first half of the anime. He misses meetings and deadlines, hits on the female staff, and completely expects other people to get him out of his messes. He even is happy when his actions cause others trouble as that means they will have to help him in solving whatever is wrong. Frankly, he's one of those characters you just wish would get his comeuppance and be fired.
But as he is the potential vessel for everything that can go wrong in a production -- and thus a walking plot device -- he is given a free pass and his complete non-suitability for the job is overlooked. Whereas stuffed animals coming to life and the director being locked in a cage couldn't break my suspension of disbelief, the character of Taro did. Seriously, every moment he is on the screen is akin to torture.
The first half of Shirobako starts you right in the middle of the action -- the mad rush of production where each week an episode must be completed or there is nothing to air. Through the viewpoints of the five main characters -- and to a lesser extent the supporting cast -- we are able to see how an anime is made from an insider's perspective. If you love anime and are curious about how it comes to be, Shirobako is a must watch.
Shirobako airs on Tokyo MX in Japan. It can be viewed for free and with English subtitles at Crunchyroll.