This piece was originally published in the tri-weekly Crunchyroll Newsletter. You can read the article, and others on the Newsletter page.
There are lots of ways to build an anime. You can take a particular thematic thread and spin an entire narrative out of that single thought. You can seek to provide titillation for a target audience and use every possible chance to create it. Or you can take a few indomitable truths about the way we humans live and infuse your story with them. This final way (although these three are by no means a comprehensive list) is the way Shirobako has chosen; however, in a different way than many anime have chosen. Where great fantasy epics explore the vast darknesses and lights of humanity, Shirobako illuminates the ways in which we work and communicate in the modern world.
Yes, Shirobako is wholly and utterly mundane. It is a show about young professionals in their first jobs, about artists in the business world, about communication and dreams and the hard realities of life. If you are looking for a show to aid your escapism from the real world, turn back now. Run far, far away. Shirobako won’t coddle you. It won’t pat you on the head and show you an idealized version of the working world. What it offers is better than that.
It offers a kind of grounded hope that emerges from the real lives of its characters, a collection of ideas about the future and about their current situations that is necessarily moderated by their actual lives. While the director of fictional Musashino Animation’s Exodus! dreams of a finale that will redeem his failure of six years ago, he’s checked by his own inability to finish the storyboards. When 3D designer Misa feels creatively trapped by a job requiring her to design tires all day, she eventually decides to quit her steady job to looking for something more artistically fulfilling. Ema gets over her drawer’s block with a little help from her coworkes; Aoi struggles with figuring out what she wants out of her future. Although each of these situations exists in the somewhat fantastical (to fans of anime) industry of anime production, the coexistence of reality and dreams is very, very real.
In technical terms, rather than thematic ones, this looks like a competently written slice-of-life show with the kinds of realistic conflict you’d expect to find in your own office job: the coworker who just doesn’t know when to shut up, people leaving in the middle of projects, looming deadlines, or the interference of personal lives with working lives (and vice versa). All of these are handled with a sense of calm sensibility that indicate the writers actually understand the dynamics of the workplace and the dysfunctional and quirky methods people use to communicate with each other. This means that, mostly, Shirobako‘s “big” moments are actually relatively small ones—small victories in the wider scope of life that seem much more important than they ought. Because the characters are formed around their behaviors and their habits—what they do and how they do it—rather than archetypes or personality quirks, they come off as both intensely relatable and recognizable, even if the vast variety of names and job titles are difficult to memorize. In other words, the characters feel like real, working people, not like characters in an anime.
Visually, Shirobako isn’t overly impressive, but it’s competent and consistent, which is all it really needs to be. Falling production values for an anime about making anime is a bit more meta than we need to go. The characters are distinctive, diverse, and attractive, the art appropriate for the scenes, and the animation itself works well in the places it needs to work. In short, Shirobako is an imminently professional production, even as we see the employees of MusAni scramble to make deadlines and rally talent to make their own show.
Shirobako is a gift amid the storm of light novel adaptations and high-pitched dramas of the current anime scene. It’s a steady, thoughtful show, a quiet show, even—at least in presentation. Below the surface, Shirobako has a whole heck of a lot to say about modern working relationships, interpersonal communication, and about the challenges of being an creator in a commercialized industry. And it tackles all these ideas with the respect, professionalism, and honest introspection that befits a show about professional people. I feel like I keep using the same kinds of words to label Shirobako—professional, competent, grounded, sensible, consistent—but this is the reality of this show. It embodies the kind of working ethic it promotes; it is what it wants to be: creative and grounded, realistic and hopeful. Real. I won’t make the claim that Shirobako is for everyone. I don’t think it is. But if it is for you, you’ll know it…and you’ll probably love it.
Let’s Exodus to tomorrow!
You can catch Shirobako every Thursday at 10:30 AM CST on Crunchyroll!