How It’s Done II: Shirobako

This is the second of a two-parter on Shirobako, the anime set in an anime studio. There’s just something so meta about that I found it irresistible. Plus it allowed me to look at an anime from my perspective of a trained, award-winning animator, which something I don’t get enough chance to do.

Last week we looked at the first series produced by Musashino Animation, the company our hero Aoi works at, Exodus! Aoi was a Production Assistant, responsible for organizing several of Exodus!’s episodes, and that gave us a pretty good look at making the show from the inside.

Following the success of Exodus!, Musashino pitches to make an anime of the popular manga series The Third Girls Aerial Squad…And they win! Part of the deal, though, is that they have to keep as much of the Exodus! team on the case as possible, and Oh No…the Line Producer, Honda, has retired to pursue his first love, baking cakes. So Musahino needs a new Line Producer ASAP, and that means one of the PA’s gets promoted.

The obvious choice is Yano, who is the oldest (about 30, maybe) and most experienced, but she has to take leave to go visit her sick father. That means it’s got to be Aoi (since the other PA is Takanashi, who is incompetent and a jackass, and how he manages to keep working is a mystery to me).

The neat thing from my standpoint is that Aoi’s new job gives her a different, more corporate perspective on the process of making a series. For instance, she’s present for parts of the casting meeting (she’s serving tea) where the Director and his assistants meet with the sponsors. It turns into a serious catfight: The Director really wants the fresh-faced, talented Shizuka (who is Aoi’s school chum as well), but he’s also a wimp and gets overruled immediately. One sponsor wants the big name actor, to sell the series. One sponsor wants a client of his recording company, so they can sell lots of CDs. And the third has a strong preference for a specific actor with particular physical characteristics.

Do I have to say it? He wants the actor with fat knockers and a bodacious booty. There, I said it.

This is a sort of tension that goes beyond my experience with the field but I believe that it happens. The terrific voice actor Mel Blanc told a story about his days working in radio. He’d go from soundstage to soundstage, and at each he had to be sure he had a pack of the right brand of cigarettes in his pocket because the cigarette companies sponsoring the show would send people around to make sure the cast was smoking the right brand.


I’ve recently discovered there may be something more to this than just dramatic tension. After I finished Shirobaku I started watching Beck/Mongolian Chop Squad, that oldie but goodie. (I’ll buy the DVD when it goes on sale for $5, but not a penny more.)

One of the characters is the cute chick, Maho, and her singing voice is supplied by Aki Harada, aka Sowelu. Now, that name means nothing to me, but she seems to be a Japanese pop singer. (She does sing quite well, even in English.) See it? Someone wants to sell CDs, specifically, CDs with pictures of Aki Harada, aka Sowelu, on the cover. BOOM. Now she’s in an anime. (Another example is the duo Puffy ami Umi, who got famous here in the States for singing the Teen Titans theme song.)

Okay, back to Shirobaku. In the second season most of Aoi’s difficulties arrive at this more macro level…hiring and attracting talent (she’s able to get her buddies in because they have the skillz and get the job done), coordinating between teams working on episodes, keeping track of everything everyone is doing.

Another problem for the whole company is that they are getting minimal feedback from the manga company that owns the rights to The Third Aerial Girls Squad. The writer there, Nogamo, exerts creative control over the characters and story, but some midrange twit at the company, a guy named Chazawa, gives Musashino permission to proceed without actually saying anything committal or allowing anyone to talk to Nogamo.

Then, BOOM. As soon as Nogamo sees anything, he says no. Nothing else, just no.

Now they have to read his frickin’ mind by the process of negative feedback. “How about this?” “No.” “Or this other thing?” “No.”

The difficulty with Nogamo combines with all the everyday stresses of getting the show out on time and on budget to create the narrative tension that underlies the second half of Shirobako. It comes together in an episode that is simultaneously the stupidest and most marvelous of the whole series, where Seiichi, the director, makes direct contact with Nogamo, asking him to get together creative person to creative person. The minions of the manga company, led by Chazawa, physically try to repel Seiichi’s “invasion,” including by hitting rapid-fire golf balls at him. (One golf ball sticks in Seiichi’s belly fat, and, by flexing, he shoots the ball back, knocking out his assailant. Can you spell D-U-M-B?)

I don’t know how much of the conflict between companies real and how much drama (no, I don’t think media execs hit golf balls at each other), but it feels real, if maybe a little exaggerated, to me, based not only on what I know of the animation biz but also what I know of Japanese culture. Chazawa sounds like a guy who’s trying to make himself important by being a gatekeeper for someone who actually is important. That’s a common type.

But after Seiichi’s inane invasion, when he and Nogamo actually sit down to talk, they share their visions and comprehensions of the series, and particularly its main character, Aria. They have different needs: Nogamo’s manga series isn’t finished, but Seiichi is making a thirteen episode anime that has to have a conclusion.

I’ve talked about what happens with series that don’t have ends in passing before. Basically, the conflict has to be resolved and the loose ends tied up…That’s what the end of a narrative is. Nagano doesn’t need that. Seiichi does.

What’s really fascinating is they way they share what they think of the character Aria, and as they explore what she means, to them and to their series, they arrive together at a new theory of the character, one that allows them to meet both their needs. They decide there can be an event in Aria’s life that allows her to resolve her interior conflicts, and she can do that by meeting a new character invented especially for the anime finale, Lucy. I found that fascinating: two creative people attempting to maintain the integrity of their visions while still meeting the needs of their respective media.

Narratively (oh, no, I have my writer hat on again), the outcome of that meeting allows Seiichi to hire Shizuka to play Lucy, which brings all five of our original girls together to work on the same show finally. Aoi sheds a tear at the sight.

Shirobako Gals

The Shirobako gang. That’s Aoi at RIGHT (corrected 🙂 ), I think that’s Diesel-san next to her, and Shizuka’s at left. I know it’s her because she’s got the menu: she had to work for a living while Aoi was getting the others on the payroll.

But what’s important about the scene between Nogamo and Seiichi from my standpoint looking at the story as an animator is the degree to which animation needs to be a collaborative enterprise. Look at the credits at the end of an anime: they were all made by teams ranging from dozens of people to maybe as many as a hundred or so. They all bring something to the show, not necessarily as much as Nogamo and Seiichi (or their equivalents), but something. It’s not just some dork in an attic with a pen and a big stack of paper.

Now, I’m going to be honest: Shirobako is interesting, but it’s not very good. The major characters are largely non-entities. With the exception of Aoi, who is the central character, I have to look up all their names because they were totally unmemorable (although the writer, Midori, picks up the memorable nickname “Diesel-san” for her expertise in researching diesel train schedules). The girls seem to have no lives whatsoever. Seiichi is a total wuss, Takanashi a total jackass; some of the other minor characters are either totally pointless or sexist mockeries. (One of the free lancers, Misato, has an E-cup bosom, constantly astounding Aoi. Now, why the heck would Aoi care? And where was she raised that she’s never seen large breasts?)

But if you’re interested in the process of how an anime is made, Shirobako is worth a look. It’s exaggerated, but it’s not totally wrong.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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