Shirobako is one of the most praised shows of the last few years, and it easily has the potential to become a cult classic. Its relatively accurate depiction of the anime industry has lead to an increase of interest in the production side of the medium and it manages to be a fun, fast-paced show that still has lots of heavier character drama. Those aspects are great and worth commending, but what I love the most about Shirobako is what it has to say about passion and art, in the anime industry and in life as a whole.
Plenty of moments in Shirobako highlight these themes, but there’s a number of episodes that particularly stand out above the rest. Episode 6 portrays the conflict between 2D and 3D animators, ultimately showing that both styles have their merits and come from a place of love for anime and its creators. Episode 12 features a clear clone of Hideaki Anno in all his glory, but more importantly, it focuses on Sugie and how he’s finally able to contribute to the studio’s output after years of not doing so. His clear gratitude towards Aoi for giving him the chance to feel useful is enough to make anyone tear up, and his subsequent mentoring of the other animators shows a belief in passing down the art form and a recognition of the continuity between anime of the past and anime today.
And who can ignore the wonderful episode 23? After spending the entire series without work, a fact that stings particularly hard when all of her friends were working on the same show, Shizuka finally gets her break, and it’s on Third Aerial Girls’ Squad to boot. The entire scene wherein she acts out the role is fantastic, and you’re sure to be crying alongside Aoi during it, but what particularly stands out is her line “I’m now one step closer to my dream.” This line is the crystallization of the show’s most important theme: that it’s hard to make your dreams come true, especially in a field as broken as the anime industry, but it’s worth doing if you love it. It’s no wonder that this is the fan-favorite episode.
But I have to say, there’s one episode that I like just that little bit more: Episode 19 ‘Did You Catch Any?’ Episode 23’s final scene really is wonderful, but when it comes to encapsulating the entire show into one episode, I believe that 19 does a slightly better job.
Episode 19 is the first episode I would turn to if anyone asked why people love anime and why people make it. The episode begins merely as a continuation of the last episode, as Erika returns just in time to support Aoi in the search for a new episode director. At this point Aoi feels both at fault and dejected; she questions why she’s even in the position she is, as well as why she’s working within the industry as a whole. This isn’t the first time this has happened. After all, Aoi is working a very stressful job, and because she lacks a clear goal like many of her friends and colleagues, she sometimes wonders why she’s doing what she’s doing.
To a large extent, this early part of the episode is merely plot development, but there’s some interesting stuff in here. Particularly worth noting is the segment wherein Erika and Hiraoka discuss the ongoing situation with one another. It becomes clear over the course of their conversation that neither of them really has that deep passion for anime at this point, but they’ve taken that in different directions. Erika has come to admire those who last years and decades while the flame burns strong within them, while Hiraoka has come to despise that attitude. The purpose of this conversation is fairly clear: while Aoi has only been in the industry for a year-and-a-half, her true love of anime isn’t going to be extinguished. In other words, she’s not one of those people who will ever become jaded.
While there’s some good stuff in the first half, it’s the second half of this episode that really shines. Marukawa recognizes that Aoi is feeling dejected and not exactly in a state where she can do a good job, and so he decides to take her to the old Musashino Production studio, based on Osamu Tezuka’s very own Mushi Production.
While there Aoi discovers that Musashino Pro animated Andes Chucky, the anime which inspired her to enter the industry. This causes her to express some doubt about the modern state of anime production. Surrounded by cels of the beautiful drawings she saw as a child, it seems to her as if the past was a golden age, a period where everyone knew what they were doing, a period where things ran smoothly, a period where anime was a great medium with consistently great works.
This isn’t an uncommon attitude. I might’ve just made a video lambasting the community for not watching old anime, but it’s also a common refrain to hear that anime isn’t as good anymore, and that’s something you can hear in all number of mediums and in life itself. It’s easy to see the past as great; human memory is incredibly selective, and mediocre works and events aren’t going to remain in the public consciousness for long, leading to an image wherein everything from the past was excellent. This is, of course, a flawed idea, and if you actually look at everything made in the past then it’s easy to see that quality was no more consistent back then.
Fortunately, Marukawa is aware of this and is quick to disabuse her of this faulty idea. He begins to explain how hectic the industry was back then, as we see a flashback into the 70s during the production of Andes Chucky.
It’s immediately clear that things were no better back then. The studio is messy, there seems to be little care given to the drawings and cels themselves, and everyone is forced to eat dinner while at work, demonstrating long hours. But just like the modern Musashino Animation, it’s a lively and friendly atmosphere. People spend their time talking and there’s a strong feeling of love between the people at the studio. Anime production is clearly broken on a fundamental level, such that it has never been anything resembling ‘healthy’, but it’s also clear that its various creators work in spite of that, trying their best to be cheerful while working on the medium they love.
As we spend time in this flashback we see Ookura’s excellent background for Andes Chucky. During Shirobako’s general timeframe Ookura is a legend who’s looked up to by the background artist for Third Aerial Girls’ Squad. At this time he was a newly hired background artist, likely doing the backgrounds for the less important scenes. Ookura is told off for painting this background without being asked, but its excellence shows, and it gets taken into the show itself.
It’s at this point that we shift into an episode of Andes Chucky in one of the show’s strongest moments. The staff at P.A. Works clearly put a ton of love into this scene, as it does a fantastic job at replicating the style of cel animation despite being made in a digital framework. All the quirks are there, from the film grain to the darker tones to the limited animation tricks like postcard memories. This detail is important because it shows the way things have changed and the way they haven’t. It’s clearly a different era with different visual styles and yet it takes no less love and passion than the show’s general aesthetic does.
The scene starts out as an actual scene from Andes Chucky, but after a few seconds, it becomes clear that the characters represent the workers at Musashino Pro. Much like the real Mushi Pro, Musashino is experiencing serious funding issues and is close to going bankrupt. And yet, in spite of all that, the characters aren’t depressed. They want to keep making anime because that’s what they love doing. Marukawa promises to get them together again to work on another show, and it’s clear that none of them really want to leave the industry. They don’t have concrete plans, but all of them care about each other and work they do, and that gives them the motivation to move forward. Again, the show makes it clear that anime is a medium people work in because they love anime. It’s obviously not a field you would enter if you didn’t have a passion for it; it doesn’t make much money and the working conditions are abysmal, and yet it still manages to continue on due to the passion of its creators.
If the episode ended here it would still be one of my favorites in the show, but we get a bunch more. We exit the Andes Chucky scene and see that it was an episode that Marukawa played for Aoi, as she and I both cry having just witnessed such a beautiful moment.
At this point Marukawa has accomplished his goal; Aoi is aware that the industry in the past wasn’t any better, but that doesn’t detract from her love for it. If she’s capable of loving works made under those conditions by people who had no idea what they were doing and where they were going, then it stands to reason that Aoi herself is capable of doing the same things they did. Marukawa asks her how she feels about her job, and Aoi is now able to clearly respond that she’s having fun. She may not have a specific goal in mind, but she does have an idea of one: she wants to keep making anime, she wants to help make a work that she loves, and she wants to inspire people the same way Andes Chucky inspired her.
We get one more wonderful scene in this episode. In the final minutes, Aoi goes to Ookura’s house in order to pick up the background he drew for Third Aerial Girls’ Squad. Having just heard Marukawa’s story, Aoi sees fit to ask about his work on Andes Chucky. Ookura makes it clear that he didn’t even intend to work on anime in the beginning, it’s simply something he fell into. As we see some of the many backgrounds he’s painted throughout his career, it becomes obvious that while he’s put up a front of being tired with the industry, his love for the medium is no less strong today than it was when he drew that pivotal blizzard background.
Like Aoi, Ookura simply went with the flow and did what was fun throughout his career. We’re frequently told that we should have detailed plans, that it’s too risky to try and pursue our passions, and that isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s hard to make money doing art, and there’s no way to ensure it won’t leave you destitute in the end. If you’re able to deal with working in almost any non-artistic field than that’s probably a safer bet. But this entire episode makes it clear why none of that matters to anime’s creators and to artists as a whole.
Once again Aoi and I cry in unison as we see the final shot of Ookura’s background. It’s truly a beautiful piece, made even more beautiful when we see the work he did to get references for it as well as the work he’s put in over the years to reach this point. The amount of love and passion for art that enabled him to make this piece is astounding. Human beings might work to live, but we don’t live to work. We’re a species that’s capable of expressing ourselves in such a myriad number of ways, and while art might not be an intelligent direction to go with your life, if you can truly enjoy it from the bottom of your heart than it would be absurd to do anything else. This episode fully synthesizes the show’s take on the anime industry, combining its description of the hardships with its true adoration for the medium.
There are a ton of other things worth mentioning in this episode. The scenes with Iketani are quite funny even if they aren’t the best humor in the show. It continues its focus on mentorship by showing Ookura going from a desperate disciple into a well-respected legend. And the depiction of Aoi’s shift from nearly becoming jaded back into a true lover of the industry is strong, especially given that she now has a goal and ethos driving her. But it’s really what this episode has to say about art and its creation that speaks to me on a personal level. The entire show does this, which is why it’s one of my favorite anime, but no other episode truly captures all of it like this.
Shirobako isn’t the flashiest or most well-produced show out there. To some, a work like Mob Psycho 100 or Hyouka might do a better job at demonstrating the passion for anime that drives its creators, and that’s totally fair. Shirobako looks good, but it doesn’t possess the wonderful character acting or absurd action sequences that other shows have. But the knowledge that this show was made by people who work in the very same industry it portrays makes it so powerful to me. This isn’t an outsider’s perspective on anime creation; it’s the perspective of those who’ve worked in it for a long time. That they can make a show that so clearly demonstrates a love for the medium shows that its real participants frequently feel the same way about it. I think this show in general and this episode in particular, can speak to anyone who wants to pursue their passion: it won’t be easy, but it’s worth it if you enjoy it. Without Shirobako it’s very possible I wouldn’t be writing about anime right now, and I’d consider that a serious shame. I love anime and Shirobako does too, and for that I love it.