Here’s why I love Shirobako.
The oft-repeated mantra in Shirobako goes, “You have to be crazy to work in anime,” and it’s not difficult to see why. Long workdays combined with hectic and unstable schedules along with the generally poor pay aren’t very attractive prospects—neither is the inevitable, focused criticism of web denizens after a poorly produced episode. Regardless, production assistants continue delivering the materials, key animators do their key frames, and directors do directorial things for both smut and more artistic creations alike.
I think Shirobako succeeds largely because it isn’t about the aesthetic or artistic beauty of anime—the conflict isn’t between good and bad art. The show isn’t about anime at all. It’s about the people working in anime, and about how their lives are reflected in what they produce.
Shirobako is—as the hackneyed expression goes—a love letter addressed to those who’ve contributed to anime. It’s built around the desire to present its events—failures and successes—as representative of work in the anime industry; there’s a collection of people learning how to deal with the disappointments they face doing what they love, and celebrating their achievements. Musashino Animation is a “real” company, insofar as it’s a lovingly crafted composite of many others. From the frequent in-show references to actual industry folk, to the website that keeps updating to reflect developments in the narrative (the ‘Hiring’ page updated after Musani picked up its new workers after the first half; if you called their phone number after episode 23, Aoi would be crying as she received the call), Shirobako demonstrably loves its characters and the real life people they’re supposed to represent.
Where the show most succeeds is an extension of this representational conceit: it offers the story of people in the workspace with (un)surprising verisimilitude. Its characters are more than vehicles to talk about the craft; theory and symbolism are ignored in favor of the enthusiasm and the effects that careers in anime have had on its characters’ lives. It promises—through a parent trying to dissuade her son from pursuing a career in animation, an under-confident animator deciding that she’s in the right place, a disillusioned production assistant finding a friend in an unlikely place, parallels between the main five girls’ paths and the narrative of Third Aerial Girls Squad—that there’s an artistic value embodied in the lives of people behind the art. There’s the conviction that all of these workers’ lives, through the daily grind of failure and success, become worthy of the emotional highs and lows of Third Aerial Girls Squad—of Shirobako itself.