Shirobako, of old and new

An anime about making anime and fervently pursuing one’s dreams, Shirobako gets to the core of what it means to be a creative-type. It espouses worldview through a cross-generational lens wherein wisdoms of the past and intuitions of the present are equally valuable to the ever-changing anime industry landscape and one’s personal and artistic growth. Old school and new school, book smarts and street smarts, hand-drawn and computer-generated; every walk of life and skillset brings meaningful perspective to Shirobako‘s melting pot.

Shirobako could have easily based itself around old-hats giving industry newcomers guidance, and indeed at many junctures it does just that. From the key points of animation advice that Sugie imparts upon Ema to the pure joy of the medium that a Hideaki Anno stand-in expresses to Aoi, there are countless examples where wisdom saves the day. However, by this same token these veterans show their age in an industry that’s evolved past the foundations they built decades prior. They’re by-and-large “out of touch,” rebuking new trends and techniques such as moe and CG. Many are reluctant to take on new work as they sulk in their sense of alienation. By no means is this because they’ve lost their skill or touch; when we see Masahiro Ōkura’s tremendous background art of an abandoned village at the end of episode 19 (pictured below) we see just why he and his counterparts are so revered. But for any artistic medium to stay alive it must constantly be pushing towards new frontiers or else it’ll fall into stagnation.

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This is where Aoi Miyamori and her friends come into play. As these five women and their peers grow their skillsets, they pave the way for what anime will be. They take the teachings of their seniors and interpolate their own sensibilities to craft fresh artistic voices. Anime is predominately a young person’s art form so the best way to speak to its core demographics is to have people of a similar mindset at the industry’s forefront. Yes, some methodologies will be left behind in the process if they can’t (or won’t) adapt. However, those with an open mind find ways to add the strengths of their aging talents to heighten modern works. This is exemplified when Sugie sees the key animation that Ema is producing by the end of the second cour. He realizes that she’s developed her own touch, recognizing it as something he himself could not replicate. But it’s also through Ema and others that Sugie is able to find ways in which he can apply his own unique touches– his ability to realistically animate animals, in this instance– to the studio’s works rather than consigning himself to working on outsourced projects. Shirobako is special because it fosters this marrying of artistic ideologies, experiences and viewpoints.

You see this arc of artists coming into their own or accepting the contributions of others repeated ad-nauseum throughout Shirobako. Let’s look at episode 6 where Aoi and Tarou take Ryousuke and Yuuichirou (staunch hand-drawn and CG animators, respectively) to the Idepon exhibit. Through the medium of a younger generation and a shared passion, the two come to realize that they aren’t all that dissimilar. The reason they make anime is largely the same: they love it. Irregardless of their opinions on what form of animation is superior, both styles are an inescapable part of anime’s future and the best thing for the medium is to intermingle the two. Aoi and Tarou’s role here can’t be overstated as it was initiated thanks to their vision of what anime could be if artists of different persuasions worked together.

An example of the inverse happening is once again in episode 19 when Musashino Animation president Masato Marukawa takes Aoi to his old animation studio, used four decades prior during the production of Andes Chucky. Here, she discovers that the people responsible for creating her favorite series were in actuality quite similar to those working at the modern incarnation of the studio. We often picture the creation of classics as this intangible spark of ingenuity, something that could never be reproduced in modern times. What we know– the end product– speaks louder than the production of it that we weren’t privy to. Our minds are left to erroneously fill in the gaps. Aoi’s revelation about this makes her realize that her generation has the potential to make impactful works too, and that by iterating on the past they could even supersede it.

This isn’t to dismiss how important mastering the fundamentals is to growing one’s abilities, though. Ema would have never found her own style had she not took heed of Sugie’s teachings. And while Shizuka, Midori and Misa might be stuck doing “grunt work” at the moment, the quintet are learning the foundations to execute their visions in the future. A successful career comes from playing the long game, honing skills in short-term tasks that give you the experience necessary to make long-term goals come to fruition. For some this comes faster than others; Aoi lands her position as Production Desk for her second series at the studio very much through circumstance. However, it means she has to work twice as hard as the next person to prove herself. Her ability to throw herself at new challenges and persevere when things go awry is her major tool for growth. She may be more unsure of her end goal than her peers but what she does know is that to get anywhere she needs to do her best in the now.

While watching Shirobako, the production of Kemono Friends came to mind. Studio Yaoyorozu was understaffed and on a shoestring budget while creating the series. They turned to new techniques like CG out of necessity. Given these conditions, the series looks “cheap” but was massively successful on the back of its heart. You can see the passion of its creators in its colorful characters and heartwarming stories. It became one of 2017’s biggest success stories, showing that the barrier for entry to the anime industry was lower than ever should small studios embrace the ways of the now. Similarly, Musashino Animation is a small studio where its handful employees work tirelessly on the backs of their love of the craft. As we see the studio’s talents learn from one another, their ability to make great anime increases. Everyone’s contributions play an important role in making Exodus! great, contributions made possible from the respect they gain for one another as I’ve highlighted throughout this post. They’re then able to execute The Third Aerial Girls Squad with greater prowess, making that series an instant success.

Musashino Animation’s greatest triumph was thus their ability to adapt, resulting in creating anime that spoke to different generations of otaku over the course of many decades. Nothing speaks more to the cross-generational approach that Shirobako preaches than this. What we should take away from this story is that instead of eschewing things we deem lesser, we should instead find what makes them worthwhile and apply that to our own work. Through this approach we can create better art that better speaks to modern audiences. Similarly, we must remember the past and use it as a waypoint. It’s a strong foundation in the proven tenants of an art-form that allows the details layered on top of it to flourish. This potpourri of skills will be the basis for new anime that will be revered as classics by future generations.

12 thoughts on “Shirobako, of old and new

  1. Show was absolutely fantastic and a must for anybody who wants to know anything about the anime industry. Not only that, but the general messages of the anime were so great that just about anyone can get something of value out of this. Excellent post! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A wonderful, wonderful series, and one in which I actually dreaded when the end was near—I wanted to continue being part of these characters’ lives (maybe the same way the staff felt about their anime projects?).

    And thank you for the comparison to Kemono Friends—I had no idea!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good characters are ones where you want to imagine what happens next in their lives (and I hope Shirobako gets a deserved sequel to showcase that). It’s one of my top 5 all-time series, honestly.


  3. *nods head in agreement*

    Excellent work, indeed!

    Suddenly, I feel an exponentially rising desire to rewatch the show now. You did this — not that I wouldn’t eventually come back around to it; easily could see myself rewatching it for years to come no problem, and still get a lot out of it. Episode 23 is just about perfect. That final scene just kills me every time.

    Now the questions is: am I willing to return so soon and breakdown into tears again? Or maybe I should just watch Kemono Friends instead.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Final scene of episode 23 was one of many many times I bawled while watching Shirobako. Such a big payoff.

      If you haven’t seen Kemono Friends I suggest at least giving it a try! I think it’s a really significant anime just for its impact alone and it’s a fun time too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Episode 12 (“An Exodus Christmas”), where Sugie gets his day is my flat out my favorite episode of the series. I love the emotion in the recording scene is ep 23… But the sequence that floors me everytime is the race-to-delivery in Ep 24. A subtle way of driving home (pardon the pun) that no matter how you worked to get there, it’s not over until the product ships.

    Liked by 1 person

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