Criticizing A Fave: Things That Don’t Work in Shirobako

Aoi Grumpy Face

Shirobako is my favorite anime in 2015, and being a critical and commercial darling during the past year, I figured there’s a lot who shares similar sentiment. It’s been winning awards right and left, and you can easily scour the Internet to find many pieces written about its merits. It’s all deserved, and I could add even more gushing by detailing on how great it is as an educational look on anime production, a slice of life that captures the flow of an office space and makes it extra compelling through endearing set of characters, or a deeply resonant work to anyone who’s ever worked in creative industry.

Except that’s not what I’m doing now.

As a regular consumer of the media, I know how easy it is to get over-enthusiastic, too defensive on things we like and too critical on things we dislike. Keeping that in mind, I feel it’s important to acknowledge positive things on stuff I don’t like, as well as problems in my favorite stuff. I tend to find the latter to be the harder one, which is why I’m now doing an exercise of that. Shirobako is a particularly apt subject since so much of its appeal for me has to do with subjectivity/relatability, which means by taking a firm step away from things that specifically work for me, I could easily see things that the show should’ve done better. It’s like a game of devil’s advocate, except what I’m going to point out are issues that I have genuine problems with, not just argument for argument’s sake.

The starting point is obvious for me: that plotline of five high school friends with dreams to make their own anime together? Yeah, it doesn’t work at all.

Donuts Five Shirobako

So, the Don Don Donuts Five. At some point, what initially seems to be primary driver of the narrative is relegated to the background as a B-plot (or even C-plot) as the show focuses on the plight of Musashino employees instead. We can argue that the entire season is just a build-up in that regard, or that the plot point’s actual purpose is to provide connective tissue for the five principals rather than being the true narrative end goal, but that doesn’t excuse how superfluous and disjointed the whole thing feels.

By the end of the show when the girls get together as their paths finally started to converge, I don’t feel much nor do I really care if I don’t ever get to see their collective dreams realized. It has little to do with the premise itself (which has great potential if executed well), and everything with these particular characters. It’s already bad enough that they’re visibly designed from a restricting character template (more on that later), but they also somehow lack chemistry with each other and fall flat compared to most other form of character dynamics in the show.

I can hear you say, “But Aoi’s a great MC!”, and I don’t disagree. Aoi comes off as by far the best among the five, in large part because she gets the most opportunity to bounce off of a host of dynamic and interesting characters in Musashino office, providing her with a wide range of interactions, reactions, and facial expressions. However, she just becomes a way less interesting character when she hangs out as a Donut Five, which in general feels a lot more like representations to relate with (aspiring animator/voice actress/3D graphics operator/writer, packaged with your standard-issue cute girl shenanigans) rather than actual people with individually distinct personality, background and history with each other.

Ema and Zuka benefit from having their share of memorable moments and dramatic peaks, but they’re not being defined or developed as much as I like beyond their functional roles. Do I relate as hard as I could possibly be when Ema describes the fears of not ever being good enough at what she’s doing? Yes, but I also wish she doesn’t mostly fade away after that, with the creative angst resolved way too easily. Am I moved when Zuka finally catches her break, causing Aoi to break down? Yes, but that scene could’ve had more impact if they had put more work to depict genuine bond between those two beforehand.

Midori aka Diesel also comes off as mostly bland, even if she provides a fascinating look into the mechanics of writing. There are more cute details (‘Diesel’, name-dropping Dostoevsky as ‘Dost’ without the show ever elaborating on how she gets into his writing in the first place) than actual depth to her, and when does get to show her personality, it rubs me the wrong way, i.e. unnecessarily savage and awkward scene where she casually reminds director Kinoshita of his previous failure and kind of making fun of it (as an office intern, no less). Finally, there’s the extremely forgettable 3D graphics operator wanting to move on from steady but repetitive job Misa, whose name I had to Google while writing this. At least the other Donuts Five have their dramatic arc and/or screen time to work with, poor Misa basically just amounts to an inconsequential extra.

Shirobako Five Girls.png

Sans hairstyle, I’d be hard-pressed to tell these girls apart from each other, and even now it still take longer than it should be to distinguish the three dark-haired girls among the overall character line-up. You can make up for uniform aesthetic by having enough presence and personality (e.g. Erika), but most of these five just couldn’t cut it. Take the scene where they watch a movie together and point out the aspect relevant to their field afterward; it comes across as wooden and functional, lacking the organic sense of individuality and camaraderie that you’d expect from long-time friends with shared passion and history. Compare that to another girls’ outing scene where color setter Shinkawa and in-betweener Doumoto drink over their troubles late at night, which (like a majority of banter scenes between Musashino people) feels way more authentic and relatable.

All of the above is emblematic of the wider contemporary trend in the industry; the Donuts Five girls are obviously cut from the same cloth, and putting them front and center in most of presentation material is an important part of the series’ marketing drive. Now, I’m not necessarily a card-carrying member of Anti-Moe Brigade, but there are marked differences between genuinely adorable character stuff and calculated template-based pandering. I’ve seen a few people dismissed Shirobako just by its key images alone (“sure looks like a delusional world filled by attractive and available anime staffers”), and honestly, I can’t really blame them. The lack of diversity in female character design (relative to their male counterparts) is a legitimate issue in Shirobako, and the industry as a whole. You can have a relatively wide representation of body type, facial looks, and age bracket for male characters, but for prominent females? Whoa, let’s just stick with the Cute Ones™.

I do wonder if the showrunners are aware about all of that and had genuine dilemma between Donuts Five’s inherently low ceiling vs. the story they really want to tell, eventually deciding on using the former more as a bait-and-switch device. Therefore, it’s never meant as the real plot all along. Hypothetically speaking, I would’ve had the show open with little Aoi watching Andes Chucky re-run, then transition to her present grind in Musashino with the Cute Girls Anime Club plotline heavily edited. It’s important to note though that once you take business/marketing perspective into account (and the result speaks for itself), what we’ve got isn’t an awful compromise.

Kunogi Shy Shirobako

Moving on, Shirobako also suffers from a generally weaker second half, which has more or less the same narrative structure as the first half with shifting focus on some of the characters. I actually really like that a big theme in the second half is shifting responsibility and mentoring; just as Aoi and Ema learned from the seniors in their respective field, it’s now their turn to rear newbies looking up to them. Thing is, while some of my favorite characters (Honda, Erika) have their roles reduced, the new faces leave some to be desired. Hiraoka eventually works out, but Aoi’s two juniors don’t really contribute much beyond raising the bland cute girl quota, and Kunogi… is just a horrible character.

There are some of Shirobako’s attempts at cuteness that come off as bland but mostly inoffensive to me (Ema’s Angel Dance, “Don Don Donuts Let’s Go Nuts”), and then there’s Kunogi. I guess people tend to have their personal pet issue on certain character quirk/trope, and mine is when genuine anxiety problem is grossly exaggerated for comic effect. That’s almost the entirety of Kunogi’s character, and I never could find the way she’s portrayed to be either amusing, or God forbid, adorable.

Chazawa Funny Story Shirobako

There’s also Chazawa, the ‘funny story’ editor. While amusing at times and pave the way for a very satisfying punchline, like Kunogi he’s also a one-joke pony that curbed potential nuances the show could’ve had from their respective roles in the story. I don’t doubt that someone like him (a less exaggerated version, obviously) exists in real life, but in the end the show closes off more interesting and insightful directions in its portrayal of manga adaptation process by letting a transparent villain character driving the conflict.

In general, glossing over the most unsavory parts of the industry is something you can accuse the show of doing. I certainly don’t wish for Shirobako to abandon the ultimately uplifting outlook that characterized it (there’s always Episode 10 of the excellent Paranoia Agent if you want grimdark skewering of the subject matter, after all), but it could’ve stand to be a bit more bold and elaborate on certain things. As much as I love its varied depiction of individual hardships and the correct way to deal with them (chin up, don’t throw yourself a pity party and blame others), it also softens genuine issues through comedic presentation and/or pulls its punches in numerous cases, e.g. Ema’s “I’m not sure if I’ll ever be good enough to survive doing this thing” moment, director Kinoshita’s previous catastrophic failure leading to his divorce, Kunogi’s anxiety issue, and the very political process of seiyuu selection.

Shirobako occasionally goes into Educational Mode, mostly delivered by the mascot characters Mimsy (Pirate Girl) and Lolo (White Bear). The transition between these segment and the regular narrative could be a bit awkward, as are the function of Mimsy & Lolo as exposition devices (and Aoi’s internal voices of some sort…). While the show highlights the basic process and job descriptions in anime production, it yields relatively few insight on the trends and condition of the industry as a whole. By the show’s end, it doesn’t take an extremely cynical mind to see the whole thing as a self-congratulatory gesture that conveniently glosses over or downright ignores major industry-wide issues.

Animetic Love Letter

To be honest, I haven’t been able to recommend Shirobako without saying something along these lines:

“I know you’re allergic to moe behavior and bland cute aesthetic, but do give this a chance.”
“The first episode is kind of bland and awkward, but I swear it gets better.”
“Speaking of first ep, don’t mind the weird focus on that lady’s big boobs, something like that wouldn’t happen again IIRC.”
“Don’t worry with the way they throw so many characters from the very beginning, you’ll remember them and they’ll grow on you. Well, some of them.”
“Don’t worry about these girls and their donuts nonsense, it’s not really important. Oh…you actually like them and really want to see their dream anime comes true? Well, uh, there may be Season 2 someday!”

But I’ve also made sure to mention that in spite of everything, Shirobako is a genuinely great show that I’m happy to consider as one of my favorites. As for why, we’re gonna need another long and more personal conversation…

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2 thoughts on “Criticizing A Fave: Things That Don’t Work in Shirobako

  1. That’s interesting. I never thought the girls dream of making an anime as a subplot. To me, it was simply the first push to their paths and afterwards it was something to remember fondly and mention as “we’re really working to this, huh?”

    Aoi is a good MC, but she lacked a real dream, which the anime itself covered. While it’s interesting this kinda of MC, which many can relate, as you pointed out, the others could possibly be a better lead to the anime.

    The comparison with Bakuman may be obvious, but I’d say Shirobako showed in a lighter way the industry because it could destroy the anime itself. Pulling the curtain of the anime to their main audience may not be the best decision. That’s probably why they used only moe characters (the only female that didn’t strike me as moe was the first female animator that showed). Even the males were “comedified” for this reason. And lets be honest. I think if they showed the reality of the industry, it could be a bit sad. Just take a look at that interview about the first (can’t remember exactly) foreign animator in Studio Pierrot.

    Overall, Shirobako is a fun anime and very interesting. It had it’s flaw, but I did fulfill it’s job of showing a bit of the industry in a good way

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    • Yeah, I don’t like some of the decisions, but I can understand the reasoning from marketing perspective. Bakuman’s an apt comparison; both series choose to highlight positive individual traits (passion, work ethic, resiliency) rather than industry-wide issues, and that’s not inherently a bad thing. Shirobako may bypassed some of the most problematic issues, but it also depicts creative and workplace struggle in a more universal sense, which I can get really behind.

      I actually like Aoi as an MC, it’s very nice to see a reminder on how an underappreciated role (desk production/man management) plays an essential role in anime production. The episode where she visits the old Musashino office is terrific, as are the little glimpses of her personal space. You don’t always need to have someone with an established dream/artistic talent in the leading role, and I think Aoi worked out fine by the end

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