Shirobako Has a Lot to Say About Women at Work

The upcoming FX series Fosse/Verdon centers on Bob Fosse’s creative partnership with his estranged wife, Broadway star Gwen Verdon. It’s part of a recent attempt by shiny TV shows to excavate the often-invisible work of women in creative fields — Ryan Murphy’s Feud dug into the psychic toll of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s lives, while GLOW does the same for women working in professional wrestling. The anime series Shirobako, which originally aired in 2014 and 2015, focuses on younger women working behind the scenes. The show, named for the white boxes that used to house VHS cassettes of completed anime, explores the workings of the anime industry itself, largely through the just-beginning careers of several young women.

The premise of Shirobako is pretty straightforward: the members of Kaminoyama High School Anime Club make an anime short titled The Seven Lucky Battle Gods to show at their school cultural festival. Enchanted by seeing their ideas and images in motion, the group makes a promise over doughnuts that someday they’ll all work in the anime industry and collaborate on a feature-length version — and, a few years later, each member of the club tries to find her way in the anime industry, to varying degrees of success.

In brief, the club members are: Ema, an anxious key animator who works on specific frames that act as guideposts for animated movements and transitions; Misa, a 3D animator stuck working solely on cars; Shizuka, a voice actress just starting to get auditions; Midori, a writer and researcher who is still in university; and main protagonist Aoi, a production assistant whose harried struggle to make sure everything gets done on time allows her — and, through her, us — to see many of the other parts of how a show gets made. Aoi and Ema work at the same past-its-prime anime studio, Musashino Animation, and frequently talk to older employees to learn more about the history of the industry. And, it turns out, anime gets made largely by getting around the obstacles posed by annoying men.

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Many, if not most, of the male characters on Shirobako exist largely to make life harder for the protagonists. Seiichi Kinoshita, the director of both in-show anime series the characters work on over the course of the season, is a manchild who often refuses to do his job and forces tweaks to minor details, setting production back by weeks. (He also manages to turn nearly every conversation toward the topic of how lonely he’s been since his wife left him.) Two of the men who work on the show have an argument about hand-drawn vs. computer-generated animation that gets so heated it lasts for multiple episodes and threatens to derail the entire production. And Tarō, one of Aoi’s fellow production assistants, is an all-around incompetent buffoon who is incapable of making decisions and tries to take all of the credit for other people’s work.

Some parts of Shirobako feel, to my American eyes, evocative of the tradition of American movies satirizing or lamenting how boorish and terrible men were in the office — your Working Girl, The Devil Wears Prada, 9 to 5, etc. In this loosely defined subgenre, we follow women scrambling up the corporate ladder (or, in the case of 9 to 5, trying to burn that ladder entirely), rooting for them to finally get the respect they deserve. Without leaning too aggressively into this aspect of the show, Shirobako still manages to take the position that, by and large, the women of the anime industry are underappreciated and deserving of the professional opportunities thrown in the lap of someone like Tarō. The Kaminoyama High School Anime Club isn’t going to kidnap one of their bosses, but there are moments where it feels like they probably should.

To Shirobako’s credit, it doesn’t treat the irritating men of the anime industry solely as projection screens for the characters’ anger. (OK, maybe Tarō — but the show has some degree of affection even for him.) Take director Kinoshita, whose obstinance and inability to work frequently causes headaches for the rest of the production staff, is given at least some redeeming qualities — he’s a talented, creative, and thoughtful director, adrift after the failure of his last project. At one point, he goes to the mat for the project, engaging in an extended standoff with a representative of the company that publishes the manga the studio is adapting. (And if this sounds like a headache, well, it’s supposed to be.)

Anime Easter Egg Hunt

It helps that many of these men are based on real people. Kinoshita is based on Seiji Mizushima, a director who has worked on series ranging from Fullmetal Alchemist to Mobile Suit Gundam 00. Masato Marukawa, the president of the studio, is visually based on Masao Maruyama, one of the founders of anime studio Madhouse. (Madhouse’s works include Barefoot Gen, One Punch Man, and Paranoia Agent.) Another character, Mitsuaki Kanno, is a grumpy animator best known for a genre-defining mech series, which makes sense given that he’s  based on Hideaki Anno, creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

But whether you’re a die-hard Evangelion fan, planning to check it out on Netflix, or have no idea what it is, there’s something to love in Shirobako. Sure, there are lots of inside jokes about animation production — several incidents raise the specter of the dreaded recap episode, a bane of any anime fan’s existence in which the network has to air 20-odd minutes of old animation strung together by narration to cover up for delays on production. Most of the gags work on other levels if you don’t get the joke. But even then, these Easter eggs add up to a sort of syllabus for the medium.

Honestly, nothing about Shirobako demands that you watch anime in order to enjoy it, in the same way that 30 Rock didn’t demand that you watch Saturday Night Live. One production assistant is hired after admitting that she doesn’t even like anime that much — she’s only seen a few Studio Ghibli films — but the office is just much closer to her apartment than her last job. She gets the job anyway, and proves to be pretty good at it. In any art depicting the creation of more art, there’s a push and pull between showing why the creators love the medium they work in and disappearing up your own ass. Shirobako nails it.

Careful Hands

That’s because Shirobako thrives in small moments that focus on the joy of craftsmanship. A character reminisces about a life spent thinking about the best way to draw and represent clouds. An older animator teaches Ema how to develop speed and confidence in her work, seeing her hands as tools for efficient production in addition to the way she does her art. In a later episode, that same older man teaches the younger members of the Musashino staff how to animate horses — a technique lost to many of the hungry youths coming up. Even the most excited, nerdy fans still have a lot to learn.

Partly, Shirobako succeeds by not embedding itself in a particular time in the industry, or even really in its industrial setting. The argument over computer animation is as close as the show comes to being of the moment, but otherwise the series is invested in how skills are passed down and how newer creators relate to older art. Several of the girls love Andes Chucky, a children’s anime about woodland animals loosely based on the 1970s series Fables of the Green Forest. Each of these ways in is less about the specific work that the animators responded to and more about the broader experience of being excited by art, or letting it expand your world and saying, “I want to make that.”

Like on 30 Rock, problems for the women of Shirobako spring up like Whac-A-Mole. Frames are running behind, a script needs revisions, the textures for the effects aren’t quite right; all of these processes are happening at once for different episodes. This might feel obvious to think about, but Shirobako is excellent at getting you to feel what it’s like to be embroiled in that kind of chaos, from the perspective of a younger woman trying to navigate a space where so many of her coworkers are boors. In remaining tranquil while putting its characters through the ringer, Shirobako suggests that, though conditions may be stressful, there is a degree of artistic fulfillment at the end of the tunnel — if only these men would stop being such dummies.