Anime has a long history of looking inwards at itself - from the likes of Otaku no Video through to the currently streaming Denki-gai no Honya-san, almost every aspect of anime and manga fandom has analysed, lampooned and depicted itself. Surprisingly, one aspect of the industry which hasn't been granted quite the same scrutiny is the production of the medium that we all love itself... at least, it hasn't until now.
Shirobako begins (as the Ten Commandments of anime decree that it must) with a group of high school girls, all of whom are busily working on creating a short animated film for their school's culture festival. One relatively short montage and a lot of hard work later, the short is complete, and the seeds are set for all of the group to set their sights on a career within the anime industry.
Fast forward a couple of years, and the energetic leader of that group, Aoi Miyamori, has found herself a role as a production assistant at an animation studio - Musashino Animation, a once much-heralded studio who now seem to be rather past their peak. Nonetheless, Miyamori finds herself at the heart of their latest project, named Exodus.
Thrust into the midst of this production as the viewer several episodes into its production, the early running of Shirobako is a blizzard of characters, names and events - a tidal wave that of information and goings-on that you constantly fear will overwhelm and drown you, but one which turns out to be the perfect wave for you to ride as an introduction to the series. Even though you won't remember every detail (and I suspect this is a series that will reward multiple viewings), from the outset Shirobako is a fascinating and frequently hilarious glimpse behind the curtains of a functioning - and arguably barely functioning - animation studio. Although things slow down a little as the series progresses, allowing the show to pinpoint specific items that it wishes to depict within its agenda, Shirobako never really stops - the closest it comes to a lull is a rare day off for Miyamori when she re-joins her old schoolmates to catch up, and even this is interrupted by a phone call warning of impending doom for the Exodus project.
The real genius of Shirobako isn't so much that it's an informative, warts and all look at the anime production process - it's that it's such an entertaining one to boot. The series knows when the industry its focusing upon is crazy enough to be fun to look in on its own right, but also when otherwise boring everyday tasks need sprucing up - witness the first episode commencing with an Initial D-style race between assistant from two production studios to be first to arrive at a key animator's house to hand off their workload to her.
Such flights of fancy aren't required often however, as the show's lens on the labour of love that is producing a TV anime series isn't afraid to make fun of both the profession at hand and those within it - the series director is scarred by the panning of his previous series (called Jiggly Jiggly Heaven, rather wonderfully) and the descent of its production into chaos, and the joking references to an over-reliance on recap episodes suggests that Shirobako's own director Tsutomu Mizushima is pulling from at least some of his experiences on Girls und Panzer! Throw in disagreements about moe, 2D versus 3D animation, appearances from some famous names in the business and beyond, and here is a show that feels like as authentic a rendering of the anime production business as you might hope for outside of a documentary. There's plenty of potential for more to come too, with budding voice actresses and animators amongst the rest of the cast of industry newcomers at the heart of the show's viewpoint.
Shirobako is also no slouch in the visual department - P.A. Works can always be depending on to make something that looks tremendous and this effort is no different in that regard, with plenty of stand-out character designs, lots of busy office backdrops and no shortage of care and attention paid to the animation of brief snippets of Exodus, the in-production series which will morph into full episodes in their own right as bonus materials for Shirobako's Japanese home video release. This may not be the kind of show that lives or dies on its animation quality, but the busy, colourful and vibrant aesthetic here certainly helps it along.
Six episodes in, it's hard to find much fault with Shirobako - it does tail off a little at one point after its breathless start, and at times there's almost too much to take in, but by episode five it's picked up the pace and found its rhythm again. As a blend of education and entertainment it really can't be beaten, allowing us to learn a lot while laughing like hyenas in the process - let's just hope that the director has his storyboards ready for the entire series so that production on the show doesn't descend into a last minute rush or have to rely on filler episodes. That would just be plain embarrassing, after all...
You can currently watch Shirobako in streaming form on Crunchyroll.