Shirobako – It’s the people, dammit!

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Within the diverse, colourful spectrum of overzealous anime fans across the world there exists a small but growing number of us with a particular bent. If you’re like me, then, at some point, being able to just enjoy good anime wasn’t enough – to satisfy a growing curiosity I had to know why it was good. As it turns out, this was the first tumble down a very slippery, very long slope which would eventually lead me to such depraved depths as spending a good few hours researching the credits a short anime review on a series I’m not even particularly passionate about! If you’re a part of this faction of the anime fandom you may exhibit symptoms such as:

  • You see an anime and feel violent urges to pick it apart, down to its skeletal core of production values and staff credits.
  • You might actually be bothered wanting to know who in particular animated the smoke in the background of a fight scene.
  • You could find yourself watching anime you really hate just because it has some interesting staff in the credits.
  • You might find yourself becoming irrationally angry at ANN reviews.
  • You become a highly efficient, streamlined twitter-stalking machine for anime staff.

To others, this may seem like nitpickery, or even an obsession taken to creepy levels. Most people are perfectly happy seeing something that looks good and talking about the story and the characters. Conversely, they’re unhappy seeing things that they feel don’t look good.

And that’s perfectly fine. Let’s face it, that makes sense. But if you happen to have stumbled into that slippery slope, it can be hard to look back. That’s because you gain an appreciation of just how much work goes into anime from everyone involved, and how much of that work is creative, personal and born from a deep-seated attachment to the industry and the anime. Blood sweat and tears and donuts are the secret ingredients behind nearly every good anime, and even many of the mediocre ones. And those ingredients can’t just be bought in bulk by the studio or director of the day – they’re shed by people. So many of the names on the credit list that most people skip at the end of each episode are absolutely vital to helping make the episode what it was.

And it doesn’t just lead to nitpicking, for me, this deeper appreciation of the people behind anime has  unlocked a new, visceral love for the medium. In the climactic animation sequences of Space Dandy’s finale I got goosebumps seeing the work of animators Yoshimichi Kameda, BahiJD and Yutaka Nakamura, because I was in awe of their talent. 5 years ago I might have thought it looked ‘kinda cool’ and then quickly forgotten about it. But now I know: no other three people could have produced a sequence that looked quite like that. And I know that their efforts represent a new step in a career of hard-work and personal growth.

On Shirobako

Enter Shirobako: the anime about cute girls making anime about cute girls. In just 7 episodes, this anime has done more to convey exactly what I’m talking about than I could have in a thousand blog posts (even if people actually read my blog!). Not only does it do a great job of very realistically showing the production process of TV anime in great detail, but it also scratches beneath the technical workflows and gets into the motivations, aspirations, foibles and challenges of the many people behind it. Make no mistake, although these are fictional characters, their passion for the job, the struggles they deal with are all very real reflections of the very real people behind the industry.

I’m actually surprised it’s taken this long for something like Shirobako to come along (the closest thing I can think of would be the more comedic Animation Runner Kuromi). I’m not sure whether it’s because directors and producers have shied away from the topic for fear that there was no appetite among anime fans for this setting, or that they thought it would be too awkwardly introspective to create, but it’s been a long time coming. The men who finally made it happen are Kenji Horikawa (founder, director, and main driving force of P.A Works) and director Tsutomu Mizushima. Apparently, the idea for the anime started while they shared a train ride together around 3 years ago (possibly when they were working together on Another). They had the desire to bring the personal side of anime production to light and to explore every facet of production, connecting the many often isolated sections that operate in the industry into a story. Together, they originally nutted out ideas such as the beginning sequence of the group wanting to make a school-project anime and get into the industry, and the street-racing scene from the first episode.

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But only now have they got it off the ground. There’s no denying this is their work, and their idea (mainly Horikawa’s by the sound of it). Both of them have a wealth of experience in the industry: Horikawa has worked at Production I.G, Tatsunoko Productions and Bee Train before finally starting up P.A Works. As the founder of the company, it’s clearly his experience managing all areas of production which has laid the groundwork for the show’s storytelling. Mizushima Tsutomu, with a prolific and rock-solid career behind him, including works such as Blood-C, xxxHolic, Squid Girl, etc, brings an effective directorial presence. The show’s production has been polished (albeit not very charismatic), and, being known for his comedy anime, he brings a much needed sense of humour to what might have otherwise been too dry of an anime to swallow. Interestingly, he’s also sound director on this anime which, as far as I’m aware, is quite unusual. His familiarity with music predates his career in anime though, as he originally wanted to be a music teacher after finished high school, before winding up in anime after not being able to get into that profession. Still, the director credit is usually enough work for one person, so he must really be stretched thin.

He would have bought on writer Michiko Yokote to this project, having worked extensively with her on the past on his projects, and she delivers a strong script packed with interesting interpersonal drama and multiple layers of story development with well-written female characters. As a side note, it’s rumoured that Michiko Yokote is actually a team of 3 female writers based on a blog post she wrote some time ago (a rumour that many English websites have echoed as fact). However, given the jovial tone of the post and the fact that it seems impractical, I’m inclined to believe it’s not true. Alongside her writes the accomplished Reiko Yoshida (Keion, Kaleido Star, REC, Scrapped Princess, and many more) who I actually think delivers more resonant and interesting episodes.

For an anime that brings to light the talents and hard-work of charismatic animators, the production is almost ironically mute in execution. There’s little room for expressionistic or idiosyncratic animation, except in the meta anime that the staff are producing. But the strength of Shirobako is in its fascinating look at the internal guts of the industry.

Exploration of the Industry

Shirobako is set in a fictional studio called Musashino Animation (look, the even made a fake website for the studio) who are currently working on a new anime series, Exodus. Musashino animation is a small Tokyo-based studio the likes of which comprise the majority of anime companies out there. Through this setting it tells the story of  5 girls who are living and working towards their high-school dream of creating anime together. There’s a rookie voice actress, a production assistant, a key animator, a 3DCG operator, and an aspiring script-writer The anime explores their lives in the industry as well as the many other production staff that surround them. Some interesting things they’ve covered include:

Schedule Hell

Your favourite anime
Your favourite anime

The apocalyptic struggle of one overworked production assistant against a tsunami of work and a tight schedule is vividly portrayed throughout Shirobako, and is the focus of episode 3. In the episode, Aoi faces an uphill battle to get an episode finished after it is derailed by a collapsed animator and a grossly indecisive director. TV anime typically run on tight schedules, going to air with only a handful of completed episodes to act as a buffer before inevitably being caught, pants-down in a frantic race to finish every episode. Stories of animators pulling all nighters or virtually living in the studio are commonplace, and it’s not all that rare for episodes to only just be completed in time for airing.

[HorribleSubs] Shirobako - 01 [720p].mkv_snapshot_22.57_[2014.12.01_19.13.08]
Typical lazy animator
In this climate of fast-paced production it’s no surprise that anime are frequently derailed into ‘production hell’ . The server being down in episode 3 of Shirobako is apparently something that actually happened at P.A Works during work on the final episode of Hanasaku Iroha. While that case ended happily, sometimes episodes end up going to air incomplete or not at all. Episode 10 of Bakemonogatari went to air disturbingly unfinished, with many cuts being substituted with a black screen and some text, and I recall this being blamed on staff illness. Even successful shows that are generally considered well produced often have their feet scorched by the fiery furnace of hell below. On several occasions Shingeki no Kyoujin employed over 10 animation directors on a single episode, which is a clear sign of a rushed anime with a lot of poor drawings needing correction, and there were even calls on twitter trying to recruit animators to the project mid-production. Episode 13 showed the result, with a bunch of awkwardly long still shots and many action cuts being substituted by scenic shots of the city.

Wow, such a great battle sequence!
Wow, such a great battle sequence!

Time is money, but money can’t buy time when things go to hell. Hopefully Shirobako’s glimpse into a studio grappling with the schedule demons might dispel the myth that drops in anime quality are caused by a studio ‘running out of money’. While this can happen, it’s very rare and extraordinary, yet it seems to be the go-to explanation for a shoddy episode by most anime fans.

The References to Real people

Shirobako is packed full with references to real people, places and events within the industry. Some of them are subtle, others not so much, but it’s a lot of fun to try keep an eye out for them! Probably the most obvious ones are the oafish, man-child director, who is modelled after Seiji Mizushima and the aloof, inexplicably culinary company president, who is based on the CEO of studio Mappa (and co-founder of Madhouse), Masao Maruyama. Given his real-life parallel, Seiji Mizushima’s character is portrayed in a surprisingly unflattering light, but he’s presumably in on the joke after he uploaded this photo of himself in a matching blue-polo shirt!!

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I’m not sure where the proclivity for cooking in Masao’s character comes from, but it seems to be a running joke. I actually saw a photo of Maruyama cooking with a pot on the internet, but now I can’t seem to track it down again!

Studios and other anime series are often mentioned with bastardised or cryptic names, and the seiyuus actually appear as themselves! It’s a lot of fun for someone with an existing interest in the faces behind anime. As a point of interest, director Mizushima Tsutomu calls Tarou, the most annoying character int he show, his former self (hopefully he’s joking!)

JUST STOP. STOP BEING ALIVE.
JUST STOP. STOP BEING ALIVE.

CG versus 2D

The was palpable sense of tension between CG animators and traditional animators in episode 5. Apparently they actually consulted with the legendary Ichiro Itano for this episode, who actually went into direction with CG from his origins as a 2D animator (traitor!!). He also I saw somewhere that Itano might be participating in a commentary for the episode’s Blu-ray release, which should prove interesting.

Shoulda capped that bitch
Shoulda capped that bitch

Although obviously exaggerated here, I’d guess that there is an air of conflict in the anime industry between these two sides of the fence. The encroachment of 3DCG into more and more areas of the medium is like a dark, ominous cloud hanging over the industry. When anime first started to use 3DCG it was experimental and used for specific things that would either be too hard to animate traditionally or which were clearly suitable for a CG treatment like spaceships and mecha. It was used to add value to anime in specific ways like having a lot of moving background characters that would have been impossibly expensive and time-consuming for a TV-anime. This all enabled animators to focus more on better foreground, character drawings (and certain studios kept the 2D mecha tradition alive). But now we’re getting whole anime done in CG – clearly it’s gone from being a complement to the 2D industry to a rival.

Personally I think it’s about time we started drawing clear battle-lines here when it comes to CG. The western 2D animation industry basically immediately evaporated after directors and producers jumped ship when they saw the new shiny, trendy 3D animation, but Japan has so far not succumbed so readily. It’s like a last bastion of hope for fans of 2D animation (and I’m talking about GOOD animation, not flash-in-betweened rubbish). CG, while still taking skill in and of itself, is a form of animation that is more science than it is art – it lacks the raw creative spark that comes from the hand and the many nuances of drawn animation.

Let's see CG do this!!!
Let’s see CG do this!!!

So, to be honest, I was totally onside with the animator. CG can have its place, but now that we’ve got whole anime being done in the style, it represents a real threat to the industry and I say we should push back!

The Animator Crunch

The look into Ema’s struggle with starting out as a key animator. Just getting into the job, she is facing the crunch that most animators need to get through, the first big hurdle: the ability to draw both quickly and well, and being able to aptly juggle these two opposing forces in her daily work.

I think this is really interesting to see play out on a personal level, and I hope people watching take home the fact that there’s a lot more to being a good animator than simply being able to draw. Being flagged as someone with potential for character design, Ema is obviously a good drawer and a competent animator, but she is struggling with just 10 cuts under time pressure. Unless you have a reputation as a star animator, it’s not enough to be good, you have to be good and fast!  It really serves to highlight the herculean efforts of some animators who are able to draw entire episodes by themselves and maintain a high level of quality, or who are able to actually create animation that is thrilling on an individualistic level after just starting out.

Many animators-to-be quit the job because they can’t push past this roadblock with either talent or sheer guts and determination, so let’s give due respect those who do overcome it!

Pay discrepancies

Although it’s not exactly anything we didn’t know before, the Shirobako website posted a neat little info-graphic showing the salaries of the various people involved. It’s not news that the salary of a fresh key animator is terribly low, but it’s still frightening seeing such a stark comparison. With the much more attractive salary of an animation director/character designer it’s easy to see why most good animators work their way up to that role, or turn towards storyboarding and direction (although being an animation director is very tough work that doesn’t pay especially well on a per-cut basis).

Those animators who stick with key animation in the long-run are few and far between and tend to be the rare, prodigious individual who is talented enough to make a name for themselves as a top, sought after resource. These people find themselves with proper salaries or a much higher per-drawing pay-rate. Some animators who seem like they were born to walk the path of a pure animator include the likes of Shinya Ohira, Yutaka Nakamura, Toshiyuki Inoue, etc.  These days it’s usually better to be talented in a stand-out way than to work hard at progressing as an animator.

What I do like is how they subtly touch on the money issue without being preachy or self-pitying in the process. Although not well-paid, young animators take pride in their job and are driven by their love for it.

Interestingly, the role of Sound Director is not included here. A few years ago, a report from the Japanese Animation Creators Association which highlighted (and perhaps exaggerated) the plight of young animators caused a bit of stir. Yamasaki Osamu wrote for them discussing pay inequities within the industry and pointed out that sound directors are paid a little over half as much as episode director’s per episode, but are able to finish an episode in two days rather than a matter of weeks. As a result, they often juggle 2-3 series at a time and can commonly end up with salaries of $200,000 or more, more than the executive producer on the chart above. With that said, it sure is intriguing that Mizushima Tsutomu is also sound director on this anime! I certainly can’t tell any difference from other anime!

In the end..

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There’s a story behind every anime

If you think back to a scene in anime that struck you as being awesomely animated and it was almost certainly thanks to the tireless work of a particular animator. Look at Yoshimichi Kameda’s scene from Space Dandy #26, the electric, swirling fire dragon was all animated by him and is a sentimental bow to the animator who inspired and influenced him from the beginning, the recently deceased legend Yoshinori Kanada; the action climax of the ghost in the Shell movie was animated by Mitsuo Iso who apparently studied a spider he’d captured in a jar to help craft the movements of the spider-tank; Ichiro Itano’s famous, twirling, spiraling missiles were drawn from his memories of strapping fireworks to his bike and riding as they shot out around him; hell, Gainax was founded by a bunch of university drop-out nerds who bound together to animate an intro to a sci-fi convention. We’re used to watching interesting stories play out in our favourite anime, but what Shirobako reveals is that those anime are often built on fascinating, real-life stories of the people involved. The more I look into the many remarkable people working in this medium the more I discover that they are driven by a passion for animation and storytelling.

I’m confident that Shirobako has lifted the veil over the anime industry for a lot of people, both in Japan and abroad, and all we can do is hope that this fosters more interest in and better understanding of the people who pour their life into the anime we enjoy every week. I’d love to see more people join me in the tireless pursuit of uncovering these people and stories behind anime! At the very least, some mainstream reviews might be able to start giving credit where credit where it’s due a little better instead of lumping it all at the foot of the director or any name they happen recognise.

Further reading:

Staff roles/pay:

http://bakudon.net/news/2008/02/27/financials-heaven-hell-reality-three-looks-at-the-business-of-animation-production-part-3-an-examination-of-the-production-costs-of-bamboo-blade

http://2chan.us/wordpress/2010/04/15/is-it-true-everyone-working-in-anime-is-poor/

How anime is made:

https://washiblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/anime-production-detailed-guide-to-how-anime-is-made-and-the-talent-behind-it/

http://www.pelleas.net/aniTOP/index.php/the-anime-production-line