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‘Shirobako’: Meditations on Success and Failure

The First Step Through the Recording Room Door

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Shirobako Anime

In celebration of the recent announcement that the Shirobako movie, imaginatively titled Shirobako Movie, has a Japanese release set for February 29th, 2020, it’s time to reflect on one of the best series of the 2010s:

Spoilers abound

Few anime series reflect the societal tension of achieving success, and therein causes of failure, more acutely than Shirobako. Centered on the working lives of five school friends in the anime industry, the central theme is laid out explicitly within the first five minutes: Aoi Miyamori and her school anime club friends are excited at the prospect of joining the anime industry, their major anime project bringing them creative pride. The montage illustrating their hard work has vibrant tones; then Shirobako jumps forward into the future. Overworked production assistant Aoi grips her steering wheel while delivering more animation cuts that need checking. The background colours are muted. While she momentarily perks up at hearing a promotional radio interview for the anime that she’s working on, this is still not exactly as she imagined.

Success is elusive. The type of success is immaterial, for each person has their own passions and ambitions, and indeed what qualifies as success is also personal. At some point, however, one may catastrophically fail at achieving their desired success, adapting and resurging in response, but sometimes failure is an endpoint. Point blank. Other times, success eludes a person for reasons wholly outside their control. Society, in general, poorly prepares young people for the ramifications of failure, because it is so focussed on escalating ascendency. Within the nurturing structures of home or school a great lie is told, repeatedly, that personal improvement and effort will proportionally result in accomplishment and acknowledgment. Schools, especially, convey this through validating scores and grades, such that individual contentment with one’s own success becomes tied to external approval. Thus transitioning to the chaos of society beyond the protective confines of home or school is very often difficult for people. There is still always another marker or level of achievement attainable, but the path to success and contentment is obfuscated, and if people don’t outright fail, then they may suffer from aspirational deflation. Some people have the misfortune to be apprised of this early, but more often, the realization arrives in burgeoning adulthood.

Exploring the concept of adult success through that juxtaposition — where reality dispels the ideal — with anime as vector, is inspired, not solely meta-textually. As one of Japan’s most distinctive and unique fictional mediums stylistically, anime encapsulates that creative ideal imbued with cultural heritage. In this way, creating anime becomes a creative zenith, bringing the arduous pursuit of realizing professional creative success, in all its fits and bursts and economic considerations, into stark relief. Shirobako approaches this from several angles with Aoi and her friends as conduits. For example, Ema Yasuhira, a key animator, is harrowed that her drawing rate may not be sufficiently quick enough to earn enough money and feed herself. Misa Toudou, a CGI animator, wants more than from her career than modelling car tires and hubcaps — she joined her current company because the CEO was once a famed anime creator, but he felt the need to prioritize financial stability, not just for himself, but for all of his staff. Creative endeavours are a risk and prone to failure, especially as anime operates on thin profit margins.

That would be a simplistic thematic discussion, however, and Shirobako is far more multifaceted. Returning to Aoi, she is elevated for her efforts when the opportunity arises. Mechanically, as the viewpoint character for the audience, Aoi’s promotion through the ranks allows the series to show more fields within the industry, but it also serves as a counterpoint to the trajectories of the other main characters. However, Aoi still struggles, because although she has a dream to create anime, she laments that she doesn’t concretely know what she wants to actually achieve now that she’s there. Her future prospects concern her. Setting aside compounding factors, societal success rarely has room for people without overarching plans—it’s regarded as listlessness. Shirobako has empathy for these people: some people, like Aoi, focussing on the current step in front of them, just stumble onto a new and unexpected avenue towards contentment. Late in the series, fellow people in the company are quizzed on why they wanted to make anime. Some were passionate, while others just fell into it, happenstance, and stuck around because they enjoyed the minutiae of the work they were doing. Shirobako emphasizes that the latter is perfectly okay and a form of success, as well as contentment.

Perhaps that notion about success should be then rewritten: personal contentment is elusive. Especially in a creative field, where satisfaction with one’s creations can be so ephemeral, and art — in its incipient stages at least — is direct self-expression, the other hurdles and barriers formed by a civilisation that impede personal creative contentment cause severe frustration in denying an outlet for successful expression.

As a corollary, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1841 essay, Self Reliance, describing the social imposition on valuing personal testimony and discernment,  “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” Nearly two hundred years on, the aggregated names, societies, and dead institutions often remain a bulwark against new people entering the circuit of success, where one achievement begets another through increasing recognition. Not that those already on the circuit are generally undeserving of their success, far from it; and they too are liable to face a precipitous drop from precarious fame, as Shirobako’s main director character, Seiichi Kinoshita, found out when the follow-up project to his award-winning debut was a disaster. However, frequently the hardest element in achieving success is initially getting the proverbial foot in the door, because there’s an accreted doorstopper of “badges” jamming it shut. Shirobako knows this, and the tribulations of Shizuka Sakaki, an aspiring anime voice actress, consequently make for the most affecting storyline and a pertinent rumination on failure.

Shizuka’s failures in entering the voice-acting industry threaten to cause her recession into obscurity. Humanity is mostly anonymous, but those with the desire to rise above the crowds and perform with a platform frequently fear such a thing. Pointedly, Shizuka joins a group of voice actors providing background cheers as sports fans, but her zeal has her shunted away from the microphone, because she is too loud.

A particularly wounding vignette related to Shizuka’s struggles bluntly satirizes an anime production committee meeting. After a successful audition, Shizuka is on the shortlist for a major character in a new series. She is, in fact, the anime director’s first choice. Here Emerson’s “badges and names” rear their heads, with the representatives for the brands co-funding the anime reverting to their bureaucratic interests, solely focussing on the marketability or promotional qualities of their companies’ favoured actresses. It’s a familiar experience for anyone who has ever entered a meeting knowing, that for whatever reason, those judging have pre-emptively made their decision based on preconceptions and extraneous circumstances.

Shirobako further thematically underscores Shizuka’s trials through Waiting for Godot. Shizuka’s former acting coach invites her along to see the rehearsals of an all-female production that she is directing. The play’s first act revolves around two companions, Estragon and Vladimir, as they wait beside a tree for the arrival of the unknown Godot that evening. Eventually Pozzo and Lucky — a loquacious, abusive master and denigrated slave — pass by, interrupting their humorous and poignant squabbling. At the end of the act, a messenger boy tells the pair that Godot is unable to come today, but that he will be there tomorrow (it is implied that the men have been waiting regularly for a long time). The far more serious second act sees Estragon and Vladimir still underneath the tree, patiently waiting for Godot, until a blind Pozzo and mute Lucky appear. Evidently a significant amount of time has passed, and yet Estragon and Vladimir are expecting (hoping!) that Godot will arrive. This is the most facile reading of Waiting for Godot, but it draws a direct parallel with Shizuka’s plight. Her career is stagnant; the daily chore of failing auditions is a repetitive stasis. In the same way Estragon and Vladimir expect Godot to eventually arrive as promised, Shizuka is waiting for the tacit societal promise of getting an acting job as a result of her hard work to be fulfilled. Godot never arrives in the play, and Shizuka’s dreams are perilously close to failing by virtue of never being given the chance to realize them. The demoralizing truth is that not everyone is rewarded with vindication for their talents.

This can curdle into bitterness, if not resentment. Shirobako’s most extreme example is the ornery production assistant Daisuke Hiroaka, who is disenfranchised with animators taking his role and the anime production process as a whole for granted. Shizuka is not so jaded, but one evening a dejected Shizuka envies a younger, successful actress complaining about her work schedule on television. Most heart-wrenchingly, Shizuka discovers all of her friends are working together in the anime adaptation of a popular manga series that she auditioned for, lamenting that “[She] would have loved to have worked with all of [them] just want[s] to work with you all”. Seeing friends succeed while one is continuously failing can strain even the most affectionate friendships.

Here is where Shirobako’s prevailing positivity exists. Shizuka magnanimously does not resent her friends, despite frustrations, and they, in turn, all admire her qualities and have faith in her abilities. Likewise, throughout the series, multiple anime production crew-members commiserate setbacks and issues together over drinks. As much as creating anime is a collaborative effort where people solve problems together, friendships and support structures help bear the load of failure. There is also a more positive and possibly misconstrued interpretation of Waiting for Godot (having not read or watched it properly since 2009). Estragon and Vladimir remain undaunted about waiting, and are content to bickering with each other for as much time passes. They are together under that tree; the final line is “Yes, let’s go”, but neither leaves. Similarly, none of the girls are ready to give up on either their careers, or each other.

In that optimistic vein, Shizuka leaves Waiting For Godot invigorated and determined to continue trying. People acquiring resilience against rejection and overriding failure, and detaching their self-worth from external success, is a difficult process. But it enables reconciling with reality and appreciating the more minor achievements in life. Soon afterward, Shizuka gets the opportunity to play a prefecture mascot. Her friends worry that she sees this as a tangent to her career objectives, but Shizuka appreciates it as lateral progression, and more importantly, a worthwhile experience in its own right.

Towards the end of Waiting For Godot, Vladimir demands that the messenger boy recognizes him when he surely returns tomorrow with the eternally disappointing news that Godot won’t be coming. Vladimir wants acknowledgment on a personal, human level. It is an external validation of ourselves and our place in society. As such, Shizuka also wants to be accepted on her own merits: Aoi, due to friendship and appreciation of her talent, is on the verge of recommending Shizuka to director Seiichi Kinoshita and producer “Nabe P” when they visit the bar Shizuka works at, but she stops her. Fundamentally, humans want to be accepted and heard as part of respect and dignity for their individuality.

That same granular humanity is really Shirobako’s silver lining in the grind of overwhelming failure: for all the nebulousness of the person that is Godot or the nebulousness of the anime industry, Shirobako humanizes the process by showing everyone’s interior and working lives. Subsequently, it illustrates that all it takes is one person acknowledging your efforts to opening the door to success. Aoi messes up interviews at multiple anime production studios until her enthusiasm for the children’s anime Andes Chucky amuses the heads of Musashino Animation, as they worked on it, and they give her a chance. College student Midori Imai helps research some technical information on Aoi’s behalf, and the director and screenwriter are impressed and contract her as an employee. A revered background artist originally got his break because one of the production assistant staff members — who eventually became head of Mushashino Animation — saw his skill and asked him to paint snowy weather for Andes Chucky.

So it is the most cathartic moment in the series when Shizuka steps through the recording studio door to record a significant minor character, the younger sister of the character she had originally auditioned for. Seiichi Kinoshita had remembered her and thus gave her the role. That karmic justice and emotional fulfillment and resolution are partly why we consume narrative fiction. The empathy we have for characters — both in their joys and suffering — allows us to reflect on our own experiences, but with the refinement of narrative that abstracts things from the mundane human experience and brings them into focus. Pathos is heightened. It’s also a more palatable way of processing our own feelings, because there is the reassurance, especially in optimistic series like Shirobako, that failure does not have the same finality as in life. Shizuka’s struggles ultimately leading to success is uplifting and also a wonderful way of reminding us that one shut recording room door is not the same as every door being closed to us. Our own narratives continue beyond failure and setbacks. 

Grand scale success is elusive and too dependent on other factors to be a pure reflection of one’s capabilities; but if one is actively determined and finessed, eventually somebody else will appreciate it. It could just be one’s friends or family, but it could a person who grants further opportunities. Shirobako, therefore, asks us to find the process of trying to succeed, stumbles and all, worthwhile in and of itself. Shirobako then asks us to continue doing so, and always hold out hope that we will find that one person who reaches out and unlocks that blocked recording room door, letting us, like Shizuka, perform.

Declan Biswas-Hughes

Declan Biswas-Hughes has led a very nomadic life, which influenced his decision to study European and International Law. He unwinds from writing essays on the minutiae of legalese by writing things like essays on the minutiae of anime, because he really knows how to party. You can find him on Twitter (@fringence), popping up on AniTAY, and occasionally out clubbing when he’s not trying to finish a novel.

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