Two mostly unspoiled newbies and one superfan watch six episodes of a series at a time, then record a discussion on them before watching the next six. This is Chatty AF’s new watchalong format, looking at completed anime through a feminist lens.
Shirobako is a show patrons have been asking us to look at since launch. Praised for its portrayal of adult women in a mixed workplace and criticised for its ‘moe sameface’ character designs, it provides a number of interesting starting points for feminist discussion. We hope you’ll join in the conversation via comments below.
We’re very pleased to welcome Miles “that Shirobako guy” Thomas to join us in these discussions as our resident superfan – we’re pretty sure no-one could question his credentials in this area.
This is very much a test of the format. If you have feedback on how you would like us to approach watchalongs going forward, or series you would like to nominate for a watchalong, please do comment below!
Date Recorded: Sunday 21st May 2017
Hosts: Amelia, Peter
1:23 Past experiences with Shirobako
6:25 Character designs
9:30 Female characterization
13:01 Female personality types in the anime industry
28:38 Cathartic moments
30:29 Workplace diversity
32:29 Experience and mentorship
33:32 Male gaze
36:02 Segawa and Endou
37:36 Sexism in the Japanese workplace
39:13 Male characterization
41:54 Narrative inequality
43:31 Back to Endou
44:54 Complexity and accuracy of subject matter
50:21 Next six episodes
AMELIA: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Anime Feminist podcast. My name’s Amelia, I’m the editor-in-chief of Anime Feminist, and I’m joined today by Peter and very special guest Miles Thomas. Guys, can you introduce yourselves?
PETER: I’m Peter Fobian. I’m a Associate Features Editor at Crunchyroll and a contributor and editor at Anime Feminist.
MILES: My name is Miles Thomas, I have been described to the producer of SHIROBAKO as the world’s greatest SHIROBAKO fan.
AMELIA: [laughs] That’s exactly why we’ve brought you here, because today we’re starting a new style of format for Chatty AF, which is a watchalong. So it’s gonna be a way for us to break down and look at older series with more of a feminist viewpoint. So we’re going to do it weekly, six episodes at a time, so that we can cover a 24-episode show in a month, and we’re starting with SHIROBAKO.
The reason for this is because we have a few patrons, a few fans, who have been pushing for this for a little while. and I feel like I’ve been talking about SHIROBAKO for well over a year now and I’ve never seen it, so it seemed like a really good starting point. I’ve been assured by many people that I’ll love it, so I’m really excited to get through this particular show.
So, first of all, I just wanna talk about what your experiences of SHIROBAKO were before this watchalong. Miles is gonna take a little while to talk, I think, so we’ll start with me.
So I watched about 10 minutes of SHIROBAKO maybe a year ago. I got to the close-up of an adult female character’s chest, and I said, “I’m done, this clearly isn’t as good as I’ve been told by all the people who assured me I’d love it, so I’m not interested in watching anymore.” And I just switched it off, which to be honest is pretty much my watching style when I don’t review anime. I’m much more hard-line about turning off as soon as we get to something that reads as fanservice to me.
But I got very criticized for this by SHIROBAKO fans. Some of the friendly ones were just disappointed, they said “I think you’d really like it, it’s a shame you’re not willing to continue.” And then others were pretty unpleasant about it. Basically saying “that’s a ridiculous reason to switch off; it’s far too good to turn off for a reason like that.” It didn’t really leave me wanting to watch any more, so I’ve left it until now. Peter, what’s your experience?
PETER: Well, I was definitely aware of it for quite a while. Working in the office. It’s actually kind of hard to miss SHIROBAKO.
PETER: Nate [Ming] actually watched the whole series recently, and said it was better than he thought it would be. Miles—do we call it “your shelf,” is that what the official verbages for that…?
MILES: My shrine.
PETER: So it is a shrine, okay. I thought we weren’t allowed to call it that. I see a lot of GIFs about it and I knew the general premise but I just didn’t, I guess, have a compelling reason to start it up until now. So here we are.
AMELIA: And Miles, what is your experience with SHIROBAKO?
MILES: So, when it was first announced—and actually this ties in with the whole point of this podcast too—when it’s first announced, I was beyond excited because it seemed to me to be just “Behind-the-Scenes Featurette: The Anime.”
Often, like last night we watched Miss Hokusai, and there’s a two-hour long documentary about making this hour-and-a-half movie, and I cannot tell you right now which part I enjoyed more, the movie or the featurette. The feature-length featurette.
AMELIA: [crosstalk] I was gonna say, that’s no featurette.
MILES: So I’ve always been like, I love seeing how the sausage gets made, so I was super excited. And then about a month before the anime came out, they released the first magazine image. And now a lot of these magazine images that are used to promote shows that are about to come out are a little more titillating and it kind of tells you what kind of show it is.
And so, the first image revealed of SHIROBAKO beyond the key art was the five main girls drinking beers in bikinis and I’m like, “Oh nooooooo, oh no! I guess my wonderful Behind-the-Scenes Featurette: The Anime is gonna be about moe girls in, like, bikinis. I guess this is just the reality we live in.”
So I was like, “Well, I’m still gonna watch it,” but I was kind of disappointed, ’cause I was just so looking forward to that concept. And then I watched the first episode right when it came out and it was the first anime in a good two years that I had wanted to blog about. I’ve never been a constant anime blogger, but from the first episode I wrote like a 3000-word review about “Oh my gosh, this is just my shit!” I’m sorry if I’m not allowed to say that on this podcast!
AMELIA: Nope, it’s all good.
MILES: Wholly captivated and I said, “Okay, as an anime fan, I know that there are always gonna be elements that I’m not like 100% down with, and if it does take this tact a little more than I would like it to, that’ll just be a disappointment for me.” But as an anime fan. you kind of have to internalize a lot of the elements that as a coastal American, I find less appealing.
I just fell in love, and I think it also helps that I had just started full-time at Crunchyroll. I had been working as a contractor for about 18 months beforehand, but I just started full-time at Crunchyroll around the time the show came out, and so I felt this kinship with SHIROBAKO. Like, I’m starting in my professional career, making mistakes; this cast of characters, especially Aoi, they’re starting in their professional careers and are making mistakes. And I just felt a really deep kinship with this thing that I was already predispositioned to like from its concept alone.
AMELIA: I can completely understand that. There’s so few anime that focus on the workplace, I think, and those that do are very often—maybe they are a cast of all female characters or they’re a cast of all male characters, and there’s not a whole lot in the way of adult ensembles like this. So that’s something that I’ve really appreciated about SHIROBAKO so far. And again, I’ve only watched six episodes. I have no idea what’s coming.
One of the things I’m less keen on is probably the character designs, because it seems like SHIROBAKO does a really great job of doing really diverse character designs for the male characters, and then the female characters have all the same body type, the same facial features, and they just… It’s like little Lego mini-figs. They’ve just got different hair on and different clothes.
Where I think proven with the male characters that they can do a really broad range of body types and facial features and use that as a way to express character. And I thought that was a bit of a shame, bit of a missed opportunity. I know that’s a source of criticism for SHIROBAKO in general, is that something that gets leveled at it quite a lot?
MILES: Oh yeah.
AMELIA: [chuckling] Moe sameface.
MILES: I mean, I can jump right into this one too, with the brand, if you’re down.
AMELIA: Please do.
MILES: The whole sameface concept: first of all, it’s not a 100% accurate ’cause if you swapped the faces of the main five girls, I would know.
PETER: You mean without hair or clothes, or—
AMELIA: Eye color.
MILES: Even if you switch the color I would be able to tell, but I am absolutely insane. And I don’t think literally anyone else would, and I would not blame anyone for not. I think it’s really frustrating that you see the five main characters—the five characters we’re supposed to relate to the most and the five characters we follow the most all are… they are at the same time self-insert characters, stock characters both in their personality and their look, and then they’re also not at the same time.
They are some of the most relatable and funny, and maybe that’s because they’re so self-insert-y. It’s just so frustrating that a show has such a rich and diverse cast, with all these different faces. And the character designers, the same one who did The Lost Village, which showed off a bunch of different types of women.
AMELIA: Oh, yeah!
MILES: Those women look different than each other and I don’t… I don’t know what happened here! And one of the only women that has a different body type is Segawa-kun—I mean, Segawa-senpai. The animator who turned you off in the first episode with the breast shot. And her character is, half of it is about the fact that she has large breasts and that’s played up for laughs, or for interest or whatever and like, “Okay that’s the only diversity we’re gonna get?” And again, if we didn’t have all the men, every single one of them having a different body style, it would be a different story, I think.
AMELIA: What do you mean?
MILES: If it didn’t feel like it was just the women getting the treatment of “every woman needs to look the same,” I would be a little less upset about the fact that we didn’t get that life through character design, ’cause character design can do so much to communicate a character’s motivations and personality and where they’re at in their story. And you see that with the men. There’s one character, for example, I don’t wanna spoil anything; whose character type, like body type, changes throughout the show and it’s part of his character arc. And you don’t see that even in the slightest with the women.
AMELIA: No, and I think that one of the things that I find interesting about it is from my perspective—and feel free to challenge me on this—it seemed like it wasn’t just character design in the sense of visuals; it was character design in the sense of temperament as well. There seemed to be less diversity amongst the female characters than amongst the male characters.
So, the female characters have, like, there’s two characters—I think it’s Ogasawara and Okitsu, I think?—they have this kind of cool demeanor. That’s two women in this cast who have the same kind of personality type, and that personality type is not really represented in the male characters that I’ve seen so far.
But the male characters seemed to have more of the freedom to kind of get a bit upset, get a bit angry, get a bit childish, and it doesn’t really affect anything. Whereas the female characters all seem to be the kind of upbeat, positive, optimistic—or on the other hand, the cool characters, and it didn’t seem to have as much for a range. But again, feel free to challenge me on this. Peter, what did you think about that?
PETER: I’ve actually been looking at a side-by-side picture of Aoi and, what’s—Yoshino. And I’ve been trying—
AMELIA: [crosstalk] Studying it.
PETER: I’ve been trying to figure out if I’d be able to tell the difference if I was looking at them without hair color, and I don’t think I could. But one of the things…. I knew a little bit about the series by—I looked it up after watching the first six episodes—was that a lot of the male characters are based on actual animators and directors in the anime industry.
PETER: Kinoshita—actually Tarou as well—I guess is based on the director of SHIROBAKO. Kitano is Itano because they talked about the Kitano Circus, which I kinda like. As an anime industry fan, I definitely understand why Miles likes this show. But I guess I don’t know why they didn’t do that with women, was the issue that… I sort came up with that, that sort of provides an explanation why the women were kind of cartoony and the guys were more diverse, because the guys were based on actual people.
But I feel like they could have done the same thing with a lot of the female characters in the show. Correct me if I wrong, Miles, I don’t know if there were any other female characters or anyone in the building that is based on female animators or directors or anyone else in the industry.
MILES: All the women in the show who are based on real people are, like, one-off characters. So, for example, you see the sound woman, she’s based off a real woman. All the voice actors are based off of real women and in fact, I feel like they show the kind of color and their personality just in the few brief lines that they get that all the male characters in the show seem to.
I think really the big comparison that you can make here in terms of personality types is between the five main girls, Tarou, and a character who appears later who’s like the other Tarou, because those are the characters that are purely fictional. I know that Tarou’s based on the director’s past experiences, but at the same point… At the same time, he’s more of a generic anime character within the world than someone who’s strictly based off of someone from experience.
And the whole “strictly based on someone from experience” thing is actually why I’m a little more forgiving about the women having more similar personalities, because from my conversations with anime production staff and anime producers, I’ve noticed that they feel like they don’t see this gender representation issue when they talk about SHIROBAKO, when I’ve actually brought it up with them.
They see it as a… “These are the type of women who actually can make it in anime, are the ones who are either the cool types or who have more cheery dispositions no matter what, at least on the outside.” It’s definitely a boiled-down look at it. It’s not fair or incredibly representative, but this is kind of reflecting the experiences of the folks who work in anime.
Because up until the last like ten years, women didn’t have as big of a role in anime production as men did. Aside from—like, the coloring department has always been historically female or things like that—with a couple of exceptions, we haven’t seen just this incredible mass of female animators or female directors. That’s been a pretty recent trend, so I think it’s fair that this is being written so much from the perspective of, “Here’s what the anime world was like for me,” and bringing that experience to anime.
AMELIA: I think that’s fair and I think that’s really fascinating that you say, “these are the types of women who can make it in anime,” because there are times when I thought, for example, at the diversity of body type—and at the same time, I remember living in Japan and thinking, “All the women around me seem to conform to a very similar aesthetic,” and that was… I was at university, so everyone was in the height of their conforming stage, I think, in terms of fashion. People really wanted to be fashionable and to be kind of trendy in a particular way.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this image from a university classroom where all the guys are wearing the same kind of checked shirt, taken from a back of the classroom. That is very much what my experiences were like. So, I do sometimes think, “Well, maybe this is actually representative in a certain way?”
I would rather it be more like the male characters. I would rather than it actually reflect a broader range of reality, perhaps, than saying, “Oh well, it can be explained by the fact that all women who make it in anime, they have to be image-conscious and they have to be upbeat, and they have to be kind of cool just to make it.” But at the same time, I can respect the fact that that is rooted in a certain type of reality.
MILES: And then I would also challenge that even just a little bit—
AMELIA: [crosstalk; encouragingly] Okay, do it.
MILES: —‘Cause I do broadly agree with what you’re saying. But the complication there is the age of the characters. Where I would say, if you are in your early 20s in Japan, in business, that’s when you’re required to be upbeat. And because there isn’t a long history of women playing the kind of roles that the main five characters in SHIROBAKO play, with the exception of maybe writing, so Midori or Diesel-chan’s role.
Other than her, women haven’t had a long history of playing those roles. So it makes sense for them to all have to follow—“have to follow”—these traits to succeed in the anime industry, and it’s true of the men as well. We just don’t see very many young men, except for [heavy sigh] the one we’ll probably spend a lot of time talking about later.
AMELIA: Well, let’s… let’s get straight to that. Let’s talk about Tarou, because I think you’re right. He’s a really big topic for discussion, especially on a feminist podcast. I mean you said that he’s based on the director’s previous self, is that right?
MILES: More or less.
AMELIA: Okay, so that might explain why it’s quite so unflattering. He is just so obnoxious, and so difficult to work with and so awful on every level. I can’t understand yet how I am expected to empathize with this person. Even within 24 episodes. Peter, what was your impression of him?
PETER: Uhhhhhhh, I really… There was one, I remember one episode title, where it was just like, “If you can’t do something, you should quit,” where I was hoping that was the episode where Tarou gets fired or something. I guess the idea was, the director said when he started out he was an asshole who didn’t actually know anything but thought he was great. And I’m definitely seeing that, but… Yeah, I really want terrible things to happen to him, I guess.
AMELIA: Yeah, he seems to embody a lot of negative traits typically associated with masculinity, so the idea that he is trying to get Aoi to set him up with her friends, to send him photos of them because they’re cute and one of them could be his future girlfriend or wife; and hiding his problems from people out of pride until they’re almost too big to fix; and just absolutely refusing to let other people help him.
Even though within the six episodes, the point is made very clearly to Aoi that this is a collaborative effort, anime requires teamwork. And Tarou is not on that page, ’cause he’s saying, “This is my problem and I need to deal with it.”
Hence causing problems that everybody else—particularly Aoi, who on her day off gets this call from him acting really affronted that she’s unavailable to help him on her day off to fix a mistake that he made. And he just greets her with: “Oh, I don’t like girls who drink.”
I found him so frustrating in every possible way, but it is a lot of really kind of negative traits associated with masculinity. And if the director’s looking back or remembering how he used to be in his early 20s, I guess I can understand where that’s coming from.
PETER: Yeah, it’s a good thing that he has…What do you call it? The introspective ability to realize that he used to be awful and was also able to fix that aspect of himself.
AMELIA: Well, yeah, good for him. But at the same—
PETER: [chuckling] I’m assuming he’s better now. I hope he’s better now. I don’t know that the director too much by his reputation.
AMELIA: [laughs] Let’s hope he’s better now. Peter, you told me over message that you thought it was quite interesting because he was potentially making the point that the women in the cast—so, he’s a production assistant in the cast. So is Aoi, so is Erika. And he is nowhere near as competent as either of them, but he doesn’t get fired, he doesn’t seem to suffer too badly when he does make mistakes. It’s just other people rally around and fix them for him. How did that feel to you watching that?
PETER: Just every interaction she had with him, I remember that line about women having to work twice as hard to get the same amount of recognition in the workplace. And I think, with the issue in episode six, she literally resolves it for him and then he… Well, first of all, the thing goes bad, and he says, “This is your fault as well,” and he starts off at 50% or whatever; and then when it’s fixed, he takes credit for that as well. I don’t think anybody really believes him, but he thinks—
AMELIA: [crosstalk] But he keeps his job!
PETER: Yeah, yeah, and he didn’t get in trouble at all. I guess—ugh, I can’t remember the guy’s name, the one who’s always wearing the sweater over his shoulders.
AMELIA: Uh, Honda?
PETER: Honda, yes, kinda criticizes him really quick but goes: “Well, whatever, let’s fix this.” I guess he was busy locking that guy in a cage. If it was done from that perspective, I would almost say that it’s really good. I don’t think that the character… Tarou himself is bad, but I don’t think putting that character in the show is bad, especially if it was done with the intention of showing that they have to be really working hard to kind of make themselves get noticed?
AMELIA: Miles, how do you feel about Tarou as a character?
MILES: I mean, I think he serves the role of what Mishima really was looking for in the series, which was to share his own personal experiences of the anime industry. And I think that that’s honestly where a lot of the relevant feminist critiques come from; which is, this is very much a man’s experience in the man’s world. Which I tend to be a little less critical of. But then it has way too many moments—and I’m speaking broadly about SHIROBAKO—way too many moments where it’s kind of enjoying that fact a little too much.
I don’t think Tarou is one of the moments where it’s enjoying the fact that it’s a man’s perspective of “a man’s world.” And again, there have long and forever been incredible women working in anime. But just broadly, this feels very Japanese business-y to me? Not even anime-specific. Seeing a young man continue to fail and take credit for other work and even though he’s not advancing necessarily, he still doesn’t get dismissed in any reasonable way when he says, “Oh I’m gonna be a director one day,” and he doesn’t get fired. That part is really just because you don’t really fire folks in Japanese business, that’s just not the process or the way that issues are resolved.
Should he get fired? Oh, absolutely. But one thing that I like about Tarou is we don’t get insufferable characters like him very frequently—that are just purely insufferable but not inherently bad people, but just are really awful to other people in their daily interactions. It’s just, he’s so self-absorbed he can’t realize how miserable of a human being he is. And so, I really like that?
There was one point I really wanted to make about Tarou. Okay here’s the question. Men tend to get redemption arcs in stories like this. Since neither of you have gotten ahead, do you think Tarou is gonna get redeemed?
AMELIA: Hmm…[deflecting] Peter, you go first.
PETER: I actually got a bit of a spoiler around this, yelling to Nate about it.
AMELIA: [crosstalk] Oh no!
PETER: So, I’m not sure if I should say anything.
AMELIA: Yeah, don’t say anything. I haven’t got a clue, so let me take a guess. Umm… I don’t think he will get redeemed. I think that there may be a period of introspection or reflection where he has to really consider if he can continue going as he is, but then I think he will actually continue how he is, maybe slightly more mature, but I don’t think you go as far as to call it redemption. Have either of you seen Mad Men?
PETER: Mad Men. Uh, no, I just know the memes.
MILES: [crosstalk] I have.
AMELIA: You have.
AMELIA: Okay. He reminds me a bit of Pete Campbell from Mad Men, where I think that there may be—
AMELIA: There may be times when he does think about his actions or where he is worried about consequences, but ultimately he’s gonna end up just being the same person and progressing as successfully as you might expect from someone in his position. So no, I don’t think he’s going to be redeemed.
PETER: So, he realizes he’s a bad person. But then at the end of the day, that’s the only way he knows how to live? That kind of thing.
AMELIA: I don’t think it’s realizing anything like that. I think there might be a time where he genuinely risks getting, not necessarily fired, but really risks getting disciplined or demoted or anything like that, and that really forces him to consider. Or he has, I don’t know, a frank conversation with Aoi where she really dresses him down and says, “Do you realize what you’re doing here?” And he actually takes it in for some reason.
Things would have had to have progressed to get to that point because he’s not at all introspective at the moment and he’s completely oblivious even when Aoi is really blunt with him. So yeah, I don’t know what character development lies ahead for him, but I don’t think he’s gonna end this series as like, some noble virtuous young man supportive of the people around him.
PETER: That is something I’m actually pretty interested in: whether or not… how the recognition sort of works out as the series progresses? Whether he and Aoi keep abreast of each other, or she starts pulling ahead ’cause she’s more genuine and hard-working. So, the relative levels of success when the amount of effort they’re putting in is obviously so unequal.
AMELIA: Okay, one thing I really like about SHIROBAKO is the fact that there are so many supportive friendships between the women, and that’s in the workplace and that’s the five school friends. So I really, really appreciate that they’ve actually got that aspect. There’s no kind of catty senpai who’s trying to crush the kohai beneath her heel or anything like that. It’s—
MILES: [ominous laugh]
AMELIA: …Or not so far, anyway, I don’t know, but so far it seems like Erika’s really looking out for Aoi. I get the impression that she’s maybe been in the job slightly longer—I could be wrong on that, they may have started at the same time—but she’s kind of protective and makes sure that Aoi has the space to do her job properly and really pushes her to do her job properly and reminds her when she needs kind of nudging on certain things. Aoi is perfectly competent, but that kind of support seems to go a long way.
And then outside the workplace when the five school friends all met up for a drink, I absolutely loved that scene, that whole thing. And like, Shizuka had just done quite badly at an audition and she was totally fine, and so she started drinking and then it all came out, and I so identified with that moment in particular. And she was just kind of surrounded by people who are saying, “It’s okay, you’ll be fine. The next time you’ll completely smash it. You’ll do a great job, you’re so talented.”
And I… That’s a kind of female friendship that I think anime is often better for than Western live-action television. I think it’s really, really nice to see. I just wish there were more anime that showed that kind of friendship amongst adult women. I think we don’t really see that a lot.
MILES: No, no. And honestly, that was one of my favorite parts of the show from the very earliest stages, because so many anime series that are about supporting your friends are kind of in the shounen tradition. That’s where the friendship is so important and where working together for a greater cause or “we all wanna reach our dreams!” is… in anime, it’s associated so strongly with male characters or series aimed at young boys.
And as someone who has the heart of a young boy, I really love that element of SHIROBAKO. To see different kinds of characters have dreams that they felt with the conviction of Naruto wanting to be Hokage, right? That was just…
And then in later episodes of this podcast, we’re gonna get real into it. The way that these women support each other is just… Yeah, I don’t see this in Western media. I don’t see that kind of really just deep understanding and support system play out among women without even calling to the fact that, “Oh wow, girl power!” or “We’re women helping women.” Like, that kind of perspective isn’t… It’s just so natural for, “Of course we’re gonna help each other out.” And I really liked that.
PETER: I think one of the strengths of the series is the cathartic moments that it has. Like that one, when they were drinking after work. Also when they went to the… was it the art show regarding?—I don’t remember what they called that.
PETER: Idepon? Yeah, yeah, and that’s actually another thing I sort of… The two ideas tie together. How they discuss some current things that were going on in the industry, like how 2D animators feel about the rise of 3D, and how anime is just like exploding and more and more anime is being made every year, that kind of thing. But then the way they kind of got back together by realizing they were both huge fans of Idepon.
A lot of characters have those moments where they sort of remember why they got into the industry and why they were so passionate about it. Usually it’s some anime that they watched when they were a kid that really inspired them. As someone… I guess anyone who’s a real big anime fan or works in the anime industry, they can probably really appreciate that. And I think those moments were really done well. I was just like, “Yes, that’s so true.”
AMELIA: I really love the glimpses that we got of the film that they made.
AMELIA: It was so sweet. I didn’t really realize at the time, but when they actually screen part of it and the character designs were so simple and all of the characters were voiced by the girls? I hadn’t expected that and it was just this really sweet little touch that… “Oh, they really did everything. They didn’t have any outside help at all, they just made this entire project from scratch.”
And they didn’t even get a round of applause at the end of its screening or anything like that. People just assume, “Oh okay, that’s good enough.” They didn’t recognize the amount of work that went into it, but they loved it anyway and that was… I thought that was a beautiful moment. When Shizuka was having this time of doubt, and she watches this film again and she tries to recapture that feeling about it.
PETER: Yeah. Another thing I liked as well was that—I didn’t know this ’cause all I’d seen was key art and stuff like that, that has all the main girls together, so I assumed it was gonna be some sort of magical all-female workplace kind of like Lucky Star or, to a lesser extent, Sakura Quest. Where, I don’t know… just to be representative of the anime industry, I felt like if it was just those girls working together in a single office with no men, I thought that would be kind of weird. I knew there were men that worked around them, but I thought they were like the core team.
And I really like what they did instead, was they spread them out across different areas of the industry and different levels of progress. So like, the 3D animator’s still going to college and then the voice actress is applying to a bunch of different studios. ‘Cause a lot of them couldn’t conceivably work together just the way the industry is put together. Like, as a voice actor, you go around a lot; as a production assistant, you kind of work, usually I guess for single studio, I believe.
MILES: That’s basically the only job in the industry where you’re working for a single studio. So they couldn’t all be at the same studio.
PETER: Yeah, and I like that a lot more ’cause it’s… They remain friends that are all super-passionate about it and they meet up afterward and they help each other out, but they’re all working in different sectors and are at different points in their career; which seems way more realistic, and I think it provides a better opportunity for story, too. So I was really impressed by that when compared to a show—I mean I liked… did I say Lucky Star earlier? it was New Game. I always confuse [indistinct].
Yeah, yeah, New Game, where… I mean, ot’s a funny show, but the all-female workplace, I… have trouble. I mean, if there is a gaming company in Japan that’s 100% women, correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems just not very representative.
AMELIA: Yeah, I don’t think it exists. I think the commentary around New Game at the time was that the experiences were true-to-life, but the context was not.
PETER: Yeah, and it’s like the reason that all those women are together is because it’ll be cuter that way.
AMELIA: Yes, exactly. Whereas it really doesn’t feel like that… for all I said earlier about the lack of diversity in character design compared to the male characters, like there is so clearly a difference in experience between the different characters. And that kind of mentoring relationship between various of them.
And again, another thing that I really appreciated, you’ve got Emma, who is… she clearly has such self-doubt about her abilities and such respect for the people around her that when those people reach out to her and say, “It’s okay, you can help”—or when she’s observing, and she’s just able to learn—that’s something that I really respect about it.
I’d like to see more from Emma’s development. Right now I find her a bit challenging as a character. I think she’s so reserved and so self-doubting. I’d really like to see her progress and build up some confidence in herself. I’m assuming we’ll get that in the next…. however many episodes, 18 episodes.
PETER: By the way, is that a thing, like a stereotype in Japan, where if you’re a character animator, you like to dress like a loligoth?
MILES: That will actually get a really good explanation, which makes—
PETER: [unconvinced] Oh, really.
MILES: So when we’re at the first six episodes of the series, I was rolling my eyes at that in the same way that I rolled my eyes at the first visual I saw of SHIROBAKO with all of the girls in swimsuits. I’m like, “Oh okay, let’s just… Here’s more fetish bait, here’s more”… this show does a lot, in really subtle ways, to kind of play up the male gaze in ways that the show was so above in so many other places.
Honestly, that’s why I hate… I, one time, documented every time the show was uncharacteristically fanservicey, and there’s like fifteen moments throughout all 24 episodes that I had. I’m like, “What are you doing? You’re taking away from the importance of this great show.” Which is maybe me putting too much importance on the show, I don’t know. And definitely coming from a Western coastal perspective, for sure.
She was one of them originally. And then I watched more. And when we get the explanation of why she dresses like that, it actually is one of the most validating, wonderful feminist things in the show, is her wearing the Gothic Lolita outfit. [indistinct]
PETER: [crosstalk; laughing] All right.
AMELIA: [crosstalk] I’ll take your word for now. I’m gonna stay a bit skeptical.
MILES: Please do.
PETER: [crosstalk] Just hold up that moment.
AMELIA: I’m quite wary of shows that justify their audience-pandering decisions, but we’ll see.
MILES: As you should be.
AMELIA: We’ll see when we get there. I think the only character then who is gonna continue to be a frustration for me at that level then is Segawa, who… she has this big chest, they draw attention to it. I didn’t actually notice it. It’s not in-your-face huge, and she’s not wearing particularly revealing clothes when we meet her or at any point since I’ve seen her. But they draw attention to it with the camera; with Aoi’s eyes; later on when they talk about her in conversation.
There’s like three moments in the first episode or so where they just make sure that you’re really, really aware that Segawa has a big chest even though she’s this really accomplished animator. And the fact that… that kind of obscures what I think is the more interesting story about her, which is this relationship she seems to have with Endo.
I have no idea what happened there, and I’m so keen to find out more. They seem to be sort of rivals, but that doesn’t seem to quite describe it. It’s like they rate and respect each other, but also don’t? I’m really intrigued, I have no idea what the situation is there and I want to know more, but instead we just get all this time wasted on her chest.
PETER: Well the thing that I got from Endo is, I don’t know if she really considers him… She seems to respect him, I feel like he is just a very competitive type and feels threatened by other animators and really maybe is less secure with his own art than he lets on.
Because the 3D thing—the 3D subplot with the explosions that they didn’t know whether they wanted to make 2D or 3D—and at several times somebody goes, like, “Well what’s the problem with her art?” And he’s forced to say, “There’s no problem, it’s just kind of realistic and I don’t like that.” I guess they’ve worked closely together previously, but I don’t know if I really got a sense of rivalry out of it. I think he’s just insecure.
AMELIA: I think somebody else says the word “rivalry” at one point, which is where I got it from, because I didn’t pick up on that either until… I think someone says it? But either way, they have quite an interesting and unusual relationship between a male and a female character for sure on this show, and I’m very intrigued to see where that goes. And I wish they hadn’t spent so much time on her chest then, that’s all.
MILES: We’ve got 24 episodes for that. And I’m not really interested in defending [the stuff about her chest], even with “Oh, but this is a realistic depi—!” No, I don’t. I mean, here’s the thing, like I have heard conversations similar to that of Japanese workplaces before. It is kind of uncomfortable how frequently people’s physical characteristics like that are discussed in the workplace. But not everything needs to make it into the anime and that certainly… “distracting” is the nicest thing you can say about it.
AMELIA: [crosstalk] There’s this great line: “Reality is no defense for fiction.” Just because something is real does not mean that it will make your story any better for being included. It has to serve the story, and that is something that just doesn’t serve the story from what I’ve seen so far.
PETER: I remember they do something similar with Kinoshita where he gets into it with that other guy about the air conditioner, but then it just turns into the other guy repeatedly calling him fat basically, and I guess he… I don’t know, that’s kind of a joke that goes around the character; like, he talks about how he lost weight and then his fried chicken’s done.
MILES: That actually ends up being a little more relevant within the story, not that I… I’m not keen on defending that.
PETER: [crosstalk] I mean I do know that’s more common in Asian cultures. I guess that’s kind of par for the course. In Korea, it’s almost the expectation if you’re overweight people are gonna make jokes out of it. The idea is, I guess, to encourage you to lose weight, but it’s more culturally accepted, but it’s still kind of… it’s sort of on the same trajectory, I guess.
So another thing I wanted to bring up about the series that I really liked was Marikawa, and I don’t know if this is supposed to be an accurate depiction. He’s based on Masao Maruyama, who was president of MADHOUSE and now MAPPA. And I don’t know if this is supposed to specifically represent his style of being the head of an animation studio or maybe a greater context about the president of anime studios, but I like that he is just this very supportive personality that sort of comes in to rally the troops from time to time [and] who spends most of his day cooking. And it’s something that’s very noticeable, but the characters themselves don’t make a big deal out of it.
I don’t know, I really think that’s sort of a charming aspect of the series. I’m really curious if Maruyama actually does that. I feel like it’s a very atypical role for a male character to take.
AMELIA: That’s true, that’s true. I found that… not him, but the director reminded me a lot of the chief, the department chief from Planetes. You haven’t seen this yet, have you, Peter?
PETER: I read the first omnibus.
AMELIA: No, he doesn’t exist in that.
AMELIA: Yeah, he’s this kind of bumbling sort of character. He really reminded me of him, but at the same time he’s clearly got this instinct of what is artistic and what they really can achieve. And yet he ends up being dressed up as this kind of manbaby. And I thought that was a bit of a shame. I feel like… Is this again the director presenting his unflattering self-image?
MILES: There’s a bit of that, for sure. I think that also this ties me into something that I really was frustrated with about the series is: almost all of the men in this show have some sort of major character flaw. So, we’ve got the director who’s, y’know, super whiny. We’ve got Tarou, who’s Tarou. We’ve got that other animator, what’s his name—
MILES: —Kisa, who is biking instead of finishing his key frames. We have all these men who have all these pretty significant flaws and all of the women are… have a baseline competence. And I was kind of frustrated to not see any of the women get that, especially in the first six episodes, get that kind of depth of, “Oh, they are having problems happen to them because of their personal mistakes.” It’s only the men who are not only allowed to have those— [indistinct]
AMELIA: This kind of ties in with what I was saying earlier about how there’s more diversity of temperament amongst the men. It feels like the spectrum of temperamental personality for women—like it starts off reasonably positive and it just gets more positive, whereas men have the full spectrum of positive to negative character traits.
But at the same time, is that just to demonstrate that women—as we were talking about the character designs for body type, for being upbeat and for being cool—and is this just the way that women have to be in the workplace to do as well as these men who are throwing tantrums?
MILES: I don’t… [distressed] Ahh, man. Yeah, probably.
MILES: That’s so frustrating. [laughs] Ughhh.
AMELIA: Gotta be consistent. If that’s gonna apply to one area of it, it’s got to apply to all of it.
MILES: No, you’re absolutely right. That’s frustrating, though. [laughs]
PETER: I definitely feel like… flaws like Endo’s I feel are very narratively useful because they can highlight some of these divisions within the industry itself and the competitive—if there is a hugely competitive scene among key frame animators, regarding their different styles and who gets what jobs and that kind of thing. But yeah, a lot of them just seem to be for the purpose of gags, and there’s a lot of—what do they call that?—narrative inequality in how they’re approached. I think Endo’s a really valuable character with his very distinct flaws but a lot of them are just like, for goofs.
AMELIA: Endo is probably the character I find most interesting at this point. And Segawa as well, but she’s had less screen time. But I find him the most interesting character; like when he’s on screen, I want to know what’s gonna happen next. Peter, who’s your—the character you find the most interesting at this stage?
PETER: I might have to go with Endo. It might just be because they… He’s been at least tangentially related, usually a primary character, in three different subplots so far: the 2D to 3D one, the one where they needed the extra key frames done early on and he refused to do it. So it seems like he’s always very important to each of those plots.
So it might just, until the story starts moving into different directions—I don’t know, unless that keeps happening to him—I felt like I’ve had more of an opportunity to see a lot of his character and his drawbacks and he got a whole character resolution when he makes up with… I can’t remember the 3D animator’s name.
AMELIA: No, I haven’t got a clue.
PETER: And I feel like he’s probably one of the most realistic people so far, because he’s both straddling that line of having distinct character flaws without being cartoonish, and we’ve also had insight into his personal life at home with his wife. So just because of… Maybe it’s just the amount of screen time that he’s gotten, but so far, I think I’ve been most interested in the plots surrounding him.
AMELIA: I don’t think it’s just screentime, though… I think they’ve really handled them well as a character, especially in such a massive ensemble. It really frustrated me in episode one, when they introduced each character with their name and job title and that’s something that I have a real bugbear about. When you see names on screen and when that’s your way of introducing a character to me, it feels like that’s just lazy. I feel like if you’re telling a story, you’re introducing a character, you should introduce a character and not just slap their name on the screen and call it a day.
However, since the episodes are continued and they’ve continued to do that I’ve been really grateful for it, because I haven’t got a clue who anyone is because it’s such a big cast. So, actually having that reminder of “this is their name and this is their job,” that’s actually been invaluable. And I can see it seemed like it was just the same as other anime which are, I think, giving lazy introductions for their characters by putting the names on screen. But here it’s actually a tool so that you can track what’s going on. So yeah, that’s something that I have turned around on, I think.
PETER: Yeah, definitely, it was very… I have that problem with character introductions a lot too, but in this, I almost feel like it is a tool that you can use when it’s necessary. And this is one of those shows where it’s absolutely justified.
AMELIA: Yeah, definitely.
PETER: And they realize there’s a huge cast and all of them have very specific jobs, and even more towards the beginning—like, I had no idea what was going on even though I’ve done some research into this process before. Y’know, like how anime is made. And they’re introducing it pretty well. ‘Cause I feel like I’ve got a much better handle on it six episodes in; the very minute details of their different jobs.
But the way all of that’s consolidated into you gaining an understanding of it, I feel, is really well-handled. And one of the aspects of that, I guess, was just constantly reminding you what everybody’s name and job title is, ’cause that’s probably something you’d have to keep track of, being in the anime industry.
AMELIA: Miles, how realistic is SHIROBAKO? I know you get asked this a lot, but just for our readers who aren’t on Twitter.
MILES: I first have to say that I have not… Yeah, no, it is because there’s a couple of things I have to say first, which is one: my day job is, I do marketing at Crunchyroll, which is the biggest international anime distribution company, so I don’t work on the business—I only work on the business side of anime, I don’t work on the production side of anime.
And even on the business side of anime, the people I talk to most in anime are either producers or sales agents. So I’m talking to people who are selling the product to TV stations in Asia, and then they also sell to my—the company I work for. Or I’ll talk to a producer who will, like Nabe-P in SHIROBAKO. We haven’t seen much because he’s not really involved in the day-to-day of the production necessarily.
That can certainly change depending on the producer, but I love talking to producers about it and saying, like, “Oh, this producer said, ‘All producer should do this’” and then bringing that to another producer and them saying, “No, of course, I get involved with my anime! Of course, I’m there on the day-to-day.”
Anime industry is different enough that it’s hard to say, “Oh, this is a realistic…” Even if they were a 100% realistic depiction of Mizushima’s life, it would not be accurate because anime is so big and broad. And so folks try and think of anime as a monolith, and “Oh, every studio works in the same way and every anime makes its money in the same way and every anime production looks the same,” and there’s just no truth to that.
But every producer I’ve talked to about SHIROBAKO says that it is, it is representative in some ways, but more than representative, it is accurate. It is a very accurate story. I would not say if you watch SHIROBAKO, you understand how the anime industry works. I would not say you can use SHIROBAKO as an example of how the production process goes. But you can use it as a single starting-off point or single story to begin your investigation.
I mean, like I said, I watched the two-hour documentary on Miss Hokusai last night and that production looked nothing like SHIROBAKO, except the director spent six months being depressed, so he didn’t finish the storyboards. [laughs] And I’m like—
AMELIA: Oh nooo.
MILES: “Oh, that’s SHIROBAKO, right?”
MILES: It’s a little different here ’cause the anime that they’re working on is an original. And in Miss Hokusai, the reason the director had such a hard time finishing the storyboards was because he was so depressed at how good the manga was, and he never thought he could make storyboards that did it justice. It was so depressing. One of my friends was watching with me and he said, “I’m never pirating anime again after watching this movie.”
PETER: It’s very, like, Van Gogh.
AMELIA; I think that gives our readers and listeners a kind of good idea of where we stand in these first six episodes. Looking ahead slightly, where do you want to see it go from here? Peter, what are your hopes for the next six episodes?
PETER: Just the next six?
AMELIA: Just the next six for now. Or all of them.
PETER: I guess I’d like to see them start getting more focused on different areas of the office outside, or maybe just different departments… ‘Cause I know they go—she’s talked to the people over at coloring, like two or three times, but we really haven’t gotten a good glimpse into that.
I would really like to see—I don’t know if it’ll happen necessarily—but the disparity in the amount of effort between… ’cause I think of Aoi and Tarou, I don’t know if they’ve been working there about the same amount of time. I get that sense though. Or maybe he’s been there like maybe for an extra show or something. But I’d like to see the amount of effort and honesty that they’re putting in, people start to notice and maybe give her some extra recognition, at the very least.
And I guess it’s really hard to say what I’d like to get out of the rest of the series. I guess just in general, I’d like to see more ridiculous anime references like Initial D, with the car chase scene.
And I just, I hope that they keep doing this sort of deep dive into how anime is made, whether or not it’s representative of one studio or another; just generally, I guess. Yeah, I like what they’re doing so far and I wanna see them focus on a broader cast and maybe some of the differences between the characters start getting recognized rather than just swept under the rug as goofy narrative points.
AMELIA: Yup, makes perfect sense. I mean, these first six episodes have been really fast-paced, I think. So it feels like we almost haven’t had time to really focus in on any of the characters. Even Aoi, who’s our emotional heart at this point. She’s still, she’s so busy, we just see her being really busy a lot of the time, we don’t really get a sense of her yet, I think. We kind of see her in work mode a lot, but we haven’t really…
It just showed up that she doesn’t really have a particular specific ambition that she’s been working towards; she just wanted to work in anime, from what I could tell. Whereas it took her friends introducing to her the idea that she could become a producer, that actually gave her that potential for an ambition there. She—it’s almost like she hasn’t even had time to really reflect on her experiences and reflect on her place in the industry. So, we’ve got absolutely no chance of doing that.
Yeah, I’m completely with you. I’d like to see more of the characters fleshed out, particularly the five school friends. I think that we haven’t seen enough of them yet, we’ve only got a glimpse of—even Emma, who works in the same studio, we haven’t really seen her properly yet. I think we haven’t really seen her animating even very much. Whereas the other three, we’ve seen Shizuka at her voice audition and the other two barely seen at all. So it’d be really nice to build it up as an ensemble of that central five and get a better sense of how they fit together.
MILES: You’re gonna love this show.
PETER: All our wishes will be granted, apparently.
AMELIA: Yeah, I think the other thing that I really want to see is Tarou being taken down a peg or two. I really wanna see that, but I’m not too hopeful that that’ll happen in the next six episodes, if at all. So that’s kind of on my wish list, but I’m not hugely expecting it.
I think that will become a point where he does get a bit more focus and where he does have some kind of character development; whether it’s character growth, I don’t think I’d say that. But I think he’s gonna get an episode where we really do focus on his character. And I think that’ll be really interesting to see, ’cause right now I have no empathy at all for this guy who’s making Aoi’s life so difficult.
PETER: [crosstalk] And sabotaging the production.
AMELIA: Yeahhhh. Yeah. Aoi’s probably my favorite character so far. I think she’s set up to be. That’s a very easy decision to make. But also, I’ve worked as an assistant. Not in anime production, but I’ve worked as an assistant and I’ve kind of been through the thought processes that she goes through, where she’s just trying to keep track of all her work and try not to let anyone down, and I really absolutely identify with that.
And I think a lot of people who’ve had kind of entry-level office jobs will see themselves in her and see her progress mirroring progress that they had in their early days of work. So, I’m really frustrated with Tarou for causing problems with that.
PETER: It’s That Guy in the office. We all know him.
AMELIA: He’s That Guy, exactly, and I’ve totally worked with that guy.
Miles, anything about our discussion today? Has anything surprised you or is it pretty much in line with what you expected from us?
MILES: Getting caught in my own contradiction was pretty funny.
MILES: Because I definitely come from the angle of defending the show, because this is based in realism. Not that—some of the diversity of female characters, because so many of the characters are based off of real people. I was really… I was upset about it, but I was a little more understanding than maybe I should be. But then also when I was saying… “But none of the women have issues or make mistakes!” and then I’m like, “Well, those two things are completely intertwined.”
MILES: And that’s kind of like the messiness of the series, because it does such a great job of showing the positive elements of female relationships and still has issues. But I never throw the baby out with the bath water.
AMELIA: And there’s been enough here to convince me that watching past that first ten minutes was probably a good idea. So that’s something, at least. Yeah, I really was getting into it, I think from the—
MILES: [crosstalk] Hell yeah!
AMELIA: From maybe the third episode on… Honestly, the first couple of episodes, I did struggle a bit. But from about the third episode onwards, I started just falling into the momentum of the anime production process, I think. And at this point, yeah, I’m really looking forward to watching the next six episodes.
So, thank you so much for joining us. Miles and Peter, thank you for joining me in this watchalong. We’re gonna do the next six episodes, episodes seven to twelve.
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Thank you again to Peter and Miles and we’ll be back with episodes seven to twelve.
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