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In which I find a structural similarity between the still fabulous Shirobako and The West Wing.

Wait, what, The West Wing? Really?

Really.

Start In Medias Res, then move on to the beginning

The West Wing starts during the Bartlett administration with most of the cast in set roles[1]. The West Wing continues with the story of the Bartlett administration before[2] shifting to the Santos campaign. It is in this phase of The West Wing that we see several characters take on new roles that they’ve never dealt with before[3].

This is an overarching structure that shows the passage of time, the passing of an old guard, and the rising of the new. It also allows the The West Wing to tell new stories, and stories about characters out of their comfort zones.

Albeit on a much smaller scale, Shirobako is doing the same in its second cour and it has been beautiful to watch. This particularly true of episode 19 Did You Catch Any? 

Shirobako’s In Medias Res.

The first episode of Shirobako, Exodus to Tomorrow! started[4] during the production of the eponymous Show Within The Show. Even as the first episode was about to Air, Aoi is out and about chasing down key animators for the fourth episode.  It got the story moving[5] and was well suited to Aoi’s role as a newby production assistant.

The remaining episodes of the first cour pushed Aoi to grow, but still within the boundaries of her initial role as a production assistant.

Aoi is an engaging character throughout, and the moment in episode 12 Exodus Christmas when Aoi is handed the shirobako[6] containing episode 13 of Exodus feels like a major triumph. The timing of it for Christmas is a nice touch given what comes next.

Move on to the beginning

In the new year Musashino Animation receives the rights to produce the anime adaptation of the wildly popular Third Aerial Girls Squad manga. A new year, a new series, and a new type of series with different production challenges.

Alas episode 13 What Kind of Cloud Do You Like? reveals, Musashino Animation’s staff is somewhat …depleted at the moment.

The line producer Shun Watanabe then makes the decision that Aoi should now be running the production desk.

Given the alternative[7], this is a no brainer.

It still takes Aoi by surprise, and also catapults Aoi into the full on scheduling of the entire production, as well as all of the pre-production meetings.

This is her Santos campaign moment, the one where Aoi finds herself in a new role having to meet new challenges.

Aoi is not the only one, there are several other characters changing roles within Musani[8], sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not.

It is worth mentioning that Aoi ends up with a couple of junior production assistants who rapidly become more useful than Tarou, albeit with some problems that she has to work them through. 🙂

Anime originals vs adaptations

Exodus was an anime original. Third Aerial Girls Squad is a manga adaptation and brings with it a whole new world of pain for Musani in general, and Aoi in particular.

The two biggest issues Musani need to address are approval of the character designs, and how closely to follow the manga’s plot.

The manga’s unfinished plot.

Getting the character designs approved is a “funny story”[9] that isn’t resolved until episode 16 Table Flip, and one that ratchets up the tension levels nicely. The necessary rework and other issues have been stressing poor Aoi out nicely.

The issues of the manga’s plot, and whether Musani will be forced into the dreaded outcome of inventing its own finale hasn’t been addressed yet. I’m expecting that timebomb to go off any episode now.

Overall the beginning of the production has been a fabulous showcase for challenging Aoi, and seeing her develop into her new role, even as she remains personally uncertain of her future. There are just two episodes that I really want to talk about in some detail now.

The Ruthless Audition Meeting

12 hours of actual auditions? Ye Gods.

12 hours of actual auditions? Ye Gods.

Along the way Shirobako has tackled several other aspect of anime production – backgrounds, research, and the selection of voice actresses.

Oh my. The selection of voice actresses in episode 14 The Ruthless Audition Meeting! Bears special mention. The episode is dominated by a Casting Committee meeting that has various staffers pushing one-note agendas: experience, popularity, singing ability, physical appearance[10] etc. I don’t have a link handy, but I heard that this was basically recorded ad lib, and then animated to match[11].

This scene is raw, and quite uncomfortable to watch in places, especially when Zuka-chan comes so close to getting picked.

Then it gets worse. For a variety of reasons 4 of the 5 main characters are now working on Third Aerial Girls Squad. Zuka-chan is the only one who isn’t and the expressions on their faces when they realise are almost heartbreaking.

Well. That's awkward.

Well. That’s awkward.

Watching Zuka work past it and smile a moment later is heartbreaking. You can see it of the faces of the others as Zuka is talking and convincing herself that her day will come. They’re just not buying what Zuka is selling.

Not buying it, and their hearts are breaking.

Not buying it, and their hearts are breaking.

There’s a vague hope that Zuka-chan will get called in later, but it hasn’t happened yet[12].

Did You Catch Any?

Episode 19 Did You Catch Any? Is simply beautiful. It comes at a moment when the production is getting horribly crunched, and Aoi is starting to panic.

Enter the president Masato Marukawa. The president has been a fairly gentle sort all along, but hasn’t really made much of an impression. This episode combines a flashback to a previous incarnation of Musani with that gentle nudge that puts Aoi back on track, and rekindles her dreams to produce an anime of her own.

There’s a lot more going on in this episode, including the return of Yano, but Aoi’s personal crisis is the heart of this episode, and Marukawa-san’s intervention is just fabulous.

The Continuing Verdict

Watch Shirobako. There’s actually even more going on than I’ve written about but this is already a long post, and I don’t want to bore you too much.

The new OP may not be a patch on Colourful Box but everything else about this show is simply getting better as it goes along. At this point I’m really hoping for a second season. In the meantime here is the new OP with footage carefully tied to Third Aerial Girls Squad.

My only real complaint is not enough Zuka-chan. I really want her to succeed, and we’re running out of episodes for that to happen in.

[1] Charlie Young is the biggest exception in this.

[2] This takes 5 seasons (give or take) but The West Wing is a much bigger show than Shirobako.

[3] Donna Moss’ growth and changing role during these seasons is a particular favourite but there are others.

[4] There is the prologue at high school but that’s not where the story really starts.

[5] Literally given that drag racing sequence against the Production I.GG, er, G.I. Staff’s production assistant…

[6] White Box

[7] Tarou.

[8] Musani is an alternative hashtag being used on twitter for Shirobako. The derivation, or rather abbreviation, of Musashino Animation should be obvious.

[9] Not really. It’s the catchphrase of a character who is challenging Tarou for the title of “Most Hated Shirobako Character”.

[10] And for exactly the wrong reasons that you expect.

[11] If you do have a link with substantiation, please leave a comment and I’ll edit it in.

[12] If Zuka-chan does get called in to Third Aerial Girls Squad at the last minute I predict that a mighty cheer will echo around anitwitter and the aniblogs.