I shoulda known. Japanese animation studios are the same as any other Japanese company–filled with stupid politics, inefficiencies, and people who stay around until the wee hours of the night. Shiro Bako is a pretty accurate description of Japanese professional life in animated form, and boy is it heavy with all of the anguish that entails.
These Characters Need to Eat
After the opening segment with smokescreen moe antics of girls in their high school animation club, the scene that immediately follows puts our intrepid Miyamori-san at a red light during a late-night genga run. As she waits at the wheel with dead eyes, she catches sight of one of Japan’s ubiquitous 24-hour beef bowl joints, and just can’t help but express her desire to dig into its (likely under-500-yen) glory. The look of hunger on her face shot me through the heart. Flash forward to episode four, and immediately after an establishing shot of Miyamori’s rundown apartment, it cuts to the inside of her microwave, where a 398 yen bento is in the process of being warmed up. First thing I think: “Straight to the conbini, straight home, and straight into the denshi renji? Been there.” Second thing I think: “If only you got home earlier, you coulda got the cheaper bentos at your local super market right before it closed. Too bad it’s already closed.” This is then actually mentioned in the following episode, after the girls finish their drinks at the izakaya Zuka-chan part-times at. Ema splits off from Miyamori early to hit the grocery store–“I’m going to get my lunch for tomorrow–right now bentos are probably half-off.”
Being an adult in this country (or being anyone in this country, really) involves not having a lot of time, so nuisances like eating have to be taken care of quick and efficiently, as well as satisfy one’s base definition of what tastes “good,” which is basically “anything super oily.” This need to eat cheap and delicious junk is actually exhibited impeccably in the opening, where cute shots of the girls are shown matched to the backdrops of Japan’s star lineup of junk foods: ramen, curry, takoyaki, burgers, fries and pizza.
You know, Japanese burgers, fries, and pizza.
These Characters Need to Drink
The other thing I like about that scene in the opening with all the girls smiling–with their big, bright, stupid moe eyes–composed against the backdrop of junk food, is that shot of Miyamori with her arms holding beer and a host of other alcoholic beverages. That’s right, these characters can’t fucking take it anymore. You need a Goddamn drink, or fifteen, to get through this drudge called life. And you need to do it for cheap, too–which is why when Miyamori gets home in the first episode, she cracks open a can of (what is likely) happoushu, and reminisces about the better days. Characters in this show one way or another find themselves with some manner of poison in their mitts, whether it be in the security of their 1k apartments, or an izakaya. Alcohol is so easy to get your hands on here, and it’s also easy to drink a lot of it with cheap all you can drink plans at pubs around town. People need it ’cause life is tough–especially on those in the animation industry.
I’m actually having one right now as I write this post.
Japanese is Inherently Condescending/The Work Place
The Japanese language is by nature all about talking up and down to people. Juniors talk up their seniors, and seniors talk down to their juniors. This becomes especially brutal in the workplace, where there are a stupid amount of “bosses” over you–shunin, kakarichou, kachou, jichou, and buchou. And those are just the ones in your immediate vicinity. Elsewhere in the company there are honbuchou, toukatsu, joumu, senmu, fuku-shachou, and God–the shachou. Things become especially complicated when you factor in age–some buchou are younger than shunin–do they talk down to them? Up? It’s difficult to ascertain.
Thankfully, in the world of Shiro Bako this sort of thing is more cut-and-dry–animation studios lack traditional office positions, so it all comes down to who’s younger or older, and who’s newer or longer at the company. While it’s lost in translation, all the Japanese societal and office politics are in full force, with Miyamori often being called in yobisute, or certain characters getting the anta/omae treatment. While Shiro Bako presents a more or less perfect diorama of what the Japanese work place should sound like, it does throw a few funny and interesting wrenches into the works. The first is Takanashi Taro, another production assistant like our gallant hero, Miyamori. The funny thing about Takanashi is that he’s obviously a country hick who doesn’t know how societal rules work. He uses the arrogant male pronoun ore–which should never be used around seniors–and mixes it with half-assed polite language, thinking everything will be okay. This is part of what results in people treating him like a dimwit (also, he’s just actually a dimwit) and if you understand the Japanese nuance, it adds another level of rudeness to his comments that get him trouble in the episodes about Exodus’ 3D CG scene. The second is chief production assistant Honda, who speaks politely to the studio’s weak-willed director, while still treating him like shit at the same time. Japanese is beautiful like that.
Outside of the crazy bubble that is anime production, recently Miyamori’s sister, Kaori, made her way into the show, and we got a glimpse of how funereal her job is through some flashbacks. Here’s the rundown: Morning assemblies with bosses lecturing their subordinates about how much they suck, co-workers making idle lunch chat in the break-room about some goukon (that won’t lead to anything because half the participants are married), and asinine exchanges in the bathroom about some bad TV drama. It’s a short scene, but it paints an alarmingly stark picture of what it’s like to be in the trenches here.
Location, Location, Location
While Musashino Animation is not a real anime studio, Musashino is a real city in Tokyo, and according to the show, the studio is specifically in the Musashi-Sakai district of the city–a place where a friend of mine used to live. There’s an episode where the girls eat pancakes in Kichijoji, and make their way to Inokashira Park–complete with swan boats in the background. This show is going out of its way to ground itself in my world, and I really like that.
For anyone who knows Tokyo’s geography, all of the main action happens within the 23 wards. Musashino is one of Tokyo’s “cities”, which more or less makes it the suburbs. Lots of animation studios are in what is effectively the boondocks of Tokyo, and the show lays down the lame suburban experience on us thick in the first episode.
She’s driving a car.
In most parts of the 23 wards, you only drive a car because you’re rich and can afford one. Most people take the train. But when you get out far on the Chuuou line where MusaAni is, cars–or least a bicycle–become necessity. Furthermore, when Miyamori’s sister comes around, she says outright that Musashino isn’t that different from the countryside town she’s from. While there is this image of Tokyo as this big bustling metropolis in the minds of Japanese country bumpkins, Shiro Bako exposes the truth about Tokyo’s sprawl–once you’re out of the Yamanote loop, things turn into houses and grocery stores real fast, and the distance between stations gradually grows farther and farther.
The show does a very good job of getting the grime of Tokyo’s suburbs down right. It’s not Shinjuku Kabukichou grime, but it’s that distinctly Japanese suburban grime that you see once you get past Shinjuku or Nishi-Nippori, depending on which direction you’re going. The Musashi Animation building is drawn lovingly as the rundown piece of late 1990s/early 2000s Japanese architecture it is; a typically ugly tiled Japanese building that has been obviously weathered over the years. The surroundings are typical for any area of west Tokyo beyond Kichijouji–lots of apartments, with some down-home restaurants and pubs. The show has a distinct sense of banality soaked into the characters’ surroundings that’s really specific to Tokyo, and does a spectacular job of grounding the show in reality.
While Shiro Bako focuses on an ensemble of simple moe girls, they are all working adults, which is more than one can say about characters in other moe anime. They have worries about their future, and like I said above–they like drinks, and food that is bad for them. While they could stand to be a bit more realistic–both in design and in characterization–they do provide a pretty accurate and relatable representation of what it’s like to be an adult in Dai Nippon, even if it’s a little simplified.
Also, all the dudes smoking on the studio’s outdoor staircase is a nice touch.
The Goddamn Point
To make a long story short, Shiro Bako works for me because it’s The Perfect Illustration of adult life in Japan. The manner in which it goes out of its way to paint how mundane and hard these peoples’ lives are is a near perfect visualization of the grind that happens every day in Japanese society–especially in the animation industry. While it is kind of lightened up with its cute cast, the show turns that element a little bit on its head by giving the girls real grown-up worries, and real grown-up bad habits.
The show also works for me because it’s about a bunch of nerds making anime, but I don’t think I need to talk about how much of an otaku I am again.