Shirobako The Movie — Too Much Left on the Cutting Room Floor

When Shirobako first dropped, it hit me hard. While I wasn’t looking to work at an anime studio, the show came out right as I was quitting English teaching and taking the first steps into starting what is colloquially called “a real job.” As such, the trials and tribulations of these young 20-somethings who were fresh out of college and putting their nose to the grindstone really struck a chord with me. The show being all about an anime production house only sweetened the deal.

Shirobako concluded in April of 2015–nearly five years ago as of this writing. Slowly developing into a sleeper hit at the time, many fans were keen on seeing more–ideally a second season. After three years of radio silence following the conclusion of the series, a theatrical film was announced in April of 2018. The film eventually dropped in February of 2020, hitting right before other productions were opting to delay their premiers due to a developing global health crisis. I slinked in to watch the Shirobako movie two weeks after its release during a weekday, alertly snapping my head at anyone who coughed in the theater, which was populated by around 10 people.

Thrown back into the grimy suburbs of Tokyo’s Musashino City, we are once again put in the shoes of Miyamori Aoi–still chugging away at the tiny production house Musashino Animation. However, things have changed–four years have passed since the events of the TV show, and MusaAni has lost a lot of its luster. The vegetation clinging to the building has grown thicker, and the lights in the studio do not shine as bright as they used to. Clearly MusaAni has fallen upon tough times.

The film opens with Miyamori sleeping across three folding chairs, only to be awoken by Sato Sara–who joined mid-way through the TV series–reminding her that an episode MusaAni produced of the second season of The Third Girls Aerial Squad is about to air. Yes, the show got a sequel, but MusaAni is no longer the main production house behind it. And unlike in the past where the studio’s make-shift screening room was filled with staff anticipating the debut of their new work, this time only the few remaining production hands are there, twiddling their thumbs with little fanfare.

As the film goes on you find that many of the MusaAni staff–including Miyamori’s friends from high school–have gone their separate ways. With a now very limited headcount, the studio can only do support work on series here and there. In the midst of this slump, MusaAni is paid a visit by roly-poly producer Katsuragi Kotaro of Western Entertainment–the company that bankrolled other MusaAni works like Exodus! and The Third Girls Aerial Squad. Meeting up with Miyamori and Watanabe Shun–line producer on past MusaAni works turned company president–Katsuragi offers the studio a shot at making its own original movie.

Specifically, the ask entails MusaAni taking over the production for a project that was announced years ago, but never got off the ground because the original studio set to produce the movie had been derelict in their duties. Consequently, all MusaAni has to work off is a title: Arial Assault Landing Craft Siva. They also only have 10 months to complete the film ahead of its announced release date. With MusaAni set to fast-track production–and having a chance to recapture their former glory–the Shirobako movie takes a cue from the Blues Brothers, and Miyamori embarks on her Mission from God to get the band back together for one last (?) hurrah.

So, how does this film stack up compared to the TV series? Well, while it does give us another peak into the world of Shirobako, at the same time something is missing.

Much like the TV series, the film does a good job of painting a realistic picture of adult life. And four years following the events of the series, the movie dishes on even heavier helpings of the bleak reality our heroes inhabit. This of course means they need to get trashed–and as anyone knows, watching anime characters losing their shit under the influence of alcohol is awesome. The movie production values let P.A. Works go crazy on the art direction too, with local watering holes feeling dusty and lived-in, be it the traditional izakaya our heroes gather in, yakiniku joints, and even (the classic) conbini storefront.

Beyond drinking establishments, the superb art direction does well to bring to life the dingy hallways of MusaAni, charming neighborhood cafes, and the quiet streets of Musashino at night. One minute background detail that stuck out to me was a bilingual street sign illustrated to show that the English on the sign had been corrected and re-applied as a sticker. See, since Japan got the Olympics (They still happening? Who knows!), the country has been making efforts to be more accessible, and that includes properly translating streets and place names. Despite all the big-eyed anime girls, Shirobako takes place in the real world, and it doesn’t let you forget it.

But beyond this surface-level stuff, the film also does a good job of expressing the uneasiness of the characters, mainly shining the light on Miyamori, illustrating her inner struggle in detail. For example, after a day of disappointments, Miyamori goes to meet the gang for some drinks. She stands pensively in front of the izakaya entrance, and smacks her face into a manufactured smile before walking in. Through her heart-to-hearts with the rest of the cast, the film expertly illustrates Miyamori’s desire to turn the studio around by taking the chance to produce an original film into her own hands. This same care is taken in showing the struggles of other characters as well.

But while the film is great at illustrating several character arcs, it falls flat on its face at doing the other thing the Shirobako series was great at–showing us the absolute chaos that defines anime production. The film sets the stakes high–a 10-month production period for a feature film, including planning and staff resourcing, all the while dealing with other external forces. Despite the odds being turned squarely against MusaAni, at no point in the film does it feel like it’s a struggle for Miyamori or the rest of the team. Much like in Uchuu Senkan Yamato, where the audience was constantly reminded of how many days the Yamato had to return to Earth, the Shirobako film also reminds us of how much time the staff has left to complete the movie–but even so, it never feels as if they are in any real danger of missing the deadline. The scriptwriters do throw in one wrench into the proceedings at the very end, and still nothing is done to illustrate any engaging tension as a result.

Another area in which the film falters slightly is with the introduction of new characters, of which there are a few. The new cast member who gets the most attention is Miyai Kaede from Western Entertainment, who works with Miyamori to push the new movie project forward, and immediately enjoys a sloppy night with Miyamori to get acquainted. However, she more or less disappears after that, only to show up again near the end. MusaAni also has a new employee who is compared by others to the hapless Takanashi Taro, but hell if I’d know anything about him, since his screen-time likely comes to a whopping five minutes. While the series was great at introducing its initial cast, and then adding in new characters as it went on, the film just drops the ball on trying to make you interested in these new characters–hell, since it’s been so long since the original series aired, I was struggling to even remember the main cast before the movie started.

The main issue here is clear: This should have been a second season. Would have just been fine at 13 episodes. A two-hour movie is simply not enough time to let the good qualities of Shirobako shine. While the film is great at focusing on the characters and getting into their heads, there is simply not enough time to explore all the various roadblocks in production and conflicts between talent that drove the many subplots of the TV series, acting as the spice that kept the story interesting. Also, let’s been frank–Shirobako revels in being mundane. The material is not suited for the silver screen. The film includes a few fanciful scenes–including a musical number–to try to slam it into your face that, “yes, this is a movie,” but those moments fall flat, especially given the overall lack of tension throughout the film.

With all that said, it’s not as if the movie is a total mess. It was still great to revisit the Shirobako girls further on into their careers, and get a look into their new challenges and worries, while also taking a peek into how they have progressed and earned some degree of clout. But by lacking a lot of the chaotic oomph that made the TV series sting, the minimal drama results in a film that starts to drag as you hit the third act. It’s good to pick up for completion-sake, but unfortunately I would not characterize it as required viewing. Keep me posted if a second season is coming out, P.A. Works.


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