I love animation and comics. Period. The artforms that is. And the more I learn about the process, the more appreciation I have for them. I feel like there isn’t a year that goes by where I don’t see something so incredible that it makes me revere the mediums all over again.
There is a lot to learn and having better access to Japanese news and culture has given us lots of insight: from the first time I learned about the assistants a manga-ka has to crowdfunding for animator dorms (!). But non-fiction accounts aren’t the only way to learn about an industry. In fact, creating a fictional world set within the very real parameters of manga creation or animation studios may illuminate the true struggles and triumphs even more.
If you are an animation fan for any amount of time there is a tendency to wonder what is the precise magic that transforms still pictures into moving images. (It is not actually sorcery that creates animation unless that animation is stop motion.) Some people are interested for academic reasons, others as it is a potential career path, while most just want a deeper understanding of their hobby. But like any attempt to see how the sausage is made it can be anything from an eye-opening moment of wonder to harsh bucket of cold water depending on how the lesson is presented.
Anime and manga have done several stories that look at how they are made with various degrees of love. In some titles it is the heart and soul of the premise and others it merely a set piece for comedy or romance. Those anime and manga range in its opinion of itself as everything from seeing the industry as havens of marvelous artistic self-expression to soul grinding commercial product factories with most portrayals being some sort of mix between those two extremes. No matter which of the two ends of the spectrum the title falls on they are usually an eye-opening insight into how the stories otaku love are created.
The series everyone is currently talking about Shirobako. While all the industry section of most anime about anime are almost all exaggerated and stylized everything in Shirobako feels all too real. Shirobako is a look at the nitty-gritty that goes into making an animated series in 2015. A bit of dramatic flair has been added to make it more fun or exciting at points. That is just natural. At the same time it is all too clear that some parts of the series are merely an animated recreation of real events with the names changed to protect the guilty. If fact the Internet has made a bit of game of trying to figure out who the characters and titles being referenced in the series are. Sometimes with people like Hideaki Anno is immediately obvious but other times shows like Fables of the Green Forest in requires a bit more know of esoteric anime history to figure out what they are alluding to.
The scene where they are selecting voice actresses while the sponsors each rather push their own unrelated agenda at the cost of quality feels far too real. I have a feeling that Tsutomu Mizushima will being trying to convince people who certain characters are not based on them for years to come.
Over the course of the series we see the story behind the creation of the fictional series Exodus! and then The Third Aerial Girls Squad. Exodus! is clearly a combination of several different magical girl shows while The Third Aerial Girls Squad is a mix of shows like Girls und Panzer, Strike Witches, and Kantai Collection. Just seeing how these shows are made gives you in insight into how many people take to make an anime, how simple errors can spiral into major a crisis, and how every episode that comes out is sort of a minor miracle. I have seen several people who are far more understanding of why anime productions sometimes wind up as a mess. Errors are still errors and bad anime is still not worth watching but anyone who watches Shirobako has a bit more insight into why things go down the way they do.
That insight and empathy you gain from watching the series is rewarding in of itself.
Beyond being a clever, ground-level, sometimes dispiriting look at the inner workings of an anime studio; Shirobako is also all about adults and their careers. In many other series, the focus may be on one or a handful of key positions but with Shirobako we get a look at just about every part of the process from the heads’ of studios to key animators to the production assistants and everything in between. We also see a variety of attitudes about working in anime from those who can’t get enough, to those looking for a quiet way to move on, to those who are bitter and cynical. Best of all is the varying ages and professional experience of the cast which gives Shirobako a very authentic feel to its portrayal of a work environment.
Shirobako also has been able to make me invested in and care about the production of anime that in real life I couldn’t care less about! In a lot of ways, it has made me respect the huge undertaking it is to create a series, regardless of whether I actually like said series or not.
Otaku no Video is probably the first peek behind the curtain most American anime fans got into the anime and manga industry. At one point it time it was generally considered required viewing for anyone want to dive deeper into the mechanics of the fandom. Parts of the Otaku no Video are a bit outdated but it is a fascinating insight into what the staff of Gainax in 1991 thought of itself, the industry, and the fandom through the lens of comedy.
In a way Otaku no Video is a manic-depressive work. In the animated section it tells a glorious and fantastical story of the history of founding of Gainax. Here the otaku is a glorious and creative outsider. It praises anime, its creation, and the people who love it. At the same time the live action series delve into the darker side of anime and manga to the point of vicious parody. These sections sort of highlight the worst parts of fandom from cell thieves to man trying to create glasses to get around censorship mosaics. It is clear that was made by people who were filled with a mixture of pride and self loathing with their hobby and profession.
The series is iconic enough that Otakon makes sure to run a screen Otaku no Video as a way to both start and end the convention.
As much as Otaku no Video opened the minds of many a young anime fan to the reality of anime creation the title that first opened my eyes was Animation Runner Kuromi. In many ways Animation Runner Kuromi was the Shirobako of its time. The parallels are unmistakable. Kuromi is a production desk manager at a struggling animation studio who is constantly trying to get all the pieces of the episodes she is in charge of done on time. It too is look at the major steps of anime production through a comedic lens. The thing is everything in Animation Runner Kuromi is louder and prouder.
Animation Runner Kuromi strives on hitting the high points of its tale in the two episodes it has as opposed the level of minutia that Shirobako can explore. The comedy is a bit more broad and a little less inside baseball. But only a little. The characters Animation Runner Kuromi seem like more of an amalgamation of several people working in the industry as opposed to the cast of Shirobako that feels more like copies of real people with the correct names filed off. On the other hand that means Animation Runner Kuromi is a bit more approachable as you can easily watch the whole series in one setting without feeling overwhelmed in the least.
It is worth mentioning that it has been over a decade since Animation Runner Kuromi came out therefore it is much more modern than Otaku no Video but still not as up to date as Shirobako. For example, you will notice that digital techniques were just coming into common practice when the OVA was made but now they are commonplace. The fundamentals are still true but the minutia has changed a great deal.
In many ways you can judge if you going to like Shirobako by your reaction to Animation Runner Kuromi. If you watch Animation Runner Kuromi and want more than you know where to go but if you had enough after this then you’re not going to have a good time with its longer sibling.
Darling of fans everywhere last year, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun answers the age-old question of “Where does a writer get their ideas?” The answer is of course from the writer’s friends’ lives which the writer then gender-swaps in their story. Now you know the secret.
Nozaki-kun isn’t really a series that you come to to learn about the manga creation process, but you’ll walk away with knowledge anyway. I especially like how the series takes time to highlight the craftsmanship and tools of the trade.
We would be remiss not to talk about the manga industry. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is mostly a romantic comedy series but Nozaki’s manga is hardly just a piece of window dressing. Since most of the cast is involved with Noazaki’s manga in one form or another we gets insights into lots of the layers of the manga industry. The Nozaki-kun cast mostly focuses on the manga-ka and their assistants but you do get some major editors as well.
Overall Nozaki-kun is far more focused on comedy than teaching you the ins and outs of the manga making process. That means if the choice comes down to making something funny or making it realistic they will err on the side of laughter. But you still learn a lot about how manga is written, drawn, and processed. Also a lot of the jokes about manga creation give the reader a good amount of indirect insight into the process. You will find yourself learning about things like screentone, the editorial process, or the jobs of assistants while laughing at skewered tropes of the shojo manga genre.
Also part of me thinks that Ken Miyamae and Mitsuya Maeno are based on real editors. The real question is what is the real editor that Mitsuya Maeno is based on obsessed with that is not tanukis.
Speaking of secret manga-ka, I didn’t want to let the moment to mention Yasuko to Kenji pass me by. This shojo series is more rom-com than serious look at manga creation, but there is still little things to glean about the manga process. And hey ex-delinquents! Although, I’m not sure if you’re strapped for cash that becoming a shojo manga-ka would give you job stability but whatever! I suppose it is better than being a gangster.
This series also had a rather amusing live action adaptation.
Bakuman is clearly a Weekly Shonen Jump manga about Weekly Shonen Jump manga. It is not a fighting series like Bleach or Kochikame styled comedy but it still has the competitive feeling you expect to see in those series. You have grand rivalries, epic showdowns, and opinion polls being more powerful than the gods themselves. Bakuman is a fairly thinly veiled autobiography of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Well autobiography is a bit of a misnomer. The series takes the seeds of their experiences at Shonen Jump, turns them up to 11, adds in some standard Bildungsroman tropes, and a romantic subplot to tie it all together. At the same time it is also clear that while exaggerated there is also a good deal of truth buried underneath the conceits to dramatic storytelling.
Despite the fact that things in Bakuman are clearly full of hyperbole and a half and Onba and Obata are nowhere near as close as Mashiro and Takagi there are still lots of lessons to be learned about the way Shonen Jump run. A lot of the relationships between the editors and artists is clearly based on the real experiences and there is probably a kernel of truth in the stories contained within the pages of Bakuman. Parallels between Reversi and Death Note or between the character of Eiji Nizuma and Eiichiro Oda lend some credence to the idea many of the events are based on real stories. If even half of it is true is gives you an idea of the insane schedules needed to put out a weekly comic, the large amount of editorial control at Shonen Jump, and the overall power of those reader survey cards.
Bakuman is a series populated by talent, not just the budding duo Mashiro and Takagi, so we are treated to many different attitudes and work environments as well as varying degrees of experience within the industry. We are also privy to the same when it comes to editors. I often find the tidbits about what goes on in the Jump headquarters more interesting than the characters creating the manga!
One of the things I enjoy best about Bakuman is the when they are creating new concepts for a manga series and seeing what sticks. It mirrors what we are experiencing right now with new Weekly Shonen Jump titles coming out.
We’ve seen many series about manga-ka with some attention paid to editors. In World’s Greatest First Love, the focus is on the editorial offices in this case for a shojo magazine with manga-ka on the side and even booksellers thrown in. Onodera is a fledgling manga editor, he applied as a the literature department, so not only do we see him learn the job we also see him develop an appreciation for manga.
Although the series is romance-centered, watching characters give feedback to artists, dealing with the printers, or even going to see the books on the shelves all have a certain magic to them.
If anyone has been reading this blog for any sustained amount of time you know that I would find a way to throw Hayate the Combat Butler into this post. But this time I did not shoehorn it in with duct tape and strange analogies. As it turns out Nagi’s dream is to be an award-winning manga artist. The only thing is that her art is mediocre at best and her storytelling is far too nerdy for most audiences. But despite all of that she strives to be a professional manga artist. She gains a friendly rival when the befriends Ruka Suirenji and they both compete to become professionals while attending doujinshi events to sell their wares.
While most of the time her struggle is comedic and has the exaggerated form inline with the rest of the series they occasionally drop some real facts on you. I did a whole article on chapter where they discuss the real numbers behind how many people actually make any money from an event like Comiket. (Spoilers: it might be less than you think.) They also do a few interesting bits on the professional mangaka character Gouji Ashibashi who is partially based on the author’s mentor, Koji Kumeta. They also delve into some interesting statistics about manga artists through this character (while also having one of the most amusing Bleach parodies.) Kenjiro Hata is usually fairly good about covertly sneaking in “THE TRUTH” into what is otherwise a silly and fantastical comic.
The single episode that stands out the most in my mind is the tenth episode 10 of Paranoia Agent, Mellow Marom. It follows the production of an anime where all the members of the staff is slowly being killed off one by one centered around the member of the staff who is trying to get the episode done. It is as if you took an episode of Shirobako and added Freddy Krueger to the mix.
Sailor Moon episode 21: Protect the Children’s Dreams: Friendship Through Anime directed by none other than Kunihiko Ikuhara. This is just a one-off episode but it gives us a chance to hear a tale of woe and love, see the inside of a studio, and watch Usagi and Rei fangirl over Sailor V anime.
Perhaps one of the best things about this random episode is that the animators are almost all women.
Before anyone complains I wanted to mention two titles that did not get any attention mostly because I have not experienced them in their entirety. The first is Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga. It is a classic satirical look at how to draw manga. I have seen several famous pages from the series over the years but I have never read it in its entirety. The second is the Blue Blazes TV series that recounts the fictional version of Kazuhiko Shimamoto’s time in college before the became a professional manga artist. I know several people have recommended I watch that show so I just need to sit down and download the episodes. I have every reason to believe those two titles would be on the list if I had experienced them.
There is also Comic Master J but I have never read enough of that to put it in the article but it does get referenced from time to time. At the same time I don’t know anyone who super loves that manga. There is also Comic Party but that title never really hooked me in any way.
Are there any titles or single stories you love that deal the creation of anime and manga? I would love to see other perspectives on the industry by people who work within it.
Being more aware than ever of the low-pay and other conditions of animators in Japan, not to mentioned we’ve all heard the exhaustion stories of manga-ka, one does have to acknowledge the rosy-glow all of these titles we picked (okay, fine except Paranoia Agent!). I want to be aware of reality, but I also want to see stories of triumph of the artist or at the very least have a good laugh.