What SHIROBAKO should have taught us about anime ‘writing’

With the end of the year nigh, I’m sure that SHIROBAKO will once again be a title on many lips. In fact, the judging committee for the 20th Animation Kobe Awards has already stated in no uncertain terms the impact that it expects the show to have, giving it an exalted place amongst titles such as Neon Genesis Evangelion and Puella Magi Madoka Magika.

…a name that harks back to the past, to the ‘white box’ within which production staff members received the finished episode on VHS prior to it airing. Although VHS is no more, and white boxes no longer used, the term apparently lives on.

Personally, I’ve been struggling for almost a year to figure out what I should write in my first piece about this show — not because there is nothing to be said, but rather, because there is far too much. It’s a show I would have loved to have seen a few years ago, perhaps around 2010, when I started really delving into what goes on behind the scenes of my favourite titles. That said, perhaps I would have gained less if it had graced our screens back then, because I would not have known what to take at face value and what to take with a grain of salt, especially given some of the crazy stunts that Aoi and Musashi Animation’s director, Kinoshita Sei’ichi, pull in the course of their work. My sense is that quite a few viewers felt that way, and unfortunately, it shows in some of the continuities in anime critique, particularly in terms of the ‘writing’.

The ‘story committee’: the people involved in script meetings.
Even the youngest and greenest members contribute to the development of the story.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that SHIROBAKO did a bad job of representing what ‘writing’ an anime is like. What the show suggested—that writing involves many people besides the writer, including the director and the producers—has been true for all the shows that I’ve read into (1). Furthermore, the person with the final say in what happens is usually the director, even if the goal is mainly to protect the vision that the original creator had. The sole exception to this is probably when the original creator is part of this ‘story committee’, as is sometimes the case with writers like Urobuchi Gen and Maeda Jun, whose primary business is in creating stories rather than in writing for the screen per se.

But you have to be careful, for even these writers do not have sole control for every show they ‘write’. Aldnoah.Zero is the obvious example for Urobuchi. Another good case in point is Okada Mari, who I understand was one of the three creative minds that drove Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day; in the Black Butler series, by contrast, she would have been working largely according to the vision developed by the director in concert with manga artist Toboso Yana and the other major members of the story committee. The director’s vision, the storyboarder’s viewfinder, the episode director’s eye, and even the individual animator or voice actor’s understanding of a character will shape the finished product that hits our screens. With time enough to tell only the partial stories of two different anime productions, SHIROBAKO did what it could to convey some of this interlinked creativity.

But ultimately, it’s the director who makes the final decision:
You’re the one who said you wanted to do this!
That’s what I was thinking when we had the script meeting…

The real problem is that most fans do not understand how a particular anime series is written. I’ve seen a lot of people complain about writers when they don’t like a show; whether it be because they have a reputation for tragedy or drama, or because they’re perceived to be responsible for ‘ruining’ the original work they’re adapting. Besides the three screenwriters already named above, Yoshino Hiroyuki has often been slammed by the fans of the shows he’s ‘written’. And these trends have continued even after SHIROBAKO laid out its two examples of how parts of an original story and an adaptation are written: collaboratively, with input from everyone on the story committee, and with the director having the final say in what they go with. There are exceptions to that last characteristic, with the most famous example that I know of involving Code Geass. I’m not sure if his feelings have changed over the years, but a subdued comment by director Taniguchi Goro (in Continue vol.42) after R2 had ended pointed to at least some truth in the rumours about how the first season’s popularity and the resulting timeslot change had seriously affected what he’d wanted to do.

“I don’t think the people who watch this will be satisfied with this ending.
More importantly, I’m not satisfied with it! So can I change it?”
“Hu..h… Who’s going to land this show if you’re not gonna do it?”

So, what does that mean about how we evaluate a particular writer? Or for who we should be praising for brilliance—or lambasting for ‘telling’, clichéd developments and other issues that we might have—in what we refer to as ‘writing’ in an anime film or TV series? It’s true that certain writers are strongly associated with particular traits: Urobuchi and his darkness, Maeda and his drama, Yoshino and his high school shenanigans. And at the very least, we should be able to attribute consistency of character and coherency of the plot to the main writer, right? Since he or she is responsible for maintaining consistency in the screenwriting throughout the project.

However, as Urobuchi pointed out in his ‘hello world’ interview in the December 2014 edition of Newtype, writing for a game is very different from writing for an anime. He describes writing for a visual novel as being somewhat like writing a novel, because it’s made to be read. On the other hand, an anime series is written not to be read, but as an audio-visual experience. As such, a lot of the viewer’s experience comes from the vision that the director, the storyboarder and the episode director bring to it. The interviewer then asked Urobuchi how much of the visuals come from his pen…and he replied to the effect of “not much.” I leave it up to you to believe him or not as you see fit (2), but he’s most certainly not the only one who’s pointed this out. Nor is this type of collaborative writing unique to Japanese anime (if you don’t have a Slate account, you can find the podcast on iTunes).

Sometimes, the role of the writer is merely to guide the director through telling the story in his head.

You might think that this leaves fans in a bit of a bind in terms of appreciating or critiquing the writing of a show we’re watching. But there is a simple answer: LOOK IT UP. The translation of Toboso’s blog post that I linked above was something I found yesterday, after no more than two minutes on google. I also found this interview, where Okada reveals how much freedom she was given with Claude and Alois—within the constraints of the world and the broader story. Whilst I did not like what had happened from the end of the first season of the anime through to its sequel, I’d never even thought about who had been ‘responsible’ for those developments. It was the commentary on one of Okada’s more recent series that highlighted how a number of Black Butler fans apparently blame her for it (though I’m not entirely sure exactly what they’re blaming her for—Claude and Alois? What happened to Ciel and Sebastian?).

Of course, seeking out this kind of information isn’t always possible for the majority of fans, for at least one Japanese-speaking fan will have to be interested enough to translate it first. Thankfully, this does happen for some of the more popular series—for example, fans have already ensured that the involvement of Seraph of the End manga’s writer in the TV series is clearly outlined on wikipedia. From what I understand, Isayama Hajime also wrote or approved of key character-defining moments and an additional incident or two in the Attack on Titan TV series. And I believe many fans should be aware of how upset Takaya Natsuki and Tsuda Masami apparently were with the anime adaptations of their most famous works (here’s a lengthy examination of why Takaya will probably never approve a Fruits Basket sequel—spoilers abound, of course). The information is all out there, so please try to seek it out before starting or contributing to another Shaloom / Macross Frontier debacle.

See, they’re all storytellers, right?

To finish on a related note: I’m sure that I don’t just speak for myself when I say that we translators would like to be critiqued a bit more fairly when we try to share this kind of information. In other words: let me know if any of my translations are problematic, and I’ll be glad to reevaluate them based on your knowledge about the Japanese text, or about any other interviews or information that you can bring to my attention. Attention-seeking fans like Shaloom help make a bad name for us, and I know that many of us come across as being arrogant gatekeepers who “know so much more Japanese than you.” But I dare say that most of us just want to contribute to the appreciation of our shared hobby, and whilst we’re heavily embarrassed when we get something wrong, we want to improve so that it doesn’t happen again. Just like the creators represented in SHIROBAKO, we’re only human, right?


(1) In order of how much I remember about what I’ve found out, the series whose production I’m most familiar with are Aldnoah.Zero, Macross Frontier, Sound! Euphonium and Gundam SEED. I also know bits and pieces about how Psycho-Pass, Code Geass, Guilty Crown, Wandering Son and Neon Genesis Evangelion were made.

(2) I’m paraphrasing from scans of the relevant parts of this interview, which were obtained from a Japanese blog that expresses doubt—perhaps even distrust—about what Urobuchi said. My suggestion would be that you read the interview yourself before you decide what you think of his assertions. But I haven’t been able to find the entire thing, so if anyone has a link—whether to the entire interview in Japanese or to an English translation—please let me know.

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

3 Responses to What SHIROBAKO should have taught us about anime ‘writing’

  1. Frog-kun says:

    The road to becoming a more informed anime fan is a long and circuitous one, I’ve found. Most of my knowledge is drawn about anime production from a patchwork of scattered articles, books and blog posts I’ve read over the years. If there was a single easy and reliable resource, it would have been much easier.

    Unfortunately, when even prominent reviewers and journalists spread misinformation about how anime is made, getting accurate information very much depends on who you know. As I read this post, I thought of Guardian Enzo from Random Curiosity. He has great technical skill as a writer but every time he mentions anime writers I cringe because he clearly doesn’t understand the actual role they play in the production process.

    If you can’t read Japanese, the only way you’re going to get accurate information is if you’re connected to someone who is in the know. Otherwise, you’re going to find it hard to tell the difference between an accurate source and an inaccurate one.

    The easiest way to become knowledgeable (which you’ve alluded to yourself) is to start with a series you really like and look up everything about it. But that’s also a really time-consuming and roundabout way to learn about anime production as a whole, unless you’re willing to research dozens of series.

    So yeah, this is one of those things where it’s easy to criticise fans for not doing the research, but it’s also a reflection of how poor the state of English-language anime journalism is right now. Because unless you know the right search terms to put into Google, the information is NOT at your fingertips.


    • karice says:

      Hm…I know what you mean. The main reason I’ve gotten to this point was a stint in the Macross (Frontier) fandom a few years ago, and I would have spent about two years on that series alone. Even this past year, following AZ meant that I basically had no time to really get into anything else, although I did my best with Eupho. I’m hoping that the SHIROBAKO-related interviews and other extras that I’ve collected may tell me a lot more about what goes on behind the scenes…but I honestly don’t know when I’ll find the time to go through them.

      I’m with you on Enzo…it was the discussion that has arisen around his reflections on Gundam: IBO that gave me the theme for this post. I think he knows how to capture the attention of his readers… But when I was looking things up for this post, I came across something he wrote about Okada Mari, and found myself wondering just what he’d been trying to say about her and the shows she’s ‘responsible’ for… I think the most dangerous thing about is, however, is that he knows some Japanese, and is currently living in Japan. It gives his misunderstandings about e.g. ‘writing’ a legitimacy that they really shouldn’t have… Though he’s not the only one—whilst I’m not sure exactly who you might be referring to, I do agree that the general state of English-language anime journalism leaves much to be desired at present.

      That said, I’m a bit less inclined to be as generous as you’ve been about the average anime fan. I’d contend that really getting into two or three series is more than enough to give someone a pretty good idea of what goes on behind the scenes. Another Macross fan that I know—one who hasn’t studied Japanese—has shown me that it is possible. The catch is that you have to follow popular series that at least one or two reliable translators are keen on. But I think the English-speaking fandom tends to value breadth rather than depth in terms of what they watch, which is different from most of the (admittedly few) Japanese ACG fans I’ve actually met. That isn’t a problem in itself, for as you say, it is time-consuming. But if so, then the least they can do is to refrain from trying to critique a facet of anime that they don’t know much about… (-_-;;)


  2. Pingback: Project Launch: On Anime ‘Writing’ | HOT CHOCOLATE IN A BOWL

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