First things first – I think we can say that if a series focused on anime production is built around the premise “this industry is seriously messed up”, then it’s off to a pretty good start. Because, of course, it is – which is a fact that I think most folks knowledgeable about it would acknowledge. Or at least, most are aware of it deep in their heart of of hearts – even the ones not willing to acknowledge it.
To say that Girlish Number came out of nowhere for me is a bit of an understatement. It was completely off my radar going into the season (and I mean way off), but by the time I finally found a half-hour to watch it the series had made a remarkable transformation in expectations. It seems to have caught a lot of people by surprise, and I was being prodded to watch it by a lot of people I wouldn’t necessarily expect to be fans of it based on the premise. And after watching the premiere I can see why – this is an unexpectedly dark look on the anime industry, at least through one episode.
It should be noted that Girlish Number is based on an LN by Watari Wataru of “Oregairu” fame, which makes sense given its tone. I found Oregairu the anime better than most LN adaptations but ultimately unable to escape the bonds on LN cliche, which is one of the things I’d worry about with Girlish Number. The other is this – the only way this series can succeed at doing what it’s trying to do is by committing 100%. If it starts pulling its punches, trying to go in a more idealistic (some might say myopic) Shirobako direction, it will fail utterly. Watari seems to be venting his spleen with this series, more or less, so I’m hopeful that won’t happen – he’s clearly got an axe to grind, and it’s one that needs some serious grinding.
Why would a LN writer who’s been very successful in anime form write a series attacking the anime industry generally as a shallow and dysfunctional morass, and LN adaptations specifically as its vapid creative slums? If ever one seemed to be biting the hand that feeds him (sorry for all the metaphors in this post, but they fit), this would seem to be a case, and of course if the goal of an anime is ultimately to please a disc-buying audience I’d be skeptical that Girlish Number has much of a chance. LN authors, LN fans, production weasels, seiyuu (“customer-attracting pandas”) – nobody comes off smelling like a rose or looking good here, and that paying audience has not historically been fond of having mirrors thrust in their faces. But as someone who finds most of Girlish Number’s criticisms on-target, it makes a refreshing change.
I’ll confess to not really liking any of the cast so far. Heroine Karasuma Chitose is amusing in a snarky way, but not especially idealistic or hard-working. There are two established seiyuu introduced here – Shibasaki Manoyou is haughty and seemingly arrogant (I expect she’s being set up for a redemption), while Sonou Momoka is genki and calculating, if rather kinder to newcomer Chitose. Chitose’s older brother Gojou (he runs the seiyuu agency she works at – no doubt thanks to him) is probably the most earnest person in the cast, but a bit of a bore. The various production committee types really take it on the chin here, but I suspect Watari is writing from experience. so who am I to argue?
There are some quite uncomfortable-funny moments here – the encounter with the LN author, where one of the production committee effectively tries to pimp out Momoka and Chitose, stands out. And Chitose gets her big break basically because she was the only girl who showed up at the after-party following a seiyuu event (which was pretty uncomfortable to begin with), despite having never displayed any singing talent. That big break is for an idol anime – basically, an attempt to combine the most craven and vapid segments of the industry, LNs and idols, into one soul-destroying money machine. There’s obviously huge room for satire there.
I just hope Girlish Number doesn’t sell out – this is a bit of a fine line it’s trying to walk. Wake up, Girls! really couldn’t do it – it lost its nerve and ended up being mostly an apologetic love letter to the idol industry. It worked for Shirobako because that series was pretty transparent from the start – it was a romanticized look at anime production from the very beginning. Having started out in this fashion Girlish Number is pot-committed to being a full-on expose, and if it keeps its nerve there’s endless material for it to mine for creative success. As for commercial success I would think that’s a lost cause, but that’s not my problem. Why would anyone make anime that don’t make any money?