Girlish Number takes a satirical look behind the scenes of the world of anime production. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Our point-of-view characters are the voice artists, and we have a mixture of abilities and degrees of success in the industry. The main focus for most of the series is Chitose Karasuma, who has been working for about a year and has only scored minor roles. Her brother is her manager. More by luck than judgement, and by virtue of having a bubbly personality in front of an audience, she is offered a lead role in a new series.
You might think that it should be all her dreams come true, and for a while it is, but it soon becomes obvious that this isn’t going to be quite the experience Chitose had hoped for. Her bosses are only interested in making money and the studio is understaffed and incapable of producing a good quality anime. It taps into something troubling about the modern world of anime, which often now exists as one component in a wider financial world. The studio makes money from events and marketing surrounding the anime, and they can do that even if the anime is rubbish. Chitose is a natural in the world of appearing in front of fans at conventions or on stage, and her enthusiasm papers over the cracks of her lack of ability at acting and singing (and singing is just as important a part of the job as acting), but it’s impossible to escape the nagging feeling that she’s working on something that is rotten to the core, and the level of success is nothing like she had dreamed of.
Whilst I am sure this is an exaggeration of the anime industry, or at least a deep dive into its murkiest waters, it is an eye-opener for anyone who isn’t familiar with the way anime works as a vehicle to sell products and tickets to events. We don’t really have any equivalent in the Western world to the Japanese idol culture: celebrity voice actors who double up as pop stars.
The clever thing about this series is that Chitose’s personality is deeply flawed. She is lazy, self-obsessed and ambitious, and every time something goes right she attributes that to her abilities, whereas every time something goes wrong she blames it on somebody else, or the industry she works for. Having said that, she is likeable most of the time, and often achieves success despite her failings, so this series is never one to show us a simplistic link between personality and success. Instead it shows how external influences and luck play such important roles in our lives, and it’s how you respond to your luck that matters, both good and bad.
This is also refreshingly not an anime that really has good guys and bad guys. Late in the series a new girl comes on the scene, Nanami. She is newer and fresher and more enthusiastic than Chitose, so she causes Chitose a crisis of confidence when she realises how her career has flourished because she is the latest thing. That’s no longer the case, with somebody younger and bubblier on the scene. So Nanami is a natural villain for the series, but the writing is cleverer than that. Instead she is a fan of Chitose and her admiration for her never really wavers. She’s not trying to steal her fame from her. She just wants to be like her. Another natural enemy in the hands of a lesser writer would be the producer Kuzu-P. He only seems to be interested in making money rather than the quality of the anime, and his attitude is the root cause of many of Chitose’s problems, and yet he is shown sympathetically later in the series as somebody who has been damaged by the industry, and many of his flaws mirror those of Chitose.
Early in the series Chitose discovers that she is not in fact the lead girl in the anime, but one of five lead girls. The other four are interesting examples of different degrees of success, from the enthusiastic newcomer, to the seasoned pro who drinks too much, to the girl who is getting too old for the idol industry, to the girl who has followed in the footsteps of her famous mother. As you can imagine, these different perspectives on the industry all lead to interesting interactions between the characters, and they are such a fascinating ensemble that the series even manages to successfully drop the main character for a couple of episodes, to focus on the lives of the others. It’s a brave move that most anime series would not attempt, but it results in a compelling side step before the push towards the series finale, with Chitose dealing with depression and a huge crisis of confidence.
This is a series that requires some concentration for a Western audience to understand the intricacies of the unfamiliar world in which it takes place, and it doesn’t help that there is no dub on the Blu-ray, but it’s worth the effort. And even if the satire doesn’t hit the mark all the time, there’s always plenty to enjoy in the characterisation. Ironically for a series that is about a mediocre anime production, the visuals are nothing to write home about, too often relying on still frames, but that’s more than made up for by the hilarious range of Chitose’s expressions. She has the funniest pout I have ever seen. At only 12 episodes this flies by. It’s not one I would recommend for a newcomer to the world of anime, but if you’re an anime fan and would like to learn something about the strange world of voice acting while being entertained, this will be the series for you. RP