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Shirobako and the Struggle

by Nick Creamer,

Life is full of trials and mistakes no matter how you slice it, but pursuing a career in the arts is just asking for trouble. I've made more than my own share of such mistakes, and my past is littered with the detritus of a failed novelist, failed musician, failed game writer. There's no security in these dreams, and certainly not much likelihood of success - in the end, the greater part of what I've learned over time is “pursuing creative passion is a fool's errand, these fields are incredibly tenuous, you will not be justly rewarded for your time.” But here I am, writing still, so I guess “following your dreams is a mistake” is a lesson that's a little hard to take to heart.

Shirobako is a show about people who have made a mistake.

They're working in a soul-crushing industry full of long hours and no guarantees. Some of them are barely even working at all - Zuka spends the show's running time clinging to the fringes of her desired industry, waiting tables and putting on a bright smile for her more successful friends. And even those that actually “make it” are stressed and overworked and constantly on the fringe of disaster. Their struggles are rarely glamorous ones - Ema frames her problems as “if I can't learn to draw faster, I won't be able to eat,” while Misa weighs financial security against doing the same meaningless task for years and years. There's really no “making it” in animation, after all - Musani's director is only ever as good as his last project, and everyone else is constantly scraping by and threading deadlines regardless of their experience.

But that's life. A great part of Shirobako's charm is how well it captures the true lived experiences of its characters, and illustrates the context of their lives. It reflects equally on anime production specifically, a life in the arts more broadly, and the compromises of everyday living in general. The terror of knowing your skills aren't yet adequate for the job you've been assigned, even if it's the job you hoped for. The offhand warmth of coming home from a bad meeting and wanting to go out, but being reminded by your spouse that you can't afford it. The ever-present distance between your wild aspirations and your grinding experience, espoused loudly over beers with friends or lived in the quiet light of a TV celebrating those who've achieved your unrealized dreams.

Because that distance is always there. Shirobako is an optimistic show, but life is a struggle, and we see every step of that climb. The crushing defeat of being passed over for what seemed so clearly your next step. Watching your friends move past you, or yourself lose grip day after day. Shirobako spends a good eight minutes on the standard “soon we'll achieve our dreams!”, and twenty-four episodes detailing the hard lived experience of “dream jobs.” You better hold close to that dream, because the job itself isn't going to make it easy. Aoi spends much of the series too stressed to even consider why she wanted what she does anymore, and though she ultimately asks nearly everyone she works with why they do what they do, the answer is never “because it's easy.” You wouldn't cling to a job that asks everything of you and never gives anything in return, but the exchange rate in Shirobako is never a generous one.

And yet, its characters do stay.

Part of that comes down to the little moments. Bonding with an assumed rival over a shared love of an old show. One of your coworkers taking you out to their special park, or off to the batting range to work off some stress. Getting together for drinks with old friends, and sharing war stories of your bitter daily defeats. As much as Shirobako evokes the stress and trials of trying to create something worthwhile, it also excels in demonstrating the warmth and camaraderie that keeps its characters sane.

A hundred small relationships are formed and nurtured over the show, with a constant scattering of personal moments and individual conflicts lending humanity not just to a few lead characters, but to an entire living company. It almost seems like the company's president pretty much only works to create these moments - his job description might as well read “brings in fried chicken when everyone's falling apart, smiles mildly as you panic about deadlines.” Each employee is given crucial moments of humanity, each friend struggles in their own way. We know these characters and their trials, and so their small moments are our own.

Sometimes that's not enough, though. The math just doesn't work out, working in anime - the work is too taxing for too little reward, the security too lacking and benefits too few. You can't just examine your daily life and make sense of it, which is why Shirobako's characters don't always live in the present. A constant refrain in Shirobako is “take solace in the works that inspired you” - remember the dreams that brought you to your dream job, and even if it's not what you'd hoped for, take comfort in the truth and memory of those feelings. Feuding animation directors make peace over their favorite old giant robots. Misa lets the CG animals that inspired her be her guide. And Aoi constantly returns to the scene that brought her to anime, as her childhood hero Andes Chucky waited out a blizzard under the snow.

This point is made most clear in the series' best episode, when Aoi returns back with the president to Musani's parent studio, Musashino, when her confidence has begun to falter. She's lost faith in both her goals and her ability to lead, and the show doesn't pull punches in offering real reasons for her anxiety. She's naive, the jaded Hiraoka declares, and even Aoi's greatest ally Yano immediately agrees. Being optimistic about your work is a luxury of the young - "you can't live for your job." But in the dusty stacks of Musashino's old office, Aoi learns that the people who inspired her to her own life's path were also naive, and over-optimistic, and constantly making mistakes. They were just doing the best they could, but together they made something that changed Aoi's world, that possessed a resonance in her life that can still bring her to tears and push her forward. And even if those old creators were just muddling through, even if their own trials seemed greater than the rewards, their creations and their memories remain.

The anime life is cyclical, says Shirobako. The present moment may not reward you much - in fact, your life today may just feel like a punishment for past optimism, like the mistake you live for indulging in dreams. You rarely win, and you never win for good. There's always a new struggle, and if you expect life to reward you for your pain in any kind of coherent ratio, you better find another line of work. Every "we're finally done" will always be answered by one more "no, we're just getting started."

But remember what you once loved about this work. Remember the pieces that gave your life purpose, that taught you something true about yourself. That's always the hope - that's what you're working to create. Living in the present is difficult, but cherish what brought you here, and work hard to bring that joy to the next generation of creators. Trust in that joy, because the idea that you're inspiring people with your work, or creating something true to your passion, can be the most empowering feeling in the world. The true sign that Aoi and Ema have reached some sort of peace isn't their work becoming manageable (because it never does), it's that even as they engage in new struggles, they teach and inspire others to follow behind them. And the moment when Sugie learns that his own work was important to Aoi is a quiet revelation, a perfectly beautiful moment of connection.

We are driven by the warm memories of the past, dragged forward by the bright hopes of the future, and carried along the way by the moments and feelings we share. Though Aoi never finds one consistent answer in her quest to understand why people do what they do, certain refrains do emerge. In order for these artists to fight for what they do, they have to believe in it - they have to find common goals together, be that purely within their own staff, or with the creators they're adapting. Life is hard, and it won't always reward you. But remember Andes Chucky in the snow, and try to bring those tears and that truth to the next believer down the line. These are the stories that help us parse and find meaning in our own lives - that lift us up, and become emotionally true. These stories bring us together.

Shirobako itself is Andes Chucky in the snow, assuring his friends that they will see the blue sky. It's a lie, but it's the lie we often need - just like the characters within Shirobako, sometimes we all need more hope than the world itself can offer. We can find that hope in each other on a personal level, in the little moments we share, and we can find it in the work others have expressed on a more general human one. Many Zukas will not eventually get their break, and many Hiraokas will not come to peace with the way the world treats our dreams. But as the director says, people need to be rewarded, even if only in fiction. The hope of our dreams is what we can share, and if it inspires more people to work hard to make the next beautiful, inspiring lie, that's a crime I can live with.

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