by Rose Bridges,
Shirobako is a show that repeatedly dashes my expectations in the best way possible. I said before that I found the series at its strongest when taking focus away from Aoi, its cute but bland protagonist, and shifting it to other characters. Well, this week's episode proved me completely wrong. It focused almost entirely on Aoi, and it ended up as one of the best half-hours the series has ever delivered. That's because Shirobako finally did what I've been waiting 11 episodes for it to do: make Aoi interesting in her own right.
It accomplished this by looking at her flaws. This was a ripe week to do that, since this episode was focused on all-caps REJECTION. Aoi has to find someone from another company to do key frames for Exodus' last episode when their usual animator can't. As she gets turned down by company after company, she relives her own initial rejections by them when applying for jobs in the past. In the meantime, she's also asked to assist Musashino in its latest round of interviews, and isn't sure she's prepared to face the ordeal from the other end of the desk.
Aoi's flaws are a lot of what make her appealing as a moe character. For one: she's really, really nice. Almost too nice, in fact. She has a hard time saying no to people and seems to realize this, since this makes up a big part of her reluctance to take part in the interviews. She tells coworker Erika how promising the candidates all looked even after the audience has seen the interviews in question, and we know they were dud after dud. Her overly-trusting nature also makes her naïve, and Aoi makes a lot of basic mistakes (like calling one of Kinoshita's former collaborators who's still resentful about Jiggly Jiggly Heaven) while seeking pinch-hit animators. Flashbacks to Aoi's own interview sequences also reveal that being a selfless do-gooder can have its downsides when you're trying to sell yourself. Aoi doesn't have specific goals she can easily market, which is everything when you're applying for jobs. You have to explain to the company why they need you specifically—which isn't easy for someone whose main skill is just making herself available for tasks that anyone can do.
Her role as the relentless sweetheart leads into one of the most inspired fantasy sequences in the series. As Aoi is out relentlessly searching for animators amidst Christmas decorations and carols, the background art style gradually switches to a storybook-like crayon texture. Next thing we know, Aoi is dressed like the Little Match Girl. After a minute of watching her stumble in the snow, calling out and searching in vain, Aoi happens upon a storefront window and sees that it's actually an anime studio full of famous characters toiling away. Even though they're blurred out, it's not hard to recognize a few big names, like Doraemon. Shirobako is exploiting its fantasy sequences more and more each week, and it was great to have several straight minutes of it this time that tie in so well to Aoi's character and her festive surroundings. Hey, there's nothing with wanting a little holiday spirit in your anime come December.
In the midst of Aoi's personal turmoil, Shirobako briefly addressed other characters' ongoing dilemmas and set up some future ones. Ema gains a major project and a lot of praise for her drawing skills from her colleagues—settling her previous struggles and boosting her confidence. We also learn about Erika's personal life, and how she's reeling from her dad's hospitalization. While it's shown to be distracting her at work, it might be the first time that Shirobako gave a character (especially a non-main one) a dilemma that is divorced from her job. It's encouraging to see how invested the show is in these people even beyond its "getting to know the anime industry" premise.
All in all, this episode is pretty much everything I want out of a half-hour of Shirobako. It's focused, creative, fun and heart-warming. It gives depth to a character who desperately needed it. It exploits its premise to its full potential, while also giving the first real indication that it cares about its characters' lives outside of anime. I can't give this anything but a perfect grade.
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