by Rose Bridges,
Shirobako has traversed a wide variety of moods over the course of its 16 episodes, but this week had to be the biggest mood swing between two adjoining ones. Last week was almost entirely comedy and light-hearted exposition, but this week was filled with despair. I expected some of this from last week's cliffhanger, but I didn't expect it to go this far. "Table Flip" indeed.
To sum it up: the author for Third Aerial Girls Squad is being difficult, and insists that the art team go back to the drawing board with the character designs. His instructions are vague stuff about them "somehow lacking cuteness." This gets a funny line from Kinoshita, "What does he mean by 'something' and 'somehow'?" but it's a legitimate question; the author doesn't give them any real instructions, and continues being vague as he sends more and more designs back. When the artists push the designs in a more explicitly moe, younger-looking direction, it's somehow even worse. The art team is left with their hands in the air.
By the "art team," I mainly mean Iguchi, the character designer on Third Aerial Girls Squad and Ema's mentor. It's her first time being given this responsibility, and given only minimal guidance from the author and the direction team in how she should fix things, she's left feeling lost. Her behavior and words echo Ema's in episode 8, where she was the sage advisor who helped Ema out of the rut. Who will be there to help Iguchi out of her own? Who mentors the mentors? It turns out to be Goth-Loli-sama, who takes Iguchi, Aoi and Ema out to a batting cage that she calls "her oasis." She later tells them the story of how she adopted her distinctive style, in response to discouragement over designing a goth loli character. This results in one of this episode's handful of comedic scenes, where Iguchi comes into work cosplaying as Aria.
More importantly, Goth-Loli-sama talks to the higher-ups about how they aren't giving Iguchi enough guidance, and that when the author is giving her such a hard time, there needs to be a group effort to fix the problem. There are some jokes about how the company likes to solve things by going out for drinks, and that it doesn't work. For as much as Musani meets with everyone about everything and everyone at first, they've left Iguchi out to dry once the author's criticisms grew worse and more pointed at her. Problems on the show can only get fixed through cooperation and sage advice-giving. That's what gets Iguchi out of her rut, ultimately: talking to Goth-Loli and meeting with the direction team where they figure out how to go forward together.
As much as Goth-Loli gives them a hard time, the direction team's frustration is still sympathetic. The villain this episode is the perfectionist author, who we never actually see. We only meet his editor, a lazy, obnoxious jerk. This episode of Shirobako takes serious aim at authors who demand excessive control over the anime-making process, to the point where you wonder which real-life one angered its creators. I wondered while watching this how it would affect the many anime fans who tend to side automatically with creators when there's a noticeable difference between an anime and its source's presentation—even in small, nitpicky areas. Maybe faithfully emulating the manga in every way doesn't matter as much as you might think, beyond creating unnecessary extra work for the anime team. Maybe that attitude gives creators excessive power to abuse for silly perfectionism. As someone who tends to prefer when anime adaptations do their own thing, I think it's a message that the fan community could stand to hear more often. So I was happy to see Shirobako go that route, even if they were tad too harsh.
For all its heaviness, this episode also had some memorable lighter bits, like the heavy reliance on fantasy sequences. Shirobako seems to be increasing these in number every week, so they don't have quite the same punch as before, but they're still fun to watch. We see Aoi's toys flying planes and getting shot down by a "Retake Missile" when the author's bomb drops at the beginning of the episode, and the batting cage trip results in Aoi imagining an anime full of Goth Lolita-adorned girls playing baseball. (Which I would watch obsessively, and you would, too.) My favorite was the sequence where Aoi's toys were lost in the woods, looking for the "cute" path, and suddenly come upon the "Mighty Author" in robes, spinning riddles before they can pass. They have to choose which is "cuter" between two images, and the joke is that there is no difference, but they're punished anyway.
As much as this episode digs deeper into art-related despair than Shirobako has in a while, it's done this enough times that it's beginning to feel routine. This doesn't have the emotional impact it used to in episode 8. Still, the show is good at spreading these out, stacking up light-hearted episodes before dropping a heavy like this one. The Musani staff doesn't seem like they're completely out of the woods yet, as the author's final note accepting Iguchi's design is still lukewarm. So it'll be interesting to see if Shirobako can keep up the tonal balance in its remaining weeks.
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