Shirobako
Episode 21

by Rose Bridges,

Shirobako is a difficult show to write about week to week. That's not a knock against it, though. It's the best kind of show that's hard to write about: it's consistently excellent, and often in the same ways. It's a pretty looking and sounding show. It's funny and heartwarming at the same time. It has excellent character development, especially considering its gigantic cast. Luckily, that last thing usually gives me something to analyze each week, and episode 21 was no different.

Prior to this episode, Hiraoka was easily my least favorite character. He'd overtaken even Tarou as the biggest thorn in the production team's side, but Hiraoka was far more trouble. Early on, this episode juxtaposed the two. Tarou may say annoying things, but he gets his work done. He may have an inflated sense of self-worth, but at least he doesn't stand in the way of getting episodes out. Hiraoka, on the other hand, has checked out mentally, and that means laziness and a lack of oversight. Not only the animation supervisor, but even his episode directors are complaining now about his sub-par work, and threatening to quit.

Then Shirobako does what it does so well, and uses this as an opportunity to make us sympathize with Hiraoka. That's a tall order, especially after he insulted Midori and Aoi this week. He accuses people who work ten times harder than he does of "not doing enough," while he's constantly cutting out early from meetings. It was really hard to like him! I think I do now though, and I'm sure having a kitten who rubs against him has nothing to do with that. More seriously: we learn about who he used to be, and how he got to the way he is now.

It turns out he knows Erika so well because they went to technical school together, and so did Isokawa, the head of a new studio who comes by to deliver key frames. Both share their experiences with the younger Hiraoka with Aoi, and she's shocked to learn that he used to be passionate about making anime, certain it was the career for him and gushing about which shows he'd make one day. He was even a responsible leader in their school days, putting together festival committees. It's shocking that Hiraoka fell so far, and it makes you wonder what specifically pushed him over the edge. It's also interesting that Erika and Isokawa were slackers in their school days, but now seem far more productive and driven. It certainly explains why Hiraoka has so much resentment toward Aoi and her friends. They're still full of idealism about the industry and the big dreams they plan to achieve. They have dealt with hard jobs and the harsh realities of how the anime industry runs, but still keep up their optimism. It's maddening to him, because something about the process succeeded in breaking him. He can't see why this doesn't tear them down, and he wants to bring them down to his level so he's not alone in his misery.

It's a pretty familiar tale for many people, and it's one of many ways that Shirobako is anime's most realistic office dramedy. Characters in these shows are usually unrealistically perky, presenting an ideal of their industry. Shirobako isn't exactly glum, but it doesn't pull the punches about how unforgiving and tireless working in anime can be. It's far from the otaku fantasy that I thought it would be way back in episode 1. Shirobako serves up fun insider tidbits about how sakuga moments get made or how famous directors act behind the scenes, but it also reminds otaku to get a reality check before they decide they want to be animators or seiyuu. The people who work in anime put a lot into their work, and you need to make sure you have the stamina for it.

On the other end of things, Shirobako reminds us that a lot of old-timers are far from jaded. It continues last week's theme of "why do we make anime?" by giving us Isokawa and Erika's reasons, among others. Isokawa is Hiraoka in reverse: he was going through the motions until he took some time to watch anime's creative forces at work. He was inspired by the creators' talents, and wanted to make a place for them to run free—which inspired him to create his own studio. The industry changes everyone, but all in different ways! Isokawa tells Aoi about the importance of knowing when to get out of anime, when she mentions Honda quitting to work at the cake shop. Then the conversation turns to just why neither of them would ever quit, and leaves you with a smile on your face. As usual, this show serves up the ugly truth with a spoonful of sugar.

In doing so, it leaves the audience optimistic for where Hiraoka could go, with more optimistic people like Aoi to guide him. After spending all episode fleshing him out and making him more sympathetic, the show (and Aoi) gives him a second chance. He accepts it, even with all the caveats in place to make sure he works harder. With all this, Shirobako pulled off an incredible feat of humanizing its most unlikable character. It continues to top my expectations, even with only three episodes to go.

Rating: A

Shirobako is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Rose is a musicologist who studies film music. She writes about anime and many other topics on Autostraddle.com, her blog and her Twitter


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