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Episode 3

by Rose Bridges,

Today's episode started off with a bang, right from the title: "No More Recap Episodes!" It gave me high hopes for an episode showing us the sort of odd circumstances that cause something in the production to go horribly wrong, and lead a series to produce a clip show for air when it originally intended a regular episode. There are some interesting stories about this in the anime world (for example, when most of Studio BONES was affected by SARS and Wolf’s Rain had to air four clip shows in a row). Instead we got 24 minutes of Aoi rushing everywhere to coordinate everyone in order to prevent a recap episode, after a key player gets sick and falls asleep, among other things.

This episode was also very hard to follow, in spite of seemingly being organized around much more of a "core idea" than the previous two episodes of Shirobako. In episodes 1 and 2, we had big, dynamic conflicts interspersed with all the everyday stuff to keep us fascinated. The first episode juxtaposed Aoi's carefree school life with her stressful work life, and the second one focused on the team struggling to adapt to the director's radically and randomly changing vision of the main character (and culminated in them envisioning the characters coming alive on the desk). Those are the sorts of moments that make me believe in Shirobako as a show that will stay fresh enough to keep me entertained for two whole cours. This week, though, it was so focused on showing Aoi rushing around from crisis to crisis that it was easy to get lost in the deluge, which I did. "Workplace hijinks" only works if they're actually hijinks, and not just a trainwreck of mundane annoyances piling up. Characters also have to be allowed to react to the disaster honestly.

One of the main charms of Shirobako is how visually lush it is, and how detailed and precise its illustrations are of everything from the clutter strewn throughout animators' desks, to the computer desktops where the magic happens to bring Arupin and her friends to life. This is what really draws me into this show, and keeps me coming back every week so far: the gorgeous animation and art style really draw you into the world of Musashino Animation and what it's like to work there. That just makes it all the more artificial to me, though, when the camera pans away to the faces of its relentlessly doe-eyed female characters.

In spite of how much I talked about "realism" in my last review, I don't know if that's actually what I want from this show. But there's the kind of artificiality I can appreciate in workplace comedies—the over-the-top conflicts exaggerated far beyond what you'd expect in any real-life office, like the lead-in from last week's with the director about-facing on Arupin's character—and then here's what we've seen from Aoi's character in these first three episodes. It doesn't matter how much Aoi talks about being stressed out and ready to fall over. She still looks perky, wide-eyed and excited, no matter what. Even when she falls over from stress, she does it in a dainty, cute way, the way that you see in moe series where the teenage protagonist's only flaw is that she's "clumsy." While I've enjoyed my fair share of moe series, it's one thing to depict teenagers like that whose only conflict in life is their school club. It's another to apply it to grown, stressed-out working adults.

As much as Shirobako is a kind of otaku fantasy, I think it can only "have it both ways" to a certain degree and still succeed as the sort of entertainment it wants to be. "Slice of life" in anime is always somewhat more artificial than its title implies, either downplaying or exaggerating everyday foibles for escapist or comedic effect. Shirobako, however, poses itself as a window into the struggles of the actual anime world, making repeated visual references to actual key players in the industry (some of which are shown here)—but by rounding off enough of the edges to still keep things escapist. In trying to be both things, it's not quite one or the other, and I wish it would pick one and dedicate itself to it more thoroughly.

It would be nice if it allowed its characters some genuine conflict and turmoil, and didn't keep sacrificing that on the altar of moe fanservice. (Even as early as episode 3, you expect to see some signs of this.) It would be nice if it fleshed out its supporting cast as interesting people, beyond mere hurdles in Aoi's way or as a checklist of otaku stereotypes (as with the "Gothic Lolita" girl, who even the cast refers to as such). It would be nice if we spent more time on Aoi's other friends from her high school animation club days, and what they're up to now—and it looks like episode 4 will give us at least some of that, so I'm remaining hopeful.

But until I see some steps in that direction, it's hard for me to praise this series as much as I would like to. There needs to be more than eye-popping visuals, industry in-jokes and wish-fulfillment. I need a story and characters I can believe in, even if that story is just about "workplace hijinks," and it's just not quite there yet.

Rating: B-
Shirobako is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Rose is a graduate student in musicology, who has written about anime and many other topics for LGBT site Autostraddle.com and her own blog. She tweets at @composerose.

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