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Episode 4

by Rose Bridges,

This episode shows the most promise of the series so far in its very first minute. We see Shizuka "Zuka" Sakaki—the redhead in Aoi's group of high school friends—practicing her lines on the subway. When she gets to more impassioned scenes (heavy breathing is involved), the people around her can't help but give her strange looks. It's an amusing (if not a particularly original) gag that shows we're already moving the focus away from Aoi to her other former classmates, and Zuka is already more interesting than the happy-go-lucky production assistant.

I'm not sure what it is, but something about this episode fixed the problems I had with previous ones where struggles didn't feel "real" because of how the characters had to maintain their charm and cuteness throughout the day. That still holds true, but there's another measure of authenticity here that makes it so I don't really care. I think it's because the episode focused primarily on the main characters and especially on Zuka, whose audition scenes were more compelling than all the rushing-around with files and snacks of the past three weeks.

I've said before that Shirobako can be hard to follow, but one of the places where it's hardest is with its characters. Each episode throws so many new faces at you with minimal introduction, and it's very hard to keep track of all of them. With the exception of Aoi and some of her more distinctive-looking coworkers (such as "Goth-Loli-sama"), I find I have to search the internet frequently just to keep track of who is who. Now that we're getting back to more distinctive, protagonist-level characters, this is no longer necessary. It feels like there's some real compelling motion here, and not just episodic hijinks with gorgeous animation and art, like the eye-popping cityscapes shown during Aoi and friends' downtown get-together.

Focusing on the main characters means meatier problems and character relationships. Part of why the series has failed to grab me up until this point is that I just can't bring myself to care about two-dimensional office workers I've only seen in brief vignettes. Even the ones with more prominence—like the Seiji Mizushima-like director—are more comic relief than people with potentially interesting arcs. With the five girls from the animation club, we've already seen them grow from wide-eyed teens to working adults. Even if it's only in the space of a few scenes, we've seen what their dreams were and how adulthood has or hasn't adjusted to them. Even something as small as Zuka watching their high school club production alone in her apartment, and reminiscing about when it premiered achieves this much-needed draw. It's these small moments that make Shirobako work, and reminds us why Zuka (and by extension, her friends) are here in the first place, especially after her frantic audition.

In spite of this, none of the girls have very distinctive personalities yet. Their meet-up is probably the most "K-ON! but with grown-ups" scene in the show so far: cute, nondescript girls show what good friends they are, with only small nods to more individual traits and interests. (The animator discusses the animation in the movie they watched! The voice actress discusses the acting! The girl who's still in college is amazed by how knowledgeable and professional her friends sound!) Of course, there's a certain appeal to this soothing, muted slice-of-life—that's why it's often called "healing" anime—and Shirobako does cover enough of the actual struggles of adulthood, the working world and trying to "live the dream" that it doesn't feel too escapist.

It also doesn't hurt that this week's smaller, moment-by-moment jokes feel more universal than they have in weeks past. What twenty-something can't relate to the sudden realization they actually like the taste of beer, and wondering if it means they're "grown-up" now? What person in a creative field can't see themselves in Ema's statement about the differences between drawing for fun, and doing it on the clock with a boss hovering over your shoulder? If you've suffered through the spirit-killer that is job searching, you can also see a little of yourself in Zuka's frustration at listening to her regularly-employed friends complain about work. The list goes on.

Aoi and her high school friends are the key to whether this story can survive the full two cours it's meant to run. One-off goofy conflicts between her repetitive coworkers and wink-nudge references to industry names can only hold water for so long. It's the character drama and the thematic meat of expectations vs. reality and the difficulties of working to achieve your dream job that will show if Shirobako is worth the hype. Episode four is the best indication so far that it has that potential. Hopefully, future episodes can continue in its stead.

Rating: A-

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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