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Episode 5

by Rose Bridges,

Last week, I said that Shirobako worked best when it focused on the main characters and their struggles to break into the anime industry. Episode 4 put them center-stage, making it by far the most compelling for me at that point. However, this week did the complete opposite: showcasing its ensemble while pushing our leads to the sidelines. (Only one of them besides Aoi appeared, and she was barely there.) Still, it worked just as well—if not better!

This week's episode zeroed in on three characters—animator Endou, director Kinoshita, and Aoi's friend (or maybe more?) Takashita—who have all had some measure of development or prominence in previous episodes. This week was focused on fleshing them out, giving them backstories and interpersonal problems, as well as just having fun with them. We've seen enough of these guys to have an outline for who they are and what they want out of the anime industry, so now it's time to color them in. Also, because the show has allowed them to have faults and rough edges in a way it hasn't done for our cute protagonists, the pathos is meatier.

My favorite parts of the episode were those focusing on director Kinoshita, who is fast becoming my favorite character. This week, he's literally locked away in a prison cell (!) in the animation studio to force him to finish storyboarding Exodus's final episode. As you'd expect, this set-up allows for a lot of comedy: Kinoshita can only leave to go the bathroom, monitored, and cries over being denied his favorite food, fried chicken, until he's finished at least one page. At the same time, his solitude allows for some drama too. We learn that he was a celebrated, even award-winning director in the past, making work with crossover appeal to non-otaku and even the overseas market. Then his booby-licious pet project tanked, and he wasn't taken seriously for years—reduced to merely the occasional OVA or web series. Exodus is his chance for a comeback, though as we saw in earlier episodes, some of its viewers can't get over their low expectations for him. To make matters worse, Kinoshita is unmotivated as ever, requiring incarceration to get anything done.

The other two storylines trend more toward one end of the drama-comedy spectrum than the other. Endou's story, where he threatens to quit the company over their transition to 3D from hand-drawn animation, is on the serious end, where Takashita's woes as the dateless wonder are firmly in the land of silliness. Still, there's more of a focus on these characters as people who the viewers can laugh at and relate to at the same time. It's this emotional connection that sells the show, and the last two episodes of Shirobako have proved it capable of that depth.

Plotting-wise, Shirobako works best when it's focused around a few basic ideas. The focus on the technological changes in animation this episode and Kinoshita's storyboarding troubles in the last episode both provided that. When there's just one overarching idea (as in episode 3), the show tends to stretch itself too thin. When there are too many ideas, the show jumps back and forth so quickly that it's hard to follow, especially in the early episodes when not everyone is established enough to be recognizable. As the series goes on and becomes more comfortable in its own skin, Shirobako might be able to tweak this balance more, but so far the "few ideas" formula works best for it.

One aspect of Shirobako that I haven't discussed much is its musical score, which plays a big role in toggling emotional expectations. While it's not nearly as unique as the rest of the show, it certainly is charming. The music is also good at transitioning from the gentler melodies that characterize more dramatic moments to the sleazy jazz licks that pump up the comedy. It's a nice variety, just interesting enough to be noticeable without overpowering a show where you need to pay close attention visually.

Shirobako is such an unusual show that it would be worth a look even if it continued the monotonous workplace-hijinks formula of the first few episodes. Of course, it's more ideal that something this special has the added emotional pull to reel in viewers for its full two cours. The last two episodes, the strongest in the series so far, make the best case that it could be remembered even after its run has ended.

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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