by Rose Bridges,
Man, this episode was a sad one. I usually expect Shirobako to cheer me up, since it's a "soothing anime" and all. Instead, I had to get through an entire batch of weepy '60s folk music afterward to process my feelings. As usual, Shirobako's material is especially poignant if you've ever struggled your way through a creative field, and what Ema experiences is one of the more dispiriting parts of trying to "live the dream."
Luckily, you don't need that familiarity to get a little weepy this week. Ema's come into her own as a character, and the best aspect of this episode is how much it defines her as a person, separate from her relationship with her friends. Until now, it was difficult to pin down what made each of our main girls different, other than their career choices and the vaguest descriptors. ("Ema's kinda shy. Zuka likes to drink.") Here, we get a real picture of what separates Ema from her friends—especially Aoi and Zuka, the other two of the five who've had their own focus episodes. They say the measure of a person is how they deal with adversity, and boy does Ema ever go through the ringer this time.
Each of the characters has her own way of dealing with problems. Aoi tries to put on a perky smile and pretend everything is fine, at least on the outside. She'll convince herself that she's happy, and at least convinces others in the process, and gets her work done. Zuka takes things a little harder, but she's still able to pick herself back up with a little encouragement and distraction. Having a few drinks, and learning that she has other appealing career options is just enough to lift her spirits at least temporarily, and help her put things in perspective. However, when Ema falls, she falls hard, and part of that is due to just how much of herself she drills into everything.
Ema is a workaholic, admired by her friends for how much "seat time" she clocks, but hard work isn't always enough on its own. This is especially true when you've got a tight deadline. These deadlines can be friend to the bullcrap artist full of raw talent and dumb luck, but foe to more conscientious people like Ema. She's also very insecure, as revealed by her conversation with the older male animator who sits next to her. She knows she was hired more for her work ethic than her innovative style, and she despairs over ever becoming as "natural" as her senior animators like Goth-Loli-sama, seen effortlessly sketching away in the next cubicle. Luckily, this man lets her in on the truth that simply learning to draw fast can get you far, and that artistic "talent" comes more from years of practice than by chance. This long-term hope encourages her a little, but not enough to undo her disappointment at such an extreme short-term setback. She takes the setback so poorly that she seems to think it will get her fired, if her conversation with Aoi near the end is any indication. All of this fills the gaps richly in Ema's existing character outline, making even viewers who can't relate to her struggles feel sympathy for her.
This episode had a lot fewer "visually stunning" moments, unlike previous ones that featured sojourns around town and extensive flashbacks. Even the episode's other subplot—Aoi's friend visiting from out of town—largely took place in Aoi's apartment, not requiring the sweeping cityscapes of previous outings. Still, the direction and animation was strong and competent, as is always true with this show. (Clearly, the real-life Emas of P.A. Works have nothing to worry about here.) This was a much smaller, more personal drama, requiring more close-ups on its characters' faces as they emoted, and less movement around gorgeous environments. The most unusual parts of the episode were segments of the company's infamous former production, Jiggly Jiggly Heaven, that is fast turning into the show's metaphor for "everything that could possibly go wrong." The segment is used inventively here, first as comedy as we watch its jiggly protagonist fall apart, then more dramatically when Aoi recalls it as she hears that Ema's animation displays similar problems. That's Shirobako for you: bringing out the pathos even in poorly-animated bouncing boobs.
Shirobako has grown by leaps and bounds since its early, "workplace-hijinks"-based episodes, and now shows that it has the capability to handle whatever it wants to try—not just visually, but writing-wise too. These characters have shown enough depth that we can root for them all on their own, and not just through familiarity of their situations. The cutting drama is just as believable as the goofy comedy. If Shirobako continues in this direction, it could prove itself to be something not just entertaining and thoughtful, but truly original and great.
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