by Rose Bridges,
Eight episodes into Shirobako, I'm beginning to notice a pattern—at least, a pattern in "what works" for the series. Each episode has a basic unifying theme or principle, and that episode focuses on how this idea affects a few different characters across its wide cast. The exact set of characters varies each time, which has the effect of both fleshing out its ensemble and showing how people in artistic fields all have similar struggles. Be they writers, actors, animators or directors, every creator deals with different permutations of the same hurdles. There are exceptions to this pattern—last week focused almost solely on Ema to great effect—but that's the general groove Shirobako has settled into.
This tactic allows the series to be relatable to any artist, even to a lot of young working people in general. We've all struggled with seeing our dreams not pan out and having to change them, hitting walls and wondering how we'll keep chugging along, dealing with eccentric or perfectionist bosses, and so on. As much as Shirobako resembles K-ON! aesthetically, and in terms of its character-writing in early episodes, over time it's become more like the anti-K-ON!. It's not even just because it's about adults instead of teens, but because it is committed to an unrelenting "realness."
In fact, it's almost too real, in good and bad ways. In the "bad" sense, Shirobako can focus so much on the day-to-day that it gets bogged down in dull minutia. This is what made some of the earlier episodes hard to follow, and it showed up a little bit in this episode too, in the form of office water-cooler arguments. Of course, the "good" comes from the emotional honesty the show allows itself when digging into its characters and their arcs. This week was all about those arcs, because it was all about goals.
Shirobako has dealt with "goals" before, as when expectations don't match reality, and you have to modify goals as your interests change (like when Zuka decided she wants to pursue play-acting alongside voice-acting). This episode expanded on the topic, exploring personal goals as well as career ones. Aoi's neighbor sets goals for himself as a cyclist and dreams of racing, while producer Yutaka Honda loves to work on improving his cooking when no one's looking. Meanwhile, we got to develop another of our main characters—aspiring writer Midori (aka "Rii-chan")—through her conversations with their starry-eyed visiting friend (and Aoi's sister). College girl Midori has found she loves the novels of Dostoevsky and wants to write like him, but such a high bar makes her screenwriter dream seem that much further out of reach. (I feel you, girl. I remember when The Brothers Karamazov changed my life too.) "Nee-chan," the visiting friend, provides a good foil to all this too; she's starry-eyed by everything in Tokyo, and reminds the characters that as far as they still have to go, they've come quite a long way already.
The best thing about this episode is that Shirobako manages not to drop its existing conflict to explore another one. It continues Ema's story from last week and actually ties it into this week's theme. Ema's problem is that she's simultaneously bogged down in the details of her current work but also too tunnel-visioned. She's worried that she'll never be as good as the more experienced animators around here because she's not there yet, and that causes her to laser-focus on her flaws. When she begins to hallucinate that her images are blurring together, her new friend and fellow animator Iguchi takes her on a walk to get her mind off it. Along the way, Iguchi lends some of her own sage wisdom, proving that reaching out for help is often the best way to get out of a rut. It's an emotionally satisfying resolution for Ema's problem, but it doesn't tie everything up in a neat little bow. Ema will likely continue to struggle, but she'll be better for it, and learn how to bounce back from it the way her friends do.
Shirobako wasn't as unified this week as it was last time, when it was purely Ema's story. It jumped around a little between characters and subplots in ways that didn't always land. It was still excellent though, raising interesting themes about creativity and adulthood, and fleshing out its characters further. Let's hope the series continues on this upswing.
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