Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Sub.Blu-Ray - Collection 2
The new year has come and gone, and with it comes a year's worth of new challenges for Musani Productions. Having proven her worth on the production of Exodus, Aoi Miyamori is promoted to production desk for the studio's newest show, an adaptation of Third Aerial Girls Squad. This new position will put the whole weight of the production on Aoi's back, as she struggles to corral her useless director, questionable subordinates, and perpetually overworked animators. Meanwhile, all of Aoi's high school friends deal with their own career struggles, questioning their path and burning themselves out and hoping for that big break that may never come. The grind never gets easier in Shirobako.
Shirobako's first half ended with Aoi Miyamori just barely saving the production of Exodus, thanks to a handy tip from none other than Hideaki Anno himself. Having clearly proven herself as one of the most competent and enthusiastic members of the Musani team, she is promoted to production desk for the studio's next series - an adaptation of the highly successful Third Aerial Girls Squad manga. As of now, Aoi Miyamori's duties include practically everything, as she rushes between consultations with the director, meetings with outside animation firms, negotiations with other members of the production committee, and dealings with virtually everyone else who plays any part in the production of a living, breathing anime production.
It was a smart choice for Shirobako to initially start in the middle of Exodus's production, as it let the audience come to know the everyday routine of the show's characters at the pace they themselves experienced it. But in truth, the steps necessary for creating an anime start long before the completion of its first episode, and so for its second half, Shirobako starts all the way at the beginning. Aoi's new responsibilities put her on the ground floor of Aerial Girls' production, letting us panic alongside her through every step of the process.
Shirobako's humorous but steady exploration of all the various steps of anime production remains one of its greatest strengths. One episode is almost entirely dedicated to a debate about potential voice actresses, with the various interests of the different committee members making for a ridiculous farce of a negotiation. At other points, Aoi is forced to convince top tier background artists to commit their passion to her project, or learn how to successfully delegate to subordinates in order to not lose her mind. As a pure workplace drama, Shirobako both represents something fairly unique within anime and also offers a rare and compelling glimpse behind the curtain of how anime is made.
All the other strengths that made the first part great are also in ready appearance in Shirobako's second half. The show treads a careful line between grounded career drama and comic whimsy - all of the struggles its characters experience are very believable, but the little flourishes here and there make the show far more charming than most dedicated comedies. When the new character designer hits a rut in her work, the senior artist “Gothloli-sama” takes the whole gang out for batting practice, leading to a ridiculous sequence of pitches that play off classic anime forms, as well as a legitimately convincing explanation of why Gothloli-sama always dresses like a gothic lolita. Shirobako's director Tsutomu Mizushima is an absolute master of pacing and comedic timing - his works rarely possess an ostentatious visual personality, but they are uniformly excellent when it comes to just being fun and easy to watch. Shirobako's offhand humor and ability to propulsively juggle half a dozen career struggles makes it one of the most simultaneously rich and marathonable shows in recent memory.
On top of Shirobako's built-in strengths, the show's second half also features far more standout emotional moments than the first. Aoi and her four high school friends are all progressing in their careers in very different ways, meaning the show is able to tackle a variety of believable life crises. Ema has to juggle advancing her craft while working to train her own subordinates, and through doing so learns that teaching others is one of the best ways to come to a better understanding of yourself. Ri-chan balances schoolwork with Aoi's research assignments in order to feel she's not taking advantage of her parents, and ultimately finds herself stumbling sideways into an unexpected career. And Zuka continues to plug away at the voice acting grind, taking assignments and working odd jobs and generally coming to accept the raw unfairness of the career landscape.
It's Zuka's story that harbors many of the gut punches of this second half. There's one subtly devastating moment early on, where we see her sipping a beer in her dark bedroom while staring at a successful voice actress on a talk show - a voice actress we actually saw auditioning alongside her back near the beginning of the series. Hearing the girl fret about her career troubles, Zuka mumbles about how she'd happily take those burdens, her eyes dimly reflecting the screen. It's a moment that anyone who's experienced a real career stumble can relate to, and just one example of the many times Shirobako eases off the humor and really twists the knife. Shirobako may not focus on saving the world or toppling some evil empire, but its emotional moments feel heartfelt and climactic just the same.
It'd be unfair of me to spoil any more of Zuka's story, but suffice it to say, it ultimately plays into Shirobako's resounding affirmation of the power of art to unite us. Shirobako often makes the anime life seem harsh and thankless, but it's simultaneously infused with a sincere belief in how important creating passionate work is. The characters of Shirobako don't receive simple happy endings - they may successfully finish one show, but that just means another trial is on the way. But for all its fatigued perspective, the show is ultimately a fond love letter to the industry it represents.
Shirobako's aesthetics remain consistently polished in its second half. The layouts and background art aren't truly beautiful, but that's not really the point of this show. Scenes are constructed in the ways that best facilitate Shirobako's sitcom aesthetic; they're set up to enable jokes or simply convey information, giving us a clear view of the world Shirobako's characters inhabit. In spite of that, the show does have a variety of visual flourishes that give it some personality. The sequences done in the styles of other shows are always great; occasional snippets of Aerial Girls are a given, but even better are the moments where we dip into Aoi's childhood favorite, Andes Chucky. At other times, the self-aggrandizing Musani director imagines himself standing defiantly in a maid costume, or sprinting down the studio as a lone ranger. On top of that, the show is full of great expression work and lifted by occasional standout fragments of smooth animation. Shirobako isn't a stunner in the art department, but it has plenty of visual personality and offers no real reason for complaint.
The sound design is likewise more functional than outstanding, a clean mix of instrumental tracks with a perky opening and closing song (sadly, this opening isn't quite as catchy as the Myamori beer-run jingle of the first half). Fortunately, Sentai have upgraded their release a bit for this second half. There still aren't any meaningful extras and no dub, but the show has mercifully been split across two disks this time, resulting in a cleaner visual experience.
Overall, I strongly recommend Shirobako to anyone interested in learning more about the anime industry, anyone who has a fondness for character-focused dramas, anyone who likes comedies, or anyone who's open to something that's just generally high quality, even if it's outside their usual genre wheelhouse. Shirobako is a hilarious, heartbreaking, perpetually charming adventure, full of endearing characters and constantly impressing with new tricks. It doesn't get much better than this.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ A consistently funny and emotionally rich drama full of great characters and fun insights into the anime industry.
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