Sunday, April 30, 2017

[Anime] Shirobako Review

Shirobako – 8.5/10

“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“…satisfaction has to be seen as lying in a considerable series of transactions, in a trend of behavior rather than a goal achieved.” - Robert White

Shirobako is a charming ode to teamwork and dedication.  Composed of equal parts humor, friendship, and stress (okay, mostly stress), it follows the everyday trials of Miyamori Aoi, a novice production assistant at Musashino Animation, as well as the experiences of her close friends from high school.  Together they have sworn to make an anime together some day and have entered into various anime-related fields (animation, CG, voice acting, and writing) to pursue this dream.  What raises Shirobako above the hordes of “cute girls” series is that at the core it has a firm grasp on both the pressure that young people experience entering the work force as well as the joy that comes from dedication to that same work. 

This grounding is what sustains Shirobako.  It is the fountain from which all its best elements flow, and the writers knew this.  There is no high drama, just the mundane interactions between people at an anime studio.  Action would be disingenuous, and romance distracting.  It has a great deal of friendship, but it is the subdued variety, reserved for professional relationships and after-hours relaxation.  It also tastefully declines to stoop to boorish fan service, being confident enough in its foundation to stay the course.

By sticking to its core themes, Shirobako allows us to follow along with the journey and, if we’re lucky, get just a small taste for ourselves.

The Good:

Increasing research shows that the crucial elements of happiness and satisfaction in life are a result of having one’s skills and interests be aligned with the task at hand, and that the result of these labors produces something of value to the world.  Shirobako takes these rarefied ideas and communicates them with a special verve that only a story can contain.  As a viewer, I experienced viscerally the struggle and uncertainty many of the characters were going through as they forged toward their dreams.  The simple challenges of overcoming self-doubt, frustration with failure, and the fear that their best was not good enough were eminently relatable.  And mixed in occasionally, those shining moments where all that they have endured comes together, and the realization that they have truly accomplished something sinks in.  Rarely has a series caused me to empathize so much with the seemingly trivial, yet vitally human, feelings of its cast.

The best of this is seen in Miyamori.  When people think of meaningful jobs, production assistant does not make the list.  The natural choice would have been to focus on a creative role, such as director or senior animator experiencing a grand sense of self-actualization.  Instead she is an office worker, organizing time tables and acting as the go-between for the departments.  It is thoroughly non-heroic work.  After all this talk of vital engagement, she seems a poor vantage point to see it in action.  And yet, we are pleasantly surprised.  It is not the job that makes the meaning, but the way it is approached.  Miyamori’s sincerity and struggles are not diminished for the apparently unremarkable nature of her job.  There is an art to being the one in between, and it is no second-hand happiness to support others. (Significant spoiler)

Supporting others is a "win-win" situation.

Miyamori’s sister also deserves mention for her role as a foil to what goes on with the main characters.  When she first visited I found her obnoxious, but she grew on me as I understood the source of her behavior.  Her job was meaningless.  Every day she put on a meek disposition and followed the company line.  It was a potent reminder that not all work led to the experiences that Miyamori (junior) had.  What I had tagged as “excessive” made more sense in light of realizing how she had to express herself elsewhere, for her everyday life was nothing more than a way to pay the bills.  By the time she left, I felt a bit sorry for her; it put what was happening in Shirobako into perspective.

Paired with these themes of fulfillment (or lack thereof) is a pointed expression of what it is like to be a young adult first stepping into the world.  In high school dreams seemed easy and exciting, but now real life has overtaken them.  Each of the girls face their own challenges, from figuring out their passions to improving their craft.  It is disorienting, terrifying, and exhilarating all at once.  Shizuka is particularly compelling.  She spends most of the series on the sidelines, not knowing whether she’ll ever make it into the hyper-competitive field of voice acting.  It was a bittersweet mixture to see her continued dedication in the face of repeated disappointments.  As somebody who never experienced such pressure, it came through loud and clear.  Once again I was impressed by the effectiveness with which the series explored this feeling while not becoming overly burdened by it.

Stupid tires...

Finally, no praise of Shirobako would be complete without mentioning its insight into the anime industry.  While I am certain that somebody will stop me and clarify that some parts were not accurate (I highly doubt that the average studio has such a high density of attractive young women), I came away from it feeling I knew more about what went into the process.  It heightened my appreciation for the blood, sweat, and tears that go into anime’s creation, as well as the generational sense of how anime has evolved as a tradition.  The episode where they visited the old building was easily one of my favorites for showing how our current characters were carrying on a tradition, putting into perspective that their current struggles were what would create the foundation for the future.  In the end, it simply made me grateful for the anime I have come to enjoy.

The Bad:

Characters in Shirobako are not particularly developed.  This is not a bad thing.  Arguably, too much individual detail would fatally sidetrack it with a cast of this size.  It is best to hint at the depth of everybody with occasional glimpses rather than attempt to fully explore them.  However, this approach only works when we are given reason to respect the characters, and there are a few that come to mind that fail this test miserably.

The worst offender is clearly Tarou, Miyamori’s coworker at the production desk.  Despite featuring prominently in nearly every episode, he has absolutely no development.  He exists purely for comedic relief.  The series passed by several opportunities to enrich him.  Something as minor as a serious answer to why he worked in anime would have sufficed.  To know that there was somebody in there who had serious, realistic needs and dreams would have gone a long way.  I also had a love-hate relationship with Kinoshita (the director) as well.  We do have some reasons to value him, but he was cast in such an unfavorable light that it seemed like the message was often, “pity the silly fat man.”  It’s important to show that people have faults and can still work together as a team, but these two felt entirely defined by their flaws.

There's unimpressed, and then there's Miyamori unimpressed.

Also on the topic of mediocre characters, the dolls that represent Miyamori’s thoughts wore out their welcome part way through the series.  Early on, they were a clever way of showing her inner monologue: she wasn’t a perfect angel but had several conflicting impulses, many of which were not generous.  But somewhere around the halfway point the dolls began to take on a more active role, narrating scenes and explaining situations.  These were no longer Miyamori’s thoughts for herself, but obvious expositions for the audience.  This expansion of the role felt unnatural and ultimately made the dolls feel ridiculous.

Finally, I struggled with some of the sillier aspects of Shirobako.  Above I praised the series on how grounded its drama was, not relying on artificial inflation.  They unfortunately did not follow the same strategy with the comedy, which had a tendency toward complete ridiculousness.  The scene at the end where the director storms the office building was humorous….and completely out of place for the importance of the situation.  It took me out of the flow and dulled the impact of the rest of the episode.  This was also true on occasions when the series tried to push the emotional moments with odd…hallucinations; the three girls of Exodus! and the boat with the warriors appearing at the end stood out to me as simply poor directing choices that toed the line between strange and sentimental.

Speaking of Exodus!, my own personal enjoyment of the series was often impaired knowing that despite the wonderful teamwork that was going on, it was all for such run-of-the-mill trash series.  I know it doesn’t invalidate their experiences together, but it made me sigh a little to know it was all to bring such vapid stories to life.

I entered into watching Shirobako with many reservations.  It seemed too flippant, too reliant on cute girls and cheap sentimentality.  I was gladly mistaken.  Shirobako is a series that is entertaining, informative, and genuinely touching.  It holds its level of quality to the end and is a recommended watch for anime viewers.

"Joy’s soul lies in the doing.” – Shakespeare

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