Warning: Watching SHIROBAKO may trigger flashbacks of finals weeks and thesis deadlines.
The timing for this show is almost eerie, because shortly before the start of the fall season I had a friend ask me for “the anime version of 30 Rock,“ and I couldn’t think of a single series until I caught the premiere for this one.
Mind you, SHIROBAKO is nowhere near as great as that gem of a sitcom, but I think the comparison sort of works: This is a true-to-the-spirit (if not the exact letter) “backstage” look at the anime industry, confident yet crazy, with a hearty dose of Murphy’s Law and some surreal absurdity (Miyamori’s talking plushies, that ridiculous moe hallucination) thrown in for good measure. Every episode gets a few good laughs out of me while also leaving me a little breathless and nearly as frantic as the staff members themselves. Some may (understandably) see this as a negative, but it’s working for me, particularly given that the show is more about tone and setting than individual characters at this point.
This is a workplace action/comedy with a strong emphasis on “work,” and as such many of the characters spin past too quickly to leave any real impression. I know them better by what they do than who they are, which I think is intentional but, at the same time, makes it hard to form any personal connections.
I’ve also noticed that it’s easier for me to keep track of the male characters than the female ones, which has a lot to do with their designs: There are a lot of very distinct-looking men on this series, but all of the women have the same basic, generically “cute” body type, facial shape, and vocal qualities, which makes them harder to tell apart. (This is both annoying and ironic, given that the women are technically the MCs.) We may be getting a “breather” episode next week, though, so hopefully that will give the writers time to flesh out the individuals behind the job titles.
There’s a delicate balance at play in the presentation of this show, although I’m not sure if it’s actually there or if I just want it to be there. I talk about “sneaky subversion” sometimes with fiction, and what I mean by that is that the satire or criticism is subtle or “quiet” enough that you can (and many will) enjoy the series at face value, without acknowledging the satirical elements. I think SHIROBAKO may be one of those shows, as demonstrated by that extensive (and hilarious) argument about exactly what counts as “moe.”
The characters themselves discuss the concept of moe with passion and zeal, but the word is thrown around so much and in so many different ways that it ceases to mean anything by the end of the argument. The scene even culminates in a magical girl hallucination complete with opera singers and heavenly lights, only serving to highlight the absurdity of the moment.
And sure, you could take this as a silly visual representation of that “Eureka Moment” when an idea/character becomes fully-formed in the artist’s mind, but it’s played in such an over-the-top fashion that I’m led to believe the writer/director are having a sharper laugh: mocking the romanticization of creativity as well as this idea of moe as some kind of “pure” force. As the rest of the series shows, making an anime isn’t nearly so glamorous: While there is certainly some artistry involved in certain projects, its primarily a lot of people working insanely hard at fairly mundane tasks for fairly mundane reasons. These characters may like their jobs, but they’re still very much jobs.
If there is indeed a goal behind this series (besides providing a few laughs), then perhaps it’s to both satirize popular trends in anime and show the grime behind the gloss, including the very practical and callous concerns driving a lot of productions. The series hasn’t quite committed to that yet, but there have been glimmers that it’s willing to at least occasionally go there. As it stands, SHIROBAKO is a highly enjoyable and somewhat educational series, and I look forward to watching it next week. But if it wants to be something truly memorable, then I hope it pushes on those ideas more, and lets its humor get a little darker and more biting than the “cute girl” cover art implies.