Series Review: SHIROBAKO

Don-don-don’t you just wanna watch it all over again?

I did my ample best to keep the spoilers mild and vague, so if you’re coming into this show for the first time, you’re safe to hit the jump and check it out. I swear it’ll be worth your while.

You know it’s a good anime season when you’re compelled to write full reviews and essays about nearly every show you’re watching, and most of those reviews boil down to: It was great! I’m watching the Death Parade finale in a couple hours and fully expect to be as emotionally devastated as I was after Tokyo Ghoul, so I figured before I did that to myself, I’d stop in to talk to you about the magic that is SHIROBAKO.

So what is SHIROBAKO, exactly? The opening scene will lead you to believe it’s the story of five young women, friends from school who all move to Tokyo to live out their dreams of creating anime. Each works in a different field of the business (production, animation, CG, voice acting, and writing) and each faces their own unique struggles to not only land jobs, but to become respected professionals in their own right—and, perhaps most importantly, to figure out why they’re doing this work in the first place.

And don’t get me wrong: This is all true, and these (capable, hardworking, sometimes insecure, sometimes frustrated) women form the center of the story; particularly Miyamori Aoi, the production assistant around whom everyone else more-or-less rotates. But SHIROBAKO is about the entire crew at Musashino Animation, the studio where Aoi and animator Ema both work once the series settles into its present-day timeline, and about the hectic work that goes in to making anime.

The series makes a risky but (in retrospect) smart decision to toss the names of pretty much everyone who works at Musashino across the screen rapidfire during the first episode, but if you’re confused, I encourage you to stick with it. This sets the tone of near-panic through which Aoi runs during much of the first season, and gives you a better sense of what it’s like to handle all these different names, faces, and occupations as a production assistant.

More importantly, the show’s writing team (a group of ladies known as Michiko Yokote) clearly know all of these individuals intimately, even if we at home do not, and spend the next 24 episodes getting you to understand and, ultimately, love them. SHIROBAKO has two great strengths, and the way it invests you in so many of its characters’ hopes, successes, and struggles provides the emotional core of the series, and makes it easy to root for these guys to succeed.

SHIROBAKO’s second great strength is that, as much as it loves its characters, it may very well love anime more. I admit that at first I was a little underwhelmed with the series because I thought it was sugarcoating some of its humor and criticisms of the industry. I kept foolishly trying to compare it to 30 Rock, but honestly, that was my problem, not the show’s, because it was never trying to be that and probably wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if it had been. If we’re going to compare SHIROBAKO to a great lady-led NBC sitcom, then it’s more akin to Parks and Recreation: frequently funny, occasionally prone to absurdism and sharp critiques, but ultimately warmhearted, optimistic, and firmly rooted in telling a story through flawed but well-meaning and likable characters.

On top of being pretty darn educational (you’ll learn a fair amount about the animation process along the way, although of course it won’t make you an expert anymore than watching The West Wing will make you an expert on U.S. politics), it reminds both its characters and its audience of the rich history behind the medium, and the hard work and dedication creators continue to pour into these projects (even ones like the show’s fake anime Exodus, which, let’s be honest, looks pretty awful).

The series has two perfect episodes in its second half: One is a quiet, meditative look at anime of the past; the other is a look into the future, as a manga creator and anime director come together to share a vision, and one struggling professional gets “one step closer to her dream.” It also doesn’t hurt that it features one of the best animated and funniest sequences of the…ever?… in a western-style showdown complete with strumming guitars and named finishing moves.

Obviously SHIROBAKO isn’t perfect—it’s decision to throw a lot of characters at you can make it difficult to get invested in the early episodes; while the writing for the mixed-gender cast is very good, it’s a little annoying that the character designs for the guys are significantly more diverse (both in facial shapes and body types) than the ladies; it takes a couple of potshots at overweight characters that some may find upsetting (although it kinda makes up for it in a wonderfully triumphant scene in the penultimate episode); and its earnestness can occasionally veer into the realm of saccharine and cheesy.

But taken as a whole, this is a delightful series, full of bright and expressive animation and music, with a story that became surprisingly tense and emotional in its later episodes and was full of solid comedy and character development from start to finish. The cast of SHIROBAKO often wonders and worries about the future of anime. If that future includes shows made with as much thought, humor, and heart as this one, then this medium may just make it after all.

Series Review: A

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