Shirobako – On Cynical Optimism

Shirobako animeShirobako ended in the only way it could, and in the way its narrative arc had outlined from the beginning. Shirobako ended on an optimistic note, and I felt betrayed by it.

Since like many of the best pieces of media out there, Shirobako is about life, and since this post, as is the case with most of what people write, will hinge upon my personal experiencing of it, mediated through my own experiences, I will now get to do what bloggers the world over love doing: Write a bit about myself. Also, that sure was a long sentence.

I’m not an old person, but I definitely fall under the heading of “adult”, and am older than what the average anime-watcher in online communities is. I’ve served three years in the military, and between my B.A. and M.A. had the opportunity (and need) to work for several years, full-time. I’m no stranger to insufferable co-workers, implicit threats of physical violence, burdens heaped upon the capable until they buckle, unlistening leaders, and more. More-over, and this is the salient part, I came into workplaces expecting these things, so perhaps I gave them a larger place in my mental landscape than they objectively took up, but perhaps even that is a comfortable lie. I’m a cynical optimist, and this is relevant to my reaction to the show, and to much of anime’s storytelling in this regard.

(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that rose in my mind as a result of watching the show. There will be spoilers for the entire show.)

Most media revolves around transitional periods, when some change comes to the characters it revolves around. Transitional periods would be, for instance, joining highschool, leaving highschool, entering the workforce, or when a zombie invasion turns your life over. Anime seems to focus mostly on the first two, and sometimes sprinkles the last. “Entering highschool” is especially interesting because after a while, the transition is over and the series can relax into a holding pattern, which is how nostalgia is conveyed, and also provides a comfortable and natural “ending point” to the series, which will be yet another transitional period.

Shirobako anime review - Miyamori Aoi will be in charge of everything

Things really work like that.

The more anime I watched, the more I noticed the lack of anime dealing with transitioning into being an adult, or with life as an actual adult, rather than “foreboding assassin” where one’s age, mental or otherwise, is but a minor detail. Two of the best anime series out there deal with exactly these issues, with the fears, hopes, and failures of the time leading up to becoming a working adult, and those would be Genshiken, and Welcome to the N.H.K. I thought very highly of both shows, so Shirobako, a show that I felt would deal with those same issues, and with the same aura of fear and failure and cynicism to boot? I was overjoyed. Well, as much as a fun-hating cynic such as I can be.

And there we finally get to Shirobako, and why I was only disappointed, for a while, with its ending, rather than its entire run. Shirobako follows Miyamori Aoi, who’s a put-upon but cheerful girl. Cheerful? She’s cheering herself on in the face of having to work with people like Tarou who put in a negative amount of work (they cause everyone around them to have to put in more effort), Hiraoka who seemed to actively try to sabotage her efforts by directing her to people who could not put in the effort as a gentle form of hazing that she who is his junior was given more responsibility, a director who can never meet his deadlines, and it all cascades from there.

Shirobako is a very educational show, in that it tells us a lot about the way in which the anime we watch is produced. It shows us the sort of constant crunch the people who work on the products we consume are under. It’s considerably more educational than that, because it shows us a workplace, a genuine workplace, which many of the ones we’ll work in during our lifetimes will mirror. This sort of “crunch” that anime productions and programmers go under just before shipping may be more extreme, but all workplaces seem to have this constant struggle of crunch, of looming deadlines, of having to work in the face of inhospitable outsiders, indifferent co-workers, and sabotaging circumstances. This is life.

Shirobako anime review - Sakura Yoshiki wants people to work

Shirobako is an educational series in other ways as well, didactic even, as it tries to pass on its morals. “Be a good worker” isn’t preached outright, but shows us how people must take on more work when not everyone shares the load. It relies on our intrinsic goodness to pick this up. Miyamori and her friends often feel dejected as they buckle under the insane work load, as they compare their progress to their goals, and find they’re not even in the right workplace, but apparently are “wasting their time”. But the show goes to lengths to show that experience is valuable, even if it is “near” what you went for. The show shows us that even after twenty years creating anime, you can say “screw it” and go and start baking cakes. That we can start anew, even if we wasted time, and that sometimes wasted time isn’t all that wasteful.

But Shirobako, like me, is cynically optimistic. It might seem as an oxymoron, but it is cynicism that serves as a shell to protect that weakest of spirits Pandora released from the cruel world; hope. It is optimism that our cynicism might not be proven true once more. But think of all those lessons that Shirobako teaches us, and think of that “good ending”. Think back to Job’s tale. He was given new riches and children by God, but his suffering was not erased, and his first batch of children remained dead. Likewise, even if things turned out well in the end, then they still came by as a result of pain and suffering that aren’t simply undone because things turned out well. The optimistic side would be to say “All is well that turned out well,” but the more cynical side will remind you that life is not so simple or easy. Is Tarou’s behaviour, or Hiraoka’s, suddenly fine because the adversity was overcome? Did Miyamori’s past tears end up as vindicated, or even required?

But that is still the strongest message Shirobako teaches us, and it is the message that we keep repeating, trite as it was, whenever we see a friend who is struggling, because it is the only one we often have. No, not that everything will be alright, but that we must keep going forward, because quite frankly, there aren’t many other choices. The characters in Shirobako keep striving, against their recalcitrant coworkers, against the uncaring world, against their fears and depressions, and against their own lofty goals. It doesn’t turn out perfect, but it turns out good enough. And that is good enough.

Shirobako episode 24 - Miyamori Aoi toasts

The optimistic finale.

It is important to understand Shirobako, as are most of our “successes”, and as is the phrase “cynically optimistic” itself, bittersweet. In the show’s finale, Miyamori cries, and those aren’t tears of pure joy, but tears of relief at a pressure lifted, until the next one, always the next one. Bittersweet is also how I’d describe the show’s emotional peak, the scene where Zuka, poor Zuka, who had to watch from the side as all her friends got closer to their dreams, or to someone else’s dream, at least, finally got a chance, and Miyamori couldn’t contain herself and cried, and cried hard. This was more than just deserves, this was the joy of a friend’s joy, of a resting point in one’s journey of life, and a good one.

And now, just as Shirobako had done, I will keep on going past the closing point, and present a few more. I resented Shirobako’s ending, which even aside from Zuka’s end that was “too good”, and yet bittersweet, the show delivered many “awesome moments” for us to fistpump the air – from the casting down of “Funny Story”, to dangerous driving’s final demonstration, to Miyamori receiving her well-deserved accolades. There were too many endings, and the show was fully optimistic after I had considered it a true ally to me, in spreading cynicism and caution of the world my younger friends will face as they enter the real world. But this was the ending it always promised, and all the clashes, all the tears, they were still there, not as paving stones that were necessary to reach the “Good Ending,” no, that’s optimism that’s too much of a bold-faced lie even for Shirobako to countenance, but as acquaintances we passed on the route to a “Good Enough Ending”.

And finally, that optimism is more than just a moral. It’s sometimes necessary. Shirobako had delivered to us Tarou, who was an exquisitely crafted character, to be hated. And then it had given us Hiraoka Daisuke, who wasn’t a bumbling fool, but maliciously inefficient. He is an important character in the show, and his background was framed not as a mirror of Miyamori, but as where she could’ve ended up without the optimistic ending of the show. Someone who cared, who tried hard, but whose projects ended up failing, who ended up drowning under others’ workload and then not recognized for his efforts and sacrifices.

Shirobako anime review - Crying Miyamori Aoi

The true emotional finale. Bittersweet. Cynically Optimistic.

Hiraoka was an example of what you end up with after optimism is stripped away entirely, and that’s more than just cynicism, but the urge to create more of your own kind. Hiraoka, just like others in the show, did not see a future for himself, so acted as one with no future, and with nothing to lose. He was hiding his own hurt, and his own optimism, lest he be hurt again.

And that is why I can’t really place fault with the show for its optimistic ending, because if you strip optimism away, what will you end up with? And even with its optimistic ending, as they say, it’s the journey that matters, and this journey was decidedly bittersweet. Sure, it may have ended well, but it wasn’t perfect, neither the journey nor the show, and that is honesty of its own kind. Besides, I can’t fault a show for being true to its nature and not conceding to my own wishes, which are born of my own cynically optimistic nature, a nature that fears hoping, lest it be hurt, again. But to live is to be hurt.

And just like the show, I will allow myself a final overt message, about what the show is really about (though it’s also about many other things): It’s not about what you will make of your life, but what you’ve made of it. But what you’ve made of it does rely to some degree on what you would’ve made of it, in some point in the past. It’s not about having dreams, but what you’ve made of them. And that does demand that you dream, and hope.

(Shirobako has good direction, sound, voice-acting, and storyline. It’s a “real slice of life”, rather than a cutified one. This is why I appreciated its cynicism, but was also unduly surprised by its optimism. I award it 9/10 “Perfect is the Enemy of Done”. Watch it.)

11 comments on “Shirobako – On Cynical Optimism

  1. kiddtic says:

    Great article and still one of my favourite shows this year

    • Guy says:

      Yup, currently it’s looking as one of my top two picks for shows ending in 2015. I still have a few shows I need to catch up on, but I can’t think of a year where Shirobako wouldn’t have had a good place at the top of the crop.

      And glad you liked the piece.

  2. megaroad1 says:

    The best and most personal piece I’ve read since I started following your blog. Very good points.

    I was a tad underwhelmed by Shirobako’s finale to be honest. I expected a slightly bigger dose of realism towards the end. Not all dream are fulfilled and the vast majority of people end up in jobs/professions that are from what we dreamed or even expected leaving high school. I wish the ‘triumphal’ ending could have been counterpointed with some of the girls having a different ending. Not necessarily one with a negative connotation, but certainly not one where the dream of making/working with anime became a reality.

    • Guy says:

      I have noticed that more personal, or at least personal-seeming posts tend to get much better feedback. I say “personal-seeming” because there’s just as much me in my more “distant” editorials, they’re just less about me, I guess. But I’m glad you liked it :)

      Well, Zuka’s dream is still far from being complete, but it was a small first step. Miyamori’s “dream” and finding what she wants to do? Still not exactly there. Neither Misa’s story, who left a lucrative work, and ended still working on tires, just in anime, strike us as 100% positive.

      But yes, you’re mirroring my own feeling. Is it the “lack of realism” we truly object to, or the “too much optimism”? I actually think it’s the latter in the guise of the former, which is what I tried to come to terms with in this post.

  3. DK101010 says:

    Top post. Shirobako was a show that grew on me as I watched it, but even I will admit that some aspects of it felt a bit cheesy. I am not surprised about the “optimism” since most anime take such a route because it’s something that we as human really need at times in our chaotic lives.

    • Guy says:

      Optimism can still be chaotic though, and in anime it’s often painted that the order belongs to dystopias, and it is chaos that brings forth joy, or at least reflects our lives, isn’t it?

      And Shirobako does start somewhat slow, but since it’s a slice of life show and a drama that follows characters, I think it’s more about the time it takes until we start being invested in the cast, and believing their journey? I wonder.

      And yes, “cheesy” is a good word, though I think “crowd-pleasing” was the aim, and that it mostly succeeded.

  4. enigmator says:

    The ending bits bothered me too until it reached the scene in episode 23 with Director Kinoshita storming the publishing company.

    That’s perhaps the single point where the story truly goes off the rails. I mean, yes, the show tends to go off tangents every now and then, but nothing like here, where a major antagonist of the second half of the show (the publishing company) is dealt with through a mock gun showdown. I found it odd how a show that up ’til then had treated these issues in a realistic manner, would suddenly go bonkers at this point. This is where I realized: this show is wish fulfillment, and not in a bad way. It’s a crystallization of the hopes of the ones making this show in the hopes that it’ll somehow reach the audience. And while I would hate such an optimistic ending under normal circumstances, given everything these characters have gone through in the first two-thirds of the show, I say it deserves to dream.

    Of course, the show could have gone the NHK route, but were would that leave everyone? Probably contemplating on the miserable (dying?) state of the industry, which might have been a good story in its own right. However, instead, it leaves a message of hope that people might one day understand each other.

    Ah, that went on longer than I thought. Sorry for mucking up your comment stream.

    • Guy says:

      Well, considering Mimoji and Roro, and that a few episodes prior we had the “time-travel to Musani’s origin,” and especially the “Dangerous Driving” the show both started and ended with (and I chuckled when we saw the finale’s “Super Dangerous Driving” was about 80 KPH/50 MPH), I’d say the show had a tendency to go to the imagined, even as the situations in it were real. You know, thinking about it now, and about Miyamori’s design, I suddenly wonder if Ally McBeal was any inspiration at all.

      But yes, the final showdown was very much designed for “fist-pump” action.

      About “Welcome to the NHK”, there as well, is the ending to that show depressing? I think it is, but I think it wasn’t intended as depressing, but as optimistic. So I’d have to use the word “bittersweet” again.

      And one final question, what do we need to do in order to earn the right to dream? That we’d feel it’s deserved? A rhetorical question, but muse on it.

      P.S. Long comments are fine, so long their contents are fine :)

      • enigmator says:

        I’d agree that Welcome to the NHK’s ending is optimistic in the sense that it offers a sliver of hope within a bleak world that swallows you up eventually. :)

        For a short answer: We don’t need to earn the right to dream. On the other hand, we do have to earn the right to have our dreams taken seriously.

        For context: Endings that are too optimistic can sometimes be perceived as ill-informed, or even malicious, as they can be out of touch with reality. In contrast to this, Shirobako, through the groundwork in earlier episodes, shows that it knows what it’s talking about when it comes to the anime industry. And when a show like this, which has shown much sympathy for all these issues, decides to throw realism out the door with its resolutions, it can’t as easily be dismissed as just ignorance. As such, the optimistic ending here is wish fulfillment (a term that some people look down on), but it’s a wish justified painstakingly by several episodes of suffering wrought by personal differences and miscommunication.

        • Guy says:

          I often say something similar about happiness, but before I say it, I think this particular question’s worth is in thinking about it, less the answer. But! No one deserves to be happy, but everyone deserves the chance to be happy. So yes, I agree, or so it seems to me.

          I don’t think Shirobako threw out realism. It didn’t when it mattered. You’re conflating two different issues here. Yes, the show was very optimistic when it ended, and yes, it had a segment of surrealism or over-dramatization, when the Director went to face off against the Mangaka. But what you’re doing is ascribing one to the other. And again, Shirobako had touches of the surreal, not in terms of content, but in terms of delivery, since the beginning – the “car chases” that weren’t really, the dolls, traveling back to the studio’s past, etc.

  5. […] You can read my thematic breakdown of the show’s “Cynical Optimism” here. […]

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