Cute girls doing cute things is a pretty big staple in anime. Cute girls are cute and universally appealing, after all! Well, maybe. However the “doing stuff” part of the equation is often targeted for flack because people suspect any hobby or interest to be superficially-presented and not really get into the nitty-gritty of things. With this short blog I wanna make a some comments on four shows that feature cute girls involved in industries and cultures related to nerdy hobbies, like anime and games. These are pretty close to people’s hearts online and there’s lots of overlap, so the way the shows portray their “cute things” is kind of important since that’s how you make the show’s tribulations feel legit.
When Shirobako aired in 2014 it made a lot of waves in the fandom due to its content. Seeing how anime was made, how the creators depicted themselves, and how the industry was run was of great interest to the audience, eager to learn more about their hobby. However one aspect that really connected, beyond the subject itself, was the depiction the show gave of young adult women working, which is something a bit different from the usual CGDCT show. The stereotypical CGDCT is generally a school club or activity, a safe environment where the writers can experiment with themes relating to the subject of the “Thing” but also they have the safe fallback of high school hijinks to rely on. This safety net is often seen as a negative because it prevents the show from leaving the high school comfort-zone that is often maligned by anime and manga fans. Of course, this is hardly universal and it’s unfair to label it as something just anime and manga do- for example, the American sitcom is another form of media that rides a specific, safe setting hard. Also, plenty of people like high school settings. That said, when a show deliberately leaves the safety of the familiar and delves into the world beyond school, it can be very interesting, insightful, and welcoming for the audience who are likely eager to find something in their own lives to relate to.
Shirobako is a wonderful example of this. The show even lampoons the cliches of the high school club setting in its very first episode, beginning with a cheery montage of the main girls in such a club, creating their first amateur animation project. It’s vibrant, sweet and almost patronizing, but then the montage cuts sharply to the main protagonist as an adult. Miyamori, the main character, is revealed to be working at an anime studio with a hectic and stressful job, constantly chasing after storyboards and animation binders, checking up on animators, dealing with her co-workers, bending over backwards to make ends meet and generally unsure of what the hell she’s doing with her life. This depiction of the realities of Miyamori’s dream career is great a way to set the tone for the show, and it follows through with the other girls as well. Ema the animator is facing a brutal career and has anxiety about her drawing output, Shizuka the voice actress is spinning her wheels in a crowded market and unable to sell her voice, Misa the 3D graphics artist got a comfortable job doing boring work and it’s destroying her soul and Midori the least-featured member of the group even manages to have a powerfully blunt encounter with sexism in the workplace. The struggles of the protagonists and the way they have to figure out how to feed their ambitions and dreams in such an environment is what really makes Shirobako compelling viewing. Yes, the show’s insight into anime production is great and educational and there’s some wonderful storytelling, but what connected most to the viewers is how relatable the protagonists are- most of the anime fandom are working age adults and seeing these sorts of office and creative roadblocks made it really easy to understand and connect with Miyamori and friends. It’s a big difference from high school drama for a lot of watchers, since we’re all mostly past that point in our lives. However, there’s definitely a limit to using a setting and a familiar series of problems to heighten a show’s connection with the audience, I think- Shirobako works as a complete package and the narrative is pretty tight: It comes together because it combines the chaotic race through the work-cycle with a grand, uplifting narrative about a passionate industry.
This leads me to a show that I think works as a good contrast and companion, or rather, two shows split in half. New Game! is a manga-turned-anime about girls working in the art department of a videogame company. The protagonist, Aoba, joins the company directly out of high school in admiration of an artist who works there, and finds herself slowly learning the ropes and growing as an artist and creator among other girls who each have their own interests and reasons to work. Now the first thing about the first season of New Game is how relaxed it feels compared to Shirobako- Aoba isn’t run ragged or challenged constantly, and instead the show is pretty natural, even feeling routine in terms of the tropes and cliches it borrows. Because of this, many initial viewers, perhaps hoping for a second coming of Shirobako, were instead disappointed to find something that didn’t challenge them or give them an inroad. However as New Game continued, there were signs of a gradual development in the tone, with hints of overnight crunch time and Aoba meeting with the programming group and other employees. This led into the second season where things began to get interesting in terms of workplace drama- Aoba found herself in direct artistic competition and later collaboration with her artist idol, revealing a new side of their relationship as co-workers. The new game project was then involved in some corporate marketing decisions that led to Aoba’s name not being advertised despite her position for economic reasons, basically a reminder of her immaturity in the eyes of the company. Add onto this new hires that lead to animosity and other characters experiencing various forms of guilt and regret due to their work lives (these bits are really well-presented), and you have an interesting little cocktail of a show that combines a laid-back, gentle, familiar atmosphere with the more long-term realities of working in a creative yet competitive industry like gaming. This change over time that New Game goes through is very compelling for the viewer because it actually mirrors the development of an employee. When you start out working as a new hire, the company won’t have extremely high expectations of you at first and will let you grow or flounder naturally, getting better at your work over time and proving qualities that can be relied upon. After a project or two has gone past and your skills are recognized, you take on more responsibility in each project and more importance, but with that comes more pressure and stress to do well in increasingly complex roles. The focus then becomes the balance between personal confidence and an expanding workload. Aoba in season 1 of New Game, a newbie who is treated childishly, grows into a driven and more focused woman that faces greater challenges as she goes. I think that having the first season in this way actually improves the impact of the second season, rather than launching into chaos from the get-go.
One more interesting thing about New Game, which lets me slide into another show, is the character of Nene. Nene is Aoba’s school friend, who at the start of the series is a college student. Unlike Aoba, while familiar with videogames, Nene isn’t interested in the industry and is just following the average pre-planned path life has set out for her. However, when Aoba goes to work, Nene follows out of curiosity, taking a job as a debugger at Aoba’s company. Finding herself in a strange new world, Nene develops an interest in games and programming and strikes up an unlikely friendship with the head programmer, going on to start experimenting with making her own game alone as a project. Nene is in a position as an outsider from the other characters, not drawn in by long-term passion but a sudden epiphany of interest, and is quite unsure of herself. In episode nine this comes to a head when another programmer points out that Nene has benefited greatly from nepotism, leading to more anxiety on Nene’s part as to the legitimacy of her being there. This sort of feeling of fluffy, nebulous goals and a lack of personal drive are often something we have to deal with when we look at a creative industry, and it harkens back to Miyamori in Shirobako’s concerns about her place in life. Another show that deals with videogames, but in a different format, is Magic of Stella, a CGDCT about doujin games, amateur indie titles that tend to be simple VNs or retro-styled stuff. Unlike the previous two shows, Stella is set in a high-school and thus doesn’t have the heavy employment baggage, but I think it does a good job capturing the uncertain dilemma of the artist and writer. The protagonist, Tamaki, likes making things and drawing, but when she joins the school’s game dev club she finds herself taking her art in unexpected directions and faces criticism and self-improvement in equal measure, mostly from her own mind. Tamaki as an artist is very unsure of herself and wonders how to live up to the expectations of her friends, who are all quite bright and passionate people that heap pressure on her in a manner that isn’t demanding or even conscious, but still palpable. The show doesn’t deal with the realities of such work professionally but there’s still some good emotional catharsis for creative types here, especially when Tamaki attends her first convention and develops feelings of inferiority after seeing the other work on display. Anyone who’s ever drawn or written or made something seriously knows how brutal it can be to see just how wide the ocean is.
Lastly, I’d like to highlight the other end of the spectrum with Seiyu’s Life, a manga-turned-anime written by an actual voice actress about three girls working as voice actresses in anime, games and film dubbing. While on the surface it may look like the most gentle of shows, Seiyu’s Life is actually probably one of the more brutal shows? The protagonist, Futaba, is not a high schooler or even an inexperienced newbie out of school but someone who’s been floundering in her career for quite a while. Unable to break into higher roles despite plenty of effort, Futaba is not often hired and throughout the show is faced with a lack of jobs and prospects, including a looming agency assessment that threatens to end her career on the horizon. Each episode is a roller coaster of expectation, disappointment, opportunity and uncertainty: production delays, idol radio units, parts getting killed off, and one really painful moment where Futaba finds out a role she thought was a shoe-in gets taken by her best friend. Seiyu’s Life does not pull punches. The other two girls also suffer their share of drama with Ichigo who struggles to maintain a wacky persona while juggling shitty part-time jobs and Rin a teenager that has managed to succeed as a VA only for it to screw up her school life and threaten her friendships. The show isn’t really negative but it’s also not a positive upward swing like how the other shows see their respective industries. Instead, you have a story that reads like a day-to-day account of endless chaos and body-blows, which I think just depicts how the writer sees their industry. Even the ending isn’t a victory, really- Futaba faces another uncertain year of life with only a personal realization of how she wants to visualize herself in the future. This is important to her as a character because there’s no real waypoints otherwise; Futaba is a sailor on a turbulent sea with nothing on the horizon and she needs determination and drive to keep going. It’s honestly quite an affecting show and definitely felt sobering to watch after considering the more idealized upward trends in Shirobako and New Game, but then those directions may in fact be illusions of storytelling themselves. Who’s to say what Miyamori or Aoba will be doing or thinking in ten years of the industry, anyway?
So anyway, that’s me talking about four shows, which are by no means the be-all and end-all of cute girls working in industries related to nerd hobbies. But I did want to ruminate a bit because I think each approach shown is equally valid. Shirobako’s bold and reckless struggling, New Game’s gradual buildup, Stella’s relaxed moping about creativity, and Seiyu’s unrelenting fragility. They’re shows about working on something, caring about it, growing into it, and dealing with it. When you’re deep into something you’re passionate about, it gets deep into you too, becoming a living, bucking, wild beast that can really take its toll on you. But I think each show also manages to capture why we deal with such beasts in the first place. There’s no clear end to the struggle, but the struggle makes us feel alive. Worrying about something is to engage with it!
But uh, maybe don’t take it too far.