Every series with an aspirations needs a breakout character, and Girlish Number really has one.
I don’t like to knock Shirobako, because I really did like it – I just didn’t think it was the masterpiece some fans seemed to feel it was. And there’s the separate question of whether in what it was saying it was doing anime a disservice; making it safe for people to feel OK about some things they shouldn’t feel OK about. But that’s another subject – I’ve addressed it on this site. For now, what strikes me is that Girlish Number is the series Shirobako could have been, if it had held its nerve (and wanted to be in the first place). This show stares right into the sun, and no matter how it burns, it doesn’t look away.
The shrewdness of Watari Wataru’s writing with G;N really comes in the fact that he’s chosen to make the series about the impact the corruption and creative decline in anime has on the people who work in it (and often love it). He is, in a sense, pointing the camera not on the sun itself but on the scorched Earth. That allows him to be far more unsparing in his judgments about the industry than he could be if he played this as a straight-out assault.
Most of the focus this week is on Kazuha, who’s certainly emerged as an interesting and relatable character over the past couple of episodes. But more and more I’m beginning to see Momoka as the main character of Girlish Number. There may be a bias to that, because I freely admit I think she’s the best character in the cast. But she also represents the anime industry, old and new. She’s connected to the industry of today through her work, but also to a vanished era through her parents. The way she sees anime is different than the way the other girls do – her context is greater than theirs. And all that makes her personal story the most interesting for me as well.
The catalyst for this week’s drama is the visit of Kazuha’s mother. She’s upset about Kazuha having appeared in Kuzu-P’s gravure video in Okinawa, but mostly she’s there on behalf of her husband – he’s the one who’s really pissed. Shibasaki-san is in many ways the stereotypical image of the overprotective and unhip mom from the provinces, but she’s clearly sharp and not one to rush to judgment. Kazuha is mortified that she’s there, naturally, but Okaa-san doesn’t really do anything all that embarrassing – and if Kuzu-P hadn’t intervened and grabbed the phone to speak to Kazuha’s father, things probably would have been fine.
As it is, Kuzu-P’s involvement fans the flames and necessitates a “courtesy visit” to the family in Yamagata to convince Otou-san that his daughter is in an acceptable environment. Kazuha’s situation is involving – she hasn’t been home in five years, and she’s clearly struggling with the difference between her image about the seiyuu world and reality. But it’s really Momoka’s reaction to all this that I find most interesting. Momoka is one of those characters who can speak volumes without saying a word – her eyes tell you what you need to know. And here, they tell us that her feelings about her mother are very complicated indeed.
There’s a very interesting scene earlier in the episode, where the seiyuu are filming their radio show (with Shibasaki-san watching), and one of the audience letters is from a high schooler who wants to be a seiyuu. All of the answers are very interesting, and this gets into very dark territory indeed – especially when Chitose notes her family connections as being what brought her into voice acting, and asks Momoka if it isn’t “the same with her”. Momoka struggles to hold her tongue, finally whispered a clipped “I guess”. But when Kazuha givers her answer “I wanted to be an actor” followed by a stock “Ganbare!”, Momoka’s eyes go to a dark place. She mumbles something about “good things and bad things” and says “This is getting too deep!”.
This is a powerful moment on so many levels, not least the way it makes note of the fact that the worst possible thing to happen in a broadcast like this is for it to become real – for the “talent” to be who they really are and say what they really think. But Momoka’s situation is fascinatingly complicated. By all accounts her mother is kind, smart, respectful of her daughter’s independence. But what Kazuha sees as her mom being annoying over-protectiveness and meddling, Momoka sees as a mother doing what a mother should be doing. And clearly, something her mother doesn’t do. Momoka seems to want her mother to be more like a mother, but what she gets is someone who acts more like an agent.
Working on the “Purepara” franchise has brought home the reality of her family situation for Momoka in a way that means she’s more or less forced to confront it. She’s a smart, mature and sensible girl – but she’s painfully aware that something isn’t right in her life. This career journey – and where it’s taken her – don’t sit well with Momoka. There are lots of dangling plot threads in Girlish Number – the trip to try and settle Kazuha’s situation, the fact that all the “Millennium Princess” seiyuu are getting work except for Chitose, the general state of decay in the industry – but on the personal side, it’s Momoka’s story that I find by far the most engaging.