The view from Musani’s roof is as generic-suburban-Tokyo as it gets, but there’s something charming about that too, Ema thinks. In this grubby building, behind its nondescript tiled facade that could belong to any small company, magic is happening.
She looks out over the street below. A cyclist breezes past -- that’s useful, seeing a bike’s movement from above, she thinks. She stretches, feels the wave of her muscles tensing and relaxing; automatically pictures what that would look like, how one would capture it in pencil--
Ema blinks. Aoi’s hands are tight on her shoulders, her breath unsteady -- she must have run up the stairs -- and are those tears in her eyes? “Oi-chan? Is something...”
“Kunogi-san! Just came up to me! To discuss something!”
Ema understands immediately. A strange, warm sense of pride washes over her. “I’m so glad! She’s been getting so much better... She isn’t even scared of Ogasawara-san anymore.”
A flicker across Aoi’s face suggests that she has her doubts about that last point, but said scepticism dissolves amid overriding triumph. “It’s all thanks to you, you know? You’re a really good mentor, Ema.”
The word blindsides her. Ema’s never imagined herself being a mentor to anyone -- how can she, when there’s still so much that she’s unsure of, so much that she doesn’t know?
Half a year ago, she would have denied it out of reflex, shied away from the weight of the idea. Yet now, looking at Aoi and that shimmering elation in her gaze, she finds that she can’t. Or perhaps: that she doesn’t have to.
“Thank you,” she says instead. “I... I hope I can be one.”
“Should you be spending so much time around here?”
Oh. This again? But Hiraoka doesn’t sound accusatory, for once, so Midori quashes her first instinctive, defensive retort and simply stares back: shoulders squared, grip on coffee mug unwavering.
“I don’t mean it that way,” Hiraoka says, gaze darting self-consciously off to the side instead. Good, Midori thinks. You should feel awkward. “College students don’t realise how lucky they are, that’s all. Once you start work... You’ll never have such freedom again, you know.”
The last sentence lands almost wistfully, more reminiscence than condescension, and Midori’s writerly instinct flares up despite herself: There’s a story here. What sort of carefree college life did this now-embittered man enjoy? What urban-alienation-themed, indie-soundtracked arthouse character arc brought him here? Not that it would justify his being a jerk, but to explain is not to excuse, and anyway, he’s clearly on a redemption arc, he’s been much better since Third Aerial ended--
“So you should treasure it,” he mumbles, already walking past.
He pauses, not turning around.
“Thanks,” Midori says -- to acknowledge his character arc trajectory, at least. She doesn’t bother with a polite smile or deferential tone as she adds: “I think this is an amazing way to spend my college years. And I know how fortunate I am to have this chance.”
Shizuka knows the statistics -- knew them even before she entered her voice-acting academy, before her first failed audition. Living them is a different matter. What does it mean to truly understand the fact that most voice actors rely on part-time jobs? What part of her saw the numbers and still believed, fiercely, childishly, that this could be anything as regular and reliable as a ‘career’?
Nevertheless. Here she is, four years since high school and counting: waiting tables, waiting for audition calls, waiting for the next chance that could become a stepping stone in a path forward. She knows that despite everything, she’s fortunate. Her mother makes gentle inquiries as to her latest achievements, says “You know you can always come home” without making that decision sound like a surrender. Her role as Lucy does net her a few more opportunities: a single-episode character on Musani’s next show; her first recurring role in another studio’s ten-minute short, appearing in two eps across the cour. Third Aerial Girls Squad gets an audio drama supplement in its manga magazine, and she gets to reprise her role, this time as comedy. Once, an ex-classmate from high school sends a surprised text message -- littered with emoticons: incredulous, thrilled, congratulatory -- after spotting her name buried in the credits of some minor late-night show.
And, in their own way, the long hours at Matsutei are worth treasuring. As someone once told her: Everything is preparation. Anything can be raw material, ready to be turned into fuel.
So Shizuka observes, absorbs, collects what she can. It’s not polite to eavesdrop on customers, of course, but she learns enough simply by taking their orders, or listening to the master's conversations with diners at the bar. How the cadence of a request can reveal mood or status or personality. What a mid-sentence pause might signify. Sharp intakes of breath; soft sympathetic noises. It's not as straightforward as mimicry, of course -- voice-acting is rarely naturalistic -- but all this can be polished for the recording studio, elevated by artifice, the same way that real-world photographs are turned into painted backgrounds.
And yes, she knows -- oh, how she knows -- that many things are beyond one’s control: the range of available roles, the decisions of her agency, the whims of production executives. That neither talent nor hard work suffices, in the face of the thousand tiny spinning dice that could land wrongly in a thousand different ways.
Yet there are always things that one can do. So she does. She imagines a spread of possibilities for each audition role, drawing on her library of customer voices. She spends her commute exploring the dimensions of a single line of dialogue. Everything is preparation. All this, too, counts as progress.
“Sorry I’m late,” Misa says, untying her shoes in the entryway. “There was a last-minute meeting at work -- but our boss bought cake to make up for it!”
Cheers rise from the living room as she heads over, box held high in triumph. “Sorry that these aren’t doughnuts, though... Ah, it’s hotpot tonight?”
“Oi-chan-sempai’s still working on the last shipment of cabbage from her family. I told her she should pickle some instead. Maybe even make kimchi!”
Aoi laughs. “You’re welcome to experiment with that, Rii-chan -- I’ll pass.”
The conversation flows as easily as the beer, from updates about work, to the latest season of anime, to snatches of news about schoolmates from their hometown. It doesn’t take long before they’re down to the last scraps of cabbage and leeks, with Aoi obviously eyeing dessert. Misa pushes the cake box in her direction.
Midori stretches in contentment, leans back on her hands. “I can’t believe it’s been so long since the last time we all met.”
“The last season was a whirlwind for Musani,” Aoi says, half-apologetic. “I bet some of us spent more nights in the office than at home.”
Ema laughs weakly. Misa makes a sympathetic noise. Something about those reactions feels wrong to Midori, though she’s not sure she can say why. Or, no -- she knows why. She’s just not sure she has any right to say so.
But these are her closest friends, and she’s sure they won’t take it the wrong way, so she says it anyway: “That’s kind of grim, right?”
Aoi flashes a battle-hardened grin. “That’s life.”
“No, but... that’s what I mean? Don’t get me wrong, I think the anime industry is amazing! Even more so now, ever since I’ve had the chance to see it up close. But sometimes... like, I look at everyone in Musani, and you’re in the office for twelve hours or more, and I just... I mean, is that how things are supposed to be?” There’s a sympathetic yet uncomprehending vibe in the room, as Midori glances around -- she pauses, forces her train of thought to an emergency stop. “T-That’s what I wonder, anyway. Am I... being naive? Is it weird to ask this?”
“That’s not necessarily what a scriptwriter’s life will be like,” Ema says gently.
“Probably,” Aoi adds darkly, before catching herself: “Ema’s right, though! You’ll be at an earlier stage of the production process, so that helps. Fewer people ahead of you means fewer chances that someone will hold things up or mess up the schedule or cause everyone to have to redo everything or... Sorry. Um. It won’t be that bad, honestly.”
“I guess,” Midori says. “Maybe I wasn’t worrying about myself specifically -- just, is adult life supposed to be like that? Is so much of it just... work? ”
Everyone else exchanges A Look. At moments like these, fleeting as they are, Aoi does actually feel like an adult.
“It starts out like that anywhere,” she ventures. “‘You have to work hard when you’re young’ and all that, right? It gets better when you move up the ladder. I think.”
“Lots of my colleagues have time for hobbies,” Misa adds. “Families, even.”
Shizuka sets her glass of beer down on the table; in this faintly strained atmosphere, the clink makes everyone turn to her. She smiles. “We all managed to be here tonight, didn’t we?”
Aoi clasps one of Shizuka’s hands, the over-emotional gesture only half for drama’s sake. “Zuka-chan...”
“That’s right,” Misa says firmly. “We make time for each other.”
This would be the point in the episode where an uplifting orchestral crescendo swells, Midori thinks. Cue a series of cuts to everyone’s determined faces, or maybe a long pan around the table. She frowns. “I guess I am a bit naive, to expect better...”
“I think it’s hard to understand before you start working,” Ema offers. “I knew that life as an animator would be hard. But I suppose... I still had a picture of it as a slice-of-life anime. With potted plants on a little sunlit balcony. Or picnics on a river bank with friends.”
(“She’s been really into the background scenery in one of our subcontracted projects, despite not working on it,” Aoi whispers to Shizuka. “That healing slice-of-life one, with the lazy mascot character.”)
Shizuka tactfully extracts her hand from Aoi’s grasp, reaches for her beer and takes a long swig. “I’d thought... Working life might be like a shounen anime. Have a fiery heart, and you’ll be able to achieve your dreams.” She places her glass down, looks back up. A year ago, she might have forced a brave, wavering smile. Today she doesn’t have to; her expression is calm, her gaze perfectly clear. “I’ve learned that reality isn’t that kind. And I know I’m not the protagonist of some clear-cut story. Still -- I believe hard work can get you somewhere.”
“You are getting somewhere! You were just telling us about your latest roles!”
Shizuka nods. “Rii-chan, what I want to say is... Everyone has some image of working life. Yet even if it turns out different, even if it’s not what you hoped for... I think you can find something worthwhile in it, nonetheless.”
“And if you can’t,” Misa says, “there are always other options.”
“Cheers to that,” Aoi replies, raising a glass.
Maybe it’s Misa’s line that does it, and the cake afterwards: the reminder of other paths taken, like Honda and his bakery. How, even if one does find the job worthwhile, it’s possible to leave. Or maybe it’s the quiet thoughtfulness in Shizuka’s expression, the warm contentment in Ema’s. Well, all that and the beer, most likely. Whatever it is, some shifty, shifting, half-formed thoughts jostle their way out of the back of Aoi’s mind and straight up her throat -- worries that she hadn’t been able to articulate until now, not even to herself.
“Guys, you know,” she starts, not looking up from her hands as they twist together in her lap, “sometimes I think I’m really, really lucky to have started in Musani. What if my first company had been terrible? If I hadn’t met reliable seniors like Yano-san, or if our boss hadn’t been as kind as the Musani pres... Would I have just quit? Given up on the industry?” Given up on our dream, she doesn’t add, because she still can’t voice that fear, that doubt that sometimes rises dark and traitorous in the face of Misa’s enthusiasm or Midori’s too-bright belief, their shared invocation of the Seven Lucky Gods. The cynicism that says, No, you’re not in a shounen anime, and not all dreams come true .
“You wouldn’t have,” Ema says, uncharacteristically adamant. “That’s not like you at all.”
“I was already questioning things at Musani. If I’d been somewhere bleaker… If I hadn’t had Andes Chucky…”
“Oi-chan,” Shizuka says, putting a hand on her shoulder. “What matters is where we’re going now. Not where we might have gone, if things had been different.”
“I didn’t even know where I was going...”
“But you do now, right?” Misa chimes in.
Do I? Aoi wonders.
She knows why she wants to keep going, at least. What she wants to do, even if not where she wants to arrive. What it means to want to fly, even if there isn’t an obvious destination. Aoi looks up -- and meets Midori’s helpless gaze.
Only Midori hasn’t said anything reassuring. Because she can’t, Aoi realises suddenly. Because Midori was the one wondering, just earlier tonight, what working life was supposed to be about; what could possibly make up for the long hours and the endless tasks and the small everyday frustrations, the equal uncertainty of resolution or reward.
“‘Our fight continues’,” Aoi proclaims abruptly. Misa looks confused, but Aoi feels Shizuka’s hand squeeze her shoulder briefly in support, and yes, yes, of course Shizuka would understand-- “Grown-up life... is that ‘Our fight continues’ kind of thing. Maybe we don’t know exactly where we’re going-- maybe it doesn’t even feel like we’re going anywhere, at times-- yet we keep going! It’s not a great way to end an anime season, but... but we aren’t an anime season. We’re just us. Living our lives.”
Midori is the first to break the ensuing silence with solemn applause. Everyone follows suit.
“That was totally some kind of modern shounen anime outburst,” Midori says. “I should write it down.”
“That’s so like you, Oi-chan,” Ema says, smiling softly. “You gave a motivational speech to yourself.”
“To all of us,” Shizuka adds.
Misa raises a forkful of cake. “Though we don’t have doughnuts today, the sentiment’s the same, right? Let’s go!”
“Let’s go,” Aoi echoes, mirroring the gesture. On either side of her, Shizuka and Ema do the same; so does Midori, across the table. A toast to the future; a promise that they keep making, over and over, years since that tiny clubroom in a high school miles away from Tokyo. No matter where -- let’s get there together.