The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
Those Snow White Notes
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Those Snow White Notes ?
What is this?
When Setsu's grandfather died, so did Setsu's "sound"—his unique creative spark. Grieving, he goes to Tokyo to find himself...but manages to become totally, literally lost on his first day. Only a chance meeting with Yuna—aka Yuka, the hostess—saves him from being robbed. At first glance their lives seem totally different, but they're both striving for their dreams—hers, of being an actress, and his, of developing his talent with the shamisen—and it could just be that life in the raucous, unfeeling urban sprawl of Tokyo could just be what binds their fates together.
How was the first episode?
On its surface, Those Snow White Notes is the story of a young musician (Setsu) who, after the death of his grandfather, heads to Tokyo. There, he ends up crashing with a pin-up model (Yuna) who feels in him a kindred spirit. Based on their interactions, they each come to their own realizations about their futures, and make efforts to move forward.
Honestly, the majority of the episode looks as if it's setting up a romance about two people on their way to becoming stars. On one hand, we have the girl with the deadbeat musician boyfriend and skeevy manager trying to make it big. On the other we have the aimless artist, not sure about what he wants. However, the closing minutes of the episode completely re-define everything that came before and potentially what is to come as well. Rather than Setsu's talent on the shamisen giving Yuna hope, it shows her that he has something she doesn't. Moreover, seeing how she is being exploited in both her personal and professional lives, she decides to give up and move back home to start things anew, basically leaving the series after only a single episode.
In retrospect, this makes the preceding episode look like a prologue—either that, or the first in an anthology series where Setsu's personal journey leads him in and out of the lives of the random people he encounters. Honestly, this would work quite well, given how interesting Setsu's personal journey looks to be.
Setsu is a young man who is in love with the shamisen—specifically the shamisen as played by his late grandfather. Enraptured by the music, he wanted nothing more than to play exactly as his grandfather did. However, his grandfather strongly rejected this. He didn't want Setsu to copy him note for note and tone for tone; he wanted Setsu to find his own musical voice, and to make his music his own.
Setsu was unable to understand this while his grandfather was still alive. It's only when he strikes out on his own, acquiring his own personal experiences, that he starts to understand. Of course, the events of this episode are but a single step on his journey. Luckily we have at least a season's worth of episodes to see this journey to its completion.
…I mean, it's not like he's going to suddenly be kidnapped by a crazy woman with her own heavily-armed paramilitary soldiers or anything.
The shamisen really is a wicked cool instrument, isn't it? I'm continually delighted by the surprising range and timbre of its three strings, and the stirring ferocity with which those strings are often plucked. The raw, improvisational flow of the music that our hero Setsu becomes so obsessed with really is infectious, and you can see how a kid like Setsu would set his sights on the shamisen from so early an age. That spark of passion is violently snuffed out when Setsu loses his lifelong mentor and role model, his grandfather, which causes him to embark on a pilgrimage of desperation to the bright and cacophonous world of Tokyo. This is the part of the story that drew me into the world of Those Snow White Notes right away. Even when Setsu's penchant for theatrically moody monologuing began to feel a little strained, I really resonated with the core of his plight. One day, you have all of the creative energy in the world flowing through your veins; then next, it's gone, and it feels like it may never come back. I wanted to see where Setsu's journey would take him, and whether he could rediscover that spark once again.
I would have never guessed at first that Hiroaki Akagi directed this series, as I primarily know him from that unsung classic of adolescent romantic comedies, Teasing Master Takagi-san. The more I watched Those Snow White Notes, though, the more it made sense. Specifically, the way the show values expressive character “acting”, and the moments of comedic and emotional punctuation that move us from scene to scene. Whether it's the bizarre meet-cute between Setsu and Yuna, where Setsu literally faints on top of the beleaguered hostess because of Tokyo's overwhelming lights, or the way that the show shifts into the trancelike moods of Setsu's shamisen playing — Those Snow White Notes is a show that understands how to make its audience feel what it needs to feel at exactly the right moment, which is something Takagi-san was also always great at.
That control of tone and mood especially works in this series' favor when the writing doesn't quite fall into place on its own right. This is a very solid story, don't get me wrong, but the janky pacing makes some leaps in getting to those emotional beats that I sometimes struggled with. I was mainly surprised at how Setsu and Yuna's relationship sort of fell into place almost automatically, only for that thread to seemingly be dropped entirely in the episode's sudden epilogue, which sees Yuna moving away so Setsu can be left to shack up with her scummy ex-boyfriend. I can totally see there being an Odd Couple-y sort of friendship being built up between Setsu and Taketo, but I just didn't buy it by the time the episode finished. Still, it really says something that I could have such significant quibbles about a premiere's writing and pacing, yet here I am still completely convinced that I ought to follow it and see how things shake out. It's a great show to look at, and its even easier on the ears, which makes it a no-brainer to recommend for this Spring season. Did I mention that the shamisen is just a really cool instrument to learn about and listen to? Because it really, really is.
I. Fucking. Love. Music anime. From Beck to NANA to god damn Anonymous Noise, nothing slams the serotonin button in my brain quite like an anime about musicians working to hone their craft, discover their own sound, and put all their heart and soul into a song. There's nothing else like it, and it's sadly a niche that doesn't get much love these days. Sure, there's any number of idol shows every season, but while those are often made to sell music, the process of creating it is rarely the focus. So when I heard we were getting a shonen drama about a grief-stricken shamisen player searching for his lost musical soul, I was sold before seeing even a second of animation. Whatever faults or issues this show might have, I was going to roll around in it like a raccoon in an Arby's dumpster.
And speaking objectively, this premiere definitely has some faults. The plot moves at a rapid pace in between a couple of extended musical numbers, and it often feels like the episode is trying to cram too much into a single episode in order to get through the introduction. Our lead, Setsu, is an intriguing enough kid; he's moody and frustrated like any young artist caught in a rut, but his tendency to fly off the handle could get tiresome if not balanced out by a stronger cast. Yuna, this episode's female lead, is pretty fun and works as a strong emotional foil to Setsu's angst, but she's also out of the picture by the time the credits roll, so it's hard to know what to expect going forward. Plus much of the story is mired in some severe melodrama that doesn't always land properly. In general, going just by the story beats of this episode, I'd probably call this premiere middling.
But then Setsu starts up his shamisen and all those issues melt away like snow in the springtime sun. This is an instrument I'm not all that familiar with, but ever since the shamisen solo in the best episode of Rolling Girls, I've had an abiding appreciation for the instrument and its ability to build atmosphere all on its own. And that power is on full display in this episode's climactic performance, blending together into a poetic meditation on both the historic and personal resonance of music, and how a piece's meaning can change along with the listener. It's gorgeously animated, wonderful to listen to, and breathtaking to follow along with. Whatever problems might be lingering in the storytelling, they pale in comparison to the standout moments here.
There's certainly room for this show to fall apart. But I am very much determined to stick with it no matter what. If I can not only sit through but enjoy the edgelord fever dream that was Anonymous Noise, I see no reason why I can't do the same or better with this one.
I can't blame Those Snow White Notes for rushing through the most enjoyable chapter of the first volume of the source manga. Mostly that's because it really is a prologue to the rest of the story, which more fully begins with what we see at the end of the first episode: Umeko (Setsu's actual mother) barging in to take charge of her runaway son. It's still a shame, though, because the rush job didn't give us a good look at the odd friendship that grows between Taketo and Setsu, the other three members of Taketo's band, Pink Punk Gadget, or a chance to get to know Yuna. It's not right, technically speaking, to hold that last part against the show, because she seems to be out of the story at this point, but she's still a terrific character when you have the chance to really spend time with her.
So that's how this stacks up against the manga, if you're wondering.
Obviously, the easiest comparison to make otherwise is between this and Kono Oto Tomare!, the koto anime. Like that series, this one features a young man who plays a traditional Japanese instrument (the shamisen in this case) and who was inspired by his recently deceased grandfather. Other similarities will be revealed in the next couple of episodes, but right now there's also the same vague air of melancholy that accompanies the koto show, perhaps aided by the mournful sounds of traditional string instruments. The shamisen is a little more familiar-sounding than the koto, but whether you're used to it or not, the music is a definite highlight of the episode. The story may have tawdry elements, but the music is exquisite, and you can understand why Yuna re-evaluates her life after hearing Setsu play. I'm almost relieved that the scene where Setsu plays onstage ends before Pink Punk Gadget can start their set, because it almost would have felt blasphemous to hear the two together.
In any event, it's clear that the story is going to revolve around Setsu's quest to find his own sound, overcoming his grandfather's directive to stop playing after his death, because for him, the shamisen is a piece of his being. I can't say that this comes across perfectly. We do understand that the instrument and the music are important to Setsu and that they're inextricably linked with his grandfather in ways that make the old man's passing even more difficult for him. His need to be surrounded by sounds seems to fall by the wayside a bit once he gets to Tokyo, though, and that's not great when his stated purpose is to find his own specific sound. Mostly the whole episode just goes by too quickly for us to really grasp Setsu as a character or his relationships with Yuna and Taketo. This looks like it will still be worth watching – or better yet, listening to – but it's also going to need to slow the story down if the plot and the music are going to truly come together.
Ah, the story of the tortured artist. Upon the death of his grandfather, Setsu leaves behind his northern homeland of Tsugaru to head to the bustling city of Tokyo, specifically Roppongi, an area known for wealthy businessmen and nightclubs. Setsu's grandfather had requested that he stop playing the shamisen, the instrument his grandfather drew acclaim for and Setsu idolized. He has skill, but all his performances are merely an imitation of his grandfather's. His dying wish is for Setsu to discover his "own sound." Setsu doesn't know it at the time, but his desire to head to Tokyo is the perfect first step to discovering himself.
Those Snow White Notes grabbed my heartstrings firmly and never let go. Yes, it has all the hallmarks of the typical tortured artist story, but sometimes treading familiar plot beats in fiction is comforting, since an especially good production can remind you of why this path is so well-worn in the first place. Setsu himself is a surprisingly good "kid," as he's referred to by 22-year-old Yuna. I don't think it's ever outright stated how old he actually is; maybe 18 or 19 given that the age of majority in Japan is 20. He has a decent sense for people, immediately sniffing out that Yuna's boyfriend Taketo is a manipulative freeloader who thinks his shit doesn't stink. He's willing to go to bat for what he thinks is right, even if he doesn't have the physical prowess to back it up.
While the series does center around Setsu's relationship with his shamisen, it's also by and large a personal drama. The angst can be heavy-handed at times and quite a lot culminates over the course of the episode. As Rebecca notes above, there's a whole volume crammed in here to push the narrative through the "prequel" and on to the story proper. That's where it lost half a point from me; the pacing is a lot and some character relationships, namely Yuna and Setsu, suffer from it. The closing moments don't hit nearly as hard since neither character has had much time to stew in their feelings.
The animation here is impressive, especially during the shamisen hand sequences. A lot of anime centering around instruments, especially ones that require detailed and adept finger moments, use workarounds. Those Snow White Notes instead lets you see all the technicality of the characters and their skill, and thus becomes much more impressive for it. The music too is stellar here. The opening performance shows a woman moved to tears and honestly, I feel that. The shamisen is such an expressive instrument that its sound can be overwhelming. I'm definitely enthralled by the series so far and can't wait to see more.
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