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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Alright, is the mic picking up? Yeah? Okay. ahem
Mic check. 1. 2. Mic Check. 1. 2.
Sweet, then it’s time to welcome everyone to THIS WEEK IN ANIME. I hope all you wonderful readers out there are ready to ROCK. AND. ROLL with us!
Ok so maybe “rock” is a strong word but by god after four years we FINALLY get to talk about a proper music anime on this column and I’m going to embrace it.
Everyone knows the hardest of cores of Japanese music is the humble shamisen, and this anime is stone cold. That’s why it’s called..!
Long time readers will probably know that I am a fucking music nerd, and while I’m not terribly familiar with the overall history and culture of the shamisen in particular, the moment I saw the trailer for this show I knew it was my hole, and it was made for me. Eight episodes in, that continues to be true, and not just because they gave us TWO great Burnout Syndromes OP songs.
I’m not quite as versed in music myself but I know good music when I hear it, and Those Snow White Notes uses so much of its music for that good-good character growth and introspection. This is what people talk about when they say you can make an anime about anything: here’s a show about people playing a folk-instrument and how they grow as individuals in doing so. I haven’t seen Chihayafuru, but I feel like in a better world there would be a Those Snow White Notes/Chihayafuru crossover.
It’s definitely a similar bent, with a bit of Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū‘s energy tied into it for good measure. While there’s a solid story and character in this show to keep it compelling, the first and foremost reason anyone should watch it is for the jaw-dropping performances this production puts out nearly every week. God DAMN.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but these musical numbers are absolute show-stoppers. There’s serious sakuga at play when you see those fingers working those strings.
It’s been a long time—probably since I watched Kids on the Slope since I’ve seen such detail dedicated to instrumentation, but I especially love the way that opening concert plays with its more metaphorical visuals too. The motes of dust under the spotlight turning into snow in particular hits me every time.
Okay, so let’s give folks the rundown. The story goes that our protagonist Setsu is at a loss; his grandfather, a talented-but-unknown shamisen player, has just passed away. Setsu, having deeply loved his grandfather and learned everything about playing shamisen from him, is torn over his death but also frustrated that his grandfather refused to teach him his signature song, Shungyō (“Spring Dawn”). Seeking a change in scenery, he moves to Tokyo in search of new sounds.
This is a pretty big deal; Setsu’s grandpa underlined Setsu needing his own sound a whole lot, and Setsu having grown so close to his grandfather makes him thusly miss his grandfather’s style of shamisen playing, which inspired him.
And by “moves to Tokyo” we mean “hops a train and then wanders around the entertainment district ’til he passes out from hunger.”
Setsu, like all great musicians, is a few eggs short of a carton.
It’s okay, like all great anime protagonists he finds himself cared for by a model!
Like the song goes, she was working as a waitress in a cocktail hostess bar, when she ran into this dumb kid in need of a warm meal and a roof over his head.
What follows is what feels like an entire movie in the span of about 20 minutes where Setsu befriends Hana, helps her come to the decision to ditch her deadbeat wannabe rockstar boyfriend, and leave town to pursue her dreams in earnest. Also Setsu puts on an impromptu shamisen performance that goes semi-viral while we’re at it. It’s a lot to pack into a very short amount of time, but the climactic concert makes it all work somehow.
Like I said, that scene makes any potential pacing or storytelling issues fade into the distance. It’s when I knew I needed to have this show injected into my bottom eyelid every week, ASAP.
It’s not just the great music–it’s also what the music reveals about the character. The series later reveals that Setsu’s mood drastically affects his music, and so his grieving over his grandfather heavily tints this first performance such that it touches everyone who hears him.
It’s intense, communicates everything about the characters’ emotions in a way that’s both efficient and powerfully effecting, and the kind of thing that would be the pinnacle of any other show. Those Snow White Notes then proceeds to match or outshine it nearly every week.
Like I know this entire column has been me gushing, but god damn it’s so rare to get media that embraces music as a medium for storytelling like this does. Despite being almost entirely instrumentals, the musical sequences of this show are very close to that of musical film and theater, allowing the universal language of song to communicate what spoken words could never capture.
It’s not just anime-styled “Oh! He’s strumming with FIVE FINGERS! Such a dangerous technique!” This is how their music is shaped by their mood, their personality, and the effort they’ve put into it. And as someone who’s played music before and who has other artistic pursuits, yeah–that stuff factors into how your creations come out. It’s amazing how effortlessly Those Snow White Notes is able to weave that into the story.
Though this is still a television show, and once the snow settles and Hana’s left, it’s time for the show to establish its status quo, and that gets helped right along with the arrival of Setsu’s uh…eccentric mother.
Real talk: when she first appeared and called herself “Mama”, I thought she was just a really aggressive girl Setsu met in Tokyo and not, like, his actual mother.
I mean there’s certainly a contingent of viewers who’d be happy to call her mommy, but Steve’s not on this one.
But yes, Umeko is Setsu’s mother. She just has an extremely metropolitan fashion sense and, uh… is a model? Rich? She’s A Lot™, at any rate, and deeply invested in Setsu continuing his growth as a shamisen player. And she’s no slouch—-when she accompanies Setsu’s music with her singing, she’s good.
She’s also the rare Bad Anime Mom. In that to pursue said wealth and fame she apparently left her kids with her elderly father and only ever intercedes with their lives to try to control Setsu and his brother, Wakana. It’s a whole thing. But by god her singing hits like a truck being driven by Whitney Houston.
You think so? I think she’s quite driven. Later on, Umeko reveals that she’s so frustrated with how her father’s talent went unnoticed by society that she not only created a shamisen tournament in his memory (more on that later), she insists that Setsu participate as an individual. She sees in Setsu the same kind of talent that her father had, and she wants it to be recognized as it deserves.
It feels less like she’s being a stage mom and more like she wants to use her power to ensure someone’s gift can actually be appreciated by people and not just languish in the shadows. She just has a really… really gaudy way of showing it.
I’m very much in the camp that, while recognition or financial success are nice things to have, what’s most important for any musician or artist is to pursue the art that speaks to them. Setsu may very well find something worthwhile in competitions or clubs—that’s half of what this show is about by now—but it needs to be something he chooses for himself rather than being railroaded into it.
But then you get to how so much of Setsu’s growth, both as a musician and as a person, only really came about because he joined his high school shamisen club and found himself having to be their pillar. No man is an island, and art can’t be made in a vacuum—the time Setsu spends around his peers was more fruitful than the months he spent on his own letting his whims carry him.
Setsu’s gift is how easily his mood can color his music—the same piece can come out completely differently just because he feels different. But a thing all artists have to learn is that sometimes, you can’t just let your mood dictate your output. Sometimes, you gotta hunker down and practice because consistency is just as important in growth as passion and inspiration.
A great example is when Setsu is brought before a professional shamisen player—and bombs because his heart wasn’t in the performance. Talented as he is, his mercurial nature makes his ability wildly inconsistent.
Sure, but there are ways to teach him that which don’t entail passive-aggressively pushing him into a spotlight he never asked for and actively avoids for at least a few episodes. Like really, what gets Setsuna to grow as a musician isn’t any of the stuff Umeko purposefully sets up, but a random snippet of overheard music from a classmate:
As it turns out, Setsu’s grandfather had met the grandmother of Setsu’s classmate, Shuri, during World War II. Setsu’s grandfather was just a starving artist barely in his teens, Shuri’s grandmother just a little girl mourning her father and staving off her misery. One song kept her hopes up and she never quite forgot it.
It took no small part of ingenuity on Setsu’s behalf to play it, because his grandfather’s song changed over the decades that he played it. Even Shuri’s grandmother points out it wasn’t quite what she remembered. But the heart was still there, and it brought back her hope.
So I’ve been doing Daily Streaming Reviews here at ANN for over a year now, and in that time I’ve covered several shows that I absolutely loved, stuff I’m a diehard fan of and have been following for years. The episode with Setsu recreating his grandpa’s old song was the first I ever gave a full five star rating to because it fucking floored me.
This is good writing about music.
It’s equal parts heartwarming, melancholy, and a reminder of the timeless and universal power of art to connect people. Despite being separated by decades, miles, and mortality, the memory of this simple yet invaluable meeting can be reforged through a piece of music. It’s just god damn astounding and I encourage anyone remotely interested in art of any kind to at least watch episode 4.
The writing in this show reminds me a lot of Hikaru no Go, where even with the supernatural stuff going on Hikaru was growing up through his experiences playing Go with other people— the real meat of the story was the mundane experience of playing Go, learning why it is you behave the way you do and how it affects what you do, and how that meshes with the people around you.
The difference here is that there isn’t a ghost. Just really, really good music.
And while this is largely the Setsu show, I do quite like the supporting cast. Like this tiny, easily frightened hamster child.
So this is Shuri’s Grandma’s granddaughter, Shuri. She’s shy and tiny but she clearly has so much potential, and the shamisen is just begging to pull it out of her.
She’s more or less the audience’s “in” to understanding the basics of shamisen. She’s a total newbie who only picked it up to try and find the song of her grandmother’s memory, but now that she’s got a whole club of friends she’s determined to learn the instrument herself. Unfortunately Setsuna’s one of those annoying prodigies who can explain the shamisen about as well as he can explain astrophysics.
Setsuna can’t even read music.
Again, this just further fuels my “Setsuna has innate talent but needs to temper it with actual discipline” theory.
More immediately this means he’s been playing all these songs by ear which is just infuriating. That’s fucking bonkers and the high school band kid inside me really wants to slap him for it.
For real I’m about to start a fundraiser to get Shuri an actual music tutor to save her.
Thankfully, the rest of the team is able to help Shuri grow a spine, but being around Setsu also lets his ability rub off on her. She’s able to learn how to master the “ai-no-te” maneuver just by letting herself flow with his music.
That’s another one of those moments that just hits. The times when you’re not trying to remember notes or timing and it just clicks and you feel it without even realizing it. God I love this show.
Then there’s Kaito. Ostensibly, he joins the shamisen team because he has a crush on Shuri, but he has plenty of growth to him. We later learn he was once a soccer hopeful until a knee injury dashed his chances. With his parents hoping he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps as an attorney, he’s hoping the shamisen can give him space to be his own person.
I’m mostly just OK on Kaito. He’s not a bad dude all told, and I’m always up to hear more from Nobuhiko Okamoto, but he also has a tendency to get aggro way too quick, in ways that feel over the top even for this show’s heightened emotional state.
Well there’s your problem—he’s just voicing Bakugo all over again.
But Bakugo is Best Boy, and Kaito‘s not even in the running for that title when this show as Rai:
Rai has my heart, he knows his tokusatsu tropes!
He also respects the power of a man in glasses. Just all around a good boy.
Though speaking of tokusatsu, gotta give props to Yui. Any girl who casts herself as the Red Ranger has my support.
She even knows the proper way to introduce yourself! Toei, this is how you do a female sentai leader! Do this for me or go to hell!
Not sure if being an online drama hound is quite the role model we want for kids these days, but you could certainly do worse.
Also, Yui is a gamer. Also-also, she pushes hard for Setsu’s growth because she was a witness to the livestream featuring his strumming at that concert from the first episode— so when Setsu bombs his chance before a professional shamisen player, she is particularly pissed because she knows how much better he can do.
She’s good, though in the race of girls with ponytails who inspire Setsu to improve himself, she unfortunately comes in second place after this latest episode because god DAMN did Mai leave an impression.
Not only is Mai an online friend of Yui’s, she has a long-standing beef with Setsu. They grew up together and she’s longed for him to recognize her ability. Setsu, however, was so obsessed with his grandfather’s sound that he couldn’t be bothered to notice other players around him.
Mai’s got beef with everyone: her super talented brother, her father’s most accomplished student Kamiki Seiryuu, the general and ingrained sexism of traditional artforms. Really she’s simultaneously playing shamisen and raising a dairy farm with all this beef. And that’s why I love her.
There isn’t a single female character I hate in this show. Arguably, you could take Setsu out and just have this be a show about Yui, Mai and Shuri taking part in the shamisen competition after Umeko cons them into joining and you’d have at least an engaging show.
They’re all neat in different ways, but Mai sticks out for me because it’s so rare to have a serious rival character who’s also, y’know, a girl. Doesn’t hurt that her group performance is fantastic, and the current highlight of this whole tournament.
I appreciate that the series shows Mai working up a sweat while she plays shamisen, same as the other boys. She works her butt off playing those strings.
She’s also another instance of Umeko being Wrong.
Game respects game, mama.
To Umeko’s credit, Mai’s rivalry with Setsu exists entirely in her head. Setsu couldn’t care less about her. He doesn’t even stick around for her performance!
Eh that’s a little mean. Setsu just doesn’t have the energy for a shonen rivalry. But something in her performance still lights a fire under his ass to where he’s apparently adding a new element to their performance with literally no notice. So maybe he’s got more competitive heat than he realizes.
Wouldn’t you know it, our batch of episodes didn’t cover Setsu and the gang actually playing. We end on a cheeky plot between Setsu to try and have Rai use his own natural quirks to lend a twist to their song, but… that’s it! So I do guess you’ll have to watch this show to see how much better it gets, huh~?!
I’m gonna pretend we planned it this way to hook people.
But seriously, Those Snow White Notes is locked in battle every week with SSSS.Dynazenon for my favorite show of the season, and this is a season with a huge number of fantastic anime. If anyone reading this has enjoyed series like Rakugo Shinju, Chihayafuru, Kono Oto Tomare!, or just enjoy music in any capacity, give this is a look—and a listen!
There’s a lot of raw emotional power in this series, and like I said—if you’re a Chihayafuru fan, this right here is the perfect companion. They go together as well as the Titus Gundam and Madoka Kaname. Do not miss this series!