It’s funny, despite technically being in every episode of the show so far, Yui has gotten remarkably little focus throughout. She’s had a couple scenes with Setsu and Shuri in isolation, but has otherwise operated as comic relief since the setting shifted to high school. When this was simply the Sawamura Family Drama Variety Hour, that was fine enough, but with the story now resting on the entire team’s shoulders, it was about time we started developing the character who technically got the Shamisen club on its feet.
Th results are a bit mixed in execution, but ultimately sincere and heartwarming enough to work. Most of my issues come down to the sheer speed at which Those Snow White Notes moves through this particular story beat. We go from a sullen conversation between Yui and Shuri to a sentimental flashback to an emotional crying/hugging match in the span of about 10 minutes, and even as a mark for melodrama it all felt like a little much. Still, it did make me appreciate Yui a lot. Previously she was a charming enough semi-jerk, smugly taking pride in finding Setsu before anyone else did, but it’s after she insists that this tournament is going to be the last time she plays shamisen that we finally peek behind that curtain.
Turns out Yui, for all her confidence and assertiveness, is just as insecure as any teenager – she’s just better at hiding it than her chinchilla-like best friend. She’s the type of person to speak her mind when she thinks somebody’s stepping on her toes, but also too afraid of letting anyone see when what they said or did got to her. She’s the type of person to defend somebody she thinks is right even if it means being isolated. And she’s the type of person to bottle up her nervousness until it boils into anger at herself, while still fighting tooth and nail to not admit it to her friends. In short, she’s a bit of a hassle honestly, but the kind of person you can trust to be there for you, and who you want to do the same for. For all that this conflict feels overly condensed, it’s still a sweet moment when Shuri comforts her, and the rest of the team assure her they’d never blame her for losing.
Then Mai comes in and totally upstages her with one of the most kickass performances in the show so far. Sorry Yui, maybe next arc you’ll get to be the star of your own episode.
Seriously though, I’ve been hoping to see something cool from Mai since she was first introduced. She’s got the exact kind of shonen rival energy I love, and while Setsu has perfectly good reasons to ignore her challenges, I’ve kind of been hoping he’d eventually reciprocate her fire. Plus she’s seemingly the only high-level female shamisen player in the cast, so it’d be nice if she got a moment to shine. Thankfully this episode delivers on both fronts, as Mai reveals her own special twist on the supremely traditional instrument.
With artistic pursuits steeped in centuries, let alone decades of history, there’s seemingly always a tension between those who prioritize tradition over anything else, versus those who want to push at boundaries. That’s more or less the entire thematic backbone of Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū‘s generation-spanning story, and while Those Snow White Notes is certainly a different beast, its subject matter offers up a similar chance for dialogue on the topic. Last week we saw some of the more gimmicky takes what with the Shamisen Idols, but Mai’s take seems arguably more of a departure from even that. She’s not just adding frills to her costume and playing the standards, but seemingly drastically reinterpreting the arrangement and structure of what’s considered “proper” shamisen music. I don’t have enough knowledge to comment on particulars, but the music behind the show continues to demonstrate its points so strongly even a neophyte can recognize the distinct shift between previous performances and Mai’s.
What’s more, Mai basically spends the entire piece mentally daring every person in the room to fight her, right here, right now. Girl is aggressive in a way that would probably be exhausting in real life, but she is magnetic with every mental declaration here. She partially wants to wage war on the prodigious Setsu, if only to get him to take her seriously, but also refuses to be overshadowed by Seiryuu or her brother. Speaking of, her quirky genius brother doesn’t seem too fond of her particular style, saying his “ears hurt” while listening to it, and frankly he can go jump in a lake. Because Mai’s group performance is easily my favorite of the ones we’ve seen in this tournament, and in competition for my favorite standalone musical piece in the whole show. It’s just a stellar way to properly introduce this character, and I really hope to see more of her – especially since she managed to light a fire under Setsu and get him to throw in a last-minute switchup to their group piece.
Smashed together, Mai and Yui’s segments don’t quite coalesce, but I can forgive this episode for not being a singular piece when the two halves it gave me were good-to-great in their own right. Plus there’s still a handful of smaller moments like Rai getting worked up at another team’s showboating, or the awkward bundle of feelings at play when Yaguchi sees his parents in the audience. Combined together, whatever they lack in cohesion they make up for with energy, emotion, and the promise of an even more impressive show next week.
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