AOTS Alert. Repeat, we have an Early AOTS Alert. Those Snow White Notes is an absolute joy to experience from beginning to end. Its absolute banger of a first episode tells a story of inspiration, loss, loneliness, listlessness, self-worth and self-actualization, jealousy, love, and much more—so much it feels like a little self-contained mini-film.
Oh yeah, did I mention it centers around a shamisen player, so the show’s music is supervised by The Yoshida Brothers, in addition to being directed by the fellow who not only gave us the tone-setting first episode of Rakugo Shinjuu, but both seasons of the excellent Master Teaser Takagi-san, of all things? We’re clearly dealing with some talented folks, so it’s amazing it doesn’t feel nearly as pretentious as it should.
A lot of that has to do with how simply and how efficiently the story is laid out and how easily it is to slide into the lives it follows. We start with Sawamura Setsu and his big brother Wakana listening through a cracked door as their grandfather plays to a transfixed crowd. An aside: I’m probably not alone when I say the sound of a well-played shamisen activates my sense of musical awe in addition to my ASMR, resulting in persistent goosebumps every time I hear it…or even think of it!
That said, as soon as the sweet music is over, the warm scene is replaced by a face-slap of a bitter winter scene, in which the Setsu is leaving home. When his gramps died, his “sound” disappeared too, so he’s going “somewhere loud” in hopes he can get it back. He doesn’t know if Tokyo is that place, but he knows he can’t stay home, saying “there’s nothing here anymore.”
We’re only two minutes in, and we’ve already learned so much while being treated to what is the first but hardly the least shamisen number. (It’s also clear I’m going to end up writing way too many words in this review! If only we had an editor around here…)
SWN’s next efficient-yet-effective character portrait is of Tachiki Yuna, an actress/model who is paying the bills with a hostess club job, having to keep smiling and pretending to be happy to be there even after her agency notifies her that she was passed over for a role. After her shift she’s encouraged by her boyfriend Taketo’s texts, and she considers herself fortunate to “have a man who’s talented.”
Yuna happens to be in the bustling streets of Roppongi when Setsu literally bumps into her after getting temporarily dazed by the sheer brightness of the city lights. The two part ways, but Setsu immediately bumps into some less savory characters who start to beat on him. It’s here we learn that Yuna has a heart of gold, as she comes to the Setsu’s rescue with some karate kicks.
After dreaming about his grandfather essentially telling him to stop playing the shamisen if he dies, Setsu wakes up in girly pajamas in Yuna’s cozy apartment, and she cooks the two of them breakfast. Setsu learns that Yuna is a 22-year-old gravure model. Yuna learns Setsu is a Tsugaru shamisen player, but he can’t play for her because he’s “empty inside”, which just happens to be how she’s been feeling lately.
When Wakana hears from Setsu in a letter, he assumes his little brother just went to Tokyo to get laid. But seeing in Setsu a kind of kindred soul, she proposes he continue living with her and doing the housework until he can get his sound back. Before long, a week passes, the longest he’s ever gone without playing since first picking up a shamisen.
Yuna takes Setsu to a restaurant to meet her great and talented boyfriend Taketo along with his band, and Taketo is revealed to be a preening, self-involved jackass who is far beneath Yuna. Setsu intervenes when he sees Taketo trying to extract some serious cash from Yuna to pay for studio he’s renting. He then tells her he’ll be too busy writing music to hang out later that night.
When Yuna and a bandmate have to hold Taketo back, Setsu peaces out, running through the crush of people and noting just how much noisier Tokyo was than a bumpkin like him could have imagined. He gets caught up on a word his gramps used about his sound—”disgraceful”—not because Setsu sucked at shamisen, but because all he ever did was imitate his gramps.
But right here and now Setsu is mad and wants to express it. He wants to play. So he sits down beside the river and plays. Yuna happens to pass by as he’s starting to play, and while he’d later describe the performance as rough and ugly due to the rust of a mere week, but Yuna and I become entranced.
As someone who can only understand between 1-10% of any given spoken Japanese sentence, the language itself is a kind of music, although I know enough words and phrases to know that it isn’t, so it remains separate from the real thing. But pure music like Setsu’s strumming transcends words as it expresses emotions, ideas, and memories of both player and listener.
In Yuna’s case, she’s transported back to her meeting with her agent, who was trying to get her to audition for racier movies and TV. Rightfully insulted by the insinuation she’s nothing but a pretty face and body, she throws a glass of water in his face, and is warned that she won’t go far if she turns such jobs down.
In the midst of listening to Setsu’s raw and angry performance, Yuna takes comfort in knowing even if her career doesn’t amount to anything, at least she has a good man in Taketo. She stops by the good man’s place to find him with having slept with some other woman, to whom she says “you can have him” and leaves as Setsu’s piece comes to a bitter, final note.
When Setsu comes home, Yuna is still awake, and tells him she heard his music. When she did, she realized they’re not alike at all. Setsu isn’t a “sad person with nothing going” for him like she is, and so she can’t help but feel jealous of him. She says she’ll be going away for a while, and asks him to vacate her apartment while she’s gone.
Another day, Setsu encounters Taketo on the street, who is preparing for a concert with his band. Taketo decides to use Setsu as a hostage, telling Yuna he’ll break his arm if she doesn’t show up. For this shitbaggery, Taketo is promptly punished with a Karma Kick from Yuna, coming to Setsu’s rescue once more.
She apologizes for involving Setsu in her drama, but with the wind kicked out of Taketo, she needs to ask for him to be involved a little bit longer. They need someone to go out there and entertain the crowd until the scumbag recovers. Just like that, Setsu finally gets a stage and a crowd on which to test whether he can get his lost sound back. Three guesses as to whether he manages this.
The ensuing powerhouse of a performance by Setsu calls to mind the best music scenes of Your Lie in April, only in this case the crowd was expecting a rock band, not a Tsugaru shamisen player. As he nervously tells the initially confused crowd, he plays “Jongara Bushi”, and as he does, he recalls in black-and-white memories what his grandfather had to say about the peice.
Gramps described the beginning as passionate and hot-blooded, but it starts to calm, grow progressively sadder and heartrending, weakening and waning. He’s basically describing a life. But, unlike a fiery youth who calms down in middle age and eventually withers and passes away, “Jongara” claws its way back, refusing to be beaten down, issues a challenge with its final furious crescendo.
The crowd watches in dead silence, just as Yuna did, and you can’t help but think of what is flashing through their heads while they listen; while they’re being taken on this roller coaster ride of powerful emotions. Just like April, the stage lights illuminate dust motes to give the simultaneous appearance of snow and magical sparkles. Setsu is casting a spell on everyone in that hall with his sound, and not even Taketo can deny its power.
Not only that, but the performance is being live-streamed on the internet, where even if it doesn’t go viral, it’s being watched from home by someone Setsu is sure to meet at some point; perhaps someone who like him has been around shamisen music enough to know that by their standards his performance was just okay. But I’m with Yuna, Taketo, and rest of the crowd: that was fucking awesome.
Also awesome? Yuna doesn’t take Taketo back. They’re done, and he knows he “lost himself a good woman”, even if Yuna would argue that she’s good at anything. Also, while I’m sad to see her go, Yuna does go on her trip to find her…well, not sound, but I guess to find what it is she can contribute to the world and feel good about it. Modeling and porn were decidedly not those things, but I hope the show won’t lose sight of her journey.
Setsu continues to live in her apartment after she leaves, but Taketo tends to come by a lot, so it’s clear that while he’s an asshole, he and Setsu will probably continue to interact with each other, if not outright befriend each other. While Setsu has the kettle on, he recalls walking Yuna to the train station, gives him a kiss before pushing him away and boarding the train with a final wave goodbye. Assuring him that whatever girl he ends up with “will be very happy”.
Back at her apartment, Taketo says that Setsu seems most alive when he’s playing, but if the shamisen is what gives him life, then sooner or later that world will “drag him in.” Taketo is hitting the nail on the head when their talk is abruptly interrupted by the most ridiculous occurrence in the episode: on the snap of a woman’s fingers, the door to Yuna’s apartment is forced open, a smoke bomb goes off, and two SWAT officers flank a glamorous woman with silver hair, blue eyes, and an April O’Neil jacket.
She’s here for Setsu, whom she calls “Baby-chan”, and Setsu calls her Umeko, but I know from the initial description of the show that this is his mom…who it’s immediately clear is a lot. Looks like however much of his sound Setsu believes he’s found in Tokyo, Umeko will have an unnegotiable say in his life…at least as long as he’s still a kid.
Talk about a mood-changing, enticing record-scratch of an ending! And it’s followed by an end theme that positively slaps: Miliyah Katou’s Kono Yume ga Sameru made, featuring the Yoshida Brothers. This was an opening episode that scratched all of my itches and then some. If you’re tired of my incessant gushing, go give it a watch yourself! I for one am probably going to go watch it again!