Those Snow White Notes – 07 – All Together Now

When Setsu leaves his tenement house bound for the Matsugorou Cup in Asakusa, Sakura has a special lunch prepared for him, even though he says there’s no need. Of course, need’s got nothing to do with it; Sakura simply wanted to make him a lunch, so she did, period. As she and her dad see him off, Setsu notes how Sakura is more of a mom than Umeko.

When the team arrives at the Cup venue in Asakusa (a throwback Tokyo district best known for its giant lantern), they’re all a bit caught off guard by how goshdarn EXTRA it is, which comes as no surprise to Setsu, since it’s a reflection of his extra mom. And yet, Yui presents the team with special competition outfits that give each of them way too accurate Super Sentai colors!

As expected, Yui’s online friend Maimai is Tanuma Mai, who demands to be placed in the Individual competition when she belatedly learns Setsu is in it. She’s got it in her head that it matters whether her dad acknowledges her, and that the only way to do that is to beat Setsu. But the officials don’t budge, and her mother Sayuri scolds her for being so gauche.

Then Umeko catches wind of Mai’s attempt to use her second-place finish in a past competition to muscle her way in…but Mai’s mother isn’t about to let the strutting peacock like Umeko bash her daughter, so the two moms engage in some ultra-fuckin’-high-class trash talk while Mai gets the fuck out of the way.

Yet, when you analyze the content of their discourse—Umeko mocking Sayuri was a fool and a naïf to marry the man she did, while Sayuri accuses Umeko of drinking the blood of the young—it ultimately comes off pretty trashy! I absolutely loved it.

Setsu goes off on his own for a while, and revels in the sound of so many shamisens in one place. Wakana may later accuse Umeko of “torturing” Setsu, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. Setsu is, as Brian Cox often hums in McDonald’s commercials, lovin’ it, even if some of the musicians are a little sharp with their B’s.

To his surprise, someone else tells them this and they retune their shamisens correctly. This lad, Tanuma Souichi, then approaches Setsu with eyes unclouded by hate. Instead, Souichi is elated to meet someone who speaks with the same Aomori dialect, and believes that automatically makes them friends…even if Setsu isn’t quick to agree.

Meanwhile, Yui finally encounters Mai, who happens to be in a sour mood after getting caught between two tiger moms. I love how they recognize one another by matching each other’s auras to their avatars. Poor Shuri is afraid she’ll have to try to break up a fight, only for Mai and Yui to join hands in giddy friendship.

The Cup finally gets underway with an opulent opening reminiscent of the 2004 Athens Olympics opening ceremony, with Umeko mimicking the role of Björk, who wore the whole world as a gown. From there, the Groups start to perform before the judges. Some are traditional, others are trying to grab attention with rock chords or an idol aesthetic.

As this is going on, Setsu’s teammates grow increasingly weary of his absence, and when he finally arrives, he pooh-poohs any thought of practicing before their performance. This once again draws the ire of Kaito, who assumes Setsu is looking down on them (him), doesn’t want to play with them…but he’s wrong. Setsu headbutts him, cowing him in the process, saying he “knows his own quirks”.

After some gimmicky units that put Umeko in a foul mood (leading her to go “powder her nose”…which I’m guessing means do some coke), a group from Osaka comes along that puts everyone on notice.  Led by the mild-mannered Takaomi Kaji, whom women love and men want to be, the six-man ensemble practices perfect posture, form, and near-hypnotic synchronization, summoning a crisp cool wind that courses through the venue. Even Umeko is impressed.

Wakana apologizes to Setsu’s teammates on his behalf, assuring them that if you were to ask who his little brother is playing for, it’s for all of them, and if you asked why he was doing it, it’s because he wants to win, and win with them. It’s just that hearing a sound of Kaji’s group’s caliber “maxed out” his emotions, making it hard to do normal human interaction.

Now he simply has to find a way to channel that energy into his performance, not leave his team in the dust, and save enough in the tank for the Individual competition … his first ever. No pressure!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Those Snow White Notes – 06 – Everyone’s an Apprentice

Yui lights a fire under the ass of the Shamisen Club when she learns her gamer friend from Aomori is also participating in the group division of the Matsugoro Cup. Her name is “Maimai”—could it be Setsu’s self-appointed rival Tanuma Mai? Whoever it is, Yui doesn’t want to lose to them!

She zealously pushes the others to memorize and practice “Shinbushi” for a month, then Koyabu-sensei and the instrument shop owner Oodawara-san arrange a training camp…in Aomori. When they arrive, Setsu still isn’t sure whether he’ll enter the individual division, while Shuri is struggling with her timing.

In the throes of a full-on slump, Shuri reaches out for advice from Setsu, who is too preoccupied with his own stuff to give her anything other than “just keep doing what you’re doing”. This angers Kaito mightily, but not just because he’s in love with Shuri and Setsu is being a condescending jerk. He’s mostly mad—just as practically everyone else he knows is disappointed—that Setsu isn’t making full use of his talents.

Earlier at school, Kaito was a soccer star with a realistic shot at the pros until he blew his knee out, closing the door on his preferred future forever. He then overheard his father say the injury was a “good thing” because it meant he could focus on his studies and follow in daddy’s footsteps. As such, Kaito considers himself “perfectly set on the rails” his parents laid down.

Rai tells Setsu this, providing context for why Kaito blew his stack, and in the baths, Setsu comes to Kaito to apologize. Kaito apologizes too, and then the two of them and Rai start horseplaying, which Yui and Shuri can overhear from the girl’s bath, indicating the boys made up.

The next morning, super-early, Oodawara-san takes the club up to a vantage point overlooking the Tsugaru Strait and offers a history lesson that proves instrumental in Setsu reorganizing his thoughts about finding his sound and participating in the individuals. The first Tsugaru shamisen players were blind and living hand to mouth. Oodawara wonders what the hearts of people looked like to those who never saw the natural beauty of Tsugaru around them.

Oodawara goes on to say rules and traditions only go so far when it comes to Tsugaru Shamisen, since the circumstances and experiences of the first players were so very different from their successors, who weren’t blind. The past is not simply endlessly repeated; there is a conversation between the past and present, meaning change and boundary-pushing is not only inevitable, but crucial to its survival.

Setsu, grasping better how to find his sound, has Rai and Kaito switch shamisens to better match their playing styles and personalities. Shuri keeps struggling, but is determined not to give up. Wakana and family friend Kouta pay him a visit, and it’s clear to Setsu they’re both trying to light a fire under him.

Talk turns to gramps, who never took on any apprentices because he believed anyone who truly listened to him would be able to learn his sound. But more importantly is what Wakana says before parting: gramps also said that the reactions of the people listening were the most important lessons. In other words, Setsu will never find his sound if there’s no one listening.

Setting up atop the vantage point overlooking Cape Tappimi (or “Dragonsflight”), Setsu starts to play, and at the base of the hill, Shuri hears him and comes running as fast as she can. She can hear Setsu’s sound, and when she reaches the top that sound is so powerful, a feeling rose up in her chest that made her suddenly shout “Wa!”

Turns out that while “Wa” isn’t one of the kakegoe shouts, she shouted it precisely when she should have, because she was riding the sound, not chasing it as she had been throughout her slump. Setsu’s sound was “leaping so freely” it not only felt amazing, but helped her leap right out of that slump with a new understanding of what she was doing and how to fix it, all through the power of his sound.

Setsu, in turn, thanks Shuri for giving him the final little push he needed to decide he’s going to enter the individuals after all. That’s right: IT IS ON.

In their final “Shinbushi” practice of training camp, the club gets through the piece without a single mistake. Everyone’s feeling good, and Oodawara suggests they celebrate their success by attending Nebuta, one of the “three great festivals of Tohoku” according to Yui, and something hard to argue with what with the excellent music, dancing, and food.

All the while, the tiny obaasan who hosted the club at the guest house clandestinely shows off her god-level texting skills, revealing that she was one of Umeko’s spies all along. She informs Umeko that Setsu has indeed agreed to enter the individual division, just as Umeko is promoting the Matsugoro Cup. She got what she wanted yet again, but in this case it’s because Setsu wants it too.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Those Snow White Notes – 05 – Chemical Reaction

The Tsugaru Shamisen Appreciation Club’s first meeting begins with Koyabu-sensei presenting everyone with rented instruments as well as a flyer for the “Matsugorou Cup” suspiciously funded by Setsu’s mom’s cosmetics company. Of course, his classmates aren’t aware of who his mother is or even that the competition is named after his gramps.

Koyabu also introduces the rest of the club to its fifth member (necessary to compete in the group division): Nagamori Rai, Setsu’s neighbor who was taught by his mother and has already played for his dad’s rakugo performances. Still, as the most experienced shamisen player, Setsu leads the instruction.

Despite Wakana urging him to have patience with novices, watching the others continue to struggle mightily and not sure where to start helping them to improve only adds to his own personal musical frustration. He lashes out by saying he’ll refuse to “lower himself” to their level and it will be impossible to get them in playing shape for the competition. But while he comes off as a haughty jackass here, he’s actually not angry at any of them, but at himself for not being able to help them.

Then Umeko shows up in Setsu’s room unannounced, and while she doesn’t cop to putting him in high school just so she can devise the Matsugoro Cup and make him enter, she’s dead serious about using her authority as his mother to ensure that his talent won’t “smolder in obscurity” like her father’s did. She couldn’t force him into the spotlight he deserved, but she’ll drag her child into it—kicking and screaming if necessary.

When Shuri finds Setsu sulking on the school rooftop, he surprises her by apologizing for being a jerk, admitting he’s more frustrated than anything by being unable to achieve his gramps’ sound. That’s when Shuri passionately defends Setsu’s own sound, as her grandmother described. That gentle sound healed her as well as her gran, and inspired her to try to get a little closer to it by continuing to practice.

Shuri, Setsu, and the whole Shamisen Club is bowled over to find Koyabu-sensei has brought Kamiki Seiryuuu to offer some pointers. She had reached out to him via email with a recording of Setsu playing “Shinbushi” fiercely and wildly with picking all over the place. This second listen is all Kamiki needs to accept Koyabu’s request.

Even if it would create competition for him—maybe because it would—Kamiki is desperate to hear Setsu’s true sound unleashed. So when he arrives, the first thing he asks is that Setsu play “Shinbushi” for him again. Setsu agrees, and his performance is so much softer and more nuanced than the recording that it almost sounds like a different piece to the novice ears.

But Kamiki sees that it’s more than that: Setsu is unable to filter out his mood in the now when he performs, so however he happens to feel, that’s how he’ll sound. That’s why he’s so “all over the place”, and why Kamiki whips out his own shamisen and starts to play—not over Setsu, but with him.

A musical dance ensues, with Kamiki leading with his sprawling sound, letting Setsu dance and skip over it like a rock over water. Setsu’s feeling changes within the performance as he realizes that Kamiki’s sound is supporting his, focusing his emotions and thus his performance. When the two reach an equilibrium playing together, Shuri likens it to a chemical reaction. Considering emotions are chemical signals in the brain, she’s not wrong!

If I could be a little gross for a moment to create a metaphor: Setsu was musically constipated (he calls it “shackled”), while Kamiki’s instructive play was the Metamucil Setsu needed to “loosen things up”. It’s probably a coincidence that after Kamiki leaves, Setsu heads straight to the bathroom, but as he heads there, everyone notices how light Setsu looks as he walks…he even starts to skip!

Setsu knows what Kamiki pulled, and while it “irked” him, it was also a lot of fun, leaving him feeling happier than he’s felt in a good long while. Kamiki’s playing also used the most basic phrasing, meaning the whole club could learn it. So there’s hope for them yet. As for the individual tournament, I imagine he’s not far from committing to that. Umeko, Kamiki, and the Tanuma siblings are only a few of those who’ll be bitterly disappointed if he doesn’t!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Those Snow White Notes – 04 – New Guide, New Goal, New Sound

It’s all thanks to Sakura’s onigiri. When she greets Setsu and he enters the boarding house without responding, she can tell he’s out of sorts, and the only thing for that is food. When she delivers it, he’s on the phone with Wakana, and she gets the idea he’s talking about a girl he likes.

Setsu is terrified of not being able to live up to Shuri’s grandmother’s memory of gramps’ magnum opus, “Shungyou (Spring Dawn)”. But Wakana reminds him that Shuri didn’t know Gramps, and Setsu doesn’t know her grandmother. It’s impossible to try to exactly copy what she heard so many years ago, so he suggests Setsu rewrite her memory, using his own song.

Kamiki calls Mai to tell her he heard Setsu play, and while he clearly couldn’t show him his “sound”, he still heard the dizzying potential Mai always believed to be there, and so desperately wants to do battle with. Setsu gets a recording of “Shungyou”, but it’s on an ancient cassette tape. No problem; Kaito’s a vintage audiophile!

When Kaito asks why they can’t just play the tape for Shuri’s gram, Setsu says there’s no comparison between a taped performance and a live one. That makes it all the more impressive that even a cassette recording of Setsu’s gramps playing is able to fully transport both him and Kaito into the story of the song, ending with the titular and redemptive spring dawn.

Even a layman like Kaito can tell how God-level Setsu’s gramps was, and Setsu acknowledges he simply doesn’t have hands quick enough to match the picking at the climax of the piece. While he tries to play it, a passing young man declares Setsu’s sound “pinched and sharp”, i.e. frustrated and confined. He hands him a handmade Tamapiyo chick: something simple anyone can make, yet still causes peoples’ hearts to skip a beat.

Speaking of skipping a beat, Shuri’s heart does so as she watches the stream of Setsu playing that Yui first saw. When Kaito learns she had been keeping it from Shuri, he gets angry at Yui, provoking her into kicking him, saying “Shuri’s all you think about!” and storming off, blushing and mad. Clearly there’s a love triangle in play here, and the addition of Setsu makes it a rhombus.

Sakura forms still another vertex, as she welcomes the acerbic young man who told Setsu to simplify. He learns his name is Rai, he plays hosozao shamisen, and is the son of a rakugo performer. They’re also neighbors! Setsu followed his advice and thanks Rai for giving it.

The day arrives, and Setsu is clearly nervous because when he first meets Shuri’s grandmother he asks if she’s dead, then warns her not to die before he finishes playing. That’s gotta be nerves! But then he sits down, begins playing a sparser, more stripped down “Shungyou” that he can actually play, thus demonstrating his own new sound based upon his gramps but no longer an attempted perfect facsimile.

The sound transports Shuri’s grandma back to when she was a six-year-old evacuee shunned by those who took her in. She met a poor and starving boy slightly older than her, and she gave him her ration of potato to play something for her. That boy, Setsu’s grandfather, wept after playing, because he ate a starving girl’s potato. When she says it’s okay for her to die because her parent is dead, he said no, you have to keep living.

As Setsu’s streamlined performance moves everyone to tears, especially Shuri, who witnesses her gran smile for the first time in a long while. Setsu and Kaito saw the Spring Dawn over the mountains that turned a new page in the life of the unnamed subject of the piece—who could be anyone.

Gran’s eyes are also dazzled here by the rising sun over deep blue waves and a purple sky, the night dissolving into darkness. The image of her sitting and listening to Setsu’s gramps playing Shamisen is etched in her mind. It’s a cot-damn tearjerker, I tellsya; a new high watermark for the series in terms of emotional impact.


When it’s over, Shuri’s gran says it sounded different. That’s because the sound she heard back in the day was a very humble sound on a shabby shamisen, and yet it gave her the courage to live. She describes Setsu’s sound as a gentle sound that can heal pain, as it healed hers. She declares that she’ll be able to sleep again without becoming lost in colorless, soundless painful memories.

Setsu’s performance was a great success, and Shuri reminds him, Yui, and Kaito that they’re all in her Shamisen Club going forward. Setsu’s mom, being massaged and pampered by an army of servants, gets word from “the unit keeping an eye on Setsu” that he’s joined the club, and she takes the liberty of entering him into the National High School Tsugaru Shamisen Koshien—the Matsugurou Cup! Looks like Mai might just get her wish of going up against Setsu…

This is a re-post from last week’s episode. Episode 5 review coming soon.

Those Snow White Notes – 03 – It’s Fine if It’s Different

This week Setsu becomes raveled in the web of the adorable Maeda Shuri and her childhood friends Kaito and Yui. Yui tries in vein to get Setsu to join Shuri’s club, leading him to ask why she won’t join. Then Kaito asks Shuri if Setsu’s bothering her, even though we later learn he’s the one who bullied her when she was little!

Everything chances when Shuri gets lost in a recording of her grandmother’s humming a tune on her phone and misses the bell. She gets reamed out by the teacher, who unplugs her earbud, and the whole class can hears the tune. Setsu recognizes it: his own grandfather’s “Shungyou (Spring Dawn).”

Setsu boldly approaches Shuri in the hall and asks her about it; turns out the whole reason Shuri started the club was that she hoped to meet someone who could tell her what song it was her grandmother heard some decades ago, a memory that no longer has any sound. Kaito who has an unabashed crush on Shuri, grabs Setsu, who says he was mistaken and storms off.

Then it’s Shuri’s turn to be unexpected, as she grabs Setsu’s arm with both of hers. She answered his question, now he has to answer hers: Could she someday play the piece her granny hummed? “Impossible”, he says flatly, drawing the ire of both Kaito and Yui. Koyabu-sensei breaks up the tussle by suggesting all five of them go listen to a live performance by the former owner of the shamisen in Shuri’s care.

Meanwhile in Aomori, Kamiki Seiryuuu, formerly Ogata Kousuke, shamisen player extraordinaire, plays for the Tanuma siblings’ father, who is impressed by his progress but still assures him that his son Souichi will beat him. Kamiki politely replies that that ain’t gonna happen.

While on the way out Kamiki runs into Tanuma Mai, who may be the only one outside the Sawamura family to hear Setsu’s playing. And he was so skilled, his distaste for competition made her mad. She’s been mad ever since, and doesn’t quite buy that it’s “fine” for Setsu to not want to seek recognition.

Speaking of recognition, Koito and Setsu arrive at Kamiki’s performance with Shuri, Yui, and Koyabu-sensei, and a crowd full of adoring ladies. Shuri asks Setsu what he meant by impossible, he says even he wouldn’tbe able to play it, as his “emotions would get in the way”. Yui wonders to herself why he can’t simply try to play it.

Then the lights go out, and a dramatically silhouetted Kamiki begins his performance, pulling the crowd in with a clarity of sound Setsu didn’t think possible from a futozao. As Mai’s dad said, his playing is like a breath of mountain air; crisp, bracing…even a little frightening. Again Snow White Notes delivers another awesome shamisen performance, and due to the performer being Kamiki, it’s unlike any of the previous ones.

Koyabu-sensei gets everyone backstage so Shuri can ask Kamiki about the shamisen he left behind, but Setsu gets uncharacteristically chippy about the fact Kamiki basically abandoned such a kingly instrument to the tender mercies of a school that could have easily thrown it out.

Kamiki says he trusted someone would find it who would be able to ascertain its true value…and that turned out to be true! Then Kamiki hands Setsu his current shamisen and asks him to show him what he’s got. Setsu plays, and Shuri, Koito, and Koyabu-sensei are impressed…but Yui isn’t. Nor is Kamiki.

Yui finds his playing boring. Kamiki had an even meaner word for it in his thoughts…insipid. He recognizes Setsu has some skill, but he was just striking away recklessly.

Setsu runs off. Yui follows him and asked why he phoned it in. She heard him play properly online during the rock show and was blown away despite having zero interest in the shamisen before. But Setsu wasn’t sucking intentionally…he just couldn’t play. Shuri listens in around the corner as he laments not being able to play for Shuri even though she’s so desperate to hear that mystery tune.

A rain-soaked Setsu arrives on his block to find Sakura outside the boarding house, and he asks her upfront what she’d do if someone asked her to do something she thought was impossible for her. Sakura says she’d give it her best shot on her own terms, even if she knew she’d fail. It’s just what Setsu needed to hear to come out of his funk.

The next day, when Shuri is along in some supply room strumming out some basic shamisen notes, Setsu appears from behind and corrects her posture. He asks if it’s okay if the song he plays is different from the one her grandmother remembers, and she says of course it will be fine; like Sakura, she’s more concerned with trying than not trying. If anything, it’s better if it’s different, because that makes it his sound. That’s what he’s scared of, after all: his sound never shaping up to his gramps’.

But his grandfather didn’t want him exactly copying him anyway! Setsu thought his sound didn’t exist at all without gramps around, but by bringing sound to the silent memories of Shuri and her grandmother, he’s one more small step towards discovering that he always had a sound separate from his master’s—everyone does, and everyone should. I’ll close by saying way to go, Setsu, for totally making Shuri’s day!

Those Snow White Notes – 02 – Let Loose and Take Flight

Setsu remembers back when a girl in his class was mad he dropped out of a shamisen competition, calling him a coward who was running away with tears in her eyes. She wanted to beat him, but it was more than that: she clearly admired and respected his play as someone worth working to defeat. When he tactlessly tells her he only cares about his grandfather’s sound, she slaps him.

It’s that same cheek—along with the other one—that Setsu’s mother is grasping when he finally comes to after being gassed. Umeko, would never win Mother of the Year, but she’s at least concerned enough about her son to establish some structure to his new home in Tokyo, setting him up in a boarding house in the vibrant old town (Shitamachi) and enrolling him in school.

When Setsu tells his mom he’s lost his sound, Umeko asks how far it went, and insists he answer with his shamisen. Beside the boarding house room’s open window that overlooks a bustling street, Umeko challenges Setsu to make everyone down there turn and look as he accompanies her singing, warning she won’t tolerate disgraceful play.

It’s then, during his playing and her singing of “Tsugaru Ohara Bushi”, that we learn that while she’s by all appearances a pompous, arrogant, and overbearing force of nature, Sawamura Umeko is perfectly able to offset those traits with her singing talent. Tetsu says he “hates” her, but her voice has always made his heart tremble. You and me both, bud!

Unlike her personality when not singing, Umeko’s voice is more than a force of nature: it’s all four seasons. It’s apropos that her song can be interpreted as the life cycle of an apple tree…and a woman. From the first note she sings, the unyielding power, confidence, and beauty of her voice is plain…and terrifying.

For a bit under four minutes, I was transported to nirvana, experiencing winter, spring, summer, and autumn, feeling the wind blowing, smelling the blossoms and ripening fruit. Every single person in the crowd below stops what they’re doing, turns to the window, and listens. A girl seemingly falls in love before our eyes.

Umeko and Setsu put a spell on everyone, including me…and then Setsu breaks a string before he can finish his big solo, and it’s all over but the ovation below. Umeko admits she did this so Setsu would make a good first impression on the neighborhood, ensuring he could practice whenever he wants.

But that night, all of the praise and promised freebies from his neighbors amounts to nothing in Setsu’s angsty thoughts. All Umeko has done is ensure he can continue drifting along and going with the flow, accomplishing nothing; amounting to nothing. Methinks our boy doth protest too much…I think he’s got a pretty sweet deal here!

The next morning at the boarding house restaurant run by a father-daughter pair, Wakana arrives as promised to see Setsu to his first day at his new school. Umeko gave Setsu a choice: continue his education, or return to Aomori. The brothers’ breakfast and tense discussion is interrupted by their mother in a cosmetic ad on TV.

As they walk to Setsu’s school, Wakana tells him about the competition he just came from, in which he placed third. First Place went to Kamiki School master Ogata Kousuke, while Second Place went to his kohai, third-year high schooler Tanuma Souichi. Setsu recognizes the name Tanuma, as his little sister was in the same year as him, and indeed girl who slapped him in his flashback.

While Setsu gave up on competition to try to pursue his gramps’ sound, Tanuma Mai won in the competition’s women’s division, telling Wakana prior to the performances that he was no match for the Kamiki School…and turned out to be right. With Wakana and Setsu’s master deceased, it’s as if they’ve hit a brick wall and are “stuck in the dark”.

Between his good looks and refreshing accent, Setsu is well-received by his classmates despite his cool introduction. Wakana learns Umeko told some tall tales (and signed a fat check) to get Setsu enrolled so quickly. While in the faculty lounge with his homeroom teacher Kobayu-sensei, Setsu meets Maeda, a girl in his class who also happens to head up the school’s shamisen appreciation club.

She also happens to have a shamisen left at the school by one Ogata Kousuke. Setsu is initially troubled by the idea of a tourist like Maeda handling such a honed instrument, but lowers his hackles when she looks at him forlornly with trembling eyes and asks “Is it wrong for me…to touch it?” Phrasing!

He helps her assemble the shamisen, which has a torn skin as a result of disuse and neglect. But other than that correctable flaw (at the not insignificant cost of ¥40-50k!) he recognizes it as a particularly exquisite specimen. Maeda is smitten with it, and with Setsu, who clearly knows his shamisens. Alas, before she can properly thank him, Setsu has executed a perfect Batman exit.

Wakana meets up with him after school and presents him with the parting gift of a genuine kiri wood case, which Setsu clearly loves. Wakana also says he now understands more why Setsu left home, considering the burdens left for him there. Setsu tells Wakana how, like penguins and seals can recognize the call of their young out of a group of hundreds, he’ll always be able to pick his brother’s sound out of a chorus of shamisens.

Before Wakana takes his leave, Setsu suggests they go somewhere and play something together. They invite the boarding room father and daughter (Sakura) to join them, and they pick out a nearby Inari shrine where Sakura assures them the kitsune won’t mind their music.

Talk about it! Once again a musical number sends me straight to heaven. The two brothers play a piece with no title they came up with when they were younger and “just messing around”. As Sakura and her dad stand absolutely rapt, the brothers’ music summons images of a golden light-soaked Aomori evening. Wakana recounts how Setsu would always follow him. He’d run ahead, or climb a tree, and Setsu would fall behind and cry.

But then Wakana would take Setsu’s hand and bring him along, making sure he didn’t fall too far behind or feel lonely. Back and forth they’d go, just as their dueling shamisens chase each other. The piece gets very quiet for a bit, then they both cut loose and take flight like birds.

Sakura recognizes that this is no idle strumming, but the melody of the two brothers; the vocalization of their love and devotion; a dialogue of souls bound by blood far stronger than words could manage. With fresh strings on Setsu’s shamisen, the piece ends properly with a two-note exclamation point: blang-blang. The duet is the perfect cap to another perfect episode of Those Snow White Notes. Now the wait begins for the third episode, when Maeda will no doubt attempt to recruit Setsu into her club.

Those Snow White Notes – 01 (First Impressions) – Challenge Issued

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!