Those Snow White Notes – 12 (Fin) – An Abrupt Coda

Last week I railed against Notes for splitting Setsu’s climactic performance across two episodes, since it left us hanging in the middle with no cathartic payoff. Now I understand that such a choice was probably intentional: the last episode marked the end of him merely imitating his gramps, and this final one marked the first time we’ve heard Setsu at 100% His Own Sound.

Kudos to the musical direction and performance here; Setsu As Setsu sounds like no one else, and this sound not only fills the physical venue, but summons long-forgotten memories in one of the judges, moves Sakura and Shuri to tears, makes Mai to make a face that screams “I KNEW it!”…and pisses off his mom royally. It also makes young master Kamiki want to play the shamisen in the worst way.

It’s a triumphant performance, and I’ll admit I was as caught up in it as Setsu and his friends, to the point I felt it impossible that he would lose. Alas, he’s not the final performer, and the best was saved for last. I was fully prepared to listen to Souichi and declare him inferior, but credit where it’s due: Souichi’s performance was better the Setsu’s and everyone else’s.

More to the point, Souichi is confident, even after hearing Setsu (or maybe because of hearing him,), that he would win. I have no problem with that. But like Sakura, I was super-steamed that Setsu came not in second but in third, behind that twangy jackass Arakawa Ushio, who might be tied with Mai for most one-dimensional character of the season.

Umeko hands out the rewards, but intentionally drops Setsu’s and lets it shatter between their feet. Never mind that this was the first time he ever played in a competition, has no teacher, and can’t read music. She leans in and tells him he’s pathetic and he embarrassed her. What a mom!

But while Umeko gives off SAO villain vibes, Setsu’s dad—whom we only found out a couple of weeks ago even was his dad—is more Ikari Gendo. [Soup Nazi Voice]: NO LOVE FOR YOU! Honestly, both of Setsu’s parents should be jailed. Once it’s Kamiki’s turn to point out to Setsu how such a two-faced performance was always giong to suffer in a competition, well…

Having your angsty protagonist reach his highest high only to be ground into the dirt by evil adults is a strange way to end a series it’s by no means guaranteed will get a second season. There isn’t even any glimmer of hope that things will look up for him, as the episode ends with him sulking in the darkness, too immersed in his own despair to notice Sakura is on the other side of his door.

The musical performances were spellbinding, but they were overshadowed by all the doom and gloom at the end. Even if everything Kamiki said about Setsu was absolutely right, I don’t watch anime to get depressed, man! We’re rewarded for watching for twelve weeks with a big ‘ol F-You. If this is a one-and-done season, this finale is as big of a failure as Umeko perceives her son to be.

I’ll end with another Simpsons quote, which perfectly encapsulates Setsu’s journey:

“You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

Those Snow White Notes – 11 – Get To the Good Part!

I don’t usually harp on structural issues, unless they’re detrimental to an episode on a level that can’t be overlooked. Unfortunately, this was one of those episodes. It just…wasn’t built right, and that starts with last week ending with Kaji breaking a string, instead of ending with him and all the other stiffs getting the hell off the stage and giving way to Setsu.

So, instead of getting all of the other stuff out of the way and giving us a climactic musical performance in which Setsu finally figures out the happy medium between imitating Gramps and building his own sound from what he’s experienced since Gramps…get get more other stuff.

Look, Kaji’s a nice guy, but I just don’t really care about him that much, and I’m certainly not that chuffed about having to watch him finish out his song on two strings. I could have also done without Umeko stepping up to Setsu when he’s just trying to eat the love-filled onigiri Sakura made for him and basically telling him he’d better resurrect her dead unsung father or else.

That said, I’ve never had a problem with the fact that Setsu’s mom is both a literal Bond Villain and Bond Girl, isn’t the issue, nor to I mind her fantastic royal blue dress or surpassingly cheesy hired cheer team. It’s just I wish Setsu could just have some time to himself to organize his thoughts and play however he was planning to play.

Instead, his mom’s unmistakable hold over him kicks in, and I was fully expecting him to lay an egg up there by constantly wavering between his own uncertain sound and perfectly imitating what he could never perfectly imitate, and coming off forced, boring, or even pathetic!

Once Setsu finally does take the stage—fifteen minutes into the episode!—I knew whatever performance he had, we were only going to get half of it, tops, due to the perfectly avoidable time constraints.

At the same time, we see that Setsu truly does love playing like his Gramps, or at least as close as he can come. He remembers a day he came home with a skinned knee, the victim of bullies, and his Gramps welcoming him with a soft smile and permission to cry as much as he wants, get angry at those who caused him to cry, and when he’s done, simply smile.

Setsu doesn’t turn in an embarrassing performance, but he is initially playing right into his mom’s hands by doing the best darn Matsugorou imitation anyone alive could ever do, which simply comes down to him having heard his gramps play for years. Umeko smirks her Dr. Evil smirk and holds her hands out to clutch not her son, but the tool with which she’ll show the world her father’s—not his—sound.

In the midst of his music, everyone who has heard Setsu’s real sound acknowledge that his performance is amazing, but also somehow deeply wrong. Those who haven’t heard him before are amazed a 16-year-old is producing such a simple yet mature sound. Setsu knows it’s wrong too; that even his Gramps told him simple imitation of the kind Umeko is demanding was “disgraceful”.

Perhaps Gramps could have chosen better words than that and “never play again”, but by taking a break from the instrument, Setsu got to live his life, meet new friends, experience new things and make new memories. Those, combined with past memories of Gramps and not just how he played but why—because he loved doing it, not to win—can be used to craft his own sound.

Now that Setsu has a blueprint, his performance suddenly changes to his more youthful, mercurial sound. Alas, that’s all the time we’ve got for this week, and so we cut to credits in the middle of a performance. The magic and the power of these musical performance scenes is in how they draw you in and cover you in goosebumps. To suddenly end in the middle without that needed final payoff (or climax, if you must) saps the scene of that immersive power.

Also constantly pulling us in and out of Setsu’s performance is the running commentary. I get it: this isn’t just about the awesome, sakugo-filled performances; the show is trying to tell more stories than that and wants us to be invested in a larger group of characters. But that doesn’t change the fact that filling scenes with dialogue, lowering the music he’s playing and replacing it with a comparatively subpar score, and cutting the performance off just feels like a real bummer, and a needless one to boot.

If I were the showrunner, I’d have wrapped up Kaji and the others plus Setsu’s scenes with Umeko and his friends, and ended last week with Setsu taking the stage, but not yet playing. Then this episode could have been his performance in its entirety. But this is the end of my ranting, and so I’ll close by saying for all its frustrating choices I still enjoyed this episode, and look forward to seeing where the second, more personal, more mom-enraging half Setsu’s performance takes everyone—and him—next week!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Fate/Extra Last Encore – 09 – The Emperor’s Soliloquy

The “film” the female Kishinami Hakuno shows her male counterpart is of her own quest with Saber as her Servant, and a more noble, loyal and true servant, no one could possibly have.

Like the current Hakuno, the female Hakuno learns that she’s neither wizard nor Master, but a “recreation of the data of someone who once existed”; an “NPC”. But Saber tells her that’s of no consequence, either to her value as an individual or her role as prospective victor of the Grail War.

It is in She-Hakuno’s moment of deepest despair and crisis of identity that Saber reveals her True Name: Nero Claudius, fifth emperor of the Roman Empire and one history condemns as a raving despot and dictator. Naturally, Nero herself has a more nuanced life story to tell, and that story is told through what appears to be the work of Ueda Hajime, a frequent collaborator with Shinbo Akiyuki who also animated all Monogatari EDs.

Saber makes no attempt to sugar-coat her tale or excuse the life she led, only to lay it all out to provide Hakuno with context in which to consider her sage advice. Nero loved strangers and commoners more than the royal family to which she belonged. She’s proud of bringing the Great Fire of Rome under control, but as her reign went on she became seen as a moody, unstable dictator.

The Senate could not depose her as long as she had the loyalty of the common people, but when push came to shove no one came to her aid when she was brought down, and she died alone, in despair, with the love of no one. Both in its flamboyantly unconventional presentation, themes of adoration and fall from grace, and truly epic scope, Saber’s story parallels that of the vampire later known as Oshino Shinobu in Monogatari.

And now that we finally have the whole picture of who Saber is, and was, we can appreciate just how much weight there is behind her words of encouragement, for both past and present Kishinami Hakunos. She is at peace with her demise, and will set her life ablaze for the sake of those who wish to believe she is beautiful. In other words, who will love her.

Whatever love she had in her lifetime—of family or people—was either nonexistent or fleeting, so it stands to reason she’s not picky about where she gets her love now. Both Hakunos may deem themselves pale imitations unworthy of having a Servant as excellent and wise and kind as Saber.

They are utterly mistaken for thinking that way. Saber doesn’t care from whom she gets her love. In fact, she would prefer if those people did not “mind every little thing” about themselves.

Call it the extension of her affinity in life for those deemed “less than” in the society in which she lived. Commoners. Bastards, cripples, and broken things. And yes, even NPCs who have been killing and hating for a millenium.

Saber’s been dead three millenia, but doesn’t let it get her down for a second. To her, Hakuno isn’t beholden to the person or people he was before. As far as she’s concerned, he’s is a new person, who deserves a fresh start without prejudice. But he has to take it.

Reinvigorated and healed thanks to the ministrations of Rani (or, at least, her ghost), Hakuno and Saber head back out. Saber faces off against Berserker once more.

After copying and countering his martial arts moves with Royal Privilege, she unleashes her Noble Phantasm: Kingdom of Heaven and Hell,  the Golden Theater of the Deranged, and Veil of Petals, ending Berseker without any difficulty. It’s a short but gorgeous battle.

That leaves Hakuno to deal with Julius, who no longer has any backup. Julius tries his usual spiel denigrating Hakuno for not being alive or having a wish or any business fighting him. This time, the words don’t hurt Hakuno. Saber has opened his eyes. Julius isn’t talking about him; those were other people, and he’s not interested in hearing about their pasts.

After a trippy zero-gravity battle in which the two Dead Faces fight in midair as their surroundings rotate and reorganize around them, Hakuno delivers a decisive blow. Yet even in his dying breath, Julius assures him that he’ll end up like him eventually.

Hakuno doesn’t worry about those words; he’s recommitted to being the best Master he can be for the best Servant one could ask for, who is waiting for him at the ladder to the sixth level.

Rani and Rin seem poised to remain behind having accomplished their shared goal of getting a “decent Master” to the sixth level. But citing the increased difficulty at that level, Rin changes her mind and follows the pair after all, while Rani vanishes in a cloud of digital code.

Thinking back on this episode, I’m astounded at how much it achieved in 25 scant minutes. It felt like a feature film, without ever feeling overstuffed, while cementing my undying love for this version of Saber, whose story was so vividly and painfully told. My head is still spinning. That was truly awesome.