Kageki Shoujo!! – 12 – Secret Weapons and the Stingray of Kouka

It’s Yamada Ayako’s turn to audition as Juliet, and especially after Naracchi’s performance she’s bereft of confidence. What can she contribute to her performance to stand out? From where can she draw inspiration? Gradually, as we take a trip down memory lane to her first 3D crush Hirayama, and through a sweet and caring pep talk from Sawa, Aya discovers these things.

There was a girl named Yanou Asuka who seemed to dart from boy to boy, even dating all the members of a band, who then broke up. Despite that rep, Aya wanted to know more about Asuka beneath the surface. So too did Hirayama, becoming the first boy Asuka ever turned down after he friendzoned Aya into oblivion.

Aya later learns that Asuka considers her her only girl friend, and could tell Aya had a crush on Hirayama, hence turning him down for her sake. Asuka doesn’t see anything wrong with Aya swooping in to ask out Hiragama after his heartbreak. But in re=examining their talk on that rooftop before Kouka, Aya comes to realize that at the end of the day, perhaps it was Aya whom Asuka truly loved.

In the present, Sawa’s pep talk about Aya having something special to contribute and being a singularly cute and likable young woman, make her a perefect Juliet; she just needs to stop worrying about failure or coming up short of expectations. Sawa certainly doesn’t do that, as her performance of Tybalt is a masterpiece of bitter rage.

Aya intentionally pauses when it’s Juliet’s turn to react to Tybalt’s death, and Aya breaks out the “secret weapon” her supportive teacher knew she had within her: the ability to sway the audience completely with her warm aura and dynamic voice. It’s jut a powerful and unique performance, Naracchi later walks up and declares her a “worthy rival”…and there’s no higher praise from that one!

That brings us to the last of our main circle of friends’ auditions: Sarasa giving Tybalt another shot, having grown and learned a lot since merely copying a Top Star’s performance previously. Sarasa goes off on her own during lunch, but not to sulk; to drawfrom her life experience, the same way as the other performers.

Sarasa remembers the day after her big Kouka acceptance party being invited to the aquarium by Akiya. She’s so excited she tries to meet up with him early, only for him to text her that he needs another hour. Sarasa ends up eavesdropping on at least part of a conversation between Akiya and Kouzaburou (whom she’s probably not aware is her biological dad).

It’s Kouzaburou who suggests that Akiya make the tranition from childhood friends to dating, in order to better weather the distance between Asakusa and Kobe. Of course, Sarasa’s dad just wants someone to keep in touch with Sarasa and make sure she’s doing okay at Kouka, and he isn’t subtle in warning Akiya that refusing to date Sarasa may affect Kouzaburou’s willingness to influence Kaoh-san’s decision to pick his successor.

When Akiya meets Sarasa at the aquarium, the scene, while beautiful, bathed as it is in blue light, is alos a bit gloomy. Sarasa brightens the scene by describing the sea life before them as reminding her of the Kouka Grand Parade, with the fluttering Stingray as the clear Top Star. That’s who Sarasa is going to strive to be. She declines to go see Akiya perform—her gramps said no mor kabuki—but she’s resolved to make a name for herself in that Grand Parade.

We also learn it’s Sarasa who asks Akiya out, not the other way around, which we should have known considering his tendency to become tentative and get lost in his head, and her forthrightness and ability to break through barriers. Back in the present, she’s where she needs to be emotionally, just in time for Andou-sensei to declare that he will be playing Romeo in her audition as Tybalt. It’s time for the stingray to unfurl its wings.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 11 – Twas Your Face the Light Endow’d

Kouka goes straight from sports festival to cultural festival, and this year the Centennial first-years are once again getting special treatment, as they’ll be taking fifteen minutes of the second-years’ time for the performance of a scene from Romeo & Juliet—the same one Sarasa famously bombed. Andou-sensei says there will be auditions, so the girls will be rivaling one another as they vote for each other.

It’s another one of the unique ways Kouka instructs its young performers-to-be in the theory of their craft as well as encouraging a degree of the toughening needed to survive on the Kouka stage. Everyone up there has to believe they’re the very best. But even though everyone wants to see Sarasa’s Romeo, and Ai points out why she’s perfect for it (while implying she’s “simple”)…Sarasa wants to give Tybalt another try.

Hijiri insists that Ai play the role of Juliet. Even if she rightfully says it’s not a spotlight she’s earned, Hijiri insists that as someone “born pretty” and thus closer to the finish line than others, Ai cannot slack off; she must run as fast as possible to that line, no matter how close it may seem. Her mother also imparted her the wisdom of figuring out how to lose yourself in the role.

One way is by applying some part of your life experience that connects with the role in some way. But Tybalt, whose role comes down to unrequited love of Juliet and jealousy and hatred of Romeo, is proving difficult for Sarasa, who claims (credibly!) to have never hated or held a grudge on anyone, ever. Even so, she starts with the basics of how Tybalt must go through his daily life, and how that life led to his obsession with anger and hatred.

It isn’t working, until that very connection to Sarasa’s life comes into focus and clicks as crisply as a camera shutter. In the common room she and Ai happen to catch a TV interview with Akiya talking about his kabuki and how he was thrust into it by dint of his blood. Seeing Akiya takes Sarasa back to when she was a little kid, and for a moment, she was as jealous of Akiya as Tybalt was jealous of Romeo.

Akiya basically achieved without effort or even passion something she’d always dreamed of achieving. But while Sarasa finally discovers a part of herself she can use to lose herself in the role of Tybalt, it’s Ai’s performance that anchors the final act of the episode.

Everyone thinks she’s being her usual calm, collected, unflappable self when called to be the first Juliet in the auditions (presided upon by the rest of the faculty, not just Andou—a cruel surprise for the girls!) Sarasa, her best friend, knows better, and that Ai’s calm exterior conceals an ever churning storm.

The key is focusing that storm. Fortunately, the Romeo in Ai’s group flubs her lines and has to start from the top, so Ai gets a little extra time in her Space Mind Palace. She’s convinced she’s never known what love is, any more than Sarasa has ever known hatred or jealousy. But we all know one very important exception for Ai, and that’ Sarasa herself.

Romeo was “love at first sight” for Juliet, just as Ai was “friends at first sight” for Sarasa. It took a little longer for AI, but when Sarasa told her about overwriting bad old memories with good new ones, she too knew she had to be friends with this tall girl. Once the joy of becoming friends with her swell up, Ai embodies Juliet herself in the “wherefore” speech, giving her peers, teachers, and me some serious goosebumps.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 10 – Give the People What They Want

Due to various circumstances, a member of one of the four troupe relay race teams cannot run, so the Superiors assign a member of the 100th class as a sub. That class member is Watanabe Sarasa, who at first glance is a ringer due to her impressive height and gait. But as large an honor as the assignment is, Sarasa suddenly becomes a magnet for resentment and envy,

This comes most strongly from Hijiri, from whose 99th class Sarasa leapfrogged over with her ridiculously long legs. Hijiri not only tells Sarasa she’s only special for her height, then insists she “become nothingness itself” to allow the top stars to shine.

Ai, like everyone else, is surprised by how much Hijiri’s ill advice trips up Sarasa, who is downright nervous the night before the festival. Ai tells Sarasa her own lack of nerves in JPX was due to being the center of attention (and particularly male attention) from a young age, and basically developing an A.T. Field to deflect it.

But Ai, already a veteran stage performer, tells Sarasa that what Hijiri proposed isn’t the best method. You can’t be up there pretending to pay attention to the audience, just as you can’t be nothingness itself. Instead, one must always be conscious of what the audience wants, and then find a way to give it to them. That’s what makes top stars. That’s what makes legends.

The day of the festival at Hakusen Grand Hall, the students participate in the opening ceremony, but Hijiri’s shit-stirring campaign has twisted Sarasa up so bad she mimes playing her recorder. Her designated senpai Risa, whom we’ve seen far too little of in recent weeks, knows exactly what that bitch Hijiri is doing and doesn’t like it one bit.

Taking Sarasa aside, Risa spares no measure of cage-rattling, and tells Sarasa to get out of her head and remember the fact that the Superiors picked her. If she can’t understand why, that’s fine, but she at least has to accept that they did it because she was someone worth believing in. Giving up without putting herself out there and doing her absolute best will only make her naysayers angrier…and in any case, fuck the naysayers!

Risa’s own strong big sis pep talk gets an unexpected boost from Winter Top Star Satomi Sei, who gives Sarara a wall slam. Having overheard that Sarasa is most nervous about “being herself”, she invites her to imagine she’s playing the role of herself instead. Sei also delivers a bouquet of roses to the kabuki actor and senpai to Akiya we can be reasonably certain is Sarasa’s biological father.

While the pep talk by Risa and Sei works, Sarasa still overthinks things by getting all caught up in whether playing the role of herself and being herself is different or better. Here Ai comes to the rescue with more sage advice, following up on what she said the night before: be the person you want the audience to think you are: your ideal self.

Hilariously, for Sarasa “ideal” means an E-cup bust so she can properly fit into an Eva-style plug suit (between this and the A.T. Field, KS had some Eva nostalgia this week!). Ai is mortified, but whatever gives Sarasa the confidence to perform—and releases her from Hijiri’s psychological black magic—is just fine!

Unfortunately, in the actual relay race in which Sarasa and Sei are in the same leg, Sei’s teammate loses her grip on the baton and sends it flying. While leaping out to catch it, Sei collides with Sarasa and they both end up on the ground. Suddenly it seems like even if the Superiors didn’t make a mistake by putting a rangy first year on a relay team, the end effect was a fiasco.

Only…that doesn’t happen. In the few seconds she’s on the ground, Sarasa considers the best action to take: get up, run, and win it for her Summer team, or lend a helping hand to Sei. In the end, she gauges what the audience at Hakusen Grand Hall wants, then gives it to them, by staying laid out flat on the floor and letting Winter’s Top Star give her a helping hand up.

The choice proves to be the correct one, as the crowd goes wild watching Sei and Sarasa run their leg while holding hands, and their anchors also finishing the race together. Summer and Winter may have lost the festival, but they won the crowd. That’s the kind of instincts Sarasa naturally possesses; Ai just needed to give her a little push.

While I wish we could have seen a cutaway to Hijiri stewing over Sarasa’s win, it seems her efforts were successfully countered by Risa, Sei, and Ai. I still worry about how Sarasa’s guilelessness will hold up against someone even more obnoxiously evil than Hijiri (if such a human exists), but for now, as long as she has that safety net of people who genuinely love and care for her, Sarasa will be fine. No one needs to fight their fight alone.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Kageki Shoujo!! – 06 – Such Sins Shall Not Be Endured

The 100th Class is restless. For four months they’ve been subjected to basics basics basics when each of them are anything but. They’re fed up of boring lessons…they want to ACT. Sarasa, never one to shy away from making her thoughts known, whatever they may be, airs the united class’s grievance to Andou-sensei.

He seems miffed by her impression of her, even though everyone agrees it’s as spot-on as her impressions of all the other teachers. They wonder if it’s because it’s so good that it struck a nerve. Such is Sarasa’s performative power.

Oh, it’s also Sarasa’s 16th birthday! Akiya’s older kabuki kolleague took the liberty of delivering sixteen roses to Sarasa under an alias, living as he is vicariously through Akiya and Sarasa’s chaste, minimalist long-distance relationship. But Ai isn’t going to lose to some “frog bot”; so she plays and plays the store lottery until she wins a figurine she knows Sarasa will cherish.

She also uses the opportunity to try to call Sarasa by her first name instead of “Sara…Watanabe-san”, and when prompted by Sarasa herself to do so, Ai is finally able to do it. More than by the figurine, Sarasa is made happiest by seeing her first name in Ai’s handwriting and hearing it in Ai’s voice. I love these two so much it hurts.

I could honestly deal quite well with a Kageki Shoujo!! that’s nothing but Sarasa and Ai hanging out and gradually becoming closer, but we’ve got a whole ensemble to cover here, and the results of spreading the love across multiple Kouka students isn’t bad either!

This week focuses on the other members of Sarasa and Ai’s Group E, who along with the other groups have two weeks to prepare to do a scene from Romeo & Juliet. Rock Paper Scissors is used to determine who plays what role, resulting in the suboptimal pairing of Hoshino Kaoru’s Romeo with Ai’s Juliet. Sarasa has to play the much darker Tybalt.

The role of Juliet was really won by Chika, one of the Sawada twins, but she decides to be the lesser role of Juliet’s nurse, later seeing her sister Chiaki claim the role with giddy elation. Is Chika less ambitious than Chiaki, or is she simply trying to differentiate herself from her sister in order to shine on her own? The twins have just been background noise until now, so I’m looking forward to them getting a bit more fleshed out.

Kaoru, whom I’d forgotten wishes to be a otoko-yaku like Sarasa, does not surrender Romeo to Sarasa. Instead, she takes Group E firmly by the reins and does not spare the whip. She harshly criticizes both Sarasa and Ai for seemingly not giving it their all, then finally snaps at Sarasa for daring to propose they practice on the sidewalk like common street performers.

As with Ayako last week, Ai sees a member of JPX in Kaoru, specifically the leader, who was always angry and never satisfied. She also learns why from the other girls; both of the previous generations of Hoshino women were Kouka performers. Ai bridges the gap between her and Kaoru by acknowledging the pressure Kaoru is under, while also admitting something she deems to be shameful and almost disqualifying for a Kouka actress.

Due to all of her years performing from a young age, she never properly learned to read kanji. Ai tells Kaoru there’s nothing wrong with her having a short fuse or being tough on them; if she’s not tough on them, Group E will fail. And if Kaoru doesn’t want to be the bad guy of the group, they’ll also fail!

Speaking of bad guys, Sarasa has zero experience embodying characters like Tybalt, but while she sucks at reading a script, watching a Blu-Ray of Romeo & Juliet is another thing entirely. She absorbs every moment of the performances on the screen, and the shape and color of every line, like a very tall, very efficient sponge. And lest you think I’m being harsh on Sarasa, I hold living sponges in high regard! We should all wish to live such an elegant existence!

When the time comes for the first-ever Great “Let First-Years Act” Experiment, Andou chooses Group E to go first. As they perform in their tracksuits on a rehearsal stage, the audience (including us) are transported to the fully-dressed performance stage, complete with lighting and costumes. This is a nice stylistic touch.

Kaoru makes a good Romeo, but Andou can see her gaze is uneven, indicating she’s distracted and letting her self intrude on her performance. Chika flubs a line by repeating it, but after a momentary breakdown, remembers Ai’s words about them continuing to the end even if they mess up, and improvises a great save. Ai isn’t bringing true love to the performance (because Sarasa is her true Romeo), and she’s also doing what she was trained to do as an idol: performing to an audience of one. A Kouka actress must perform for everyone.

Then Tybalt takes the stage, and we finally see why Kaoru said what she said earlier about people normally improving gradually. Sarasa isn’t normal. After watching the video, once, she manages to serve up a perfect performance of Tybalt, causing her classmates to audibly gasp in unison. Andou is also impressed by the way Sarasa stands, locks her gaze high as if she were performing to a packed Kouka theatre crowd of 2,500. It is stirring, but in the end, it’s too perfect.

In his critique of Group E, Andou-sensei tells Sarasa flat-out that she will never be a top star of Kouka…not unless she changes. As I am prepared to give my life to defend Sarasa’s smile (not to mention Ai’s), it’s here where I must apply Tybalt’s line “Such sins shall not be endured” and “He is naught but a villain” to Andou-sensei. He is a villain whose sin was turning Sarasa’s smile into a look of pained bewilderment. Curse him!

But here’s the thing…he’s absolutely right, and Sarasa needed to hear his harsh words sooner rather than later, because she wasn’t really acting on that rehearsal stage, she was mimicking what she saw—down to the last precise detail. That is an impressive talent, foreshadowed when she did impressions of the other teachers, but it isn’t acting. Sarasa can’t be a top star of Kouka by simply perfectly replicating what she’s seen and heard. At least, that’s what I think Andou-sensei is on about.

Sarasa will have to change. She may even have to forget everything she knows about performing and start over from scratch. Her friend Ai will be there for her, as will the other girls of Kouka. After all, if there’s one person they want to see on stage more than the Sarasa they’ve already seen, it’s the future Sarasa who has mastered how to deliver performances all her own. I know Ai wants to see that Sarasa, and I do too!

Kageki Shoujo!! – 01 (First Impressions) – The Immovable Beanpole vs the Unmovable Idol

The apathetic, androphobic, recently canceled idol Narata Ai (Hanamori Numiri in top form) enrolls and is accepted into the exclusive Kouka School for Musical and Theatrical Arts, which is the training stable for the even more exclusive all-women’s Kouka Revue, a stand-in for the real-world Takarazuka Revue.

Her opening scene is a harrowing one, as she attempts to escape one pushy fawning fan only to nearly end up in the clutches of another. Considering she had to “graduate” from her idol group (an AKB48 stand-in) due to publicly calling a male fan “creepy”, the inherent unfairness of that industry has followed her to the outside.

Like Chihayafuru, Rakugo Shinjuu, 3-gatsu no Lion, and Snow White Notes, this is an anime about a very specific-to-Japan thing, which means we’re sure to get an education on the cutthroat world of elite all-women musical theater while reveling in the absolutely wonderful odd-couple pairing of Ai and Watanabe Sarasa, who is fleet, fearless, and five-foot-frikkin-ten. Ai’s quiet jadedness and practiced apathy pairs perfectly with her bold, loud skyscraper of a roomie.

The animators clearly have a lot of fun both with the size comparison and the confident ease with which Sarasa moves those impossibly long limbs. She simply moves differently from everyone else. We’ve yet to see what Sarasa can do on the stage, but it’s great to see how much chaos her huge frame and loud voice causes during ordinary life, as no bed—or hastily-built privacy curtain—can hold her.

Where the two women are similar, however, is that neither intends to play The Game of catty whispers, rumors, gossip, and bullying in which nearly all the other girls on their periphery seem to engage. Ai, because she’s trained herself not to care (though it’s clear she Idoes care); Sarasa because her head is literally in the clouds. Neither of them care what others think. In that regard, they’re two peas in a pod. They can, in theory, support one another in this hostile environment.

When a positively delightful JSDF captain drills the new students on moving in sync, he singles out both Ai and Sarasa. He tells Ai to improve her core and posture, as iodl “cutesiness” has no place in Kouka. As for Sarasa, he just reminds her to be mindful of her limbs, but is impressed when he shoves her back and she keeps her balance.

This in turn leads Sarasa to cheerfully challenge him to shove her again when she’s in a special stance that keeps her firmly grounded. It’s later revealed she used a stance taught by her grandfather, a former kabuki actor (lest we forget, there are no women in kabuki).

While she’s being a lot less aggressive about it, Sarasa is employing a similar stance with regards to Ai, insisting that as roomies they should be friends and support one another. It’s only fitting that Sarasa’s the only girl at school who doesn’t know about Ai’s dark idol past. But even if she did, I seriously doubt she’d turn on her!

Kageki Shoujo!! is off to a strong start, packed with colorful personalities and potential for some pretty cool musical and theatrical performances, which the first episode only hints at. Sarasa has also loudly proclaims she intends to be the school’s top star, and I dare anyone to try to move her from that position.

I’m totally psyched to watch the girl who won’t let herself be emotionally moved live and work with a girl who won’t let herself be physically moved unless she allows it. I imagine Ai will eventually thaw a bit in the searing sunshine of Sarasa’s personality. That stalker coming for Ai better watch out—he wants no part of that Watanabe Sequoia smoke!

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

Those Snow White Notes – 10 – A Little Longer

Sakura has made a special bento for Setsu on the day he’s to perform in the individual competition. Of forty entrants, he’s to perform 36th, meaning he’s been given a place reserved for competitors with proven skills. While set up to be bitter rivals Souichi continues to treat Setsu as a friend, sitting close beside him while eating his red bean rice.

We then learn something of a bombshell: Setsu’s dad is also Mai and Souichi’s dad! In fact Setsu is the only child related to Kamiki Ryuugen by blood, as Souichi and Mai are adopted. Kamiki has come to “ascertain his son’s skills”, clearly not ashamed even in his wife’s presence of his love child with Umeko.

As Yui thinks impure thoughts about Setsu and Mai (quickly shot down by Kouta, Sakura delivers her special lunch to Setsu, along with the best wishes from the entire shopping district. This seems to be the first time Sakura and Shuri encounter one another, and each regards the other as incredibly cute.

Umeko has her hired goons escort Kamiki to her, where she declares her father’s sound to belong to her, and as such she’ll never let him take Setsu and train him. Kamiki, on the other hand, has the opposite goal: he wishes Setsu to inherit his title. He and Umeko have a spirited argument, and neither is particularly interested in Setsu, only how he can help either of them expand their power.

After that, that’s pretty much it for Setsu & Co., as the episode shifts to the individual performances of Arakawa Ushio and Kaji Takaomi. Ushio is naturally daring and rebellious, and while his super-twangy performance isn’t enough to win, the sheer fun he was having playing rubs off on the audience in a big way.

Knowing if he sticks to what he did in the group stage, he won’t be able to summon the full measure of his musical potential, Takaomi is forced by Arakawa’s brash performance to swing for the fences himself. All who know him in the crowd can tell hes fiercer than usual.

Through Takaomi’s sound, Setsu envisions a fierce gale blowing down from the mountain peaks. But he’s also described as “a good kid trying to be rebellious.” Then his frikkin’ string snaps, and since a shamisen only has three, I imagine that’s enough to keep Takaomi out of the running.

But we knew from the get-go that neither Ushio nor Takaomi were going to win. That’s why we’re getting their performances now, rather than at the end when they’d have more of an impact. This somewhat lessons my interest in the episode, as neither of these kids makes much of an impression besides “confident brat” and “meek puppy dog.”

Like his birth father, I’m waiting for Setsu, and to see how he compares to Souichi. But I’m also as disappointed as Mai herself that she’s not able to compete in the individual, and thus diurectly against Setsu.

Those Snow White Notes – 09 – You Got Me All Excited

This week’s Captivating Shamisen Performance is the longest yet, clocking in at over seven minutes, but it also features the most shounen battle-style crosstalk by the most characters yet as well. I have to admit, there were times when I wished everyone would stop blabbering (in their heads or otherwise) so I could just listen properly!

Even so, since this is as much a shounen anime as a music one, especially during a fierce competition, there were just as many times when I appreciated the commentary. It turns out Setsu talked with Rai about employing Nagauta-style techniques normally reserved for theatre in their arrangement.

That’s the kind of simultaneously smart and bold tactic that makes Setsu a great leader of his group despite his staunchly soloist background. Having spent so much time with the other four, he knows their strengths and weaknesses and how to best harness the former while minimizing the latter.

For most of their piece, this angers Mai to no end, because it means Setsu is “playing in the shadows” by using his sound to support Kaito and the others. Compare that to her, who didn’t give a damn about the rest of her group and simply dared them to try to keep up.

After helping to make his team’s “ordinary” sound still sound better than all the other ordinary groups that came before, Setsu does eventually bring out his own cold, quiet, snowy sound, a sound that indeed captivates the crowd. It’s quite a journey, from cheering during their playing to being awed into silence by the end. Least impressed in the crowd is Umeko, who only set up this whole tournament to hear her father through her son.

After leaving the stage to raucous ovation, the groups’s very first post-performance high is exhilarating, only to be interrupted by Mai glaring ruefully at Setsu. She’s about to turn about and leave without saying a word, so Setsu speaks up instead, telling her her shamisen was “really stimulating” and “got me all excited.”

Mai’s (and Yui’s) faces go neon pink, but Mai shakes it off and is back to Miss Competitive. She won’t ever utter a compliment about Setsu’s playing, and vows never to forgive him for running away from Aomori. It’s all about winning and being the best for her; the opposite of her brother Souichi, who set aside their impending individual competition and enjoyed his new friend’s sound.

Similar to Souichi and with the additional quality of being far more of a normal young man is Kaji, who praises Setsu’s sound like an eager puppy. Contrast that to loud brash guy (Arakawa-something), who gave Setsu his life story unbidden and eliciting little more than a “huh?” from Setsu. Honestly, it’s an absolute crime that this guy (name forgotten) is in the Individuals while Mai isn’t.

The episode really nails the intense anxiety and tension that comes in the moments before the winners are announced. Only six of the 22 teams get an award and the rest leave with nothing but competition XP. While Setsu’s team initially worries they failed to place, they’re somehow even more crestfallen when they come in third.

Mai’s team beats them, but they still only place second to Kaji’s team. While Setsu and Rai were carrying Kaito, Shuri and Yui on their shoulders and Mai and her teammates basically fought each other, Kaji’s teammates complemented each other perfectly. They truly were the best all-round ensemble.

Setsu & Co. get a brief respite from their third-place despair when they’re awarded the Judges’ Special Award for having the greatest effect on the crowd. But once they’re again off the stage and preparing to leave, their spirits have fallen again. Neither Koyabu-sensei nor Oodawara can shake their blues over losing to Mai’s team by just one point and Kaji’s by only three—that’s a close freakin’ margin!

But the adults in the room are right: Kaito, Shuri, and Yui in particular should be extremely proud of themselves, while Setsu should be commended for helping such green players place third in the entire dang country. Back home at the tenement house while having an understated celebration with his brother and his friend, Setsu lets Sakura know he appreciates how much she’s always doing for him.

At this point, I wanted him to invite her to join them—not as the daughter of the landlord, but as a friend—but instead they part ways, with Sakura quietly wishing him luck in the Individuals. Here’s hoping he doesn’t screw it up!

Those Snow White Notes – 08 – Modern Maimai and Her Fantastic Friends

The Matsugorou Cup’s team division marches on, Team Umezono’s time on stage grows near, and Shuri is scared. Yui encourages her to focus on getting the first notes right and the rest will fall into place, but only adds to her anxieties by announcing this will be the one and only time she plays on stage.

While Mai waits her turn in the green room, and a braggadocious Arakawa Ushio blows past the rest of his team with his signature twang, the sheer audacity of his performance makes Rai jealous, angry, and fired up, spooking Shuri and Yui upon returning to them. Let’s just say everyone’s face game is in top form this week.

I’ll just get this out of the way: our Power Rangers-colored team doesn’t take the stage this week, which after not doing so last week feels at times like the show is intentionally stalling. It nearly overplays its hand, were it not for some great character development that goes on in between the other performances.

For one thing, we finally get a look back at how the dynamic between Yui, Kaito, and Shuri began, with Yui taking responsibility for protecting the “idiotically kind” and guileless Shuri from the real world (and Kaito’s teasing). Back in the present, when Shuri sees that Yui is just as nervous as her, she curses herself for only thinking about herself.

She believes Yui has every right to hate her for that, but of course Yui doesn’t feel that way at all. She’s angry at herself for talking so big only to be terrified of taking the stage out there, and if she fails, she knows everyone will hate her for the “mean-spirited, ugly woman” she is. Shuri shuts down that kind of talk with a big hug and she won’t let go until Yui lets herself cry, promising to help share her worries from now on.

Meanwhile, as soon as Mai hears where Setsu’s team is prepping, she storms there to “declare war” before her performance, only to walk in on him and the others striking energy-releasing (read: goofy) poses, and slinks away. Honestly I wished she had gotten to actually speak to Setsu there.

That’s because when she takes the stage, she puts on nothing less than the best performance yet in the competition. Her sound is alluring, charming, powerful, and wonderfully modern without coming off as tacky or gimmicky like many of the other groups.

Additionally, while her group is called “Her Fantastic Friends”, there’s a much more cutthroat dynamic in her group where she goes off and does her thing and dares her teammates to try to keep up. It’s at this point that I’m starting to seriously consider Mai to be the show’s Best Girl, though she continues to face stiff competition from Shuri and especially Yui!

Mai’s performance also sinks Kaito, Yui, and Shuri’s motivation to new lows, only for Setsu to stand up tall and proud and say his motivation is at its max after hearing Mai. As they prepare to take the stage, Yui notices Kaito’s parents have turned out to see him, and assures him no one (aside from her perhaps) worried about him more after his soccer career-ending injury.

She gives him an encouraging punch to the face, for which he thanks her by patting her head and assuring her that she’s kind and not ugly. This turns her face as red as her samue. After placing a calming hand on Shuri’s shoulder, Setsu smacks both Kaito and Yui on the back and tells everyone to go out there and do it, after having consulted with Rai in secret about doing “something unorthodox” in response to Mai’s performance.

I can’t wait to see what he came up with, and I know the show isn’t going to be so cruel as to let them make fools of themselves out there. With Setsu leading the way and having had more than adequate time to sort through all their smoldering emotions, it’s finally time to play…next week!

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 – 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.