I said it about volleyball, I said it about rakugo, and now the new hobby I find myself burdened with an undue fascination for is the shamisen. There’s one more thing I’ll get obsessed with before my spring reviews are finished, but now I’m all shamisen, and everyone has gotta know about it. The shamisen, for those unfamiliar, is a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument, similar to a guitar, played with a pick called a bachi, which consists of a handle and a flared end for picking the strings.
Those Snow White Notes has taken up the mantle of making you care about a traditional Japanese art form with a engaging and personal story, the likes of which I haven’t seen since Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. That’s nearly as bold a claim as when I compared 86 to Attack on Titan, but if you think I’m done prematurely hyping an anime after I’ve only seen four episodes, you’re on the wrong blog. I got to ride these hyper fixations while they last, so my feelings are powerful and genuine, albeit lasting for a few weeks at a time.
Like any good anime centered on a niche, Those Snow White Notes was born from a passion for its topic, and has a genuine story to tell. It doesn’t just use the shamisen as the basis for a plot, that’d be much too thin to support anything of significance, but as a vehicle for the story. It’s not interested in the instrument, but the people who have dedicated their lives to that instrument. Thus far, it’s not quite as ambitious as Rakugo Shinjuu, but it is intent on telling a much more intimate story.
There are many kinds of shamisen, but Those Snow White Notes is particularly focused on Tsugaru shamisen, one associated strongly with traditional Japanese music, and used to complement rakugo performances. Setsu Sawamara has played shamisen for himself his entire life, uninterested in competitions, content and fascinated in learning from his grandfather. However, as his grandfather lay in bed dying, he urges Setsu to swear off the shamisen.
It seems harsh, and don’t get me wrong, it is, but his grandfather is disappointed that Setsu has only ever mimicked his teacher’s sound and style, and has none to call his own. After his grandfather’s death, Setsu leaves his rural hometown and sets off for Tokyo, half-hoping to drown the sound of shamisen out in the big city, and the other half hoping to discover it there. Once in Tokyo, he quickly meets up with Yuna, an aspiring model who takes pity on the boy and lends him a place to stay.
Unfortunately, he pings on his mother’s radar, a big-shot model who hates how her father never took advantage of his shamisen prowess to become rich or famous. She doesn’t want her son to take that humble route, though he’s never been interested in shamisen competitions. From there, she enrolls Setsu in a high school where he finds a budding shamisen enthusiast, and enough hopefuls to form an entire club and competitive team, assuming any of them can wrangle a halfway decent sound out of the instrument. Setsu isn’t much of a teacher, and he still hasn’t learned what his own sound is, but he’s finding the passion he lost a long time ago.
This season’s musical selection has been full of surprises and treats, from the sorrowful pangs of To Your Eternity to the spooky scary themes of Shadows House, but none more so than Those Snow White Notes. Any music anime has to be graded on the quality of its music, but they didn’t stop there. In every aspect of its production, Those Snow White Notes is a superbly put-together anime.
The art style has this incredibly soft color palette and line work that just makes everything so easy on the eyes. The character designs are pretty grounded except for a handful of characters who are larger than life, namely Setsu’s mother, but they’re all expressive and charming. The animation is pretty low on action, or at least that’s what you’d think from the subject matter; I mean, they’re strumming a shamisen, how much movement do they need? The performances of Setsu and the others are electrifying, requiring the communication of precise finger movements and each pluck of the string is carefully choreographed.
And the music bursting forth from those performances are awesome in the shock and awe sense of the world. It is difficult to get me to sit down and stare at a TV uninterrupted, but every time Setsu sits down ands plays I am just enraptured. It’s hard to convey the act of someone actually putting their heart and soul into a performance, but through deft use of character animations that correspond perfectly to the music being wrung out, I am sold.
Those Snow White Notes is a story of discovering your passion, especially after you had to leave it behind. I can’t say it is a universal experience, but it should be. Sometimes I don’t know where I’d be if I couldn’t put my thoughts into words on a page, and even if those words are just waxing poetic about anime on a blog, it’s an intensely personal experience. Having that outlet is how I have processed many of the most difficult and confusing times of my life, and I wouldn’t and couldn’t trade it for the world.
Setsu doesn’t just love to play the shamisen, he needs to. When he runs to Tokyo to give up on his craft, he still brings it with him, and the moment he steps up on the stage, all of the shame, guilt, and anger he’s felt since the death of his grandfather comes pouring forth. And a lot of the love as well; as much pain as this instrument has caused him, it’s his medium. He could no more abandon it than he can cut off his own hand.
And we’re still waiting to see whether or not Setsu can discover his sound. In one of his performances, someone familiar with his grandfather’s work describes the two as distinct, but Setsu isn’t convinced, or at least he doesn’t think his grandfather would be. He doesn’t want his talents to be abused as a stepping stone for fame like his mother wants, but he’s done denying that part of himself because his grandfather said it wasn’t goo enough. The reason that deathbed condemnation is so harsh isn’t because it’s untrue, but because it’s premature.
Finding your artistic voice is the kind of thing that takes year to do, even if you find it at all, and Setsu’s grandfather should know that; it took him thirty years to master his impromptu piece. I’ve been creatively writing since I was ten and sometimes I don’t feel like I’ve found my voice still, and more often even if I have, it’s not a voice worth speaking with. I can’t say any artistic effort is a waste, and I do believe everyone has their own, it’s just a matter of finding it. But expecting the teenage Setsu to innately have something he could find at twenty, thirty, or twice or triple that, it’s just unfair.
Maybe I’m wrong to indict his grandfather like that, as I could easily see that it was merely a helpful lie to push his grandson into a growth spurt just so he can find his shamisen style. The truth of that will have to wait until later in the series, but every step of the journey in finding Setsu’s voice has been a visual, auditory, and personal delight.
I can’t recommend it to everyone, I mean, it’s kind of hard to recommend an anime revolving around a traditional Japanese instrument to a lot of the shonen or slice of life fans, but you don’t have to be familiar with the culture surrounding the shamisen to enjoy it. If you enjoy character-driven dramas and stories of artistic passion, then Those Snow White Notes is an underrated gem this season you need to add to your collection. With that said, it has comfortable earned the title of Boring Fantastic.
The Spring 2021 review collection comes even closer to its end, though I still haven’t made up my mind as to whether or not I’m doing one or two more reviews. Depends on if I have the strength left in me to commit to one more anime, but between the seasonal shows and the old ones I’m catching up on, I’m watching nearly ten percent of all the anime I’ve ever seen right now. The world caffeine supply is struggling to recoup from my herculean efforts.
So if you’re curious about the last two shows to make the cut for my reviews, follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress to get notified whenever they go live, or Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku to get those updates along with comments regarding the million other shows I’m watching right now. Until next time, thanks for reading.