Those Snow White Notes (Mashiro no Oto) should be a tearjerker. Marimo Ragawa’s manga series, running in Monthly Shonen Magazine since 2009, has never disappointed in the feeling department: after the death of his beloved grandfather, Setsu Sawamura travels to Tokyo from the countryside, struggling with not only his future in music, but his sense of inadequacy and turmoil in the face of an uncertain future.
Even if you’ve never heard a shamisen in your life, it’s a relatable story. How many of us were completely unsure of where we were going in our adolescence? How many of us have been absolutely wrecked in the face of a tragedy that stuck too close to home? How many of us have wanted to simply start fresh in a new place?
The anime adaptation begins with the rhythmic wail of the quintessentially traditional Japanese instrument, followed by the heavily accented language of our main character. The scene is beautifully set, the juxtaposition of snowy Aomori and neon Tokyo making our head spin just as it does Setsu. We want to escape with him, to see him break his promise to his grandfather: on his deathbed, the patriarch told his grandson: ‘when I die, never play the Shamisen again.’ Setsu is reminiscent of Arata from Chihayafuru, both inspired and damned by their grandfather’s genius and passing.
We meet the gorgeous Yuna, an aspiring actress stuck working as a gravure idol and a hostess, weighed down by an abusive boyfriend. She’s also struggling with her own desires and aspirations, and after protecting Setsu from some shady characters in the Tokyo lights, she brings our quiet musician back to her place, instantly offering him a place to stay until he figures out his next step. It seems like the perfect meet cute, but there’s one problem: there is absolutely zero chemistry between them.
The story is there in black and white, compiled in twenty-seven manga volumes so far… so where is the fire? Why isn’t it translating to the small screen? With only twelve episodes listed for the season, it looks to be a major issue in pacing: we’re given absolutely zero time to get to know Setsu before we’re expected to care about Yuna as well, and by the end of Episode 1 our protagonist has gone from promising to never play the Shamisen again, to playing on a stage in front of hundreds of people. In a brief twenty-two minutes, the audience is pulled this way and that, from emotion to emotion, unable to feel any of them fully.
One area in which the series doesn’t miss the mark is the music. While struggling to feel anything for the cast, it was impossible not to be moved by the score. Overseen by the famed Yoshida Brothers duo, the shamisen punctuates each vital scene, perhaps capable of making viewers nostalgic for a place they’ve never been.
The ending theme, ‘Until I Wake From Dreaming,’ performed by the Yoshida Brothers and Miliyah Kato, is a high point, bringing a current R&B flare to the classical sounds for which the series will be known. If only the characters could be as warm and welcoming as the tunes.
The final scene of the episode does give us some hope for where the series will go: the appearance of the loud and brazen Umeko may signal a turning point for our existing cast in future episodes. The music may be reason enough to watch for now, but it won’t carry the series through to the end: if it’s hard to love the characters, it will be impossible to power through until the end. Here’s hoping some high notes are coming in episode two.
Those Snow White Notes is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.