There's an album, On The Impossible Past by The Menzingers, that I listened to on constant repeat one summer when I was catching 6 am bus rides to get to early-morning classes at a college 2 towns over. It's a record concerned with a lot of things, but chief among them is a deeply felt nostalgia for a time that, by the writers' own admission, probably never existed; some patchwork of faded memories, movie scenes, and imagined encounters that is as ephemeral as it is comforting. For me personally, it'll forever be tied to that summer, bleary-eyed and leaning on my backpack in an empty bus as the sun ever so gradually crept over the horizon. I know intellectually that I must have spent most of those mornings miserable and wanting to crawl back into bed, but with the distance of time, those songs can mold it into a quiet and peaceful retreat to a time in my life I'll never see again.
I bring all that up not because anything on that album sounds remotely like the music of Those Snow White Notes, but because that malleability of memory and music is the central emotional pillar of this episode. Setsu, with some prodding from his brother Wakana and newcomer Rai, accepts that he's not yet the level of player that he can replicate his master grandfather's style, but also that he doesn't need to be in order to play for Shuri's grandmother. Music is at once ephemeral and persistent: the memory of a sound can fade into the abyss of time, yet a single phrase can etch itself into your gray matter for all eternity. Thus the emotion behind a piece can be just as important as any given note or chord, and so long as Setsu wants to communicate the meaning behind his grandfather's signature song, that's all that ultimately matters.
Admittedly, that resolution comes a bit more quickly than I expected. Setsu's frustrated, angst-riddled emulation of his role model's sound has been the driving force of the show so far, so to have him take such a big step as stripping down the song to be something he can play as-is, while certainly the sensible option, feels rather abrupt. It's also a bit frustrating that, despite being the pivotal character in this fateful meeting, Shuri herself has little involvement with any of this besides arranging the visit. And really, after 2 episodes with them, I'm feeling kind of impatient for these other characters to start getting fleshed out besides just having arguments in between Setsu's story beats. This opening act has been excellent on its own, but if the show is going to sustain itself across an entire season it needs to give us more to chew on.
But narrative, like music, is often more than the sum of its parts, and all those niggles drift away when this episode puts its musical pedal to the metal. Not only do we get the novelty of hearing the same piece played in drastically different ways – the creators even seem to have taken the time to play them on two different shamisens along with stripping down Setsu's version, which is some great attention to detail – but between the two we're able to peer into past as “Spring Dawn” evokes the cold and desolate place where the song was first built. In present-day it's a complex, expertly crafted work by a master of the craft, but originally it was the humble yet earnest expression of a lonely boy, hoping for a reassuring dawn at the end of the harsh night he lived in. And through chance, that song gave hope to an equally lonely little girl, who generations later has kept its meaning close at heart until it at last found its way back to her. The presentation, sound, and circumstances are nothing alike, but that desparate and stubborn hope for a new day persists regardless. It's dramatic, poetic, beautiful, and perfectly delivered.
I continue to be floored by this show's willingness to let its music do the emotional heavy lifting, while quietly wondering how long it can keep getting away with it. At some point we're going to have to take a break from all the jaw-dropping musical sequences and settle into a more manageable form of storytelling, if only because the rest of the cast aren't highly-trained musicians who can tug on heartstrings through sound alone. The post-credits scene with Setsu's mom suggests we'll be getting into some sort of club competition next time, which will hopefully allow the larger cast to start shouldering the load. For now though, this is an absolutely pitch-perfect performance.
Those Snow White Notes is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.