I'll be up front: I don't know much about the history or intricacies of shamisen music. I've done at least basic research, but I am nowhere close to being able to speak with any real authority on anything regarding the centuries-long history and traditions of the instrument, or the culture surrounding it. Thankfully, that doesn't seem like it will be a significant speed bump for anyone looking to watch this show. The series has made some mention of the more technical elements of the instrument itself, and a running theme is the existence of prestigious legacies built around particular schools, but those are all in the context of characters' background and motivation, and so far even this neophyte hasn't had any problem following along just fine.
A big part of that is in how the story contextualizes its particular craft. One of my all-time favorite anime, and one I've kept close to my heart for over a decade at this point, is Beck. At first blush that raucous coming-of-age story, steeped in modern rock music and DIY garage band aesthetic, shouldn't have much in common with the storied traditions of the shamisen depicted in Those Snow White Notes. But for all their differences, the heart of both shows is built on the emotions and energy music can allow us to express and experience, and that's universal enough that just about anyone can relate to it. We've all had some piece of art that spoke to us, pulled some emotion out of us that we maybe didn't entirely understand; whether it be music, illustration, writing, or anything else in the wide world of human creativity. And that's where this series has proven to be magical.
Granted, it may be difficult for some folks to pick up what Those Snow White Notes is setting down. If you don't have at least a mild taste for melodrama you'll likely be put off by the heavy-handed approach of these opening episodes, as characters dramatically rush out of rooms and holler out their overflowing emotions. But if you can grok to that style of character writing, there's a lot to mine from this setup. Setsu himself gets the bulk of the focus so far, which works because his directionless quest to find his own sound as a shamisen player is easily the strongest motivation of our main cast. While others are driven by a desire for self-improvement, to carry the legacy of their mentors, or to achieve notoriety through competition, Setsu is in desperate search of the passion and fire he once found in learning from his grandfather. Without that spark, he can play these songs with perfect technical proficiency and they'll still feel hollow. It's a strong hook for our main character, and while he's a moody little twerp it does a lot to get me invested in his journey.
The rest of the cast have only barely been introduced so far, but they seem like a pretty fun bunch right now. Standout is Shuri, who has a fateful connection to Setsu through their grandparents, and only just started learning shamisen in hopes of bring back sound to her grandmother's childhood memories. Her story makes up the bulk of episode 3, and is a strong way to get her and Setsu working together, both of them hoping to find what they've been looking for in the journey to recapturing his grandfather's signature sound. The rest have largely been comic relief, but I like Yui's smug nerd energy. Yaguchi I can take or leave right now, but I'll never say no to more Nobuhiko Okamoto, so I don't mind if he eventually gets some focus. Then there's Seiryu Kamiki, and rising star in the world of shamisen who looks to be a sort of rival to Setsu. We don't know much about what makes him tick just yet, but his debut performance in episode 3 is nothing short of staggering, so consider me excited to see him again sometime.
And really, the part of Those Snow White Notes doing all the heavy lifting is those central performances. Every episode so far has featured at least one show-stopping musical sequence that turns the entire production into pure poetry. Hell, episode 2 does it twice, first with a Rakugo Shinju level performance with Setsu and his mother Umeko, then again with an impromptu duet with his brother to close things out. The level of attention paid in the animation is impressive on its own right – the plucking of strings, the posture of the musicians, the straining muscles and sweat that come with a truly intense performance – all are captured with sharp detail and energy. Yet they also expertly encapsulate the emotions of each character, effortlessly communicating the conflicts buried beneath their skin, bubbling over in a way that could only be expressed through music. Even if the rest of the show were a wash, delivering scenes like this every episode would still make it worth watching.
Thankfully though, Those Snow White Notes isn't just resting on those laurels. While perhaps not for everyone, these initials episodes have been some of my favorites in a season absolutely packed with great starts, and I've thrilled to see – and hear – what it has in store.
Those Snow White Notes is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.