Setsu and his brother grew up more under their grandfather’s care than their mother’s and as a result they were both completely enamored with his tsugaru shamisen playing. Their grandfather seemed to know the dangers of idolizing another player too much however, and he always warned the boys to not just imitate his playing but to go beyond.
Yet, upon his death, high school aged Setsu is still wrecked by the loss of his grandfather and his music. With seemingly nothing left for him in rural Aomori, Setsu runs away to noisy Tokyo and, while Setsu may not think of his shamisen playing as anything more than a hobby (being unable to stop comparing himself to his grandfather’s masterful playing), plenty of the new people in his life recognize that the notes he plays are special and marvelous.
I hadn’t heard of this series before Kodansha licensed it, dropping this first volume just three days before the anime adaptation started airing, but since its release I’ve seen a few people say “it did for shamisen playing what Chihayafuru did to karuta,” i.e a piece of pop culture that potentially did more to drive interest in a piece of traditional culture than anything else had in years. Tonally however, when I was reading this first volume I was reminded much more of March Comes In Like A Lion than Chihayafuru, but even that comparison isn’t a perfect one.
In the absolutely massive first chapter (which is practically the length of some entire manga volumes), we get a story which could’ve been an entire short story on its own as we follow Setsu’s move to Tokyo and his falling in with Yuna, a young woman who is earnestly trying to make it in the entertainment industry with no success while supporting her deadbeat (but rising star) musician boyfriend. I am a bit sad that Yuna seems to have been “put on the bus” while her ex-boyfriend is staying around as a supporting character since she was a great character; Yuna’s life seemed a bit like a foil to Setsu’s with how she was passionate but unsuccessful in obtaining a performing career versus Setsu’s stubborn refusal to even consider shamisen playing as a future, even though he already seems to have the talent and experience to make it.
I’ll admit that I did have a bit of trouble really “getting into” the shamisen performances, largely because my experience with shamisen music is that it’s a high-pitched, almost screeching instrument (I’m not really a fan of it) but the most common sound effects here were “throb” and “thud” which threw me for a loop! After having seen the first few anime episodes I now understand that the shamisen music here is completely different from what I was imagining, it’s a much deeper tone where sound effects like “throb” and “thud” make much more sense! Creator Marimo Ragawa certainly puts her all into trying to convey music through these silent pages; there is lots of metaphorical imagery used to accompany the pieces Setsu is playing and I do suspect that these scenes would be more effective if I was a reader who was more familiar with the instrument, or even with some of the pieces Setsu plays. I had already been mildly interested in checking out the anime but after reading this first volume I practically raced to it, the story grabbed me so much and I was curious to hear what the music actually sounded like.
So far, I prefer this original manga to the anime adaptation. The adaptation feels a tad rushed to me, but again that musical aspect of the anime is a huge detail so it feels tough to recommend one version of this story over the other. The anime does smooth out some of the jarring female character designs as well, as 80% of them look just fine but then there’s Setsu’s new classmate, the sole member of the shamisen club, who’s practically goggle eyed and right afterward Setsu’s new teacher shows up for a few panels and looks similarly just bizarre. It almost felt like Ragawa ran out of character designs and was in a rush to finish off the chapter! Also awkward was just how many on-page cultural/translation notes there were in this first volume; normally I’m not one to be bothered by that but there were simply so many that I wished they had instead been placed at the end of the volume, it got to the point where I felt like my reading experience was a bit interrupted.
Regardless of those nitpicks, Those Snow White Notes starts out with a tremendous amount of heart, sadness, and stubbornness, a true whirlwind of emotions! The Kodansha release for this series is going faster than I can keep up, three volumes have already come out in only a month, but I absolutely intend to read more when I have the time. And in the meantime, I’ll keep watching the anime as well, even if my heart currently belongs more to the manga.