Those Snow White Notes episode 12 is here, and it marks the end of the season. This episode represents the culmination of the artistic journey Setsu embarked on at the beginning of the series. In last week’s episode, we saw him struggle between his loyalty to his grandpa’s music and his need for self-expression. We finally get to see the results of Setsu’s performance in this episode, and there’s only one way I can think to describe the experience: heart-wrenching.
Setsu makes the decision to depart from his grandpa’s sound and introduce his own. Everyone in the audience notices the change in Setsu’s sound and everyone appears to be captivated by it. Setsu’s sound is a complex one; gentle and tranquil, but also leisurely and playful. It’s a sound that evokes different emotions and reactions among its listeners. For one of the judges, it conjures memories of his childhood, and feelings of yearning. As Setsu finishes his performance, the crowd erupts with cheers and applause, and it seems like his risk to change styles mid-performance has paid off. That’s what makes the following scenes all the more painful to watch.
I’m sure I’m not alone in having anticipated this moment since the beginning of the series. Souichi has been name-dropped as the most talented young performer in the world of shamisen since before he was even introduced as a character. Given his status, along with the weight that being the son of Kamiki Ryuugen carries, everyone is primed for a spectacular performance. And that’s exactly what Souichi gives them. Souichi’s shamisen is like an extension of his body, and both his form while playing and the sound he produces leaves the audience in awe. To his fellow competitors, his level of technical competency is absolutely terrifying. Even overconfident Ushio is shaken.
Setsu, who is usually calm and collected, is also unnerved by Souichi’s talent. The performance lights a fire under him and he declares it as something he wants to surpass. This is quite a departure from the Setsu at the beginning of the season who had no interest in competing. I’m actually surprised by how much I enjoy Souichi as a character. He’s not the overly cocky, egotistical guy I expected him to be, considering how much praise he receives. That’s not to say that Souichi isn’t aware of his own talent, but I appreciate the fact that he doesn’t completely dismiss his fellow competitors. Prior to competing, he recognises Setsu as a serious rival. The way that he considers Setsu both his friend and competition is also amusing and reminds me of Nikaidou from March Comes in Like a Lion.
As the judges prepare to announce the winners, the audience seems to be in agreement that Souichi and Setsu will be the top two. But just like they did in the group division, the judges throw us another curveball. Setsu ends up placing third, with Ushio second and Souichi first (no surprise there). Setsu is understandably crushed. After years of reluctance to compete and playing for his own pure enjoyment, opening himself up to public judgment was a huge risk. Not only that, but this performance was also the debut of his own, distinctive sound. If we’re to view art as an expression of one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, then performing in front of an audience is akin to baring one’s soul. Setsu put his soul into that performance. I can only imagine how demoralizing it would feel to lose after all of that.
The audience is confused by the judges’ decision, and I can’t help but join in their confusion. My understanding of Ushio’s performance was that for all its enthusiasm, it was technically flawed. I couldn’t have imagined a scenario in which his performance would have won over Setsu’s. But a look into the judging process reveals that it was Setsu’s sudden change in a performance style that prevented him from placing higher. Apparently, cohesion is an important factor in a musical performance. With this in mind, one can’t help but wonder if Setsu would’ve been better off sticking with his grandfather’s style.
Umeko’s parenting tactics leave a lot to be desired. Throughout the series it’s been evident that she doesn’t view Setsu as an individual, but rather as a tool she can use to strengthen her family legacy. In this episode, however, her ruthlessness reaches new heights. When presenting Setsu with his trophy, she purposely drops it on the floor, breaking it to pieces. Further kicking him while he’s down, she tells him he’s pathetic and she’s disappointed in him. Truly mom of the year. But Setsu’s father is no better, smugly saying “I told you so” in response to Souichi’s win. Seiryuu at least tries to offer some wise words to Setsu, but given Setsu’s emotional state, he’s far from ready to hear them. Nevertheless, Seiryuu’s advice that Setsu make his sound more consistent was something that needed to be said.
Setsu recalls his grandpa’s words: “It’s the reactions of the people listening that are the most important lesson”. This can be a difficult truth to swallow as a musician. If you want to make a career out of music, you need to appeal to the audience. If you’re lucky, you won’t have to compromise your artistic integrity to do so. But unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Setsu’s frustration is palpable, and it’s more than understandable given that he’s never competed before. This is his first time having his art boiled down to a points system. Setsu’s emotions are like a volcano ready to erupt as he runs outside, his parents’ words echoing in his head. It’s here that he collapses on the ground, letting out an absolutely guttural scream; the scream of a tortured artist. I think Setsu’s devastation has less to do with his ranking, and more to do with the fact that he feels he failed his goal of getting his sound to resonate with the audience.
Those Snow White Notes episode 12 ends with a gloomy Setsu holed up alone in his dark room, pondering. This reaction is entirely in keeping with his reserved and introspective nature. He’s never been the kind of guy who is easily assured by a few kind words from friends; he’s far too self-critical for that. Taking all of this into account, I wouldn’t be surprised if his loss at the competition served as a major setback, and he didn’t touch his shamisen for months. But the final shot of the series shows him reaching towards the instrument; a glimmer of hope.
It’s not the triumphant ending we might get from other shounen tournament anime arcs, but then again, Those Snow White Notes has never been that kind of show. It does, however, feel more true to life. In the end, we don’t know if Setsu’s failure will serve as inspiration for him to keep pushing forward and improve, or if he’ll be discouraged from ever competing again.
At the time of writing, no season two has been announced for Those Snow White Notes. So it’s uncertain whether we’ll get an answer to that question. But despite the uncertainty of its ending, following Setsu’s journey of self-expression was an incredibly enjoyable experience. Pacing issues aside, the series managed to make an impact on me through its subtle storytelling and powerful musical performances. It’s an anime I’d recommend to any fan of music, or indeed art in general.