Given the quality of the source material the biggest question going in to the premiere of White Album 2 was whether Satelight was going to put the budget and staff together to make a worthy adaptation. I have to say the early returns look quite good.
The episode begins with the main character Kitahara Haruki (Mizshima Takahiro) performing a wicked guitar solo on stage at a school event. Okay, maybe not wicked, but it was solid for a high school student. Following some ominous narration from Haruki we’re thrown back in time to a month earlier when the preparations for the school festival are underway. Things don’t look great as the current light music club is falling apart at the seams and ever popular two-time defending “Miss Houjou” champion Ogiso Setsuna (Yonezawa Madoka) doesn’t want to enter this year’s contest. Everybody is looking to Haruki to make things right.
In my experience the male leads in romance (particularly harem) anime tend to fall into one of two categories. First is the sullen outcast/nerd harem lead that, through a series of coincidences, ends up dragged into all this romance nonsense. Think Kodaka from Haganai. The second is the generic nice guy who gets a harem because the authors can’t think of any reason for a girl to fall in love with the main character other than him being “nice” (read: bland). This is often accompanied by extreme levels of density to prevent the romance from actually going anywhere. Think Ichika from Infinite Stratos. Occasionally there will be stand out male leads in romance series like Okazaki Tomoya from Clannad who neatly bridged the gap between sullen and generically nice. The distinguishing factor for the “good” male characters tends to be their ability to make things happen rather than being dragged along by the plot.
Cutting back to White Album 2, Haruki clearly falls into the category of plot driver rather than the plot driving him. He’s portrayed as a facilitator with a talent for reading people and effective decision making. His friends look to him both to save the light music club and to get Setsuna to agree to participate in the Miss Houjou pageant. When presented with these tasks Haruki demonstrates himself to be a realist (no, not that kind) rather than the type of irrational optimist you might see try to rebuild the light music club with no real plan. He also doesn’t try to force Setsuna into entering the pageant instead being willing to let her make her own decision about how she wants to live her life despite the protests of the committee members. In short, I like Haruki. I find him to be quite refreshing. He’s eminently relatable and he’s not so perfect as to be off-putting nor is he so flawed that he’s hard to get behind. Male characters often get overlooked in romance anime but they matter a lot, especially when it isn’t a harem, so to have a solid male character driving the plot early on is a big plus.
What of the female characters? The only one we are introduced to this week is the aforementioned Ogiso Setsuna. When confronted regarding her request to not participate in the Miss Houjou pageant Setsuna explains that she never really wanted to enter and it was her friends that got her to sign up the previous two years. If she had her way she wouldn’t have all the attention that being Miss Houjou brings and instead just be a typical student. I don’t know if it’s because of her status as the reigning Miss Houjou or the fact that her character design strongly resembles Asuka from Evangelion but I expected Setsuna to be much harsher than she turned out to be. She’s actually quite sweet and, to use that word again, refreshing. She clearly has a high opinion of herself which Haruki later points out to her during the festival preparation but that high opinion doesn’t manifest itself as excessive haughtiness or as dismissal of others. Instead it sort of leaked out in a moment when she let her guard down and just said what she was thinking. This level of honesty doesn’t happen much which leads Haruki to comment that he feels that he isn’t seeing the real Setsuna and that she keeps her “true self” a secret. It’s unclear how much of this behavior is conscious on the part of Setsuna and how much of it is due to how other people treated her but it has a ring of truth to it and I’m curious what the “true” Setsuna may look like (SS: something like this, maybe?).
I found myself liking Setsuna quite a bit in this episode. As I said before she’s quite sweet but she accomplishes this without coming off as extremely timid or useless. With other popular and sweet characters like Asahina Mikuru of Haruhi fame, the character in question is often incapable of doing anything but blush and wear cute costumes, or, like Fujibayashi Ryou from Clannad, any effort to compliment the character in question will result in a furious denial (SS: almost as if you don’t like tsundere). It’s one thing not to be arrogant but it’s another to refuse anything positive said about you. By contrast, Setsuna seems to possess just the right amount of self-confidence without coming off as cocky; she knows she’s popular and talented but she doesn’t go out of her way to let everybody else know it. I’m really looking forward to learning more about Setsuna and what makes her tick.
The episode concludes with Haruki’s daily guitar practice in the first music room. Each day he is joined in practice by a mysterious piano player in the next room over who plays with him through the open windows of both music rooms. This faceless pianist is almost certainly Touma Kazusa (Nabatame Hitomi) the seen but as of yet unheard and unnamed third member of the main cast. Haruki and Kazusa have been playing music together for some time even though neither of them realizes who they are playing with. Today, however, they are joined by a third member: a mysterious vocalist on the rooftop. After completing the song once Haruki calls out for the piano player to continue and she obliges. Haruki then runs up to the rooftop to discover that, to his surprise, the rooftop vocalist is none other than Ogiso Setsuna.
I thought that this was a really elegant way to bring the two (soon to be three) of them together. Too often the basis for the relationship between characters in a romance anime is taken for granted and never really adequately justified. Here we see a reason for the romantic connection between the cast members rather than a cheap hand-wave like childhood friend status or no explanation at all. The set-up also feels quite natural rather than some kind of contrived coincidental meeting.
It’s pretty clear at this point that Haruki is starting to feel something for Setsuna despite his previous protests to the contrary. I can’t blame the guy, I may have fallen in love with Setsuna a little bit after that scene as well. Yonezawa Madoka has a beautiful singing voice and each time the sound cut to just her voice without the acoustics of the school modifying it the result was pure auditory magic. I absolutely loved her rendition of White Album and I’m surprised I had never really heard her sing before. Then again I’m not sure where I could have heard it. Maybe Ui’s character song albums from K-ON? Too bad nobody listens to the K-ON character albums. (Okay. I do, but not for side characters. I’m not crazy)(SS: News to me) As the credits roll Setsuna and Haruki share a brief moment on the rooftop and I start counting down the days until I can get more of this.
I mentioned Setsuna’s beautiful singing voice but the music as a whole this episode was top notch. It’s important for a show centered on music to have a quality soundtrack and White Album 2 does not disappoint. Usually it takes several episodes for me to have heard the background music enough to have a few choice scenes I associate with my favorite selections from an OST but in this case the music was stand out from the start. It felt like every other scene I was hearing a new piece of music that made me think “that sounds really good, I want to hear that again.” So hats off to the composer of (I assume) the OST for the original game. I’m sure I’ll be listening to it again and again long after the show has concluded.
So after one episode we have met two of the three main cast members and as I outlined above I feel very positively about both of them. Next week we will likely get to know more about the mysterious piano player. Based on her character design and description I expected her to be the one I liked most but Setsuna will be a tough act to follow. Overall, I see the biggest danger to White Album 2 being not receiving a proper number of episodes to cover the full story resulting in pacing problems (see: Angel Beats). I’m cautiously optimistic though since Satelight certainly seems to be putting the proper budget behind this production. It’s been a long time since we had a solid pure romance/drama offering like this (since Amagami? True Tears?), so it’s nice to see another offering from the genre. So my only question now is, is it Saturday yet?