The last two episodes of White Album 2 have been simultaneously beautiful and painful to watch.
Week after week on White Album 2 I’ve been faced with the tragedy of three young people hurting themselves and each other through no malice of their own. It’s merely the inherent naiveté that comes with being a high school student that has been the undoing of all three of them. What makes the tragedy extra heartbreaking is the fact that each step of it is so believable. I never find myself thinking that the characters’ actions make no sense or that the events are merely contrived for maximum dramatic effect with no thought given to believability. While I don’t always agree with them I can absolutely see somebody in real life making each choice they make. They aren’t making ideal choices but at the same time none of them seems self-destructive to the point of needing help or too stupid to comprehend what’s going on. Rather, this is a growing phase that is going to hurt a lot at the time but it’s something they need to go through in order to grow up and become more wise and well-adjusted adults.
It’s easy for me to take the long view here but in the short term things are pretty rough for all three of our heroes, none more so than Setsuna. It’s easy to see her efforts to keep the group together as misguided but I can also see her reasoning for doing so. She desperately wants to keep the status quo, as what she has now makes her happier than she’s ever been before. At the same time she definitely can sense that her relationship with Haruki is by no means secure. A more mature person might observe this and choose to break things off before the inevitable falling out with Haruki becomes more painful than it’s already going to be. Unfortunately Setsuna doesn’t have that perspective on life yet so she does everything she can to keep things the way they are because the idea of change is just too scary for her to face.
There’s also a personal angle to Setsuna’s insistence on keeping the group together. After her experience with romance breaking a group of friends apart in middle school she’s obviously extra sensitive to the plight of Touma and makes extra sure not to leave her out. On the other hand, if you look at this from the perspective of her trying to keep her relationship with Haruki, keeping Touma around might be the worst thing she can possibly do. I’m not convinced that Haruki and Setsuna’s relationship is fundamentally untenable. Instead I believe that it’s merely the inclusion of Touma that is going to keep things from working out between them. Haruki might not feel for Setsuna as strongly as he feels for Touma but he clearly feels something and I believe the two of them are smart enough, kind enough and compatible enough that they could have made it work if not for the Touma in the room.
Unfortunately, it seems that while his relationship with Setsuna isn’t fundamentally unworkable Haruki himself is fundamentally unable to pull himself away from Touma. Haruki keeps calling back to the promise they made to stay together as a group but at this point he’s merely using it an excuse to guilt Touma into not leaving. When that fails Haruki finally breaks and openly confesses to Touma, or at least gets as close to a confession as he’s likely to get. He tried all he could to get an answer out of Touma without laying his feelings bare for all to see but she refused to respond and so he had no choice when confronted with her potentially leaving him forever. Again, somebody with more life experience might have confessed his feelings sooner or decided to leave well enough alone and allow Touma to find her own path in life while he worked on the relationship he was currently. However, just like Setsuna, Haruki is unable to take the long view and acts on what makes sense in the short term even though it’s going to hurt everybody involved.
This leads us to Touma, probably the most tragic figure in the entire story, or at least the one with the most tragic backstory. Before she met Haruki, Touma’s story was one of wasted potential: a phenomenally talented piano student who nonetheless is in danger of flunking out of school largely due to problems at home. In response to these domestic issues Touma has chosen to withdraw into herself and insists on pushing everybody else away. I really appreciate the way Touma’s isolation is portrayed here. In contrast to other visual novels where a character with her traits would usually be treated awe and admiration Touma is instead largely ignored. In real life being aloof and ignoring everybody isn’t a recipe to become the legend of the school, it’s merely a path to everybody ignoring you except nosy teachers. In Touma’s case she’s just kind of there to everybody around her but she’s never somebody to take notice of. A few people here or there probably know of her family history but they don’t make much of it because she’s no fun to talk to or be around. The few people that do care about her see her as a nuisance more than anything as she monopolizes the second music room.
Of course Haruki has to come along and shake all this up. If nothing else Haruki has shown a talent for coming in and changing the status quo. We first saw it with how he changed Setsuna’s outlook on life so dramatically but it’s also hinted at with how he shook up the way the student council and the light music association operated. I pounded this point earlier in the show but I think it’s once again relevant here how refreshing Haruki is as an active protagonist. He makes things happen rather than them happening to him (and sometimes makes things happen when you’d rather he didn’t, like dragging Touma out of the taxi). In this case he’s confronting Touma about her future plans when a lesser person would have allowed her rough demeanor to scare him off rather than persisting.
Touma responds with her usual air of dismissiveness and lack of concern for anybody or anything else. This never came from a place of selfishness but rather it’s merely the easiest way for Touma to deal with her current situation in life. Like Setsuna and Haruki, Touma lacks the perspective to see that her cold and aloof nature isn’t a workable long-term solution to her issues so she instead takes the path of least resistance in isolating herself from everything except her piano playing. Fortunately for her, Haruki, being who he is, will not take no for an answer and persists with getting her to fill out the forms. I thought the way the progression of their relationship and Touma’s growth in particular was portrayed was quite impressive. In the space of about 11 minutes of airtime we saw more relationship and character growth out of Touma than we typically see from a main character in an entire cour. It was quite a treat to see her go from brooding outcast to slightly curious about Haruki, to clearly smitten but unsure how to act. I think she’s still unsure but even if (when?) things don’t work out for her this time I’m sure she’ll be a fine adult having learned from both her experience with the isolation from her family but also her experience dealing with her romantic feelings for Haruki.
In the end, the scene after school in the first music room which confirmed what we had long suspected: Haruki had fallen for Touma long before and Setsuna was doomed before she even started. It’s interesting to think of the characters as being in three different stages of tragedy. Touma’s is the tragedy of the past with her wasted potential and her isolation in school. Her future looks bright because she now has the opportunity to reunite with her mother and pursue the instrument she loves in Europe. Setsuna’s is the tragedy of the present as she has a happy home life in her past but she’s currently in the process of losing both her boyfriend and her best friend. Despite this I think she will be stronger afterwards and more ready to face her future. Haruki’s personal tragedy is likely yet to come as he attempts to give up what he has now for something he’s likely to be unable to reach, at least in the near term. I’m afraid that in the end he might be the one left out in the cold with a betrayed Setsuna unable to give him another chance and Touma far away in Europe and unable to return his feelings.
What has me really excited about the franchise as a whole is the prospect of seeing not only the process through which each of these characters will grow and mature but also the end result of that growth. If Closing Chapter gets animated (fingers crossed) we will get to see these characters as adults and actually witness the long-term effects of this tragic high school romance. Of course, there’s the possibility that the characters actually show no meaningful growth between Introductory Chapter and Closing Chapter and we’re left with the same characters and the same mistakes we have now. However, the high regard that Closing Chapter is held in has me optimistic that won’t be the case. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. We still have three more episodes of Introductory Chapter to get through. I expect the experience for me to be much like that of the characters: it will hurt a lot in the near term but when it’s all said and done I’ll look back and be glad I had the opportunity to experience it. I can think of no higher praise that I can offer a work of fiction than that.