A Love That Cannot Be | White Album 2, A Review

Management: This is a comprehensive review of own devising, where I go over a pro and con analysis of the material in an attempt to convince people to watch the show-in-review. Hopefully, in encouraging people in general to watch things I think are interesting, they’ll at least somewhat know what to expect while watching.

While White Album 2 shares namesakes with the earlier White Album, outside for a same universe, same songs, and some nods, White Album 2 is its own separate story. As such, the quality of the latter’s narrative has no effective bearing on the quality of the former’s. There’s a link after a certain point in the essay where there’s a video sample of some of the music and cinematography that I recommend listening to and screening.

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“Are you pretending to be alone? But why, why are you on my mind?
Before I knew it, I was drawn to you more than to anyone else.”

“What should I do so my heart could be reflected in this mirror?”

I know I’m going to antagonize a lot of people when I say I dislike shipping…

…but I dislike shipping.

Shipping, of course, usually entails the romantic pairing of one character to another. With the exception of anime that stylize themselves around the whole affair, I dislike it because it kind of tends towards imperialism of the viewer. When it comes to shows that even whiff of romance, never mind why a certain couple end up together towards the end, if they end up together towards the end, or even if the romance was crucial to anything within the narrative, people will get mad because their ship didn’t succeed. I’m not saying all shippers are invested enough in general about the ships they invariably end up supporting each new show to get upset, but shipping itself tends to breed strong feelings of what “should be.”

And if what “is” doesn’t match up to their expectations, some end up frothing vitriol and perhaps other obscenities at their victorious shippers peers and, for that matter, the rest of the community at how much the show sucked, or at least was significantly worse off for them personally, with minute, if any, regard toward its craft or message.

So it fills my heart with a sort of derisive pleasure to see a romance like White Album 2, a love triangle, no less, produce such a sobering consensus among its shippers by the conclusion, regardless of which ship officially won. It goes something like…

…not like this.

“When I called out to you and you turned to look at me
you were so radiant I couldn’t see you directly.”

“What should I do so I could be reflected by your heart?”

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Music Room 2. It’s the most unassuming of the three that populate Houjou High. Music Room 3 in the building across has the benefit of being bigger and newer, and the adjacent Music Room 1’s been sectioned for everyone save those enlisted in the musical curriculum. Nevertheless, it’s where Haruki Kitahara spends his time practicing “White Album” by Yuki Morikawa on his guitar. And out of nowhere, from the adjacent room, from the rooftop, a sound has him spellbound. A piano so soothing, a voice so transfixing, plays, sings to the song’s melody. And here is where the story of White Album 2 takes off, where he has to know who.

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“It may be an unattainable love
but will the day come when it reflects back to me?”

I mentioned before a love triangle, and indeed, the show’s narrative is gradually driven by one after time is spent getting to know each of these characters. The mere mention of love triangle may be apprehensive to some, that it’s perhaps a rather cheap, petty, and tiresome way to create drama in a romance, but regardless of how one receives love triangles in general, I feel this love triangle in particular is meritorious in ways that sort of feed off each other.

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One is that the subjects of this love triangle are people. For the female leads, it wouldn’t be incorrect to group them under a certain personality, a certain archetype, the warm, popular school idol and the cold, aloof musical prodigy. And yet, they’re more than that, never relegated to the distinction of mere stereotypes. They may be extroverts or introverts, but no one girl’s one absolute. No one girl’s simply the life of the party, just as no one girl’s simply a shut-in. Neither is unconditionally anti-social, and both are, by their own past experiences, insecure. Loneliness is an issue for all, manifesting as much in a crowded class as in an empty room. Not one girl is perfect, their masks, their mischief, their indecisiveness, cowardice, impulsiveness, selfishness… they all show, despite themselves and their counterintuitive efforts to preserve the status quo. More than just characters, they’re people, female, adolescent, and flawed through and through. And for the male lead? Outside of his sex, he’s not much an exception, especially towards the second half. It’s a love triangle that makes its audience fully aware that the fault lies with all its three main cast members.

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Two is that the tragedy born from the love triangle is less a matter of the love triangle itself as it is the fatal flaws of each of these characters. There’s love triangles, however questionably written, that contrive otherwise issue-less characters to claw themselves and others for the sake of some man/woman prize. Then there’s love triangles that exploit each character’s innermost insecurities, cognitive oversights, and neurotic propensities to devastating effect, that direct themselves towards another not only as an object of desire, but as a mirror of their troubled selves, and in any case, these objects are fully articulated human beings that act and react in ways unbecoming of mere prizes.

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Three is that these subjects were friends. The best of of them. Monogamy withstanding, the viewers as well as the characters, are left agonizing with themselves over attempting to get their cake and eating it. How can the guy pursue one girl and avoid hurting the other? How can one girl pursue the guy and leave the other unscathed? How can we all remain close? If Episode 8, the most awkwardly brilliant hot springs episode executed ever, has anything to say from its subtext, it’s that we can’t. The heart wants what it wants when it’s found it, despite any one party’s attempts toward the contrary, and to deny it that when it’s within grasp, combined with each character’s own baggage, is tantamount to torture, agony of the most existential kind. And it’s agony of that magnitude and kind because of the fatal flaws of each individual’s ultimate inability to let something go.

“If I could see just a bit of that blurry answer
I’m sure this love will move ahead.”

The show exploits myriad touches, subtleties of all kinds and layers, scattered, embedded, and incorporated into the narrative to outstanding degrees. It’s direction and script is all about minimalist inference, and all of it is carefully deliberate.

Where the camera pans, zooms, cuts, and lingers especially.

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When the facades of facial expressions slip into distress and recover to overcompensate, the eyes, the lips, the bangs.

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The deliberate tones in lighting, or the selective shades of lack thereof, complemented by the beautiful looking set pieces. The conversations, highly nuanced, roundabout, indirect, and, when it’s called for, blistering.

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The use of flashbacks before the show’s start, combined with the retracing of new and carefully omitted ground within past scenes at the most heart-wrenching of moments, the foreshadowing, and even the character of the character designs and clothes.

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Music’s, unsurprisingly, a strong element in this series. Outside of tackling the technicalities or philosophies behind notes, though practice does make perfect, the series does everything else in exploiting the medium to create meaning in the music. Outside noise fillers and mood setters, they express powerful sentiments that put the thoughts and actions of characters within context, especially with Touma, whose feelings unseen and unspoken, given her reserved nature, bleeds into her piano pieces. It adds another layer of “show” through melodies and harmonies, and even the lyrics of the songs that have them are loaded with meaning in hindsight.

This show has a sex scene, one without shots of anything particularly precious, but it’s easy to infer what’s happening. That being said, it’s completely within taste, substantially enhances the narrative, and subscribes to a rather waning view that sex is emotional consummation and more rather than just physical titillation.

I have one major grievance: Episode 1. It’s not a bad episode, all in all; in fact, I think its conclusion was very well choreographed. Still, compared to its successive sisters, this episode has a couple of things that stick out like a sore thumb. There’s a questionable amount of exposition within it that I think was a bit superfluous. A few carefully chosen words especially towards the end, coupled with the music, would have been better for the mood, but by far the biggest concern I have was the beginning, where the show previewed portions of the concert from Episode 7. I suspect it was supposed to be kind of a hook, but, returning to an earlier instance of direction which could have been clever, the omission of Touma’s facial features seemed to be intended as a means for suspense that also worked in character, given her cold, aloof exterior. While it may have been no surprise that she would play one of the center role, what she looked like would, had it not been spoiled earlier by that flash forward.

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If what you seek out of this show is your idealistic conception of what a romance should entail, then read well: this is pretty far from ideal. The ordeals are messy, frustrating, not because they’re emotionally manipulative, but because they’re real, because the characters, being who they are, are complex, conflicted, and real themselves. It’s what would happen in this unextractable web of complexities and contradictions of “I wills,” “I won’ts,” and “It hurts,” where cutting one thread leads to the mangling of another.

He has to know, climbing the stairs to the roof, treading the outer walls of the school from stories high to get into the adjacent room’s open window. The rest is tragedy.

“The answer is blurry right now… until I can see it
this love will not move ahead.”

Shippers. Beware.

Management: In addition, the anime only covers the Introductory Chapter of the source material, which is a visual novel. If you’re interested in what the Closing Chapter’s all about, I suggest checking this link.

Bobduh goes into greater detail about the characters themselves in a separate essay, albeit with spoilers, so I don’t recommend consulting it until one has watched the show. He talks a fair deal about nostalgia.

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2 thoughts on “A Love That Cannot Be | White Album 2, A Review

  1. I’m glad you mentioned the camera. T’was great. Strong directing, if a bit blatant at times (though, judging by forum reactions, sometimes not enough). It leaves a lot unsaid, instead relying on a visual message.

    As you don’t mention the three main characters here, I’d like to ask what you felt about them? I personally ended up feeling really attached to Setsuna, so much I’d almost be able to call her one of my favorites of all anime I’ve seen (recency bias aside). I can’t put my finger on it except for the vague subtle clues – that may or may not be correct, seeing as there’s a VN sequel. It’s so strange. White Album 2 created an emotional reaction inside of me, perhaps as I never expected it to go such lengths. It’s so rare to see anime do that.

    • You might already know that Kazuza’s my favorite character of the three, but they’re all great and terrible people. I wouldn’t say I’m a Kazuza, but her social introvertedness and awkwardness reflect aspects of who I happen to be, albeit what she’s afflicted with is more extreme. She’s the most selfless and self-sacrificial of all of them despite her feelings, trying to get along with everyone and then trying to get away from them when getting along with them proved too agonizing and totally self-defeating.

      White Album 2 made me cry. I think that’s a pretty emotional reaction.

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