Winter is coming, so why not face the fact head on by watching an above average anime rom-com that I guarantee will set the tone for the season? In this review/analysis I will sell the 2013 anime White Album 2 to any of you who haven’t seen it, and for those of you who have, I will dissect why its by-the-books storytelling results in one spectacularly unpredictable ride.
People sometimes overstate the necessity for originality, as well as the idea that if a concept has been done before, there is no need to do it again; especially if past attempts have yielded good results. While I am not a fan of rehashed tropes and cardboard cut-out characters, when it comes to stories, a classic tale can still be an enjoyable experience even if it doesn’t innovate or revolutionize the genre. They can be predictable, oftentimes, but can boil down the core aspects of what makes the rehashed story in question so enjoyable, and what makes writers want to tell that story time and time again. But one thing that an unoriginal story can do better than any other is hide a truly unexpected twist that no viewer will see coming. Proof of my final point is White Album 2, an anime adaptation by Statelight of a visual novel made by studio Leaf.
The premise of the show is simple enough: our main character Haruki is the only remaining member of the light music club. But, after a fateful encounter involving a pianist and a singer spontaneously harmonizing to his pathetic guitar playing, Haruki embarks on a high school romantic comedy that will take him on one not-very-wild ride.
While that description isn’t going to leave anyone frothing at the mouth to get their hands on White Album 2, that’s kind of the point of my underwhelming introduction. Hear me out here: White Album 2, for the most part, isn’t special. It’s a show that will only appeal to someone who has a pre-established love for the romantic comedy genre (like me). While White Album 2 does have some tricks up its sleeve that absolutely no one will see coming (unless you played the visual novel), it still isn’t enough to recommend the show to someone who doesn’t like the love-oo.
ANALYSIS [Spoilers Beyond This Point]
So now that I’m done selling, let’s get on to analyzing.
First off, we’ve got the plot. White Album 2 chooses the very unconventional “reveal 80% of the plot to the viewer in the opening,” which serves its purpose very well, I argue. The method of revealing the ending to the viewer can have both positive and negative consequences: On one hand it puts predictable development out of the way by introducing their outcome immediately; on the other hand the foresight can make every event that leads to the conclusion easily foreseeable and hence, incredibly boring. White album 2 strikes a smart balance by revealing the story only to a certain point, because it then throws the viewer into a sea of uncertainty as to where the storyline goes.
But before to get to that scrumptious ending we have to talk about what leads to it.
The initial episodes were marked by positives in the form of good character interaction and good character reveals, although much of the character exposition was alluding to depth that simply never materialized. Setsuna’s introduction is done well, but Touma’s retentiveness results in her being very hard to follow when it comes to her decision-making. Haruki, on one hand, is a great male lead in that he has an actual personality as a straight edge class-rep who also happens to be attached to the fulfilment of playing music with a group of friends. On the other hand the articulation of this character type is poorly done and he, like most visual novel protagonist, exists mostly as a vehicle for the viewer to project onto.
One point that is of note is the story’s use of that all too infamous “high school drama”. I remember hearing the first White Album was bogged down by those juvenile high school conflicts that do nothing but aggravate the viewer because of how idiotic and childish the entire cast is. If that is the case, then White Album 2 seems to have taken the message seriously. Very seriously. Conflict is the fuel that moves the plot forward but White Album 2 smartly realizes it has more than enough gas on board to power it to the school festival. As a result I was impressed to see that every occurrence of over-the-top drama that flared up was almost immediately extinguished by the characters. The result is quite an ingenuous way of doing drama in high school; introduce it fast, but solve it fast. This way, we get all the character exposition opportunities and plot-propelling power a story set in high school needs without annoying the viewer. While the plot up ’till this point is far from revolutionary, this takeaway point is surly worth noting for its originality.
Other than that, the first 7 episodes really don’t have much to dissect. They are bog-standard buildup that could lead anywhere, and that’s what makes it so smart. After the pre-established school festival performance, we have nothing to drive the plot forward. Something has got to happen; some goal, some conflict must appear. We have the love triangle set up now, but where does it go from here? That’s when Setsuna approaches our Haruki and asks him out. He accepts, Touma says it’s cool, they all stay friends, and nothing happens. I was stunned. Something has to happen to make someone do something to keep this show following a plot. My mind started looking for where this story could be going, which lead to many theories.
Theory #1: In episode 8, when the car breaks down and it starts snowing, from that point on in the series, they all slowly DIE in the snow. I mean, that’s why it’s called WHITE Album, isn’t it? As they find themselves trapped their bodies turn pale white as they die in the cold white snow, unable to reach their hot spring of fun and fanservice. It all made sense! When they started having a snowball fight I was shouting at the TV, “you idiots, you’re all going to DIE, stop messing around.” Unfortunately, this switch into the horror genre never happened, and the fun and fanservice did prevail.
Which brings up my next point; fanservice. One of White Album 2’s biggest dilemmas is how much it feels it needs to “service” the fans. As the resident anti-fanservice zealot on this site I’ll skip to the verdict. I find White Album 2 guilty of 8 separate counts of unacceptable fanservice, from having feelsie scenes with panty shots, to permanently hovering the camera around the girls’ erogenous zones before the school performance, to literally reusing shower footage to do a shower scene twice. But this led to another theory.
Theory #2: they are going to have the harem ending. Could White Album 2 be so brazen? It’s one way of getting past the multiple branch points problem in visual novel adaptations, so it would be in the team’s best interest to take the easy way out, and when no conflict could be seen after miles and miles of searching, I was sure this what was going to happen. But once again my predicting proved to be wrong, and by around episode 10-11 they had fired up the old love triangle.
This is most definitely the low point of the series. All the over the top bullshit teenage drama White Album 2 seemed to be avoiding was back in full force. Touma searching for that book in the rain was one of many over-the-top examples. In addition, the fact that she’s going to move to Vienna seems an archetypical case of “well that escalated quickly”. Even so the show attacks its own causal rational for no apparent reason by making that random side-character girl mention a very compelling point: “no girl would leave the country because a boy rejected her.” All dialogue at this point was weak, and side characters that had been fleshed out about as much as a starving antelope are now suddenly part of the story again. It all culminates with Setsuna’s terrible explanation to Haruki, stating that she somehow doesn’t actually love him and she is in fact in the wrong for getting between Touma and him, who for some reason has a greater claim to being with him than she does. In truth, this greater claim is nothing more than the demand of the plot, since it’s obvious Setsuna receives far less character exposition than Touma by the end of the show, coercing the viewer to preffer Touma to Setsuna even though not even Setsuna herself can explain to me why her feelings somehow don’t matter in this great scheme of things. These final episodes really do bring the show down as a whole, and in the end we have our dramatic confrontation at the airport.
And then it happened. Sentsuna said the words that changed everything. “I was obviously lying.” After this shocking revelation Touma flies away anyways, and Harkui is left dejected with a girlfriend who he pretty much explicitly told isn’t his first choice as a lover. And I’m left sitting there wondering what, just what, happened. It was this ending that made White Album 2 more than a standard rom-com that went soggy with its latter episodes, it made White Album 2 one unique experience, because you simply can’t predict the finale result.
The bad ending. The ending where nobody is happy and everything sucks. The ending I would say is more forbidden than the harem ending. You simply don’t end a romantic comedy with examples of love failing to secure happiness, which is what makes White Album 2 so special. Romantic comedies have become one of the most predictable of genres not merely because the OTP (one true pairing) is always as plain as day, but because of the dogmatic stipulation that happiness must be present in the finale. You know what, I’m glad, no; I’m thrilled, that the silly little romance of a bunch of dumb naïve teenagers resulted in them not reaching the happily ever after of fairy-tales. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a cynical take on childhood love. Keep in mind some of my all-time favorite animes have young love that ends in a happily ever after manner, but that doesn’t make me impartial to seeing the opposite unfold, and I’d argue it shouldn’t make anyone else either. It’s this boldness to break one of the most grounded expectations of a romance that makes this ending so amazing.
But let me explain, the success of White Album 2 rides not merely on the nature of the big twist at the end, but in the fact that show is so well crafted that it makes the twist hit you like a sack of bricks. White Album 2, from its pre-emptively revealed story, to its vapid fanservice, to its unassuming plot primes the viewer to not expect the unexpected. This careful setting up of viewer expectation is the genius that makes this ending so enjoyable. It’s not until the credits start rolling that it truly sinks in. You doubt it even when it’s bitterly obvious. That requires skillful execution, and it’s that point that puts White Album 2 above the level of mere mediocrity.
In the end I eventually figured out that this is the way the visual novel is meant to play out, and that a second white album 2 visual novel exists to finish the story. I have mixed feelings about this. Part of me wants this to be the end, so White Album 2 can satisfy my misanthropic sweet tooth that needs to be satiated every now and then. But the idea that they could somehow redeem this mess and bring about a happy ending leaves me dying to figue out how it plays out. Regardless, I feel White Album 2 deserves a second season. Even if bogged down by more problems than I could list in this article (such as clunky animation and drab mise-en-scene) it succeeds just enough for me to consider it worthy of my time (well, worthy of more of it).
So to sum things up, for managing to find a way to salvage a tired and generic story with a wonderful twist that will leave cynics everywhere screaming with glee, I award White Album 2 an ABOVE AVERAGE… out of 10. This is a show whose merits outweigh its faults, making it an overall (somewhat) enjoyable piece of media to watch. Hope you enjoyed and thanks for reading.