“My bridge is burned, and perhaps we’ll shortly learn/That it was arson all along/Can we just get home, sleep this off/Throw some ‘sorry’s’ and then/Do it all again.” – Frightened Rabbit, Late March, Death March
So, I just watched White Album 2, and holy shit you guys. Holy shit. Don’t even know what to say, but I gotta say it anyway. Let’s get through this one together.
White Album 2 has a very dim view of human nature. Not even Evangelion dim, where cruel things happen to broken people pretty much continuously. Evangelion is optimistic – it features plenty of hardship, but the message it puts forth about its characters is fundamentally a positive one. White Album 2 is, like, School Days dark. Everyone’s awful and selfish and wrong. Nobody learns, everyone suffers, the moral is sadness. It’s a hard show for me to square any real intention on, much less enough of a point to actually write a coherent essay. In the end, nobody really wins, and the only question you’re left with is the one the characters ask themselves – where did it all go wrong?
“Whatever you need to make you feel/Like you were the one behind the wheel/The sunrise is just over that hill/The worst is over.” – Cursive, A Gentleman Caller
So let’s skip the essay and get straight to the trial – let’s dive right into the Evangelion 25/26 of this series, and see what makes these damaged teenagers tick. Maybe then we can make a little sense of this sadness.
White Album 2 is a story about three characters who all want things. They’re friends, and they don’t want to hurt each other, but they want these things more than they want to avoid that. They’re also fairly weak and insecure people – or at least two of them are, with the third being enough aware of this to use it as a weapon. That third’s also insecure, too, though, which is the main cause of her own acts of cruelty. But that’s enough dancing around the story – let’s take these fuckups one at a time.
Haruki Kitahara is the first character we’re introduced to, the most common viewpoint character, and the instigator of the first couple plot developments, so we’ll tackle him first. Haruki’s a fairly impressive guy – though he’s not actively on the student council, his public self-assurance and knack for tackling problems directly and efficiently makes him more or less the council’s default problem-solver. It’s clear why someone might like him – he’s attractive, seems both confident and earnest, and has a sort of boyish charm that implies he never takes himself too seriously. His skills naturally lend themselves towards achieving his first dream – playing in a band at the school festival. That public confidence and disarmingly earnest manner wins him the support of the school’s idol, Setsuna Ogiso – as she herself points out (Setsuna is by far the most emotionally intelligent of the trio, and thus any overt revelations about their nature tend to come from her), he treats everyone with the same genial courtesy, which disarms Setsuna in a positive way before she ends up eventually wanting more.
“Shadow am I!/Like a suspicion that’s never confirmed/But it’s never denied/Wolf am I!/No, shadow I think is better/As I’m not something/More like the absence of something.” – Mewithoutyou, Wolf am I! (And Shadow)
Unfortunately for Haruki and everyone who cares about him, that confidence does not extend to matters of the heart. Though he’s good at convincing people of things, he is generally oblivious to how they actually feel about him, and remains emotionally blind until the end. That tendency to not take himself seriously isn’t just a humble affect, either – from beginning to end, he really doesn’t think much of himself at all. And finally, his tendency to treat everyone similarly is a reflection of his greatest weakness – a propensity to go with the flow, to accept the actions of others and maintain the status quo in opposition to either his own desires or even what might be best for others. Others act and he bends to let them, until ultimately he begins following the flow of his own emotions in a similar, almost passive way.
Granted, Haruki’s not the only passive protagonist here. The second pillar of this sad little drama is Kazusa Touma, the girl Haruki loves. Kazusa is not a happy person – left alone throughout her adolescence by her globe-trotting pianist mother, she’s developed both a tremendous inferiority complex and a vicious fear of abandonment, causing her to disengage from all human contact. Willful, caustic, and possessing the same musical genius as her mother, she throws herself into music with the same ferocity she shows towards anyone who attempts to engage with her, until Haruki’s obstinate professionalism and courtesy manage to break her shell. The friendship they form, born out of a mutual fascination that quickly turns to an unspoken love, ends up being guarded as fiercely as her original reticence. The two of them possess true chemistry – White Album’s understanding of characters extends into a keen understanding of banter, and it’s clear with every conversation they share that they each respect the other almost to the point of awe – Kazusa’s jibes and Haruki’s laughing acceptance betray the obvious attraction the two of them share. Unfortunately, like Haruki, Kazusa has little faith in herself – abandoned by her mother, she considers herself someone no-one could love, and her fear of losing what she has keeps her from disrupting the fragile bond between her, Haruki, and Setsuna for the sake of her own romantic feelings. On the night of the school festival that arbitrarily brought them together, she almost confesses to Haruki – but her own fears and insecurities hold her back, and she leaves without revealing the truth.
“Took two weeks in the Bahamas/Went out dancing every night/Tried to fight the creeping sense of dread with temporal things/Most of the time I guess I felt alright.” – The Mountain Goats, The Mess Inside
Which brings us to our third protagonist – Setsuna Ogiso. Setsuna’s certainly the most unique of these characters – though she passes as the cheerful but reserved idol she’s assumed to be, she’s by far the most emotionally assertive of our protagonists. It’s her aggressive pursuing of a friendship with Kazusa that draws the three of them together, and her equally aggressive desire to maintain a bond between the three of them that acts as a catalyst for the drama of the second half. Setsuna is also bound by the insecurities of the past – abandoned by friends at a young age, she continuously plays up the bond between the three protagonists, repeatedly making them promise to maintain their friendship forever. She is far from oblivious to the bond the other two share – while each of them expresses their affection in a way the other cannot read, Setsuna reads it all, and sees it as a threat to her own place within their affections. She even sees Kazusa’s near-confession after the festival, and this spurs her to act – knowing Haruki is too passive and accommodating to truly impose his emotional desires on others, she confesses to him, beginning a relationship in order to possibly salvage the trio’s mutual bond. This works for a few brief weeks, but it’s only a stopgap solution, and in the next few months everything inevitably falls apart.
Things get really shitty after that, and if you’ve been keeping up with the class well enough to grasp the theme here, I hope that when I say “it ends predictably,” you’ll understand it means it ends predictably given everyone continues to seek what will make them happy regardless of what would make anyone else happy. Though Haruki overtly acts the dutiful boyfriend, he’s continuously inconstant in thought and deed, and maintains a flame for Kazusa even as she withdraws from their friendship, trying to avoid the pain of watching the boy she loves dating another girl. Through all of this, Setsuna maintains the most overtly positive face, hoping to prolong a friendship that only hurts both of the others. As she withdraws from the company of her friends, Kazusa actually manages to repair her relationship with her mother, and decides to follow her back to Vienna and move on entirely. This prompts Haruki to chase her down, and when faced with his actual confession, Kazusa can’t stay the dutiful friend to Setsuna – she confesses as well, and they consummate their love the night before she’s set to leave.
This is a clear betrayal, of course. Haruki directly cheats on Setsuna, the girl he’d already established a relationship with. This follows a pattern of smaller betrayals – lying to her, avoiding her presence, and continuously seeking out the girl he actually loved. It’s not a forgivable offense, and though Setsuna describes herself as the one who manipulated the others (which has a fair amount of truth to it), she has every right to rage at him the next day, when he reveals the truth.
“My trust in you/Is a dog with a broken leg/Tendons too torn to beg/For you to let me back in.” – The Antlers, Putting the Dog to Sleep
But she doesn’t. She accepts what he’s done, and forgives him, and drags him to the airport, where he once again ends up in Kazusa’s arms. Though Haruki clearly wants her to hate him, she doesn’t – to the end, her priority is maintaining some sort of bond between the three of them, broken and unhealthy as it may be. She refuses to give him the catharsis of being despised, leaving him to despise himself while never offering a clean break from their unhealthy relationship. She even actively hides her pain and anger, only letting herself cry when he’s distracted by Kazusa – though her reasons are understandable, she never breaks her facade of emotional manipulation, though it only leads to more pain for all three of them.
Which, when phrased that way, makes it seem like I’m offering excuses for Haruki, who actually cheated on his girlfriend, or Kazusa, who instigated their meeting the night before she left. Which I’m not. Their actions were terrible, and selfish, and cruel. But I feel framing this show in terms of blame, or who was the “most wrong,” does a disservice to the character work here. The show portrays its characters so fully and intelligently that when Setsuna says she knows she was betraying Kazusa because she knew Haruki would agree to a relationship, we can agree because we ALSO know it’s true. That doesn’t make her the “most wrong” either, as the first to betray her friends – Haruki’s character flaws being known doesn’t make them not flaws, not weaknesses of character. There’s no one to root for or truly hate here – ultimately, it feels like fully sympathizing with the actions of one of the characters requires villainizing one of the others, which is something the show itself never does. It’s like a nega-universe exploration of friendship – it questions what should be expected of a friend from the perspective of people who continuously fail in that expectation.
White Album 2 offers no easy answers. There aren’t even really character arcs – everyone is the same selfish, insecure person they were at the start right up until the final moments. The show doesn’t force them to understand themselves – it merely puts them in situations where they get to be the weakest versions of themselves they can. And in the end, they may have laughed and love and cried, but what they have left are simply a series of event that happened, that they nostalgically cling to – it wasn’t truly a learning experience at all.
“All of the dark words pouring from my throat/Sound like an oil slick coating the wings we’ve grown/There goes a love song drifting out to sea/I’d sing along if I could hear over the oil slick.” – Frightened Rabbit, Oil Slick
Which leaves me, once again, with very little to say. Turns out a trial isn’t appropriate here – they all did what they did for reasons we can understand. Setsuna’s insecurities made her take advantage of her emotional intelligence to manipulate her friends. Haruki went with the flow, but ended up betraying his girlfriend because his true emotions were stronger than his sense of obligation. And Kazusa was afraid of losing what she had for too long, but ultimately betrayed her friend for the sake of what she wanted. Sometimes we do bad things. Sometimes bad things just happen. Sometimes life is a series of cruel turns brought on by our own weaknesses, and at the end of the day we can only do the best we can with what we have left.
I hope you enjoyed this essay about the best romance anime of the year! Have a great 2014!
PS: Alright, I suppose there is one running thread here that’s certainly worth a comment – the false idol of nostalgia. A great deal of anime is deeply nostalgic – it portrays a romanticized dream of high school, offering a glimpse of a timeless reality that no human actually experienced. White Album 2 subverts this in two central ways. First, it’s not idealized – three selfish people trying to find love and instead hurting each other is no-one’s dream of high school, but it’s certainly closer to reality than the visions most anime depict. But more importantly, it understands that nostalgia isn’t only an experience felt while looking back on the good times – nostalgia is an active component of those brief periods of joy we all experience, where we feel like we’re floating, untouchable. The protagonists of White Album 2 know their happiness is fleeting – they experience nostalgia for their brief friendship even as they’re actively experiencing it. And to me, that seems like a very true and poignant thing. Is there a positive message in that? Are we meant to infer that attempting to cling to ephemeral experiences will only corrupt them, and that this instinct to hold on to fragile stasis is really no more than a fear of future unknowns? That we should flee nostalgia and embrace change, whatever pain it may bring?
Who knows. The show certainly isn’t saying. But given the alternative, I’m gonna make an executive call on this one – yeah. That’s the point. Fuck nostalgia, fuck blaming yourself for being a selfish, imperfect person, and fuck high school romance. We all deserve a better class of best memory than this.
“Woke up at 3 A.M. with the radio on, that Gladys Knight and the Pips song on/About how she’d rather live in his world with him/Than live in her own world alone/And I lay there, head spinning, trying to fall asleep/And I thought to myself: ‘Oh, Gladys, girl, I love you but, oh—get a life!'” – The Dismemberment Plan, The Ice of Boston