“Hey, Kitahara…. When I see the snow, I remember.
When we all played ‘White Album’ together.
Things like us all messing about, amidst snow falling deep within the mountains.
Things like touching you, amidst snow falling in the city.
When I look up towards the sky and see snow falling, I remember it all.”
WHITE ALBUM 2
Feeling an all consuming sense of loss and regret, a single man looks up towards the winter sky. As the snow continues to fall, he hopes that it will cover the harsh reality lying before his eyes. That it will obscure the truth from him along with everything else. But, the man himself recognizes that it would be a fruitless endeavour for snow must eventually melt and with it, expose whatever filth it has covered.
We make the transition from such a bleak setting to a school’s light music club, dealing with the fallout from their band’s disintegration. Going from six members to two in a matter of minutes is no mean feat, and the blame can be placed entirely on their bewitching vocalist set on stardom. With just a month left until their school’s festival and the only members left being guitar players, our hero Haruki and his (sort of) friend Takeya are in quite the pinch.
Strumming alone in the music room after school, sometimes a piano will accompany Haruki from another. And sometimes, so will a voice drifting from the roof. Three disconnected melodies eventually come together, creating something harmonious.
With the school Haruki the characters attend being largely musically focused, there are three music rooms which its students can use – in writing, anyway. Two of those rooms are comfortably secured for the music students, despite their classes making up one of eight in total. Those students are the ones who have every intention on making it into the industry at some point. So, that leaves the seven remaining classes to share one room between them. The clock is ticking, and both Haruki and Takeya are all too aware of how little time they have left in that room from their band calling it quits to the cultural festival. It would be one thing if our misfortune pair possessed some sort of musical process but that sadly isn’t the case, and with them only being able to use the room twice a week a dark future lies in store for them. Takeya certainly seems to think so, with him not being able to muster up the effort to find replacement members if they’re not the crème de la crème. What’s the point if they’re not going to be a genius bassist, keyboardist, drummer, and vocalist anyway? The baton has been passed to Haruki for if he won’t rustle in members, nobody else will.
Whenever Haruki practices, a piano will accompany him from another music room. Although he has never met this mysterious pianist, they play in tandem despite his playing being nowhere near the level of theirs. Shorty after the above incident, Haruki plays one of his favourite songs which happens to be over a decade old – ‘White Album’. It holds a special meaning for him, given that it was the first album he ever bought. As he loses himself in the familiar melody, a beautiful voice drifts down from the roof. He takes no chances and without thinking too much about it, rushes up to the source. The voice happens to belong to the school’s idol, Ogiso Setsuna who he had met previously. While she’s hesitant at first, through a series of events Haruki earns her trust and she joins his and Takeya’s ranks. One down, three to go?
Haruki’s next task is to rope in the elusive pianist whose keys manage to enhance his playing. Assuming it’s one of the music students, when he asks who he thinks it is he comes away surprised. The source isn’t one of the snotty students, but someone else. He hatches a borderline ridiculous plan in order to ascertain their identity and once he does, can’t believe his eyes…
If you have been immersed in this medium long enough, then on the very slight chance the name White Album 2 conjures up possibilities of a sequel to a certain Beatles albums being salvaged as opposed to a behemoth which has taken the ero-sphere by storm, I would have to ask which secluded e-mountain you’ve hidden away in. WA2 is a work that has reached a rather unusual status where the medium is concerned, very much the New Thing shooting right up the EGS charts and claiming the top spot, swiftly overtaking heavyweights such as Muv-Luv Alternative and YU-NO. Yet what’s curious about all this is that there’s no apparent hook to it. Take a cursory glance at its neighbours and you’ll find time travel and fantastic elements yet here, we have something much more down to earth where the only loops involved are the mental ones its characters go through; a revolving door of tempestuous emotions flaring up.
Upon release it took all notable 2011 VN rankings by storm, coming out top in a number of categories. While its predecessor didn’t perform as well, considering Introductory Chapter was released in 2010 alongside modern classics such as Subarashiki Hibi and Steins;Gate, it still performed capably considering coming 14th overall that year. For scenario it fell just outside the top five, and music took fourth place. Despite not doing badly at all, what features in Introductory Chapter is but a precursor to the real meat of the story: Closing Chapter. It has an anime slated for airing this autumn and should finish up by Christmas, making this the ideal season for experiencing WA2. There are rumours floating around that if it does well, we could be looking at the series in its entirety being animated – that’s a whole four cours, or fifty episodes. So you get that it’s popular – but well, is it in any way good?
If one were to ask classmates or teachers what they think of Kitahara Haruki, they would come away with a sound impression willing to give him a gold star, a glowingly positive review. It’s only natural, for someone who used to be a class rep with excellent grades (although he works for them, admitting to studying nearly all year round). Haruki is the sort of smooth fellow who easily earns others’ trusts and this naturally extends to adults, for Haruki is skilfully able to deal with people. First he pushes logic and sense, then finishes off with something soft in order to appeal to them and leave them with a favourable impression. It’s pretty effective, for he’s even able to earn the trust of a strict father without pushing himself too far.
He could be considered something of an overachiever who’s wiling to always go the extra mile for people. Haruki doesn’t do things in halves, that’s for sure. While this may be a positive personality trait for many, like we devastatingly come to see with the rest of WA2‘s characters he’s anything but the perfect guy he carefully puts on show. Although his front is seemingly impenetrable, he’s the type to sigh when no one is looking. While Haruki certainly tries to be diplomatic, (un)fortunately our hero just can’t leave anyone alone. And so, his altruistic nature becomes his downfall.
With the cultural festival on the horizon, so comes the inevitable beaty contest which the school’s own little miss popular, Ogiso Setsuna, has won two years in a row. As a result, our Miss Houjou is seen as something of an idol among their grade, earning the awe and affection of many. Haruki’s first interaction with Setsuna involves her deciding to withdraw from the contest, stating it’s not as if she cares that much about it in the first place. It’s only being something that her friends entered her in for the hell of it and she finally wants out. She’s tired of it, having gotten sucked into the image she has created for herself. Such an event has essentially caused Setsuna to totally reshape her life, creating a discrepancy between the idol persona she parades around for others and the person she really is.
Our Setsuna is anything but a pushover, though. She knows what she wants and will never back down, but she can’t be the person she wants to be due to the label others have unwillingly tagged her with. The only time she can truly blow off steam is when she’s singing. It’s something she can do without breaking a sweat, going hours without feeling the need to take a break. For that reason, she prefers going to karaoke on her own instead of with a group of people. That way, she can be safe in the knowledge that she’ll be able to pick her own songs.
An aloof classmate of Haruki’s giving the impression of an old fashioned delinquent, the ever-scowling Touma Kazusa displays virtually no interest in scholarly matters. Instead, she prefers to spend her precious time and energy on the piano, and such an attitude draws the ire of many. She’s seen as something of a problem child among the faculty with them being quick to lash out at her and equally fast to blame her for any problematic incident she may be even tangibly involved with. On the entirely opposite side of the spectrum, we have those who treat her with gloves due to her famous mother having donated money as well as a piano. So, preferential treatment through use of a music room for her alone when there are so few of them already is given. If it were merely a matter of talent for Kazusa then it would have been fine. But a combination of being a cut above the rest of her classmates and such treatment quickly isolates her.
Yet her prodigal pianist takes it all on her chin. As long as she has the piano she can get by and nothing else comes close. She’s talented, that much is certain but with all degree of talent comes copious amounts of blood, sweat, and tears which she is no stranger to, often practicing for ten hours a day. Sometimes sixteen and of course festivities such as birthdays are no exception. An ice queen that curtly offers monosyllabic answers to our hero, she finds Haruki irritating even though eventually, his involvement in her life is what ultimately gets her to thaw…
When it comes to fiction, there’s a genre that people tend to actively avoid despite it arguably being the most universal one, transcending limits such as language: romance. Their reasons are understandable, no matter what medium you happen to be thinking of. A basic framework is provided, and it’s dressed up in a way that’s appealing for its target audience. We have a character, and they happen to fall in love with another. But for fiction things being straightforward makes a dull watch/read/play, so obstacles must be introduced in order to increase the tension. The course of true love never did run smooth after all. One of the more common obstacles is to introduce a rival character. Whether they have their sights set firmly on the protagonist or their object of affections, there’s bound to be trouble with their very presence throwing a temporary spanner in the works. When it comes to otaku media, romance is awash with that deeply unsatisfying process no matter which area you take a peek into. We have a relatively useless protagonist who may posses a charming point or two in order to not render them entirely unsympathetic, only to have characters fall into their unsuspecting lap proceeding to swoon at whatever they do. Said protagonist will rarely do anything about this, and said characters will have the most stock of issues. Bonus points if they have a challenging personality and become clingy or assholish due to parental issues.
We may laugh at seasonal shitstorms and colour wars, but let’s be honest. At the end of the day it’s all the same shit and none of the aforementioned series offer anything new. I dabble in shoujo manga, so I tend to encounter this thing on a semi-regular basis and the same patterns are followed through time and time again with little room for variation. I honestly can’t think of a single work where the protagonist and love interest are able to carry out a mutual confession, sans obstruction. There’s always one other guy who simply must intrude. No matter what form he takes, his goal never changes and he will always fall back towards the end. It’s the same with light novel rom-coms. Our gallant hero has defied some physics law and has fallen straight into the crotch of someone despite them being several meters away! Oh no, its owner happens to have a crush on him and squirms around awkwardly! But wait, then his actual love interest comes across the scene?! What a riot.
One of IC’s BGMs is titled ‘boy meets girl and girl’ – a crude, yet compact way of describing this process. While this may apply for most romantic fiction, what’s key here is the execution. With a concept worn to the fray and then some, how can one thread it together in order to obtain a finished product worth showing off? It’s simple, really – you just have to rework it. It takes a certain degree of maturity to write a work which doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence by laying things out as plain as can be, for its writers aren’t afraid to drag out every rotten little bit that makes us human and put it on display. All three of WA2’s main characters have such elements, elements that you can easily see in people you associate with, and maybe in yourself, too. Even if one doesn’t intentionally mean to cause harm they’ll still more often than not manage to fuck things up. As we make mistakes, we progress. We learn from them, or at least we’re supposed to. We’re not always going to have someone else’s best interests at heart. Sometimes, we feel like being a little nasty, a touch egocentric. Doing such things doesn’t mean we’re on a one way hedonistic track. In fact, I’ll make a bold claim and say this is the only VN which reflects this innate nature we all share (that I have come across, anyway).
While I’m on the subject of love triangles and bad personalities, I’m going to briefly touch on another by now infamous title which involved one recently – Nitro+’s meta venture Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi. While initially showing promise, it ultimately proved to be disappointing, yet particularly jarring fact was how poorly written its cast was. Compared to the fully realized characters here, Totono‘s are cartoonish caricatures mechanically going through the motions. Here you see the build up of a friendship and see it fray just as easily, and it’s better than what Totono could have ever hoped to achieve. WA2’s characters struggle, hard, in order to maintain the balance. When one character brings up the concept of eternal friendship, you can believe them whereas Miyuki, Aoi, and Shinichi’s play at lunch dates and visiting cat related stores come off as hollow. One may argue, that for them that is the point with them being VN characters through and through, more concepts than anything. At one point in IC, Kazusa slides her fingers along the keys in the music room and Totono’s key song Franz List’s ‘Liebesträume No. 3′ plays. Which title handles ‘love’s dream’ better?
No doubt it will be the work whose dulcet tones resonate naturally with the reader. IC avoids rushing into the drama, instead having its underlying tensions steadily rise to the surface; the briefest of moments interspersed throughout where you can see the narrative’s once steady foundation shaking ever so slightly. No scene rings hollow. What contributes to masterful execution is how well written the work is, refreshingly lacking in melodrama despite the seemingly inevitability considering the subject matter. Although I haven’t read anything else by Maruto Fumiaki, after his talent through an immensely enjoyable few hours I can see why. The chemistry is tangible and banter shines between characters, anything but static caricatures designed to serve as yet another obstacle. In the two times I sat down to read IC, I became fully absorbed in a world quietly being covered in little flurries of snow.
Haruki, Setsuna, and Kazusa all have strong personalities, each intensely defined. Their individual faults are broadcasted in all their high definition, technicolour glory. That’s not to say that they aren’t likable, because they are. Very much so. Yet at the same time they’re all deeply flawed and just as unlikable as they are likable. It creates a fascinating contrast, and it’s the little things that help craft such an impression. Setsuna casually mentioning the wind feels nice, whereas Kazusa will curtly cut in through it bringing a cold air in. Kazusa will pour everything into perfecting a song with Haruki while Setsuna hangs back and can’t help but sulkily let her emotions reach a boiling point. Despite what chipper “do your best!” messages like to proclaim, if you’re feeling down you’re not going to put 101% in. Hell, depending on what sort of person you are you be may be lucky to reach that 50%, so Setsuna moodily says things will be cool the next day. Yet Haruki and the reader know that they won’t be. She won’t be for it’s simply too late. Everyone involved with our trio can see where they’re heading. It’s difficult not to. With them coming into contact so intensely, something has to give. And when it does it’s a nonstop dash to the finish before it all starts again with CC.
When the dust settles, who’ll be left victorious? This work is not a really a matter of who’s the best girl because really, both Kazusa and Setsuna are terrible people in their own way and so is Haruki. Quite often with fictional love triangles, one tends to side more with one girl and easily discard any faults they may have while magnifying those of the other who’s clearly not worthy of winning the hero’s affections. With WA2, you can’t really do that for IC brings up the concept of what it means to be ‘最低’/’saitei’. What does it mean to be the absolute worst, a right piece of shit? To earn such a debasing title one doesn’t have to do anything extravagant like destroying a world or messing with the flow of time. Sometimes the most human of actions can justify it. People become weighed down with regrets, and they impulsively carry out foolish acts in the heat of the moment. IC as a whole encompasses the bitter feelings which such actions can bring. In their wake, no divine retribution is given. There is no moralistic tale to tell. Things are simply as they are, as plain as the snow falling in front of the characters’ eyes.
This is easily the weakest aspect of IC, although I wouldn’t blame you for thinking otherwise glancing at the screencaps peppered throughout this review. However if you were to look a little closer at the tachi-e, you’d notice wonkiness that isn’t just an artist’s style. Torsos are curiously elongated, necks are too long, chins can border on Gakuen Handsome tier, and are hands too keionified with stubby fingers and a general blobby look. Clothes are like paper cut outs, just hanging on characters (a prime offender is Setsuna’s pink cardigan, with sleeves that look uncomfortably stiff) and shadowing is mostly left up to random navy splodges. There’s some weird lighting thing going on too, with white lines making uniforms look more like shiny PVC than whatever soft material they’re actually made of.
QUALITY is abound, that’s for sure. Although, it’s thankfully not enough to completely ruin the emotions for some scenes… With the complete release, that is. Awesome Curry pointed out to me that for IC’s original release, some of the CGs were even worse than the ones featured in this complete edition. Now the original had scenes with art bad enough to ruin the immersion, making one lean back in their chair and mutter ‘what the hell am I looking at’. It really is that bad, but if I were to throw the comparisons up here to do so would spoil key scenes. So while the art in general isn’t the best, at least with the complete edition it has improved somewhat, and from sample CGs it seems the art for CC improved further still. Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh, for all of IC’s art was more or less a solo project whereas Leaf’s previous ventures had two or three artists. A labour of love for sure.
General backgrounds are quite the treat, like the railway station up above. There’s something about its sunset tones with the wintery sun streaming down which makes it mesh really well together overall. Streets give off a feeling that they could keep going on forever.
As expected with a title having a focus on music, there has been a lot of work put into this department. With the characters being part of the light music club, you get to hear them mess around with their instruments even while characters speak and BGMs play. You’d think this would get annoying but it doesn’t, and it all kind of fits. It’s nice to hear Haruki strum some chords or for Kazusa to play a few notes of a classical piece. What’s impressive here is that Haruki’s strumming does actually alter as IC progresses. First it sounds out of sync, then begins to mesh with other music before you even notice it. It makes you stop and listen. You should, because often such tracks will only last for a couple of lines before they cut off completely despite being much longer, which you will notice if you do end up listening. The tracks should have been left play instead of cutting them off a fifth of the way through. It’s difficult to feel immersed listening to what’s supposed to be a piano concerto when you only hear a couple of notes before the regular BGM starts up again. Nodame Cantabile this ain’t, but it’s still disappointing. Even worse – none of these bit tracks feature on the soundtrack nor the bonus menu.
‘言葉にできない想い‘ is the kind of delicately powerful piano track that one will hear as soon as they start IC, and will continue to hear throughout their short time experiencing it. While the soundtrack as a whole is marvelously fitting, there’s a certain quality which inspires many to cover this above the rest of its tracks (even on their phones, woah), which may even result with you hunting down its sheets. Lazily taking us through winter evenings is ‘あの頃のように’. ‘氷の刃’ serves as our dramatic track which is used nowhere near as it should for it’s really quite lovely in its own heavy, sombre way getting better as it progresses.
Its opening ‘届かない恋‘ performed by Uehara Rena is a midtempo number with yearning lyrics which I grew to love more with each listen, and is a great representation of the whole pop music getting sadder and more ambiguous thing. Perhaps for that reason, it’s sort of reached iconic status when it comes to eroge OPs, having more than four iterations I believe, with a fifth to come in the form of the anime’s OP. With a focus on music, it’s a shame that every other vocal song (and there are quite a few of them) failed to pack the same punch, with them being mostly forgettable. They don’t inspire anything. Our trio cover two key songs which were in the original WA but listening to them now, sound horribly dated full of irritating synths and engrishy backing vocals. It would have been better if they were given new arrangements because they just don’t make the transition to 2013, let alone 2010 when IC was first released. Apparently the original WA was set during the ’80s, so yeah, Leaf definitely achieved that feel of producing era specific songs which haven’t aged well in the slightest. While Setsuna’s vocals do their best to carry us through ‘WHITE ALBUM‘ along with Kazusa’s sax, it just doesn’t have the effect Leaf pushes for. Same could be said of ‘SOUND OF DESTINY‘ which sounds like something you’d hear as a BGM in a mid ’90s anime while characters are shopping. Such weak tracks nearly ruin what is otherwise a key scene for everyone nvolved.
IC is fully voiced, and this includes Haruki. This was a great move on Leaf’s behalf with Mizushima Takahiro (Flyable Heart’s Soryuu, Code Geass’ Rolo) bringing a sense of vitality and likability to his character that would have been lost if he were silent. For those who dislike hearing male voices in their porn games though, there is the option to hear only the female voices but to do so would really miss out. Nabatame Hitomi (Dies Irae’s Rea, Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi’s Miyuki) as Kazusa has a broad range, one that’s suited for Kazusa’s defrosting every step of the way. When Kazusa was curt Nabatame could freeze the air around her, and when she opens up the surroundings melt completely. Yonezawa Madoka’s (K-ON!’s Yui, Daitoshokan o Hitsujikai’s Tsugumi) singing voice as Setsuna, while listenable, had a welcome amateurish quality to it. You can believe that she does just spend her singing time at karaoke, and not vocal training lessons. Unfortunately, IC didn’t put her voice to good use instead throwing at her the aforementioned time capsule worthy songs. Her voice really shines through when she’s humming or singing to herself without an obnoxious overproduced backing track. Yonezawa’s regular voice suits Setsuna well, sounding like a normal girl.
Despite the ‘2’ slapped onto its title leading one to believe otherwise, WA2 is not a sequel to Leaf’s original WHITE ALBUM which debuted in ’98. Twelve years on, while they take place in the same universe watching or reading WA isn’t necessary to experience this. As far as I can tell, any references made are more like Easter eggs in the form of nods to the music careers of Ogata Rina and Morikawa Yuki. Their songs are sung, but that’s about as far as it goes. I haven’t touched the original WA and I don’t plan to, but it didn’t detract from my experience in any way. With the anime on the horizon, I imagine more people are drifting towards WA2 than before in an attempt to get it finished up before it starts airing. And more importantly, before the spoilers come rushing in because there always has to be one person who does that. Those needn’t be worried, for IC itself isn’t too long, and if you were in the mood to could easily finish it in one sitting. I finished IC within a day of reading it on and off quite comfortably, with it probably taking me about ten hours overall.
The system in general is quite comfortable with no bugs as far as I can tell. The snowflakes on the text box help craft a wintery ambiance, even if you’re reading this in August. On the main title screen, snow falls even as you’re listening to BGMs. The folders which you can see at the bottom of the screen allow for quick saving and loading, quickly and fluidly. The worst part of the system is where you’re forced to read on auto which can go quite slow, with no opportunity to catch up on the backlog. This proves especially taxing during the concert scene, where you try to concentrate on the text as well as what’s being said.
Considering that IC is a but a prologue to the main story, it’s completely linear with no choices. This means you more or less witness everyone screw up without having any input whatsoever, being powerless to stop the incoming trainwreck. If you have the full version of WA2 which contains both IC and CC, once the credits for IC roll you’re taken to CC. But, I’d advise you to read through IC once more making use of the skip function for there are a couple of new scenes. Those scenes manage to completely turn events on their head so I’d definitely recommend you do this.
Quite honestly, I didn’t expect to come away from IC with a such a warm overall impression. I expected my feelings on it as a whole to be as cool as the season WA2 is set during. For it to be the same contrived, terribly melodramatic rubbish that plague the romance genre, amounting to nothing but another notch on the proverbial bedpost that is the whole sad girls in the snow shtick. So I was surprised to be met with engaging and likable characters, an absorbing atmosphere, and something memorable. There are no subversions or plot tweeests pulled at the eleventh hour. Instead, what we have is simply a very good reinterpretation of a most basic formula. But it’s just so very effective it’s hard not to appreciate it.
So. I’ll see you when the anime airs, yeah? I’ll be sure to save you a seat. Now, if you’ll excuse me – it’s high time I dive right into CC, and I have no doubt it will live up to its glowing reputation. But since it’s like six times as long as IC don’t expect a review until closer to the time WA2 is set during.
Overall score: 84%
Company: Leaf (Utawarerumono, To Heart, Shizuku)
Writers: Maruto Fumiaki & Kikakuya (Sekai de Ichiban Dame na Koi, Parfait, Kono Aozora ni Yakusoku o)
Artist: Nakamura Takeshi (Tenshi no Inai 12-gatsu, Tears to Tiara’s PS3 version)
Release Date: March 26th, 2010
Genres: romance, drama
Links: official – getchu – vndb
Translation: technically, none – but expect interest to soar due to the anime effect
Recommended if fond of: simultaneously bitter yet tender depictions of first love and the effect it has on others, well written drama which doesn’t feel manipulative
^ this one contains spoilers for the entirety of Introductory Chapter, so tread carefully.