White Album: The Winter of Our Discontent

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過ぎてゆく季節に 置いてきた宝物
大切なピースの欠けた パズルだね
白い雪が街に 優しく積もるように
アルバムの空白を全部 埋めてしまおう

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There’s no season quite like winter. Feeling a chill air whip past, seeing the first flurries of snow dancing in the air, gingerly treading on frost-covered paths… Such is the splendour of an ethereal season with glistening landscapes doomed to fade, suggestive and poignant imagery providing inspiration for as long as humanity has felt the urge to create. Otaku media is by no means exempt with seasonal titles an ero market staple once we drift ever-closer towards the year’s end. While this trend has yielded many of the medium’s most cherished titles, one of the more notorious series would no doubt be Leaf’s White Album. First debuting in 1998, it has since managed to warm the hearts of countless readers through painful portrayals of love triangles which extends to its spiritual sequel, White Album 2 (2010). It is no secret that I hold the latter close to my heart, and while connections between the two are tenuous at best I had always wondered what may have specifically spurred Fumiaki Maruto on into creating such a behemoth. Earlier work Sekai de Ichiban Dame na Koi (2007) provided a relatively solid framework, but as the colder months began to quietly settle in this year, marked by a shift to woollen scarves and warmer drinks being bought, my mind once again drifted to what even lurked behind that. Curiosity eternally getting the better of me, I decided if I were to experience White Album in any shape or form, it would be through its 2010 remake. Initially released for the PS3, Tsuzurareru Fuyu no Omoide boasts a number of attractive bells and whistles including the same motion portrait system WA2’s ports employ, voice acting, updated art, adjustments to the simulation system, and an entirely new route. Parts have also been significantly rewritten to reflect these changes. Phew!

The curtain opens on university student Touya and burgeoning starlet Yuki in a visibly strained relationship, what ought to be a blossoming love story on the verge of decay. As a result of Yuki’s increasingly hectic schedule meetings between the two have dwindled, purely left up to whims of fate. In order to account for a plausible lack of communication, the remake has been retroactively situated during the ‘80s leaving interactions reduced to letters hastily shoved through the door and impromptu phone calls. The foundation upon which their relationship is so precariously built conjures up those awkward moments where life simply gets in the way sometimes, a sentiment which rings true no matter which era you happen to be living through. Exchanges are peppered with apprehensive how-are-you’s and gosh-sorry-I’m-working-but-let’s-meet-up-next-time oh-goodness-no-it’s-fine-honestly-I-was-busy-anyway’s. Yet despite the numerous obstacles preventing their meeting, Touya attempts to convince himself that it’s difficult to feel lonely when he is forever seeing Yuki’s sweet face adorning posters, hearing her voice drift past… That cannot be further from the truth, of course. He misses her desperately. She sings her heart out about not being able to meet him. And so our stage is set for a heartwarming tale of lovers reconciling, their warmth melting a bitterly cold winter.

However.

Yuki is just one of the heroines here.

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Ostensibly, their intertwined narrative proposes an end rather than a beginning, aggressively defying the pure love conventions which the medium so often adheres to, rigidly with no room for negotiation. Considering that WA was released during an era where romantic VNs were beginning to gain traction, it serves as a highly audacious project that emerged in response to an increasingly diverse consumer market. Such an aspect is certainly deserving of praise for if it had been produced by a different company, Yuki and Touya’s relationship would have surely ended in high school, a realm which the medium has taken to romanticising with the first relationship being the only one that appears to matter. A trail of ellipses fading into the future would have followed their obligatory confession, the reader assuming that they lived happily ever after for that’s how these things must go lest its very foundation disintegrates. Yet in direct opposition to such a quaint model, WA takes place while Yuki and Touya are enrolled in university, long after they have gotten together – in fact, the only route in which their relationship endures is during Yuki’s own. But she is a character that is forever described in terms of her innocent smile, the unassuming sweetheart who dresses down whenever she’s out of the studio. Compared to the other heroines she is not painted as a conventionally desirable woman, serving the role of the unwaveringly loyal ingénue despite her idealistic profession. She is stability. She is the pure love model. In light of all that Yuki epitomises it is worth noting that Hirano Aya voiced her in the remake, certainly suggestive of the roles in which the industry had taken to boxing Hirano into before the scandal rendered her unmarketable in the eyes of otaku. In the blink of an eye, as quick as it took irate fans to destroy her merchandise, she was no longer fit to voice a heroine like Yuki. That’s the type of figure we’re dealing with here.

You would quite naturally anticipate WA to be a thoroughly gut-wrenching affair, emotionally exhausting even as you bear witness to Touya straying further and further from his high school sweetheart with you of course being the instigator actively encouraging his infidelity, the story rewarding him. I expected it to provide an observable trajectory which would extend to WA2’s fraught psychological explorations of its characters, bridging the DameKoi gap. It would be considered a classic for a reason, after all. Yet despite all that its existence belies you are only offered the barest of psychological sketches; a detached and often cold product where characters are reduced to distant objects to be systemically pursued. Unlike Haruki’s agonizingly humane emotions that leave you supporting him all the while, his predecessor Touya is opaque, mental ministrations shrouded in impervious darkness. He ultimately serves as a transparent proxy for the reader’s desires, possessing no hobbies of his own (you of course choose whether he is an avid reader or into sports when prompted, since he couldn’t possibly speak for himself), woefully ignorant of the world around him; social intelligence non-existent. Touya is widely considered to be a notorious figure up there with Kimi ga Nozomu Eien (2001) and School Days’ (2005) protagonists so I must admit that I did expect him to be infuriating, albeit sympathetic to a degree much like Haruki. Yet I have no idea who he really is despite viewing events through his perspective. What a disturbing thing to say.

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Touya’s personality (or lack thereof) is an unfortunate repercussion of WA’s structure due to utilizing a dating simulation progression as opposed to a more traditional ADV-driven method of storytelling. There is no common route to speak of, what ought to constitute as heroine routes consisting of compulsory events which take place sparingly over four in-game months. It is only during these events where you gain insight to Touya’s psyche as the bulk of the scenario takes the form of a monotonous daily schedule. To encounter another character you must travel to their location where a brief conversation will be initiated, drawing on five selectable topics. If you’re lucky enough this may lead to an event but most of the time it won’t, dooming you to that repetitious system where countless in-game days are spent impatiently scanning the map in hopes that your chosen heroine will finally appear. At best it’s a system which faithfully captures the tedious minutiae of everyday life, at worst incredibly isolating through only focusing on Touya’s systematic pursuit with little else mattering. You may spend two in-game weeks waiting for an event but not once will Touya reflect on what has happened in his own time, not once will he consult another (or even engage them in a conversation), resulting in a bizarrely fragmented experience which distances the reader emotionally. As there is little in the way of content WA mostly comes across as an unfinished draft, a half-baked creation where its writers felt compelled to boast about all the magnificent turning points yet failed to account for what took place between them.

There is little context offered to Touya navigating his supposedly fraught interpersonal relationships, little incentive for you to care despite all that is at stake. Poor sweet little Yuki may be his lover but it is a role through and through as you rarely get glimpses of the figure lying beneath that cloyingly vestal façade designed to appeal. She proves to be as unfamiliar a figure as the characters whom Touya meets for the very first time, and it’s something which unfortunately applies to most of the cast. Even when routes do teeter on the edge of emotional resonance, immersion fades as it once again falls prey to the structure. Had WA employed a more traditionally fleshed out method of storytelling I could have easily seen myself taken with the characters’ struggles for it’s not as if the material is that bad, really – there is just never enough to support what happens. Misaki’s route would exemplify the work’s issues: she is essentially Chiaki’s prototype, all love for the stage but without the Machiavellian orchestrations. Following several fragmented events she eventually succumbs to Touya’s advances and is weighed down by guilt, yet her subsequent wailing about being the absolute worst rarely comes across as convincing for they just don’t spend enough time together. You don’t know enough about them to care and being merely presented with a situation, a vague outline, is not enough. Just as her route finally grabs your attention, it’s back to counting down the days until she stops avoiding Touya.

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Contrary to all that I expected, the one route which made for a relatively enjoyable experience proved to be the remake-exclusive Sayoko’s. Whoever took charge of her route notably sidestepped the issues which the others were plagued with, instead utilizing a continuous narrative that only momentarily pauses in order to make way for the daily structure. It is nowhere near as isolated, involving the rest of the cast from the beginning while a pleasant rapport between Touya and Sayoko emerges. To that end, WA has earned a reputation for delving into the intricacies of the entertainment industry yet it keeps you at arm’s length, Yuki and Rina’s positions as starlets unconvincing, merely serving as window dressing to accentuate the distance. Yet Sayoko’s route actively involves Touya from the very beginning, the industry relevant from beginning to end in a way that, for a work of this level at least, comes across as convincing. Her route ultimately serves as a wistful glimpse into all that WA could have been. In general the text itself is serviceable, albeit with some conspicuously atmospheric depictions that appear during turning points. Initially I thought that I would have preferred if the writing as a whole had been like that, but on further reflection it would not matter much in the greater scheme of things as the structural issues would still persist, possibly hampering any potential enjoyment even more.

As it stands, White Album may boast a considerably ambitious premise yet the haphazard plotting which surfaces due to the irritating structure prevents it from ever truly materializing. Given its supposed reliance on the human condition, a scenario of this level ought to have been unremittingly emotional, barely suppressed, propelled by the strength of its superb character writing. Life moves on with its painful experiences becoming yet another page in your life’s album that you look back on a bittersweet expression. A classic in every sense of the term. However in this case it is arguable whether merely presenting ideas is good enough when it results in such a fragmentary and cold experience. That aside I do not regret my time spent with WA as I was able to finally observe the groundwork upon which White Album 2 had been built. I can see now that Fumiaki Maruto filled in the noticeable gaps through fully fleshing out his cast, rendering their circumstances worthy of pity even in the face of disrupting the established order and making an enemy of the world; all that is good and just. It is everything that WA ought to have been: contentious, volatile, but never forgettable.

As an aside, if you happen to be a WA2 fan wondering if you should take a look at its precursor, I would personally advise against it. Instead, it might be worth checking out the richly animated adaptation. While I never thought much of it (partially due to how much I loathed Touya), I recently rewatched several episodes and was taken aback at how much had been altered – for the better, I might add! Chances are if there was something you liked about the anime, it wasn’t present in the VN. Ironically enough it’s the VN that ends up feeling like a quick and dirty cash-in…

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Studio: Leaf (Utawarerumono, Tenshi no Inai 12-gatsu, White Album 2)
Scenario: Harada Woodal (To Heart), Takebayashi Akihide (To Heart, Tasogare), Suzumoto Yuuichi (Clannad, Air), Marui Takeshi (Routes, Tears to Tiara), Makura Nagare (To Heart 2, Tears to Tiara)
Graphics: Kawata Hisashi (To Heart, To Heart 2, Routes)
Release Date: May 01st, 1998 / June 24th, 2010
Genres: romance, drama
Links: OfficialVNDB
Recommended if fond of: romantic dramas set during the colder months

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