Anime is absolutely incredible, both visually and in what stories are told. The opening to Those Snow White Notes has some of the most beautiful animation that I would never even imagine myself, this soft gust blowing gently falling snowflakes into a dance. I’ve seen that, but I would never think to draw it. And the story is so simple that it seems like you could never make a whole show of it: a young man’s grandfather was a master of an outdated instrument, he knows how to play it but doesn’t know how to play it without his grandfather’s guidance… he has to find his own style now.
That’s it. That’s the show and it’s emotional and beautiful and complicated. And it is a perfect stand-in for what my experience with Muay Thai has been, is, and will be. I idolize the styles and movements and charisma of Legends, but imitation is not art. Reading music and playing the notes on the page is a form of being a musician, but the exclusion of expression within that makes it, well, kind of meaningless. If I can impersonate Dieselnoi or Karuhat, that takes skill and understanding. But if I’m not expressing myself in that same process, am I even really part of Muay Thai? They are. They are the stuff of magic and they stand above others for this reason, because they are expressing who they are with their movements, choices, aggression, feints. You can look at a blurry or grainy image of a fight and recognize them through the distortion, just like you know Freddie Mercury’s voice even through a crackling radio. You can sing the same words, memorize the song, even pantomime his stage theatrics… but you’ll never be Freddie because only he is.
This is a terrifying prospect, and it’s a terrifying and humiliating, dejecting experience for the protagonist of the show. He loves his grandfather’s sound. He learned how to play, has talent, but can only approximate the sounds and stories his grandfather pulled through the air out of his instruments’ strings in improvisational performance. As his grandfather is dying, he tells his grandson – the protagonist – that if he can’t find his own style he should stop playing the instrument. Don’t try to be me, he is saying, find you. It’s devastating, especially when one’s own idol, hero, and teacher is telling you, “this is as far as I can take you.” The protagonist is ashamed a lot. He’s afraid of playing a song “wrong” or being unable to do it justice because his respect for his grandfather and his love for him is so strong. Fuck… me too. I know I can’t tear through space like Dieselnoi or melt around weapons like Karuhat; my approximations are out of love and respect for them and they are directly my teachers, but I don’t even dare to try to be them. But am I trying to be myself? I mean, really. Truly. What I love about them is their expression of themselves, which I’ve come to understand backwards: you hear the song and it’s the most beautiful thing, and then you get to know the person and realize how much the song is them. Rather than I love this person so I love their art, kind of deal.
Standing in the ring with Hippy Singmanee (it was here), one of the smallest and most expressive fighters of the Golden Age, I watched him sway his shoulders as he started to tell me a story. Hippy’s smile is bigger than he is, somehow. It projects beyond the width of his face in a kind of Cheshire illusion. And he’s the most confident man I’ve ever met, but not in an obnoxious way, more like he absolutely deserves every drop of confidence he has. He’s starting to move, bouncing his front leg, this 5 foot and some change rocket imitating the 6 foot 1 tower of Dieselnoi. “I watched Pi Doi and would steal from him,” he said. “I stole from every opponent I ever had,” he added.
I picture this like Rogue’s superpower, absorbing the powers of her foes and friends, using them as she can. But when Hippy did it, he took nothing from the source, he copied it rather than absorbing it. But it was to alchemize into his own expression, it was his version of any of those things, even though watching him now I can see the influence. You hear a guitar riff and think of Zeppelin rather than playing the actual chords in the same progressions of a song. You might start that way, but imitation becomes influence, I guess.
I don’t know what I’ll look like, ultimately. The protagonist in the show doesn’t know what he’ll sound like. He isn’t sure what he wants to say, but everyone who watches him goes slack-jawed and is moved in some way by his abilities. He can’t see them, because he’s only imagining his grandfather. This show feels like a warning to me, as well as a lesson. I don’t know. But I believe that I will… eventually.
you can watch the first episode of Those Snow White Notes here