April’s fools

A review of the Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso anime series

I felt like a monster after the final episode of Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (Your Lie in April). The ending was always going to go one of two ways and I was braced for either one: agonising tears or delirious happiness. I certainly didn’t expect to feel nothing. All these other people gushing tears, drowning in hyperbole, and there I was, indifferent. I had cheered Kousei Arima on through the bright lights of stage performances and honey-lit afternoon walks home but in the denouement I realised that all the individual things that irked me about the series had gathered like so much detritus on a beach and was now spoiled.

he is lionised, an indestructible prodigy and a mountain that must be conquered

I knew what I was getting in to of course. Awash with pastel shades and misty eyed teenagers this was a romance series first and foremost with the “musician’s heart” narrative the tempo to the love story melody. Kousei starts out unable to play the piano, supposedly a prodigy from a young age, he is invited on a date by his best friend and serial flirt Ryouta where he meets the series’ poster child, Kaori Miyazono.

Her introduction could not be more precise: framed by cherry trees in full, luscious bloom she prances barefoot while tootling on a melodica for a trio of rapt children. She turns, a lion’s mane of hair bunched up into a ponytail and her eyes meet Kousei’s.

You can tell where this is going.

It’s a straightforward premise, admittedly one that’s played out with admirable verve and passion, meaning that by the midpoint of the twenty two episode runtime Kousei has come to terms with what was holding back his piano playing and he is, of course, totally smitten with this blonde force of nature that swept into his life. The issue with this premise, and one that I expressed concern about early on, is that Kaori embodies that most pernicious of tropes, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Her carefree attitude brings, quite literally, colour back into Kousei’s life and rekindles his prodigious talent as a classical pianist.

The keenest indicator of this is how little we know about her versus how much we know about him. It’s similar, though with an inverted viewpoint, to that of Ao Haru Ride where the male, tortured past and gloomy outlook is drawn into the technicolour light by the sheer force of presence of the female. Indeed it isn’t until the final episode that we learn anything that’s not superficial about Kaori, and by that point the second half of the series’ storyline has wrapped up making the revelations somewhat moot.

It’s impossible to speak about the remainder of the series and my concerns thereof without delving into spoilers so as always, fairly warned be thee.

Her illness, as foreshadowed as it is, is another point of contention because like her overtures towards Kousei it is given only the most perfunctory of explanations. I wasn’t looking for a full medical diagnosis, but the merest hints of its nature would have gone a long way to allaying my concern that just the fact that she is infirmed is enough for the story. In short: it doesn’t matter what she’s ill with, only that her time with Kousei is limited and ephemeral. This becomes especially blatant when Kousei’s piano teacher, Hiroko (sporting the wonderfully rich tones of Mie Sonozaki) muses that Kousei may need to “lose another person” for him to grow as a pianist. Death flags all around!

For the purposes of this review then let’s say Kaori was suffering from… scurvy.

I said that more is revealed about Kaori in the last episode which I would otherwise be thankful for, yet in a final, lamentable twist, it turns out that Kousei in fact inspired Kaori to take up violin so that she could play with with him. So not only is Kousei’s first recital responsible for inspiring his two greatest rivals, Emi and Takeshi, but also for the girl who falls in love with him, who later drags him out of his quagmire of emotions and lets him grow as a pianist. It was ultimately that realisation that stymied any tears in the last episode, that Kaori’s whole existence from childhood to eventual death was to enable Kousei to grow as a person and as a performer.

Make no mistake these issues are fundamental to the series and are the root of my discomfort with it as a whole, but they don’t lessen the moment to moment, episode to episode enjoyment. The grand prix may be discomfitting but the individual races are thrilling.

Especially so when Emi and Takeshi enter the frame and like champion race horses, they have to see the competition to truly compete. This gives their on stage performances the same narrative beats as that of a sports anime: the thrill of a rival, the tension before a match and the exhilaration of the performance. Indeed it’s the piano performances that stand out in what is already a superb musical score; the direction isn’t afraid to (sometimes) dial back the dialogue and endless introspection and let the sound of a piano played to perfection soak in. It is through these performances that the characters truly communicate and though each competition may stretch on for episodes at a time, diving and swirling around the backstory of each character, there is something thrilling about the simplicity of a musical score, a person and a piano.

Sure there are missteps: when characters in the audience claim that Kousei’s playing is soulful or angry or that he’s, ahem, “consuming the melody” I had to take it at face value. Having played piano in a past life I know when I hear good playing, but lack the experience or musical ignorance to scoff at such declarations. Elsewhere though the score by Masaru Yokoyama is uniformly superb with stirring melodies like “Yuujin A” (Friend A) sending a shiver down the spine, or the insert songs by ENA totally absorbing to say nothing of the first opening by Goose House which has me whistling it even now.

It’s a shame that the music plays second string to the romance because it’s by far the more interesting aspect to the series. Its wider remit with Emi, Takeshi and eventually Nagi means we get a different view of Kousei. One where he is lionised, an indestructible prodigy and a mountain that must be conquered; yet to see him falter and be consumed by doubt humanises him in the eyes of the audience and those who put such stock in him. It brings out the quiet strength of Emi and brassiness of Takeshi with all the sweat and tears and heartache in a way that only someone who knows music and knows performing and competing could possible write.

Helping this along is a fanatical devotion to the piano itself, lovingly rendered and impossibly shiny, it is as close to piano porn as you are likely to get with the hammers striking the strings with computer guided grace. To its credit the use of CG for the many pianists’ hands is a superb choice because it connects the playing to the music which is, by the nature of animation, always been difficult to achieve. It’s just one element of the series’ aesthetic though that has evidently had hours poured into every detail from the rain soaked city streets to the tree lined avenues around the school: this is a gorgeous series and one that pleasingly knows how to do visual comedy as much as it does agonised teenagers with tear streaked eyes.

In the end, I don’t regret watching Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso despite my reservations of it as a whole. I expect that taking it at face value - all fluttering cherry blossoms, cerulean skies and fireflies in an empty field - and not overthinking it (Oedipus complex Kousei, hmmm?) would leave you with a far better view of it. Despoiling something so visually arresting and that, when it comes down to it, has its heart in the right place feels a little like applying Freud to a children’s story, tainting it in the service of analysis. It is a rollercoaster of emotions be that elation when Kousei belts out a duet with Nagi, glee whenever Hiroko’s daughter Koharu is on screen, or sadness when Kousei comes to terms with his till then unresolved emotions. Heartfelt then, but foundationally flawed.

Responses to “April’s fools”

Early on, there's a scene where Kaori gets Kousei to play the piano for children. He initially refuses, and she kicks him under the table. He's not supposed to embarrass her. Such overt selfishness is actually rare. It's the seed for interesting character development, but it doesn't really grow into anything. It's the same selfishness her accompanyist ditches her for, yet all that amounts to in the end is an open slot for Kousei.

It's strange. The show is exposing her, isn't overtly siding with her, but still idealises her. It's as if Kousei himself wrote the story [i]before[/i] he got over his trauma.

The show is like that; it's got its heart in the right place, but messes up the exuction. Kousei's problem is that he can't face that his mother has done him wrong - guilt gets in the way. The show seems to have the same problem.

I see a similar problem in the treatment of music: the show's aware that there's more to music than participating in its instutionalised form, but in the end it takes for granted that competitions are where it's at.

I couldn't ignore the disturbing content, something I'm usually good at, because the show kept rubbing my face into its own failures. I enjoyed it when it was good, but there often was too much pathos, and its humour wasn't my thing. Scenes like Tsubaki sneezing while the audience held its breath were great. (And, yes, Koharu was adorable.) It's as if the show tries to force feed you emotion to distract you from its lack of a position on the social/psychological issues it raises.

Had it been bad, the show wouldn't have been so frustrating.
I've heard a lot of complaints from people saying that the series had too much emotion roiling through it. I can kind of see it but think it's because the emotions are always polar opposites. It's either walking-on-the-ceiling happy (coming to terms with his mother, playing for Kaori etc.) or woe-is-me sad (the day Kousei sees her in the hospital etc.) There's no middle ground where Kousei is between the two which means, like Angel Beats, it just ends up being fatiguing.

I hadn't thought of the series being told by Kousei though, it's an interesting slant and one that could chronologically work as there's a conspicuous winter period skipped over in that last episode that many people are claiming the announced OVA will cover and be a "miracle". Ahem. Being from Kousei's perspective would make the one-sidedness easier to understand I suppose.

As for the music, I don't think it swayed one way or another in terms of the message that competition is the only (or at least "best") form. It threatened to with Kousei's mother asking how he would support himself after she's gone (absent father), and the claims that they're musicians and this is how they cope, but it's never really borne out despite interesting characters like Nagi and Emi rumbling along.

Like you say, had it been outright bad/overbearing/saccharine it would be easier to dismiss, but the fact it gets a lot of other bits right ironically makes me sad that I couldn't unabashedly appreciate it. Ah well.
I didn't mean to say that competitive music is the only or best form for playing music. It's just that the show takes the institutional pressures for granted.

We start the show with Kousei transcribing music as a part time job. Here we have a damaged musician who can't hear his own playing (a rather severe trauma), who can't let go of music. Tsubake says at some time something to the effect that Kousei quitting music would
be fine if he had anything else. So Kousei has to get over his trauma. And because of the institutional context, there's a deadline: graduation.

That's a real problem. Institutional context broke his mother and in turn Kousei himself. The show's stick is to face the trauma in its context of origin, but forgets to give us much of a sense of what music actually means to him.

To put it mildly, to sign up someone who's been that traumatised for a competition is nuts. (Yes, that's putting it mildly.) This only works because of the safety net of competition show conventions. The idea that you take some stupid job and play music for your own enjoyment is completely off the chart, even as a temptation to be resisted. There's an implied progression from playing for kids to playing in front of a judging audience.

I don't think that's any sort of message, though. What I'm saying is that I feel the show is aware that competition isn't everything, but it doesn't know what to do with that knowledge, and as a result it plays the conventions straight.
Really sorry for letting this thread die, real-life encroaching etc.

Apologies for misconstruing your intent, I think I understand what you're saying now. I would maybe find the fault with your claim that institutional context broke his mother, or indeed Kousei, both were just the vehicle for the real crux behind both of their downfalls. In his mother's case the overbearing need for her to prepare her son for her departure, while Kousei's intermingling of mother/pain/music.

As for the alternate view you present - the playing music for your own enjoyment - I'm risking repeating myself in that the series doesn't specifically say that Kousei's choice to compete is better than other avenues, especially given his talent. In a sense him competiting is a requirement of the series in order for the drama to take place; by and large you can't focus a series or movie around music without a dramatic element to drive it, and most of the time that's competition (Whiplash does this in an atypical way). So whereas you're saying that the show isn't aware that competition isn't everything, I would say that it is, but by the nature of it telling a dramatic story, it isn't able to incorporate that view into the character set.

Does that make sense? Thoughts all over the place I'm afraid!
Don't worry about replying, when to reply. Yes, you're making perfect sense.

I agree with your first point, actually. It's fiendishly complex and not easy to separate the issues, even if only analytically for clarity. Kousei's mother is, in terms of plot, a very domineering figure. It's a bit like she's a godess, and Kaori is her avatar. And everything points towards competition as a medium. Plotwise, it makes sense:

- Kousei is going to be a pianist.
- If you're going to make money as a pianist, you need to compete with the very best. Otherwise, you'll need a supplemental job.
- To get the proper education (and in turn connections), you need to be accepted by prestiguous schools.
- The gateway is competitions.
- If Kousei doesn't become a pianist, what else will he do with his life?

This is the sort of pressure that broke Kousei's mother, and she passes it on:

- If only I practise hard enough, Mom will become better.

Kousei's reason, from that point on, is at odds with his mothers reason for pushing him this hard. For Kousei, winning competitions is no longer just about music, not even about a music career; it's about saving his mother. It's a fool's errand, of course, but that's what it boils down to.

Now, he'll have to get back into instutional context, but with a clearer mind. And that's what the show's about: Kousei's rehabilitation. He's getting better, right?

But at this abstraction level, it's not about music. It could be about, say, theoretical maths (with limited university posts). Anything with a narrow bottleneck will do. But math won't allow for Kaori. There's no performance math. You can't deviate from formulae the way you can deviate from the score. Math isn't personal at all.

Kaori's first public performance also takes place during a competition. But her goal is just to perform. She knows she's not going to win the way she's playing. But if you're not playing to win, what's the point of entering a competition? She loses her accompanyist over this (and who can blame the accompanyist). And she pisses off popmpous Mr. Competitons-Are-Sacred.

Is it to give the finger to the establishment?

I don't know, and the show doesn't care. It's the first step towards Kousei's rehabilitation. Because he needs a future as a pianist, and time is tight. Kaori's accompanyist abandoning her is relevant mostly because it leaves an opening for Kousei (and it's not impossible, considering the letter, that this was a calculated move by Kaori).

In the end, we end up with the same old anime success story. I succeed by trying hard, and I can try hard because I'm part of something bigger, with music being a careless formula insert. The problem in this particular context though, is that "trying hard" has led to trauma; a literal alienation: music as a chore, rather than as something you want to do. Music as an ineffective means to an end. This isn't something you can power through. You have to reconnect. "Everyone's listening," is cheap.

Now, normally I wouldn't mind. But in this case playing to the tune of that tried-and-true myth has the side-effect of encouraging a harmful view of trauma, in a social context that views mental problems as an embarassment and inherently personal. You just don't complain.

As for your second point: I disagree. I've layed out above what role I think competition plays in the plot; it's not an important role, but it doesn't drive the conflict.

How often, during the show, have you been thinking "Oh, will he win?" Me? Not once. I've usually been thinking "Will he play?" And if you're dramatising *that* question, a competition is really a distraction.

Again, competition is an important plot element. Ignoring it wouldn't have been good, either. But the way the show used competition didn't add conflict; it just upped the anguish-content of existant conflict, turning drama into melodrama. At the cost of trauma-plausibility. It felt exploitative, come to think of it.

Instead of finding an alternative to the competition setting, they could have toned down the trauma. That might have worked, too. But the combination left a bad taste in my mouth.
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