Anime Review #69: Your Lie In April

While planning out the dates of what post I should write about this year, I noticed that one of my posts fell on 6 December, the traditional feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra, a Catholic bishop best known as either the “guy who gives you presents”, or the “guy who slapped heretical priest Arius in Nicaea”. It’s also the date following when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the author of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and a score of other operas, symphonies, concertos and beautiful settings of the Catholic Mass, died 330 years ago in Vienna. In light of this fitting date, I slotted in an anime with classical music at its center, Your Lie In April, or as I like to call it: Peter Schaefer’s Amadeus, but with teenagers and a reverse outcome. It was one of the last episodic shows that I watched in the closing months of 2020, before Hyouka took the final spot, and a series which, contrary to most other watchers’ experiences, I didn’t shed a single tear at even at its many pivotal moments.

YOUR LIE IN APRIL

Something something pianos, violins, music, and Mozart

Your Lie In April, or, if you want to refer to it by its Japanese title Shigatsu Wa Kimi No Uso, made its anime breakthrough over the span of October 2014 to March 2015, directed by former Fairy Tail and Psycho Pass director Kyohei Ishiguro. It was the first anime series that went fully under his supervision. Originally, it came in the form of a manga by Naoshi Arakawa from 2011 which consisted of 11 volumes, which critics attacked as flat, generic, way too adult and void of any raw moments.

In contrast, the anime adaptation, coming from the same studio that directed the Sword Art Online franchise as well as Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (allegedly another tear-jerker type of story), Black Butler, and eventually Kaguya-sama: Love Is War, is widely considered a classic by both critics and fans, by taking everything that Arakawa’s manga had, and complimenting the strong visuals, character dynamic and source material with its soundtrack and added emotional effects. The impact of the anime left such a deep impression on the story from a public perspective, that a live-action film was released in 2016 and plans are in the works to release a stage musical in May 2022.

PLOT

Arima Kousei is a student at Sumiya Junior High with a dark, tragic past. At a young age, he was recognized as a piano prodigy and participated in many musical competitions, winning awards and being envied by peers like Emi and Takeshi. The joy he found in piano, however, took a dark turn when his mother suffering from terminal cancer, begins to physically abuse him during practice sessions; berating him for mistakes other rational people would consider minor, and implementing a rigorous schedule that left him with no life and no talents outside of the piano. When his mother dies, he is taken in by fellow pianist Hiroko as a guardian, and spirals into a depression which significantly muffles his musical ability and forces him into practically an early retirement. Thanks to his extremely isolated childhood, he only has two friends: softball player Tsubaki Sawabe and football star Ryota Watari, who also attend the same school as him.

Fun fact: this duet performs only three times in the entire series. Embrace each one of those.

One April afternoon; he meets a girl, who he describes as strange, named Kaori Miyazono playing A Morning Slag In The Ravine from Castle In The Sky, and despite the former’s insistence she drags him, along with Tsubaki and Watari, who she claims to have a crush on, to the community hall where she is set to perform in a musical competition, where she stuns the audience and judges with her rendition of a Beethoven violin sonata. Kousei’s interest in her is sparked thanks to this, and to his surprise she reciprocates it, and appoints him to be her journeyman – it’s here that his world changes from the dreary one he drew in his head to full of colour and life. They take part in competition after competition where Kousei slowly begins to free himself from his traumas, and develop a musical style of his own. He later discovers Kaori to be a genuinely interesting person and spends more time with her much to Tsubaki’s chagrin, and becomes the teacher and role model for Nagi, the younger sister of one of his rivals.

Unfortunately, just as she did in a previous performance, Kaori collapses at her home, and is rushed to the hospital where it is discovered that she suffers from an unknown (and even to this day, disputed among fans) medical condition which causes her to have very weak muscles, preventing her from attending school, doing jam sessions or having some alone time with Kousei. She dies after a failed medical operation to save her muscles while in the midst of Kousei’s performance of Chopin, visually depicted as a requiem of sorts to her. Months pass, and Kousei continues to move on from Kaori’s death; he receives a letter from Kaori’s parents which show that it was him who spurred a love of music inside her, borne from a chance encounter at one of the musical competitions he performed in the past, reminiscences their time together, and confesses that she really loved him all this time, and not Watari as she maintained that fateful April day.

“One day, I met a really weird violinist. She was outrageous, self-righteous to a degree; but her smile is really angelic. Sure, she dragged me back to the stage with kicks, punches and wails, but it was worth it because I saw something that I could never have imagined seeing. It’s my hope that I see that sight again. Therefore: (see the above image)”

WHAT I LIKED

  • The visuals, are of a different style than most anime nowadays, and that’s a good thing. It reminds me of the direction of style taken by post-2010 KyoAni flicks. The backgrounds are not only beautifully drawn, but at times very expressive and tell you how you ought to feel during the scene. Kaori’s a good example of this – when she’s lively, having fun, or performing she’s bright and dandy, and the visuals blend in well with this; after episode 14, she begins to lose that color, and everything around her matches that shade, reflecting her declining health and the story’s sudden change in emotion.
  • The story’s pacing gets credit for sticking to one central focus and only that: Kousei and Kaori’s duet through music, and their journey through life – or, in the latter’s case, what’s left of it she has. There’s enough room to fit in the main plot, additional side conflicts such as Tsubaki’s feelings for Kousei, or exploring the ambitions of Kousei’s rivals Emi and Takashi’s, without compromising what it’s all about: one man’s journey to self-discovery and redemption.
  • The parts where Kousei, Emi, Takeshi, Nagi and Kaori make their performances, mixing it in with their own personal monologues enhanced the motif of music as a means of expression rather than solely for performances or as a background article. It’s the equivalent of anime battle scenes where the characters try to interlude their thoughts and strategies amongst themselves, which if you put it this way makes sense in context since the musical competitions they are in do serve as that kind of playing field.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

  • One thing that bothered me was how Hiroko acted as a bystander in scenes where Kousei’s mother abuses him, as in episode 9. She rarely makes an attempt to discipline the latter, point out why she’s in the wrong, or deflect against her fear of Kousei’s future. Rather than get scenes of her speaking out against the cruelty, at most we only get places of her in flashback where she encourages Kousei’s mother to raise him as a prodigy. I get that she’s her friend and all and that she rightfully regrets her proximate cooperation in her reveling rage, but somehow it’s a surprise that Kousei doesn’t hold a grudge against her for her inactivity.
  • Near the end we are introduced to Nagi, Hiroko’s piano student and the younger brother of Kousei’s rival Takeshi, who later ends up under Kousei’s tutelage. I never understood why her character had to exist, nor what her overall purpose was in the story when we already have Kaori to serve as Kousei’s driver to get him set on his musical path. The impact she had was practically zero and ironically enough, despite her portrayal as a character who hates clichés, her character is literally the definition of that. This arc was just pointless and in my opinion, offered nothing more of particularly essential importance.
  • This is one of those shows where the attempts to convey humor just doesn’t work. It’s fine to have parts which occasionally interrupt the mood and allow the character to engage in self-reflection, but the way this series does it, by having the art style transform into chibi versions of themselves really feels off. Your Lie In April is meant to be a series that’s taken seriously, all the more because of the deeper meanings to it, and having this feature dampens that. Sometimes the emotional parts are interrupted by these scenes, and it really breaks the mood and makes it feel discordant than it should be.

CHARACTERS

Critics noted the characters as one of the best part of the series for being realistic, easy to relate with and beautifully crafted. In a sense, this is true; characters like Kousei’s childhood friends Tsubaki and Watari, and the accomplished pianist Hiroko, although they were secondary characters, their feelings were real, and the story was explored from their point of view at times which helped to justify their responses and actions to a certain extent. However it can’t be helped that at times they felt like plot devices, as in their interventions really only serving to support rather than influence the story’s direction as a whole. The plot device feature is more glaring to his fellow musicians Emi, Takeshi and Nagi. Yes, their backstory is explored, namely their indirect admiration of Kousei, and their musical performances drive their passions and emotions, but that’s about all they have to offer, and truth be told I didn’t really remember them as much once the final episode rang about.

In contrast, Kaori and Kousei’s relationship and its depiction is taken up a notch compared to the others. They’re the bread and butter of Your Lie In April and the central focus of the story, so it’s normal that their relationship is explored in great detail. On one hand, their personalities are way off-center from each other; Kaori is free-spirited and very emotive with her convictions, while Kousei is rigid and socially awkward. The story succeeds in marketing their relationship through two ways: by keeping them only as friends rather than the obvious route of lovers (at least until the end), this allows more room to explore their personalities, backgrounds and impact each other. Second of all, where they lack in a common personality, they make up for it through reciprocating each other’s soul and charm. Kaori’s attitude leaks onto Kousei and is instrumental (no pun intended) in restoring life into his eyes, and maturing as a person as a result. He reciprocates this by finding her as his musical inspiration, and all those hours putting up with her end up with him letting go of his horrible past and chasing for what’s to come, rather than dwelling on the former.

Kousei’s character arc added a dark touch lingering above what’s otherwise a safe series. If you’re a (God forbid) victim of childhood abuse, this might be hard to sit through for you.

Great and all, but its flaw lies in that even though they share lots of screen time together, their friendship does seem a tad-bit one sided towards Kaori’s favor at times. Kousei never opens up about why he quit music initially to Kaori, which would have been a good setup for the two to grow closer and instigate a process of healing; instead he has to discover it on his own. Kaori on the other hand acts very bold and brash at times, by pressuring him to restart his music without a second thought, and it’s lucky that he’s such a wimp that he won’t dare to lift a finger against her; the literal example of why “opposites never attract” in real life.

Overall; Kousei and Kaori were alright, and literally the best way I can describe it is akin to Salieri and Mozart from Amadeus minus the jealousy, rage, financial debt, religious overtones and the latter’s obnoxious donkey laugh. Other characters get a plus for being more than what’s there on face value.

MUSIC

Although I’m not a fan of romantic-era music, preferring the orchestral works of the classical period or the regal pieces from during the baroque days, I still appreciate the choice and the consistency in musical styles they chose for it, which include but are not limited to miscellaneous works by Beethoven, Chopin, Saint-Saens, and Rachmaninov amongst others. As for the opening and ending songs, this is one of the shows where both ending pieces, Kirameki by Wacci and Orange by the group 7!! outshone the introductory pieces by being diverse in performance and emotionally evoking to the main arc of the show; one by being lively, like a walk in the park to demonstrate Kousei and Kaori’s musical journey together, and the other representing hopeful and redemptive in the impact they had on each other. They say music speaks volumes, and it’s these pieces which drive that point home for this show.

FAVOURITES

Favourite character: Kaori Miyazono is to this film what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is to Amadeus; a fun-loving yet musically gifted individual who hopes to share her musical accompaniments to the world around her. There’s no denying that without someone like her, Your Lie In April would have lost its substance and thus, making her effectively the star of the show.

Favourite musical performance: Kaori’s performance in episode 2 and the ecstatic reaction from the crowd gets this spot mainly because of how unexpected it was. One could see how her passion overwhelmed the crowd, how she utilized the energy of her passion and turned it into the source of her musical experience – the perfect antithesis of other classical musicians from her grouping. It’s a great surprise and a forerunner to what’s coming next.

Favourite episode: Episode 9-10 is the one I remembered best because it explored Kousei’s dark past, his strained relationship with his mother and eventually, the redemption he gains from the subsequent performance. His character transforms here in this pivotal episode, as he symbolically rejects the greyness of his mother’s abuse and embraces music for what it is.

Favourite quote: Somehow this line from episode 4 has always managed to stick in my head, courtesy of Kaori:

Mozart’s watching from above. He’s saying, “Go on a journey! Those who are away from home need feel no shame. Get out there and go crazy!”

Kaori’s encouragement to Kousei prior to their episode 4 duet

CONCLUSION

Your Lie In April is a show that’s loved by a lot of people. It consistently scores high audience rankings, runs into multiple people’s watch lists, and is cited as one of the top anime of the 2010s. For me, I think a lot of the hype is purely based on emotional factors rather than viewing it as a masterpiece from a content-based view. Granted, the visual content is age-appropriate and the overall message was easy to discern: a type of “If you live just to satisfy others, you’ll never get where you want to be in life” kind of thing, and this is best seen through Kaori and Kousei’s relationship dynamic, how it affected him and his growth, and the improvement that follows. But as to the things regarding the choice of music – again, that’s just me and my musical bias speaking here – and also the poorly-timed comedy inserts: I feel Your Lie In April can only take in so many elements in that many episodes – if these were changed around a bit, I might dare say this series was perfect.

SCORE: 7/10

“My life changed after that. One moment, I was a frustrated young boy in an obscure Japanese town; next thing I knew, I was here, playing music in front of hundreds once more.”

4 thoughts on “Anime Review #69: Your Lie In April

  1. See, Your Lie in April is one that I feel like I should have watched at some point, but I refuse to watch it because I’m really not a fan of these kinds of series people tout as great tearjerkers. I was spoiled on the ending anyway, but even then that wouldn’t normally prevent me from watching a show (it’s about the trip there more than the destination, that kind of idea.) I’m just not usually looking for tragedy and heartbreak and all that “lost love” stuff when I’m watching anime, even if the ending is on the positive side. But it’s only this particular kind that puts me off for some reason, because I’ll gladly watch other series where people die tragically and so on. Maybe the problem really is that I was spoiled on it, actually? Not sure.

    So I’m willing to say Your Lie in April is probably good but that I’ll never see it myself. Too bad, since that Romantic era music is my favorite out of all the movements people usually lump into the broad “classical” category — Chopin and Tchaikovsky are my absolute favorites, though I can also appreciate the great Baroque and Classical work we have.

    No big loss, though. I know very well that life is a vale of tears (one point our faiths absolutely agree upon) and I don’t need to be reminded of it. In the end, the fact that I won’t watch this stuff probably says more about me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair enough, we all have our own reasons to ignore a particular series. Case in point, to this day because of a certain someone from high school’s admiration for a certain character from Bleach, I refuse to watch or even associate with anything from that show. I too was spoiled by how Kaori ended up, so it came down for me to see how they treated her character’s life up until the end. Spoiler alert: it’s nothing like what happened in Amadeus. 😉

      On another note, while you bring up music: if we’re talking secular works I’ll take anything from 1600-1850, and anything from 1850-1970 is my threshold for religious works 😊 Never found any joy in the late 19th century pianists, and even my old piano teacher realized this…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha, just the opposite for me. My teacher had to tell me I couldn’t just play Chopin and Liszt, that I had to focus on basics sometimes (aka keep playing those Czerny piano exercises I found boring.) Well, she had a point. And guys like Bach and Handel deserve more attention as well.

        As for my own cutoff point in terms of time, I don’t have one for music broadly, but I’m not a fan of modern classical at all. Tried listening to Schoenberg, and I decided that atonal stuff is just not for me. I have to throw it in the same category as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko for the visual arts — maybe there’s something here since people seem to love it, but I don’t see or hear what they do.

        And regarding Bleach — somehow I’ve never seen it, and I certainly never will, but I know what you mean about avoiding a work based on personal feelings like that. I have a few of those feelings myself.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Your piano teacher was right. Not only is understanding the basics important but those exercises also make for a good warmup before you play a piece. But yeah modern classical never stuck with me, unless if you include movie orchestrals which are about as close as they can be to those of old.

        Liked by 1 person

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