The first anime I watched this year and thus the first completed for my 2016 challenge. Today I share my thoughts on a story about a pianist, the girl he met under the full-bloom of Spring, and how music can change lives.
Title: Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (Your lie in April)
Original airing: Oct 10, 2014 – March 20, 2015
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Duration: 22 minutes/episode
Genres: Shounen, Drama, Music
Based on the manga: Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso by Naoshi Arakawa
Where I watched: Netflix (English subtitles and dub available)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions:
Kousei Arima was a genius pianist until his mother’s sudden death took away his ability to play. Each day was monotone for Kousei, but when he meets a violinist named Kaori Miyazono who has an eccentric playing style, his monotonous life begins to take on color.
When I first read the synopsis, I felt a bond with the characters described. It was their passion for classical music that thrust me back to my youth; back to the days when I played violin (through the later half of elementary and all through middle school). Though I was, and still am, very much an amateur, I will always carry a special appreciation for classical music. So based on this premise alone, I was already intrigued. Adding to that was the idea that a young pianist (Kousei), who suddenly finds himself detached from the very talent he spent years cultivating, could become inspired by someone who is unlike himself to re-enter the world he left behind. This seemed like it would be an uplifting, albeit tame, slice-of-life narrative.
While my very simple expectation was met, in a way, what I got out of this series was far more. I will try my best to keep this review spoiler free, but bear in mind there are aspects of this series that make it memorable which will not be apparent at just a surface view.
The story begins like a typical slice-of-life plot in which a modest boy, Kousei, attends middle school with two of his lifelong friends. Though he was a child prodigy, he hadn’t played the piano since the day his mother died of an unnamed illness. Two years later, he has a chance meeting with the effervescent Kaori, which ultimately leads to him reluctantly attending her violin competition one afternoon. Here we get the first glimpse of how Kaori’s strong personality and determination will become the catalyst that guides Kousei back into the world of music he abandoned.
The story focuses mostly on Kousei’s perceptions and how they are influenced and shaped by Kaori’s words, actions, and unconventional approach to music. His inadequacies, both self imposed and otherwise, are frequently highlighted to give insight into his feelings and motivations. The episodes appear to split their time between Kousei’s inherent need to constantly analyze himself and the events that move the story along. This method of storytelling allows viewers to better interpret the character’s emotional state. By getting inside their head, we are able to understand the characters from a first person view as they try to navigate the often confusing paths that they find themselves on.
Given that the word “lie” is in the title, it is unsurprising that lies become a central theme in this anime. As the series progresses, viewers are made aware of several small lies (and one central one). Being privy to some of the characters’ internal thoughts, viewers become aware that some lies told are not only to deceive others but is also a way for the characters to deceive themselves. Painted as “truth” and repeated to themselves, these lies appear to be a way for the character to find comfort (eg: “Nothing is wrong with me. I’m absolutely fine”) and cope with the world around them. This switch between first and third person narrative is a fascinating way to show what motivates these school kids to mask the truth and how their actions are influenced as a result.
With the series’ description itself referencing of trauma, based around the death of Kousei’s mother, one should expect see how this tragedy has shaped the characters’ present state or at least experience a fair amount of heart-wrenching reflection to be featured. At times it feels like an emotional roller-coaster, given the show’s tendency to let things go in a positive direction for a little while before drawing us back into a realm of unknown. Life is indeed never certain. For the impressionable minds of the young teenagers in the series, this uncertainty leads to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness toward the possible outcomes, and a fear of directly confronting the doubts that seem to plague their troubled young minds and threaten to complicate their future.
The story’s pacing is slow, though fairly consistent, and spans the course of a little less than a year. Major events such as musical competitions are spread out every few episodes, but none of the downtime felt boring or unnecessary. Even with the slow pace, the events of the story often occur before the characters, or audience, are prepared for them. Humor and lightheartedness at certain points can feel miscued, disrupting an otherwise serious scene, but also serves to balance the story. These scenes distract the characters and the viewer, either giving them a break from overwhelming sadness or making them forget for a little while that anything is wrong. Overall, the tone of the series is dynamic, with moments of humor, hopefulness, and tragedy interspersed so that each episode remains slightly unpredictable and leaves the audience craving more.
The characters appear well thought out, with varying mileage on relatability. The two main characters, Kousei Arima and Kaori Miyazono, seem organic and believable once you get a better idea of their situations. Kousei mirrors the nervous awkwardness that many teenage boys feel, especially if they aren’t a sports star or otherwise confident person. Though he is undeniably skilled with the piano, a mix of trauma and low self esteem keep him from returning to the greatness he once possessed. Kousei’s personality tends toward caution. He’s often depicted as reserved, and afraid of becoming vulnerable to feelings of disappointment or failure. While this seems like a formula for a lot of whining and self pity (eg: Evangelion’s Shinji Ikari), Kousei gives little public attention to his “personality weaknesses” and doesn’t let it hinder him from taking leaps of faith, albeit reluctantly and at the behest of his friends. He is a character you can root for, and his transition over the course of this series, as he deals with the ghosts of his past and the challenges of the present, is arguably one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series.
Kaori, on the other hand, is designed to be likable from the start. The other characters emphasize her beauty and passion. She exudes a sense of decisiveness and bravery in everything she does, even if she knows the result may not end favorably for her. Kaori’s actions and desires are difficult for Kousei to understand at first, but she stubbornly (and sometimes aggressively) wears down his reluctance to see things her way. In the process, she teaches him important lessons about the meaning of musical performance and its ability to connect all who experience it. Though she seems perfect at first, her character is nuanced in ways that become more pronounced as the series progresses. She doesn’t need to overcome the same challenges that Kousei does, but the viewer is left sharing his wistful gratitude that she involves herself in them.
The two characters are contrasted throughout the series. Taking a sample scene like the one above, viewers immediately see how the differences in attitude are reflected in their appearance.
Kousei’s friends, Tsubaki Sawabe and Watari Ryota (referred most often by his surname, Watari) are less spectacular, with Tsubaki being the more fleshed out character of the two. The series details her feelings on certain events, alongside the main characters, and spends some time on her perspective to see how things look outside of Kousei’s POV. She starts off secure in the knowledge that she is Kousei’s closest friend, but struggles to accept the way he changes in the series, despite wanting to see that change herself . Watari’s involvement in the overall story is limited, but his relationship with Kaori is something that the other characters constantly keep in the back of their minds. He acts as the standard “bro” friend as he provides a few gems of advice to Kousei and offers a bit of lighthearted relief, but is relegated to a support character for the vast majority of the series.
There are some other side characters that are introduced as part of Kousei’s return to the world of piano competition. They are interesting and have some significant development on their own, but their main purpose seems to be to provide another perspective on how Kousei’s piano affects others around him from the point of view of people who aren’t necessarily his friends.
In a single word, the artistic presentation is just superb. Without resorting to a lot of special effects, A-1 delivers a vibrant and visually beautiful presentation, transforming scenes like a stroll through the park or a bike ride under the night sky into memorable moments for everyone involved. CGI is used to assist in the piano scenes which, though noticeably different from the regular animation, nicely highlights the dexterity and quick movements required for the instrument. Humorous scenes depart from the normal animation style and thus seem to really stand out, but those scenes are lifted straight from the Kimi no Uso manga, so take that as you will.
The use of color and light frequently mirrors the perspective or emotion the story is trying to convey, and the choice of camera angles and point of view offer a lot of subtle hints that provide a real treat for keen viewers, on par with an artistic film. Whether a scene has Kaori coincidentally standing in the light while Kousei sits under the shade, or later repeats an earlier scene with their physical positions reversed, there is plenty of symbolism to catch.
Characters are drawn accurately for their age (at least in the middle school phase) with realistically proportioned bodies and fluid movements. Their faces feature actual lips without looking odd or off putting (something rarely seen in anime), and are instantly recognizable as distinct characters without relying on simply changing the eyes or hair. The color choice used for certain characters also conveys storytelling elements that are easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, but very fun to watch and think about once you catch on. Without giving too much away, you will want to look at how some characters appear less vivid as the events of the series proceed.
Another very refreshing feature is the complete lack of fan service. While the show is about middle school kids, there are plenty of other anime in that same setting which feature blatant eye candy. While there are a few moments of embarrassment related to things the male characters happen to see, it is all handled very innocently and definitely not used to garner any sort of sex appeal.
One thing I did find a little odd is how much the characters sweat while performing. Now this may another attempt at drawing realistic teens (and if so, ew?), but half the time these performers are drenched in sweat. This makes it a little difficult to focus on the beautiful piano music when I’m tempted to count the number of sweat beads falling off Kousei’s forehead.
All in all, the animation greatly helps in keeping this series engaging. Even those who are not big on the premise or classical music will likely get hooked on the animation after the first couple of episodes, as this show is simply wonderful to look at.
Being a series about music, it’s good that it doesn’t disappoint in the sound department. The two pairs of opening and ending themes are excellent, with Hikaru Nara and Orange being my favorites. Working like the preface and conclusion of a story, the first and last songs you hear in this series are very different in tempo and mood. They seem to perfectly capture the tone as the series shifts from fun to dramatic. Kirameki and Nanairo Symphony are both great song as well, coming off as mostly upbeat while carrying melancholic notes. Kirameki is very much the theme song of this story, and a ballad version of it near the end is a solid accompaniment as the series looks back with nostalgia on what it’s shown us.
It is almost a shame that the background music is so successful at staying in the background, as the pieces are very good on their own. Consisting primarily of light instrumental and mostly piano and violin arrangements, the various themes beautifully enhance the mood of the scenes they are featured in. Even listening to one of these songs now takes me back to the moments in the series in which I heard them, and reminds me of how I felt while watching. In the few instances where a BGM breaks away from the typically light nature of the other themes, the way in which it does this creates an even more powerful scene. You’ll know it when you see it halfway through the series.
Voice acting (both Japanese and English) is very good in this series, with the actors portraying the various personalities and range of emotions in a convincing manner. Somewhat ironically, good voice acting makes you forget that it is actually another person delivering the lines, and for me there was almost no difference between the characters and the actors behind them.
The musical performances are a major focal point in some of the episodes, and were recorded by actual performers specifically for the series, lending to the credibility of the characters’ skills as they dazzle audiences. Once again, classical music may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the execution of these pieces, consisting of greats like Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, are beautifully done and should be recognized for how well they are worked into the show.
Overall enjoyment of a series usually biases the opinion of weekend otakus (amateur anime enthusiasts), like myself, on the individual factors involved. In reading the above I think it’s no surprise that I loved this series. While some might discredit it as cheesy or melodramatic, I never felt that the show was taking a cheap shot through a surprise reveal that didn’t also have plenty of story and character development behind it.
I was intrigued by the developing story, which seemed like one thing at first but changed into something unexpected dramatically, but naturally, as the series progressed. I found myself growing emotionally attached to the characters, and their various plights held my interest up through the conclusion of their arcs. The art always looked crisp, and the music was memorable while representing the series themes well (I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing Hikaru Nara).
Still, after finishing Your lie in April, I struggled to feel satisfied with how everything turned out. It was only after I realized that this series wasn’t meant to be a typical slice of life narrative about awkward teenagers finding themselves or represent a classic romance story that I was able to fully appreciate it. Viewers will not find satisfaction or truly value the message this series intended to deliver by trying to view it through rose-tinted lenses. Doing so will only leave you disappointed. I came to understand that viewing the series as an exploration of how people deal with sorrow and the way they let it shape their lives allows one to enjoy it as a whole despite not seeing the kind of conclusion that many of us would have liked.
Summary and Recommendations
Your lie in April is a fascinating look at the struggles that young people go through as they deal with the hardships of growing up and learn to deal with sorrow. Watching them learn the lessons that accompany these themes makes for a compelling enough story, but set against the backdrop of the beautiful animation and music, the entire experience can feel irresistible.
As much I enjoyed it, I think this series may not be for everyone. Even those who typically enjoy slice-of-life and romance animes could be annoyed by some of the characters you find in this one. Despite the light romance theme, telling the story primarily from Kousei’s point of view puts it squarely in the shounen category, and viewers who cannot get into the mindset of a young boy may find it hard to relate to the main character.
Though the series is positive and hopeful at its core, it serves a large helping of tragedy that may leave softer hearts reeling over the many sorrowful aspects it explores. It does not shy away from subjecting Kousei to difficult experiences, and just as it does with so many other aspects of the show, forces the viewer to endure the pain alongside him. Though there are elements of the tortured artist trope, pain and sorrow aren’t relegated to just being motivation for the character to move forward. They cripple and scar a person, and even when they provide lessons for necessary growth, some wounds never go away.
While not without its flaws, revolving around the dramatic handling of some events and the over-exposition during performances, the show offers a visual and aural treat when taken as a whole. The animation is beautiful and the characters are engaging to watch, altogether providing a great experience for anyone who appreciates such things. Being familiar with classical music adds yet another layer of enjoyment, but those that aren’t can still appreciate how it is used to tell this story and the impact that the performers have on others around them.
Watch if you:
Like slower paced stories
Are a fan of classical music
Can appreciate a sad story
Like looking for symbolism
Want a series with no fan-service
Don’t watch if you:
Get bored easily
Dislike classical music
Can’t handle sadness
After considering the above, and despite the minor drawbacks I mentioned, nothing detracted from my full enjoyment of this show. My rating is 5 out of 5 Kouseis.
The below might contain some light spoiling. If the review at all inspired you to watch the series, I would recommend that you do so before reading this section.
Having never seen anything quite like this series, resolving my feelings after watching it did take some time and introspection. I spent much longer than the eight hours that it took in total to watch the series just thinking about it and all the storytelling elements it contained. Not many of the animes I have seen can make me think so critically, as action or the focus placed on the greater narrative overshadow the more subtle elements that the series explores.
It was likely the way I identified with Kousei that made this series so engaging for me. While I am nowhere near as talented at anything as he is with the piano, I shared his feelings of self doubt and fear of failure. I understood his passiveness in accepting his role as ‘Friend A’, and the way he bottled up every strong emotion whether it was sadness, fear, or love. I felt his anxiety toward performing and his mixed feelings on his desire to interact with Kaori. More than any other character I’ve seen in an anime, I felt like I could empathize with Kousei.
I’ve mentioned this in several sections above, but what makes this series so captivating for me is its ability to connect the experiences to the viewer. This series can mean different things to different people. It can resonate with musicians, people who have struggled to express themselves, and people who have suffered through loss. Regardless of the viewer’s experience, the potential for an emotionally gripping connection is ever present.
It’s why we’re moved by this story. Why, even if we can predict the ending, we want it to turn out differently. And also why we know that it had to turn out the way it did; otherwise the lessons that were conveyed wouldn’t be complete. For those of us who found this level of engagement with the series, we all met that girl under the full bloom of Spring. Kaori guided us through this series as relentlessly as she did with Kousei, and her wishes reached more than just the audience she was aware of performing for.