Music is a way in which people connect and express their feelings, whether through listening or performing. It’s such a massive part of a lot of our lives and it’s used as a potent subject matter for the story which Your Lie in April tells. Music is often used in film, television, games and pretty much any medium, to play with your emotions and tell you, without you realising, what you should be feeling. Your Lie in April, under the direction of Kyohei Ishiguro, goes one step further and literally shows the progression of the characters through the music in which they play.
Music expressing emotion in a raw and honest way – a way in which regular conversation cannot – is not an unusual theme. Look at Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical masterpiece Once More, with Feeling to see a stunning example of this. The question is, does Your Lie in April manage to combine this idea with absorbing characters and presentation to set it apart?
A Review in December
It certainly does; the premise of Your Lie in April and how the music pushes the development of the characters, is riveting. Based on the Japanese manga written and illustrated by Naoshi Arakawa, Your Lie in April is a 22-episode show which focuses primarily on the arc of Kousei Arima (Natsuki Hanae/Max Mittelman). Kousei is a 14 year-old boy who has had his passion for piano playing firmly derailed two years previously by the death of his mother.
She pressed him hard – too hard, even – to play with pinpoint precision and a lack of emotional expression (He’s even labelled the “Human Metronome”). After winning many competitions to try to please – and also somehow heal – his mother, she passed away. Kousei continued to play the piano, but after a breakdown mid-performance, he was left unable to properly hear the notes he played. The mental haunting of his mother has left him not only adrift of the piano, but also in a state where he perennially sees life in a negative and less colourful way.
Volume 1, which collects the first 11 episodes of the series, is a neatly packaged arc of Kousei learning to deal with these events and mature as a person. The first episode explains this premise sublimely, through a focus on the main four characters. We see and hear Kousei listening to music through headphones, clearly missing his playing but being cut off from it. His childhood friend Tsubaki Sawabe (Ayane Sakura/Erica Mendez), however, makes him tag along as she introduces a fellow friend – Ryouta Watari (Ryota Osaka/Kyle McCarley) – to a girl who would like to meet Ryouta.
Kousei reluctantly attends as “Friend A”, and encounters the girl in question. Even before we see this, the show literally brightens in both colour and setting, signifying the changes this meeting will have on Kousei. Kaori Miyazano (Risa Taneda/Erica Lindbeck), playing a melodica amongst the blossoms of April, immediately captivates Kousei. With both her music playing and outlook on life, she quickly starts to have an effect on things as “Friend A” falls for “the girl who likes my best friend”.
In the early episodes, we learn about the life of our main 4 leads, especially Kousei. Meanwhile, the impact of Kaori’s introduction is having a distinct effect on the dynamics of the other characters. In Episode 2, witnessing Kaori’s very freeform approach to violin playing opens Kousei’s eyes to a new way of expressing himself through music. Kaori acts as a driving force behind his progression; making him her accompanist and then, pushing him into entering a piano competition on his own later on – despite Kousei being fearful of messing up. In between these major events we are seeing a lot of the school and home life of these characters, and this flow makes for a great early-series pace.
The specialised nature of musical performance is juxtaposed nicely with the more relatable school setting. Especially in Volume 1, Your Lie in April is a coming-of-age tale – you just can’t always tell, because it is wrapped in such a complex and nuanced way. Kousei’s infatuation with Kaori and the way she goes about things inspires him to break out of the loneliness he is experiencing.
Kaori’s influence is perhaps best showed before they perform together for the first time – it’s an intimate moment, as Kaori is urging him to look up and embrace the performance rather than being anxious. At a base level, Kousei is being told to embrace his life and more importantly, himself. “You’re you, no matter what” is a memorable moment from Kaori and sums up what she is trying to teach Kousei.
While the musical performances are the climactic interstitial moments of the show, the quieter, more everyday moments are a big part of what make Your Lie in April shine. Tsubaki, in particular, may be Kousei’s childhood friend who looks out for him as if he is a younger brother, but she ends up only finding her own feelings change as she inadvertently motivates Kousei back into the musical world she feels so alienated by. Watari could easily have been a stereotype of the guy who’s with the girl our protagonist likes, but he’s more of a friend to Kousei than anything else.
Tsubaki and Watari have their own competitive interests in baseball and soccer respectively and their personal developments often have synergy with what is going on in the musical world Kousei and Kaori inhabit. Tsubaki, for example, throws away a game due to her frustrations at being unable to connect to Kousei’s interest in music, leading to a touching moment as Kousei helps her get home in a re-strengthening of their friendship. Watari, upon narrowly losing a key game, puts a brave face on and encourages Kousei to keep going and not be overly worried of the idea of failure. These moments of youthful friendship keep the show well-balanced tonally, making the characters likable and real whilst also preventing the show becoming too dense with the heavy, emotional musical sections.
There is a similar feeling to the presentation of the show, which is frankly utterly beautiful. The aesthetic style is immaculate and feels polished at all times, with vibrant and warm colours pulling you in – for example and as aforementioned, a bright bloom is used on the spring, er, blooms that show the colourful effects of Kaori. Japan is presented in a lush way, with clean architecture and an optimism to the setting. This only makes the darker moments of Kousei’s mental haunting all the more stark, as dull greys and visual signifiers of being underwater connote how suppressed he is feeling.
Crucially, the animation itself manages to fit in comedic, chibi-style sequences to nicely balance against the seriousness of a lot of the show. Just like the mix of piano-playing and personal school life, it ensures that the show doesn’t overdo the weightier side of things. One of the stand-out scenes is Kousei listening to a playback of his playing with his friends all present and a rapid rapport is being made as Kousei is hilariously rolling around the room, horrified at his inaccuracy.
Blast from the Past
This type of scene is important, because the latter half of Volume 1 has an intense focus on the piano competition Kousei enters (with a little inspiration from Kaori!). This piano competition arc, if you will, introduces two rivals of sorts; Takeshi Aiza and Emi Igawa. These two are fierce competitors who were following in Kousei’s wake constantly when he used to play. Turning up in the present, their respective reasons and motivations for playing the piano are wonderful foils to Kousei’s own situation.
Takeshi Aiza’s relentless drive to match Kousei, to keep up with the masterful pianist he witnessed years ago, has imbued his playing with a fiery determination that has seen him rise to the top. Meanwhile, Emi, who was instead emotionally moved by Kousei’s playing, has gone slightly astray without Kousei on the scene. They are both so reliant on the idea of Kousei being a figure of faultless piano playing, and his return has reignited that fire within them. The consequences of Kousei’s flawed playing has fascinating effects on these characters.
Episodes 8-11 take their time showing you the performances of Takeshi, Emi, and finally Kousei. Using a wide range of flashbacks and references to earlier in the series and in their lives, a strong competitive connection between these three is established. Takeshi plays strongly, wanting to show how good he has become, while Emi has the audience in awe as she pours her feelings into the piano. Whilst extremely engaging for the most part, these episodes do suffer a little bit when they are over-reliant on callbacks.
In general, Your Lie in April likes to connect the dots through showing past events. Often, this is an effective way of showing the way the characters are thinking, but occasionally it isn’t needed. This is most evident during these episodes, as the back-story of Takeshi and Emi is placed at the forefront. It’s a small gripe, but when episodes end with a thrilling performance only to introduce the next episode with the same crescendo we just witnessed, it can take something away from the captivation we, as the viewers, are experiencing.
We see very little of Kaori, Tsubaki, and Kaori actively progressing their own arcs during this sequence. Therefore, spending more time on events we have already witnessed can feel like time which could be better filled. In the insightful commentary for episode 1 included on the disc, there is even talk of how often lines, or parts of lines, are re-utilised.
Despite this, the history and passion behind the preceding performances of Takeshi and Emi build to a spectacularly satisfying mid-series conclusion. The conflict within Kousei and what he has learned through meeting Kaori, expresses itself during a stunningly put-together musical sequence and at the same time, a multi-part battle within Kousei’s mind. The resolution at this stage isn’t about being the best – it’s about life lessons and maturity. Like many great TV shows, Your Lie in April uses its subject matter as a vehicle for the message it is trying to put across. As it happens, Your Lie in April uses music for both this and creating an immense spectacle as the characters – Kousei in particular – work out their lives.
Volume 1 of Your Lie in April takes a tragically afflicted character in Kousei Arima and by introducing the brightness of Kaori Miyazano, puts a story into place that shows him bravely tackling his issues. As a half-series, it caps this wonderfully, all whilst introducing a central cast that you immediately connect with. In the same way, it also sets up a lot for the second half of the series, with a few troubling undertones in the life of Kaori and some unanswered questions for the likes of Tsubaki. Other than occasionally overusing callbacks, Your Lie In April is magnificently presented with a charming and heartbreaking story. Whatever challenges need to be faced in the second half, these characters – and we, the audience – are firmly along for the ride.
Title: Your Lie in April – Volume 1
Production: A-1 Pictures
Distributor: Anime Limited
Platform(s): Collector’s Edition Blu-ray + DVD
Version Reviewed: DVD
Released: Out Now!
Disclosure: A copy of Your Lie in April was supplied by Anime Limited, the distributor, for the purposes of this review.