This Week: Piano Forest (Piano no Mori: The Perfect World of Kai).
Talent for the ivory keys is not supposed to grow among the leaves.
Competitions have the potential to be life changing.
That said, my experience with such adolescent extracurricular activities is rather limited.
For a number of years, I played soccer for community level traveling teams on weekends. As I was in elementary school at the time, games tended to have a haphazard flow. There were practices and the vague idea of positions, sure. But it was rare for a given play to ever be optimal. It was more down to individual fits of all star whimsy for whoever had the ball at the moment. Defenders sitting down to pick clovers out of the grass when action was on the other end of the field. That sort sort of thing. Kids in different shirt colors playing around with a ball.
This went on until just before the transition to junior high or so, when I began to notice a serious shift. It was not just that organized tactics became more of a factor, which was expected enough. But vicious ones. Certain teams, curiously, had a habit of creating serious injures for their opponents. Parents became ever more involved in screaming down and insulting what amounted to children who just happened to be on the other team. Or, even kids on their offspring’s own team. Decrying them for costing their precious budding star an opportunity for greatness.
I did not like this trajectory It felt unfun. So I had the fortune to be able to decline returning next season when I requested to.
I went into stage crew and theater for the teenage years that followed. While there are definite competitions for that, our school did not participate in any. I felt more comfortable in that environment. Even with the notorious stereotypes a high school drama department tend to carry along with it. I just wanted the activities to be fun and expressive, as opposed to a ruthless tournament climb. It is notable then that when my “world stage” level competition did arrive, during university via three years getting to Harvard’s World Model United Nations event, I was in a good young adult place in my life. I knew to value the data, research, and practice I acquired, of course. And it had to be delivered in a serious manner. But there also needed to be a passion and desire for relaying it. All the binders of statistics and opposition breaking game plans in the world would be useless if I could not make people care enough to listen to what I had to express. There is a balancing act to it all, in such an arena. I do not think I would have had this advantage of perspective were I just railroaded along through activities when I was younger. It was a point I was sure to remind my students when I took over the program for a year.
I tell you that story to tell you my reflections on this 2007 one.
There is a certain sinister extracurricular undercurrent I feel one can pick up on over the course of Piano Forest.
Piano Forest is the exact kind of film that, were it a live action production, it would have the Oscar Bait label thrown at it.
For good or for ill. Though I do think this overall package was a positive experience.
We have a well off kid from a family of prodigious piano players, via Shuuhei Amamiya. As such, they have resources which have engineered a rigorous practice environment for him. He has been practicing the instrument since he was very young. The film begins with the family moving away from Tokyo to more rural sights. His grandmother is ill, so they are moving in with her for a time. While his practice will continue, via an in-home soundproof room and grand piano, this does also mean transferring schools. His by the books way of interacting with others does not do so well with the country kids and new classmates. Save for one. The rambunctious Kai Ichinose. A boy who lives in poverty, his mother works as a prostitute, and he gets in fights with drunks far older than himself. Yet, he does also has a love for the piano. His piano. A grand abandoned one sitting in the forest. Which, granted, everyone says is broken yet Kai insists he can play it just fine.
While the film never goes for The Prince and the Pauper life switcheroo, almost everything else fires off about as would be expected. The growing friendship. Sharing of their respective piano environments. What the instrument means to them. Clashes of personality and perspective. Music as way of expression, antagonism, or potential reconciliation engine.
Piano Forest adheres to a clinical three act structure, as straight as if it were a machine playing sheet music. Or a competition grade player trained since their youngest days. That the Director for this piece is Masayuki Kojima comes as little surprise. He has handled the demanding adaptation needs of award winning manga like Master Keaton and Monster while at Madhouse. And so much about this film is prime material for wide theater audiences and what could have been a global award circuit run. As a weird coincidence, Madhouse’s next film out the door would be 2008’s Hells (Hells Angels), were this straight laced movie to itself have a rowdy partner in crime.
The benefits of animation even allow for Piano Forest to work in performances by renowned pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and apply them to the kids with ease. It would have been a far more difficult task to make this movie with live action child actors. Yet it is notable that the Japanese voice cast includes multiple performers from other live action adaptations of manga or anime. It is very much a film of two worlds colliding, in more ways than just the two protagonists.
Or, at least it would be simple to reduce this story to just being about the life positions of the leads. There is a desire to describe the film as akin to what a streamlined theatrical version of what Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Apollon) would look like. Just with younger characters, less romance, and a specific focus on classical piano.
But a series of particular things began to click together in my head. Something Piano Forest plays very close to its chest for a long while. What I feel ends up driving the heavier aspects of film.
It is why the mood struck me to open this post the way I did. I would hesitate to call what I am about to go into a massive spoiler, as it is a detail the film tiptoes around a large amount.
On another level I will allow folks space to leave this write-up if they had Piano Forest on their to-do list.
Piano Forest is about the kind of musical landscapes each of our leads occupy.
That much is top level certain. Expressive style versus die-cast execution and adherence to form.
They are also each very young, still in grade school level lives. A whole lot of the framing of the film is fit to this. We almost never see Shuuhei’s professional grade piano playing father, for instance. His well trained musician of a mother does get some speaking time. But, just limited to a few scenes scattered about the film. This is not surprising alone. If the film wanted to highlight the friendship of Shuuhei and Kai, it needs time for that. If one pieces together bits of information in the film though, there is a larger series of events going on off screen. Right from the opening car ride all the way to one character’s realization late on. As much as the movie is about the well-practiced-to-the-point-of-blind-musical-obedience kid and the free flowing style of his new friend who can not read musical language, there is another story.
Piano Forest is also about helicopter parents razing the ecosystem for their children, rather than raising the same.
It may appears strange. Our opening having mother using the tragedy of an ill family member to convince their child this move is for the best. The parent, nary sentences apart from that, mentioning with joy the recent major renovation to the same home. I feel that it is, indeed, odd. We also almost never meet grandma at all, and never framed as particularly impaired. Shuuhei is at an age where his viewpoints are limited. The environment he has been a part of from birth has also been quite controlled. He locks up when what he is “supposed” to do in a situation does not work. Or things go in ways they are not “supposed” to. Regardless of if it is good (the school music teacher taking an interest in Kai, but not him), or bad (bumping into a guy in the bad part of town, and an apology is not seen as enough). His environment has been one of domination and control. Optimal inputs always guaranteeing given results.
This in turn has deprived him of a large amount of personal agency experience, even at this age. His voice actor, Ryunosuke Kamiki, I feel could be lambasted by some for putting in a “bad” performance were it not for the fact that in retrospect this is itself very intentional. Shuuhei often felt, to me, somewhat “off” in his conversational delivery. The enunciation often feels stunted on an emotional level. As if a computer text to speech engine were in Shuuhei’s brain. Not a monotonous tone though. But rather, a tonal uncanny valley where Shuuhei as a character may not have a whole lot of experience using some of these sounds. He can feel quite distant, even when talking in the same room. Which, when ones starts adding everything up, then comes across as something tragic.
The friendship angles of the movie, which are in focus, are also irrelevant from a very cold, calculated viewpoint.
This story, these meetings, its feelings, pale in comparison to the to the ultimate goal of the Amamiya parents: gaming the regional youth qualification system for paths to national level competition.
Maximum possible returns from maximum level training and guidance efforts.
This is, after all, not Tokyo anymore. Kids are different out here.
The film is never explicit in having anyone state this is the true goal.
At the same time though, it makes the inference all but impossible to ignore as things progress.
Yet Piano Forest also makes good on bending over backwards to avoid being a villainy tale. To ensure none of the parental figures, school teachers, or so on come across as bad people. Everyone is doing what they consider to be their best possible options with their available tools. It lends the whole film a more nuanced lens than just a rich kid – poor kid friendship dynamic. In the process, this manages to elevate the surgical progression of its acts above just being a cleanly executed example of a well loved narrative type. That there are modern issues which can still be worked into that. How pressures placed on various children in the industrial world just to claw ahead of each other could hit far harder than those in Mark Twain’s royal role reversal novel. Even if those are well meaning pressures from authority figures. And that folks react to such a claustrophobic mental state at such a young age in different ways.
There is the ever increasing refrain to youth that if you fall down so much as once, you are done for.
Fodder to be trampled over and stepped on by others. They will race ahead to arm up resume achievement arsenals. Life as a high score table, and where you will be left with nothing.
That said, Kai found his piano in the forest by tumbling out of a window and getting lost for a long while.
I can not recommend that as a physical career action, of course.
But, I would like to think there is a nice message in it.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.