Forest of Piano – Anime Review
Synopsis: Kai grows up playing an old piano discarded in the woods; Shuhei’s father is a famous pianist. Their chance meeting transforms their lives and music (Official Netflix Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Forest of Piano presents itself as an underdog story. Kai Ichinose is a disadvantaged boy, born to the squalor of a lower class mother. Despite this Kai possess extreme musical talent, nurtured by former professional and legendary pianist, Ajino. Underdog tales are not bad in and of themselves, but Forest of Piano is so prepared to paint Kai as this misunderstood, secret genius, that the show literally resorts to top level judges conspiring against him, miring the series in a, frustratingly forced, persecution complex.
The first half of the series is focused on Kai’s childhood, where he comes into contact with the son of a major pianist: Shuhei Amamiya. This early part of the series is where Forest of Piano is at its strongest. While Kai is portrayed as a idiot savant of piano, we’re shown he still has so much to learn, with his skills only taking him so far. Kai is mostly self taught, with intrinsic artistic creativity. At times the series gets bogged down in metaphor and fantastical realization of Kai’s abilities, at others it tries to present some real world understanding. Kai initially plays a piano located in the forest, left there by former pianist Ajino after his career tanked. Yet he’s the only one who can play the piano, no one else is capable of making this forgotten instrument sing. The series hints considerably at one of Kai’s intrinsic talents being the sheer force with which his fingers can play, but this marks the only time the series is interested in not basking its lead in hyperbolic metaphor and over dramatic realization.
Frequently Kai’s abilities are spoken of with increasingly fantastical rhetoric, at one point even comparing him to both gods and demons. These moments border on the obnoxious and demand audiences either find them amusing ironically, or pertain to the same view of musical talent.
Further damaging to the series is its sheer wealth of contrivances. Ajino himself is one example. His contrivances border on the melodramatic. Not only is the Forest Piano his, abandoned after his career collapsed, but the result of a tragic accident that not only destroyed his ability to play the piano, but claimed the love of his life. That tragic loss goes perhaps too far, especially seeing as it hardly factors into any of these twelve episodes.
But Forest of Piano is happy to over-dramatize and contrive in an effort to pull at your heart strings. Indeed midway through the series, when Kai loses the Forest Piano in a spectacular event, we go full ham as Kai rushes to his burning piano and Ajino is forced to declare “That piano is dead!” making the scene laughable and absurd for anyone not so easily wrapped up in the emotional contrivance.
It’s only at rare times the series pulls back on the melodrama, and Kai’s innate super talent, to give us actual human drama and obstacles. These moments are where the series actually stands out: Like when Kai struggles to play Chopin, the work proving to be more complex than he’s capable of, or needing to learn to play regular pianos where his fingers prove ‘too strong’ compared to what he’s use to. Or even late in the series when he experiences his first bout of stage fright.
Character wise there really isn’t much drama, often making the focal point of the episodes the music, or Kai’s persecution, or his frequent ability to wow audiences into submission. Even though Shuhei Amamiya harbors intense frustration at Kai’s innate talent, Kai never once finds Amamiya anything but a friend. That wholly good, no flaws depiction of our main character is actually a hindrance, and often leaves episodes feeling slow and plodding. In fact, many characters lack conflict with each other, making it so whenever we focus on a new, short lived character, it can feel utterly pointless by the end because their impact on the story is so limited that it effects nothing at all. This is likely in part due to the series insistence that each pianist’s worst enemy is no one but themselves, but it still makes for weak drama.
The only character who possess significant personal drama is Amamiya. His struggle against Kai’s talent and his own inferiority complex forms the entire basis for his character. But where as everyone else lacks drama, Amamiya is overflowing with it, to the point he’s terrifyingly one note and a chore to watch as he never, ever learns a lesson. In fact, its in part his character and his frequent vocalization for how incredible Kai’s talents are that make for the most eyeroll of moments.
But Amamiya also forms the backbone of the series often shifting message. Early on the series postulates the usual “hard work vs. talent” mindset. But the series is so often far and away on the side of talent this hardly feels like a true question. Indeed eventually the series shifts its views entirely, focused instead on innovation vs replication. Is it better to play the music as written on the page and intended, or to reinvent the song through an individual’s innovation? Again though, the series is so firmly on one side of the argument that it has long made up its mind, making every scene after feel like merely the endless persecution of innovation, just to prove its point about how misguided the world of music is.
This might not be a problem if human drama and Kai’s evolution as a pianist formed the back bone for the series. But often we skip over all that, leaving it to short sequences where we see just how persecuted Kai is. Kai works as a musician in a local hostess bar, as if visualizing the idea that Kai’s sheer talent is looked over merely because it doesn’t conform to societies’ standards. But the series is obvious, so heavy-handed in this that the point has long been gotten across, and everything after feels like a punch in the face. Do you get it yet? Do you get it yet? Do you get it yet?
No, the backbone for the series is its frequent focus on competitions. In twelve episodes we play witness to three separate competitions. These episodes largely all play out the same. Kai or Amamiya take the stage, wow the audience with their abilities, and maybe a few other characters get to do the same. The highlight to any of this are the piano pieces themselves, but this requires a deep love and appreciation for the music, as the character’s turmoil and drama often comes a distant second.
The show becomes near insufferable with its flaws by episode 6, taking a harsh turn for the over dramatic and solidifying itself as “Talent is insurmountable,” abandoning any notion that talent must be nurtured through hard work and resolve. It’s here that only audiences already enthralled with Forest of Piano won’t shut it off in a huff. One needs great appreciation for the music and a love of the over dramatic, fantastical depiction of musical ability to enjoy Forest of Piano going forward. One must also be at peace with the series’ jarring visual mash up between 2D animation and CGI. CGI is used extensively whenever pianists are at the piano, with fluid artwork that keeps them moving perfectly alongside the music they’re playing. But the CGI fails to match up with the 2D artwork, and the shift between the two is often so abrupt and jarring that it’s more likely to pull you right out of events.
Ultimately I understand Forest of Piano isn’t for someone like me. It’s for audiences who appreciate that more fantastical, over dramatic interpretation of musical talent. Inter character drama is abandoned in favor of emotional investment in the beauty of Kai’s ability and the sadness of his struggle to be recognized in a world of music that prides replication over innovation. But if you’re looking for actual drama to suck you in, or more of an argument against the state of Japan’s classical music competitions, or the music world in general, Forest of Piano isn’t it. If your love of classical music is overflowing, Forest of Piano is a solid choice, but for audiences wanting something a little meatier, I say this is a pass.
Forest of Piano is available for streaming via Netflix.