A comprehensive review, commentary and personal musical ‘thoughts and impressions’ post on Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso. Spoilers present until the ‘Musical Aspect’ section.
Ever since Nodame Cantabile that aired in 2004 that had masterfully combined romance and classical music in ways that inspire current classical music enthusiasts, players of music instruments, and overturned the negative, retrograde impressions of a genre of music mistaken to be more steeped in history than in step with the present, anime had yet to risk another foray into the genre for at least a decade. In the interim, the gradual popularity of idol-based pop music and interest in Western-based rock manifested in preferences for seasonal continuations of series like Aikatsu, Love Live! and phenomenal productions like NANA and Beck. All these threatened the place of classical music, whose peak was achieved in the pre-20th century era, into that of obsolescence. The announcement of Your Lie in April (abbreviated as “KimiUso“), with potent emphasis on classical music, hence came as a surprise. And yet, as it transpires, it is perhaps not what it seems at first glance.
Introducing a past-genius pianist who can’t play anymore due to trauma, KimiUso seeks to tell a narrative of love, growth, loss and the effervescence of teenage emotions as Arima Kousei meets Kaori Miyazono, a lively and vivacious violinist. Together with their friends Watari and Tsubaki, and a host of supporting characters with personal roadblocks to overcome, with classical music as a primer, this is a story of breaking through psychological barriers, moving on from the past, and carving out one’s place in the world.
The Web of Lies That Unraveled in Spring
KimiUso relies on a ton of literary exposition, poetic exploration and devices like symbolism and imagery to bring across its main motifs and themes. In beautifully crafted lines of metaphor-incorporated dialogue, KimiUso sets a tone that complements in setting of spring, which is largely representative of new beginnings, hope, and colour. Scenes are awash with lush, warm seasonal colours which reflect the blooming experience of youth and Kaori’s appearance in Kousei’s dull, monotone life.
One of the themes that is reiterated in the series is none other than its title – the concept of lies. As the story progresses, the tale unravels, the veils are drawn, and the world changes its colour.
“She’s like a roller coaster. Crying, laughing. She’s got me at her beck and call. Just by being around, she transformed my monotone world into a colourful one … She’s a really dazzling, really strong person …”
The most obvious example, one that is repeatedly foreshadowed throughout the series, is that of Kaori’s impending disappearance from the surface of the earth. In fact, the message has been manifested in so many ways from the start – from her collapse, to visual parallels to Arima’s mother’s condition, to what Kaori says, that it can hardly be classified as a ‘final revelation’ when said scene finally happens. While spring is warm and full of life, it also marks the final death knell for one of the most humanely selfish female characters to grace the romantic comedy scene.
“You exist in spring.”
Arima Kousei, on Kaori
Over the course of the series, the lively, vivacious Kaori that brings the colours of spring into Arima’s life also gives way when the series reaches its second half. Her external facade, which supported Arima’s overcoming of the haunting images left behind by his memories of his mother, is what initially attracts Arima, guiding him back to the path of light, and music. She is the ray of light that hauls him up from the depths of the silent, dark ocean, where the music notes dissipate into foggy tones. And yet, as her illness catches up to her, she is hauled back into the present reality of her ailing body. Henceforth, her internal despair at the limited time she has left bubbles up to the surface, triggering a role reversal between the two as Arima now becomes the one extending his hand to her at the final moments of her life. This mask peels away to reveal a desperate, fearful, and ultimately more real Kaori. Rather than being on the forefront of life, she is in fact, on the cusp of death.
“A lump of steel, like a shooting star. Just seeing the same sky as you makes familiar scenery look different. I swing between hope and despair at your slightest gesture, and my heart starts to play a melody. What kind of feeling is this again? What do they call this kind of feeling? I think its probably … called love. I’m sure this is what they call love.”
Tsubaki’s ultimately unrequited love for Arima could also well be interpreted to a white lie meant to deceive herself which ultimately fell apart. As a childhood friend to Arima, Tsubaki represented a supportive force to Arima throughout his grey childhood, even under the tyranny of his mother’s strict musical instruction. As such, in the beginning she tries to fool herself into thinking that her care and conern for Arima was only that of an older sister towards a yonger brother. Wanting the best for Arima at all times, she recognizes that the only way to help Arima was to introduce him back to music again, and she does this at all costs – of dragging him along on Watari’s pseudo-date with Kaori. Her indirect hand in setting up the fateful meeting between the two characters results in increased interaction between the two as Arima is drawn by Kaori back into the world of music. Being of two different worlds, it was clear that there would be no fruit in harbouring these romantic feelings for Arima, and Tsubaki realises that. Even so, she felt that perhaps she could be happy as long as Arima is, and thus she is unselfish in using all means possible – including watching Kaori and Arima grow closer to each other – to help him overcome his traumatic experiences again. The struggle that Tsubaki faces, from initially thinking that she was happy just being the ‘childhood friend’, blows up into her doomed confession to Arima, where she first embraces the truth that she is ultimately selfish.
Frequent flashbacks to Arima’s mother, Saki also painted her in a light that was starkly different from the truth that emerged, managing to fool even its viewers as well. Initially, the mother in Arima’s memory portrays her almost as a demon who drills the notion of technical perfection and following the music score into Kousei since a very young age. They even going as far as to show gleams of an evil smile, suggesting that she relishes in how her exacting standards induces terror, fear, and obedience in a young, impressionable Kousei. Thus, it seemed that Kousei’s tone-deaf reaction in the present is caused by the lingering trauma of tigerhood parenting, and not being able to live up to his evil mother’s expectations. It is only until almost halfway through the series where it is revealed that the true cause of trauma actually stems from his overwhelming guilt and shame, unearthing another side of the story where a young Kousei screams to his mother “You are better off dead!”, which was no doubt closely followed by the sound of the death knell of his already ailing mother. A young Kousei lives henceforth in memory of his harsh words, regretting that they were ever spoken. In fact, another piece of the puzzle is revealed soon after – where Saki’s bad tempers were due to her terror of imminent death, and she had actually intended to impart sufficient technical proficiency into Kousei only out of concern for his future and his ability to make a living. Thus, the ‘demonic’ mother gives way to only a flawed human being, worrying about her child in a future without her, only marred by miscommunication and ugliness in fear of death which was – and could be – easily misunderstood to be satanic parenting.
The last prominent lie is in the form of an illusion in the case of Takeshi Aiza, one of Arima’s self-proclaimed rivals. Takeshi chases the dream of Arima, whom he paints out to be a godly robot of perfection. Spending two years on chasing his ambition and goal, he proudly reunites with Arima on the same competing stage, only to realise that the Perfect Arima is no more than a soap bubble that he had created. The resolution of Takeshi’s obsession with Arima shows both of them sitting next to each other, talking and laughing like normal kids should, hence pricking the bubble once and for all – Arima has never been a Human Metronome, only a young boy who has suffered through arduous training and has quite a few monsters in the closet to defeat himself.
Selfishness, in human nature
Stuck in a situation where nobody else wants to be in, the terminally ill Kaori is undoubtedly one of the most selfish female main characters ever to grace the screen. With the complex motivation of wanting to leave her mark on this world before leaving, she embarks on a journey of self-preservation, determined to become Arima’s light in the darkest last tranche of her diminishing lifespan. Her selfishness can be seen from her demanding, childish personality, where her vivaciousness is intended to be an excuse for her whims and demands as she forces Arima to his feet and drags him forcefully back into the musical world to confront his inner demons. By putting her way of doing things as topmost priority, she disregards the ‘lesser’ concerns of Arima, a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder and the potential harm that she could cause to him, making her actions rather deplorable on one perspective. What is perhaps also unforgivable is by keeping mum about her terminal illness, only to cause a huge blow and shock to those who care about her (i.e. Arima.)
However, while hoisting Arima back into the world of music and capturing his heart, the shield around her own wall falls as her illness demands so much attention that it brings her life to a literal standstill. This is when viewers see the real, desperate Kaori as she struggles to leave an indelible mark on people she cared about the most, making it difficult to fault her for anything that she had previously done. Even if her actions can’t be logically or emotionally justified by reason of being a dying girl, she has won both the sympathy of the audience and the love of Arima (hence setting in stone Tsubaki’s place in this love race). By living on in Arima’s heart as she wanted, she has ultimately succeeded in what she set out to do.
And who wouldn’t understand this last-ditch attempt at being remembered? Part of the fears of death stems from the feeling that one is but a minuscule temporal existence, only to disappear when one’s physical vessel withers away. Who does not want to remembered? Kaori may have been incredibly self-centered, but we can’t help by sympathise with her plight, if only because we may perhaps choose to walk the same last steps of our path given the same situation.
Narrative and Presentation Flaws
It is evident that KimiUso seeks to spin an emotional, heartbreaking story with a bittersweet ending. One would suspect that Kaori’s motivations run parallel to the direction of this series on ‘trying to leave a mark’ on its viewers. Yet, one of its most obvious shortcomings is its extremely heavy-handed storytelling. Right from the start, a plethora of imagery, symbolism, and foreshadowing of the ultimate ending is thrown at the viewer, so much so that it becomes difficult even for the most uncritical viewer to not notice its inevitable end. The repetitive use of flashbacks to push Arima’s cause of trauma to the forefront for a good first half of the series only hammered in the message a little too hard, even if it is beautifully and artistically presented. Similarly, the amount waterworks that seemed to function like a leaking tap only served to remove emotional impact when The Final Event actually happens, hence severing much emotional connection to the characters that could have been accumulated otherwise.
The myriad of backstories that KimiUso has had to cover all in growing Arima as a character and conquering every single step resulted in some narrative dissonance as transitions are logically stretched as connecting points from one character’s episode to another’s. One example would be the previously mentioned ten episodes of Saki the Satan only to be all revealed in one episode as this plot point is hastily concluded. Also, Tsubaki’s realization of her feelings and her confession, as well as Nagi’s side story, which were shuffled together with Arima’s shock in discovering Kaori’s life-and-death situation which was supposedly the main narrative thread, made for awkward emotional transition. The disparate strands of the story cover so many supporting characters and other themes that it does so at the expense of the main characters in the latter half of the series.
The ‘Musical’ Aspect – the real blasphemy
I could conclude my review/commentary here, except that as someone whose life has been dominated by classical music since the age of four, I cannot help but want to expound a little on the musical aspect of this series. The most prominent point has to be Kaori’s performance of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata (the Kreutzer) where she supposedly plays her own style of Beethoven and gives the piece her own free interpretation that is vastly different from what is stated on the score, to the displeasure of the competition judges who rail at her ‘disrespect’ to Beethoven and clear rebellion of the standards of music expected in a competition. That particularly raises eyebrows because clearly, even in competitions, it is moot that technical proficiency is definitely not the only standard that is required. One’s personal interpretation of the music and musicality are also important criteria for grading one’s performance. The exaggerated way the judges and audience react to Kaori’s playing, is a clear detraction from how real music competitions are, and unless Japan’s standards are so uniquely different (and backward) from the rest of the world, it seems entirely implausible that one can win a competition just by technical perfection (Arima’s past accolades), or that a hint of musicality (as with Kaori’s free spirited playing) is so detested by judges and against the ‘spirit of the music’. It is really bizarre, and an affront to anybody remotely classically trained that this should be pounced on and clarified, even if its merely as a plot device to accentuate how vastly different in playing style Arima is as compared to Kaori.
A close scrutiny at Kaori’s performance of the Kreutzer also reveals that the truth is far from how it is presented in the narrative. I was not actually familiar with the Kreutzer prior to this series, but a comparison of Kaori’s playing with the actual score quickly yields results – Kaori’s playing does not actually diverge from anything from the score at all. Contrary to what the judge says, that ‘tempo and dynamics are all over the place’, as far as I am concerned, she’s doing all her pianos and fortes correctly and adhering to tempo descriptions, and playing the piece safely within the boundaries of free interpretation that is traditionally allowed for a Classical-Romantic era composer like Beethoven. Neither is she ‘ignoring the accompanist and going off on her own’, even though the part where the judge says this, one could be tricked into hearing some muddying in the piano part. However, there actually isn’t any clear or actual disengagement with the accompanist.
In actual fact, the anime does cheat a little – in choosing different sections of the Kreutzer to showcase Kaori’s musical difference from the other performers – such that in actual fact, they are playing different sections from the start. That could have been forgiven, if not for the eyeroll-inducing reactions to Kaori’s performance. (I embed her performance here for reference.)
Thankfully, other than that, there aren’t any major criticisms to add to the classical music aspect of the series, other than the fact that they really could have chosen a wider variety of piano pieces as repertoire for the entire series, rather than resorting to a number of Chopin Etudes when it came to pitting Arima’s competitors, Emi and Takeshi, against him. Granted that Chopin’s Etudes are the most famed set of ‘must-plays’ for every aspiring pianist, being technically demanding (and hence fitting the theme of the series) but yet sporting beautiful melodies enough to capture the attention of non classical music enthusiasts, it is understandable that there is an overt reliance on these pieces even if they may come across as slightly cliched. If anything, the choice of Winter Wind for Emi certainly gave tremendous support to her motivation in playing the piano and aim in beating Arima.
Last but not least, what saved this series on the musical front for me was the non truncated 9 minute reproduction of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor as Kousei’s final piece, as the backdrop to the ultimate narrative climax and revelation. Beautifully presented together with an added violin solo (which, fyi, isn’t supposed to exist), the series really made use of the emotional highs and lows to blend with the ebb and flow of the music, giving as a satisfying musical conclusion to Arima and Kaori’s musical journey together. Ballade No. 1 has always been a special piece for me – I first encountered it when I watched The Pianist (excellent movie – the scene where it was featured was ONE OF THE BEST – those who watched it will know) and I fell in love with it. Even though my fingers can’t reach more than eight keys on the piano, I insisted on choosing it as one of my pieces for my ABRSM Licentiate in Piano Music Performance exam, even though my teacher told me it would probably use up too much of my stamina (I have to play 40 minutes worth in total). And I have never let it go since. As one of the pieces that can induce tears in me out of nowhere, I was exhilarated to find that this was THE piece for the climax of this show. No words could have expressed my feelings.
KimiUso is ultimately a series that is still worth anybody’s time, due to its stellar animation, beautiful poetic expressions, and its heavy focus on the themes that it sticks to throughout its series. If anything, KimiUso is probably one of the best teaching material in my opinion for inculcating interest in Literature due to its rich usage of literary devices. However, one should just take note that it has some structural flaws, which may or may not affect one’s enjoyment depending on how invested one is into the overflowing beauty of this series. A slight warning goes to those who want their emotions to be stirred – chances are, you probably won’t be particularly moved to the point of tears. But KimiUso is certainly not forgettable, and that is probably enough to satisfy most of us.
That was WAY longer than I thought, but I enjoyed writing this essay even though it is about 9 months due. Thank you for reading till the end, and feel free to leave a like or comment 🙂 Also, a very Happy Chinese New Year to all who celebrate it, and enjoy getting all the ang baos and eating good food! ^^