After being told that Piano no Mori was about a piano in a forest and two friends who become rivals in a competition, I thought I was in for something trite and maybe a bit vague. In actual fact, the ‘piano competition' setup ends up being rather secondary when you consider the movie as a whole; far more important is the portrayal of two friends who, through their differences, learn valuable lessons about the art of playing piano. Even I am surprised by how easily I was swept into the story and how quickly I found myself getting attached to the characters.
In truth, this can only be due to the skilful presentation of the narrative, which is refreshing despite the cliché premise. While in anime such as Beck the music is a means of the characters escaping their external situations, Piano no Mori portrays people striving to find ‘the music within' and express that inner peace through an instrument. This kind of theme is always in danger of seeming like self-important bullshit but Piano no Mori's mellow approach makes it easy to go along with.
What's more, although an accomplished drama, the story still manages to incorporate several instances of mildly eccentric humour. Kai's experiences at the competition, where his competitor has a rather bizarre way of calming herself down, are a good example of humour making the predictable progression more interesting to watch.
Piano no Mori reminds me a lot of Nodame Cantabile, mainly because they share a similar sensory approach; stirring performances are accompanied by a combination of sweeping camerawork and dreamlike imagery, meaning that what you see is very much related to what you hear. This gives Piano no Mori a powerful atmosphere and makes it doubly emotive.
In addition, this is the kind of anime in which the environment is half of the story, meaning the backgrounds are as sumptuous as one could wish for. The last time I gawped like this, Balsa was strolling along a mountain ridge in Seirei no Moribito. Although the shots of the forest easily steal the show, equal attention is paid to detailing everything from the school floors to the trash in the city slums.
While the characters are simpler in design, they are still well-animated, with smooth movements and unique mannerisms tailored to their personalities. Naturally, the piece de resistance has to be the fluid and perfectly-timed CGI of fingers playing the keys.
To put it simply, I enjoyed every aural moment in this movie. For one, the voice acting is superb in all cases, especially Kai's, whose female voice actor captures his brat-like pitch flawlessly.
Crucially, I find the music in Piano no Mori genuinely entrancing. Of course, having no technical understanding of music whatsoever, shows like this do make me wonder whether what I'm hearing is really as phenomenal as I'm told it is: would Chopin really think Kai is a genius? Still, the hypnotic effect of the recitals on the ordinary person should not be downplayed. More often than not I found myself quite relaxed by the sound of the piano and mentally drifting during the performances.
Perhaps the only improvement needed is in regards to the background music; it crops up rarely, but when it does, it is not that interesting to listen to and might as well not be there. However, this minor point doesn't impact upon the score all that much.
For a child of his age, Shuuhei Amamiya seems to have a very mature understanding of his relationship with Kai, which feels strangely unnatural, but makes him likeable at the same time. He isn't a robot who follows musical tradition just because he is told to do so - he knows very well that this is his only route to becoming a great pianist. Of course, this injects a fascinating point of tension into the friendship as Amamiya fluctuates between admiration and simmering jealousy of Kai's virtuoso talent.
As for Kai Ichinose, his colourful personality should be annoying but somehow isn't. He's poor and unkempt, skips school, and spouts his mouth off at every given opportunity, which often gets him into fights with his classmates. At the same time, his vivacity is what makes him so much fun to watch; his eccentric reactions had me laughing on more than one occasion, and the attention paid to sketching out his mannerisms makes him seem very real. I am convinced that Piano no Mori would only be half as good without him.
Ajino Sousuke is also called ‘Funeral Ajino' by his students because of his miserable appearance; the reason behind his dour face is not the most surprising twist in the world, but his unexpected sensitivity to Kai's needs is certainly interesting. Even more than Amamiya-Kai, I like the Ajino-Kai dynamic where weird and reluctant student meets emotionally comatose tutor. Sure, it is a familiar idea, but it still involves some very touching moments.
In spite of the unexciting premise, Piano no Mori manages to provide not just a few good tunes and some fun characters, but also a classic theme of musical passion and a charming narrative approach. For anyone who just wants a witty and uplifting story, this title should not be missed.
Born into the wealthy family of a famous musician, Shu Amamiya feels it is his fate to become a professional pianist. But when he transfers to a new elementary school, his goal is threatened by an obnoxious classmate, Ichinose Kai, who has the ability to produce beautiful sound from a piano that was thought to be broken. The two quickly become friends; however, their friendship is tested when they face off in a competition to determine who has the better skill, greatest ambition, and the strongest love for the piano.
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