Thursday, July 30, 2015

[Anime] Your Lie In April Review

Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (Your Lie In April) - 4/10

"It was only a hopeless fancy
It passed like an April dye
But a look and a word and the dreams they stirred
They have stolen my heart away"
-George Orwell, 1984

"Shigatsu" is a saccharine middle school drama, centered on the recovery of the Kousei Arima's will and ability to play the piano.  I was drawn in initially by the promise of good music and the setting of two people connecting and helping each other through their passions.  However, what starts as an intriguing premise becomes an excuse to wallow in adolescent monologues and sentimentality.

Before beginning the review in earnest, a discussion on the difference between good and bad sentiment is in order.  All series aim to make us feel something.  To accuse a work of trying to manipulate feelings is to point out the obvious, and we are rightfully disappointed when it fails to do so.  We pay good money for this experience.  The difference is in the intent of the manipulation.

A good series has content that causes the viewer to feel something because of its meaning or impact.  It is confronting a situation which is emotionally evocative, either positively or negatively.  It is legitimately trying to do or say something with regards to its subject.  If executed well, the viewer responds emotionally to the creation.  By comparison, if a series' primary objective is to make its viewers feel, rather than be substantial, then its emotional content is meaningless.  It is put on for show in an attempt to fish for the reaction, but the content is insubstantial.  It's the equivalent of an artificial sweetener: there are no actual calories, but it tastes (mostly) like the real thing.

While I get ahead of myself for "The Bad," I found that Shigatsu fell into the latter category.  It took a collection of emotionally-charged subjects (young life, romance, spring/awakening, music, and sick/dying children) and packaged them together in hopes of getting some easy tears.  This was the inspiration for this review's quote.  In 1984 there is a segment where Winston is visiting the entertainment wing of the Ministry of Truth, and he comes on the music department:

"Here were produced...sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator."

In other words, a list of emotional words and phrases are thrown together in a tumbler and the order that they fall out is used to create a song.  Shigatsu has all the earmarks of being produced in an equivalent human fashion: "hopeless fancy," "April dye" (spring rain), "dreams they stirred," and "stolen my heart" sum up much of the anime.  It lacks any real substance, but it's enough to trigger emotions and get the results it wants.

I loved these stills.
The Good:
The production quality of this series was superb.  The colors were very soft but vibrant, giving a gentle look to the visuals.  The backgrounds in particular struck me, as they seemed to stray into an almost pastel range with their presentation.  Character design was also very pleasant.  What impressed me the most was how effective the incorporation of small amounts of color into their cheeks and lips made them feel more alive than most anime characters.

The atmosphere is also supported strongly by the music (which, frankly, it would be an embarrassment if a series like Shigatsu had bad music).  Both the pieces composed for the series itself as well as the classical arrangements played by the characters are well-chosen, and run the range from discordant frustration to serene sadness.  Even as somebody who is not particularly musical I could appreciate the attention given to this facet of the show.

While I was unimpressed by most of the characters, one did stand out to me: Saki, Kousei's mother.  This may seem strange, but for the first half of the series I found her the most compelling.  Saki was a person at the end of her rope.  She was clearly somebody who was always ambitious and in control.  When sickness took her, there was nothing she could do except wither slowly until she died.  In the grip of this, she turned all of her remaining attention to the one thing she could control: her child.  Devolving into an abusive relationship, she pushed him relentlessly as an extension of herself.  By the end she was deranged, and through the sad psychology of abuse her child was manipulated into feeling that he was at fault for things that were never under anybody's control.

Sadly, they completely ruined her character around the halfway point.  In order for Kousei to come to terms with his abuse the series attempts to explain away Saki's behavior.  It turns exclusively to remembering the early days, before she began her long descent.  Using this, it justifies Saki in the light that she simply wanted her child to be the best and that the beatings and emotional torment were only a little excessive.  This is an insulting resolution, glossing over the real damage she did to her child in favor of an easy fix.

I was similarly excited-then-disappointed by the scene in the hospital where Kaori loses her composure.  She lashes out at Kousei, blaming and berating him.  In that moment she mirrored Kousei's mother more strongly than ever.  I hoped that perhaps they would connect the two more firmly: that Kaori's childish forcefulness and selfishness, her impulsive behavior, and her erratic violence were actually natural precursors to somebody like Saki.  That perhaps there is a dark side to living your life on the whim of your feelings.  But then this parallel never manifested itself and the show swiftly moved on.

Finally, I am a sucker for good death scenes, and Kaori's final moments were indeed excellent.  It was a very sweet last duet to have her spiritually playing alongside Kousei, knowing what this meant for her surgery elsewhere.  That the series decided to skip the actual funeral scene would have been brilliant, by making sure the final impression of her was so glowing.  Unfortunately, the gains made by this move were completely lost by the over-the-top 10-minute letter reading at the end.

Dead giveaway what was going to happen.
The Bad: 
I have already thoroughly covered the cardinal sin of the series: that it is suffused with purposeless feeling.  However, there are several other aspects which sink the series into mediocrity.

First is its total inability to keep an even tone.  It raised the art of bathos to such heights that I could only be impressed.  Any serious interaction, if extending for longer than ten seconds, was promptly interrupted by what can only be described as "anime outtake" mode.  If this was a subtle attempt to mirror the rapidly vacillating emotions of its subjects, it was lost on me and served instead to ruin the mood.  There were many satisfactory scenes that became a hash of incompatible impulses under such direction.

Paralleling this, many of the performance scenes were also disrupted by the injection of excessive introspection.  In that moment of performance, all of one's attention turns to the task at hand.  It is a moment of flow.  At that time, conscious thinking actually decreases.  The immediateness of the experience is produced by a reduction in our thoughtfulness.  For the moment at least, we are in the here and now.  It is totally incompatible with "deep" musings about one's self, and the fusion of the two is nonsensical.

The pacing of the series also felt off to me.  It felt like thirteen episodes of content stretched to twenty-two.  The amount of reminiscing and remembering, coupled with frequent flashbacks, padded the series.  This was most egregious where sometimes the flashbacks were of the same episode, now brought back again to lead to  Similarly, while I appreciate Kousei's trauma is real, the scene of him huddling and crying as a child was replayed practically once an episode for the first half of the series.  The introduction of completely unnecessary and unimportant side characters in the latter half of the series also soaked up screen time, extending what was functionally one cour of content into two.

So in conclusion, I had high hopes at the beginning of the series.  The appearance and music drew me in and promised a lush experience.  Unfortunately, its shallow emotional underpinnings and protracted execution destroyed the impact it could have had.

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