Episode 13 - Your Lie in April - The Songs We Chose to Play
Are you superstitious? If you are, then you probably aren’t listening to unlucky episode 13, or you are surprised that I—the inept podcaster that I am—didn’t have the misfortune of completely crashing my RSS feed when I was uploading this episode. Well, jokes on you, I’ve already done that once before, but I got it fixed.
Enough deflecting onto my ineptitude. Let me ask you again. Are you superstitious? Does the number thirteen unnerve you is some way that doesn’t really resist description but also doesn’t want to be explained. Because there’s something deeply personal about the things that make us uncomfortable or even outright fearful on occasion. Particularly when these feelings are clearly and objectively irrationally. If we’ve learned to distrust symbols, items, or actions from hearsay or loose observations—through any less than scientific means—we feel compelled to hide this, hide ourselves, hide our vulnerabilities, and hide our fearful nature.
Beyond our little quirks, these things are subtle confessions that we are not in complete control of our lives—or that we suspect that we are not. That there are other, non-descript forces at work in our lives, and we are not bold enough to go against them.
It’s hard to explain this. It’s harder still to confess when you have this belief. That objects and symbols we use to make up our day to day lives influence us as we influence them. Things are happening. Things are moving. Things are making up a larger picture than what we can comprehend. The cosmos around us that we dwell within and that we cannot control, has taught as lessons that we struggle to free ourselves from.
Or maybe you think you have. Maybe you pride yourself in your liberation from any and all superstition, from letting things and the notions around them dictate your life. Maybe you aren’t concerned with the unseen and often unacknowledged forces around you. And you believe that you have complete mastery in your life.
Good for you, but I’m not sure I agree.
(Music fades out)
Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 13.
(Music fades in)
I’ve talked about anime before on this podcast, and even though I wasn’t direct about it, I did allude to the idea that while I’m not a diehard fan, I can and often do take pause to appreciate the truly beautiful masterpieces that come out every so often. As well as the absurd and more comedic series whose premise is so outlandish that it demands to be watched. However, on this podcast, I’ve focused on the masterpieces.
And Your Lie in April is one of them.
Your Lie in April started as a manga. This one by Naoshi Arakawa and was adapted into an anime by the studio A-1 pictures, an anime that ran from October 2014 to March 2015. But unlike the subjects of my two previous strolls into the medium, I’ve read the source material this time, but I still have to talk about the anime. Considering the incredible visuals of the show and the importance of music within the story, the anime just makes for a more immersive experience.
And—frankly—this is the type of story that needs to be experienced fully.
In terms of plot, Your Lie in April tells the story of Kōsei Anima, former piano child prodigy and current Friend A. Back when he could actually hear the piano, he dominated various musical competitions and was poised to break into the highest tier of child musicians. And everything was going great—on the surface—until Kōsei was eleven, and he suffered a mental breakdown in the middle of a recital. After that breakdown, he could no longer hear the piano. Hence my brief aside earlier.
Physically, Kōsei’s hearing is fine. It wasn’t lost in a tragic accident or due to an illness or something external striking the meat sack that is Kōsei’s body. It’s a psychosomatic condition. Or—as I like to think of it in this specific case—the brain tried to conform to what it believed the physical world was actually liked. It thought it now lived in a world without the piano, and so, it stopped listening for it.
Behind the figurative scenes, the eleven-year-old Kōsei had just lost his mother who—from what we do see of her—had been terminally ill for quite some time leading up to her death. She had been the keeper, as it were, of his musical prowess. I say that, because Kōsei’s father is still living at the time of the story, but he doesn’t seem too concerned that his son had stopped pushing for this dream. It’s not malicious, just indifference. Or to put it more kindly, he’s content to let Kōsei direct his own life.
There’s certainly no way you can say that about Kōsei’s mother who did not use her influence over him kindly.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
It’s disconcerting how loyal a child can be to an abusive parent. Understandable, I’m sure from a psychologist’s or a psychiatrist’s perspective and the worthy subject of many academic studies or endeavors. And I won’t pretend that I have any means or right to dictate how someone copes with trauma particularly at a time in their life when they are so vulnerable. I freely admit to my ignorance. But seeing Kōsei’s flashbacks throughout the series provides its own illuminations.
His mother treated him horribly, but for all her sins, she seemed to be offering him some sort of exit to this abusive situation. She presented him a way in which he could end the suffering she was inflicting upon him and could obtain the love he was desperate for. If he can just be the best piano player, if he can just break into the European scene, and if he could just achieve her dreams, then she’ll love him. Then she’ll love him, and he can finally be happy.
Even under the best of circumstances, it’s just false hope. Abusive parents can seldom be satisfied.
But even if that were not true. There would be no resolution to this situation. There would be no end to Kōsei’s strife. There would be no achieving the only dream that was completely his and not hers. Her death made that impossible. Her death meant he’d never have the thing he was most desperate to gain. Her death meant that this all-encompassing pursuit of his was meaningless.
Her death took everything from him. Including the piano.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
Our relationship with music can be an intimate or deeply personal one. And I don’t think that is a controversial statement in any way. But when I say that, maybe you think of a particular song that you love. One that spoke to your soul. One that gave you the words you need to articulate a feeling you otherwise can only run from.
While that’s undoubtedly important, there’s more to it than that at work here, I think. It’s not just a matter of finding the kindred spirit you were yearning for. It’s more akin to the way a treasured object becomes a stand-in for a loved one who has passed on. Or the way a smell evokes the warmth and love you felt during the best family dinner you can remember. Or the way a table at a restaurant becomes a monument to the relationship that imploded while you were sitting at it. Or the way the college campus you spent four years at transformed from a spot on the map to a whirlwind of emotions.
And it’s not just through frequency. But I was writing part of the first draft of at a table that still remains—to me—a table, despite how often I use it. It’s not a manifestation of my frustration that comes when I work on this project. It’s nothing but a table.
When I was in school, all students in the fourth grade where expected to join some sort of music program in school. You could take general music, which was just kind of a “what is music”/“how does music work” class, or you could join choir, or you could play an instrument in the band class or the strings class. Band or orchestra I think are the more general terms. I chose band. And I also chose flute. As did my best friend and like thirty other girls in my grade level.
Thinking about how the rest of the episodes have gone, you might be expecting some sort of grand story about how I fell out of love with the flute. About how I, too, in some way lost the ability to hear a treasured instrument or at least lost the ability to bear the sound.
But no. That’s not how it went or, and that’s not where this review is going. I was never serious enough about it to fall out of love. I didn’t pursue it as a career. I never thought about it. I didn’t obsess or practice anywhere near as much as I should, and when I entered college, I did have a little bit of emotional baggage with me that made me reluctant to join an ensemble, but I still played in the dorm choir. Regardless of all my difficulties, it’s certainly not the same thing Kōsei experiences.
I think very few people could have—in anyway—had an experience comparable to Kōsei’s. And on a higher, societal level, there’s a blessing in that. Because the horrors of parental abuse are something no one should ever experience, and the fact that this abuse seeped into something Kōsei seemed to have a fondness for if not love is especially tragic.
But that leads into the point that I’ve been dancing around. Is Kōsei’s love for the piano purely his? It could be, don’t get me wrong. But the fact that he lost the ability to hear it after his mother’s death seems to suggest to me that his love for the piano—at least initially—was more about his mother than it was the music.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
Now, I’m hesitant to make sweeping generalizations about children. I once read a book called Childism by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl when I was working on my college senior thesis that argued that treating children as beings that lack direction or initiative of their own undermines attempts to secure child welfare. The main takeaway I had when I was reading this—which is not necessarily the author’s argument but my own conclusion—is that treating or working with children is always going to be difficult because they are beings that have some sense of agency but they are still learning how to use it.
In this case, children are capable of loving, undoubtedly. They love their family members and pets and the like, but they don’t know what it means to love. And hey, in their defense, adults often don’t know what it means to love. But at the very least, adults can love a pastime for the mere sake of doing it, even when it’s hard. Children, on the other hand, usually love what makes them happy. But on the other hand, they don’t know when it is appropriate to disengage. Not just because it’s hard or because it isn’t fun anymore but a genuine time to drop everything and run. More seriously, they don’t know when what their parent is giving is not love but some poison they do not deserve. They don’t know when to stop trying, either trying an activity or trying to get their parents to love them.
For Kōsei, this means he could love the piano just for itself. It means he could have had a genuine interest. But it also means, that he may not have been able to fully engage with this on his own terms. It came to him through his mother, at a time when he did not have the ability to define this relationship on his own terms but instead had to let her guide him, had to listen to her cues, and often had to borrow her words. It came through his mother, and for the longest time, her fingerprints would remain all over it.
On the other side of that, this juvenile state meant not being able to let go of his mother, despite how understandable it would be from a variety of perspectives, be it her condemnable treatment of him, her stage parent attitude, or the fact that she’s been gone for a few years already. Though he may need to move on, he finds that he can’t he still loves her. He still feels the pain of loss the loss of what he knew her as in addition to what she failed to be to him.
His hearing loss suggests that his love for the piano and his mother were greatly blurred, but I wouls still say that Kōsei did in fact love the piano and wasn’t just forced to do so. He loved the piano even though his mother horribly berated him during all of it. Even though he was being abused while he was playing, he still loved it. I say this simply because he never made a clear break from it.
We see this in a couple of ways at the start of the story. For one, there’s still the ghost of his mental breakdown haunting him and a sense of remorse that he never continued on. Second, he has a job transcribing pop songs, which involves the piano, when he probably could have just found something else. And finally but most honestly, if the piano meant nothing to him, why can’t he hear it?
Earlier, I said that his psychosomatic hearing loss was his brain’s attempt to conform to its understanding of the world. Without his mother pushing him forward or teaching him—and I use that term loosely—the piano was just gone. The things that underlie the object or action ceased to exist, ergo, the thing itself stopped existing. But what if it were more than that? What if this was a form of self-punishment, for failing to meet his deceased mother’s expectations or a failure to live out her dreams? This could only work if he truly loved the piano, being that punishments need to be able to deprive the recipient of something they find valuable.
In my mind, both potential explanations have some validity to them. While it may be a story and thus able to simplify itself at a creator’s whim, in reality, there’s seldom a single cause for things. Unless you boil everything down greatly, which I’m going to go ahead and do.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
The short of it is that Kōsei’s relationship with the piano or with playing the piano hasn’t been his to dictate. He may not be able to fully explain that to the people who push him for his reasoning. And he may be reluctant to admit that he is at the whim of forces far beyond him, though perhaps the fact that this all occurred when he was a child should free from any responsibility and thus guilt. Regardless, at the start of the story, Kōsei lacks the agency he needs to dictate his own relationship with the piano largely because he is hindered by a destructive relationship with the maternal figure in his life.
Enter Kaori, the free-spirited violinist meant as a love interest for Kōsei’s friend. She’s fiery but sweet, accomplished but carefree. But most of all, she’s good at loving things. At first, I thought she was in love with being in love above all things, but that’s not giving her enough credit. Because, like I’ve said in the past, some people aren’t good at loving. They aren’t good as saying what Pieper described as “it’s good that you exist as you are.” She loves things as they are, especially desserts, but I’m not going to hold that against her.
Her ability to love caught Kōsei’s attention. He was in awe of it.
On the other hand, she is not in awe of his inability to play piano. Actually, she’s rather unsympathetic to his plight, not that she seems to fully understand it in anyway. It’s not that she doesn’t believe Kōsei’s struggle but that she doesn’t fully get it. The audience is at an advantage, being privy to his memories and more secret thoughts.
To her, music is a gift. It’s something worth savoring, worth loving, and worth engaging in. Like all things, it’s beautiful in and of itself. Not just as a means to an end. And that’s what she wants Kōsei to understand.
I mean it could still be a means to an end for Kōsei if he wanted to act on that. He clearly like Kaori, and if he agrees to play with her, that’s a sure fire way to her heart. He has a chance to win her over, but he still can’t take it. Or he doesn’t take it. It may partially be out of loyalty to his friend, but his friend has enough women interested in him to take a single loss in stride. I would think.
Point being, Kōsei doesn’t need to keep running from this or after her, and yet he does.
Perspective switches are hard, even when common sense dictates that this is the only proper course of action. Kōsei really needs to stop burning this candle for his mother if only because he is now an adult, capable of making his own choices. He can chose to keep playing the piano, and he can chose to keep playing it as well or as poorly as he wants. But he’s stuck in a rut, like so many of us are. An object at rest will stay at rest until compelled to move, even if it is seated on the tracks with a train in the distance or molten lava flowing its way. Whichever metaphor you prefer.
I think we all do this, but I know with absolute certainty that I do. We linger in relationships, jobs, or just states of being not because we want to be there but because we are lacking a force strong enough to push us forward. It’s a theme that appears in a fair number of my past episodes, and I think it’s because this is as much a cosmic law for humans as it is a law of physics. At the end of the day, we don’t just need a reason to change. We can’t just want to change. We need a compelling reason to change.
Sure, maybe in our current state we are miserable, but maybe that isn’t enough. We don’t give misery enough credit for how persuasive it can be. It doesn’t just persuade us to ignore the many joyful things in our lives and all the things we have to be happy about. It doesn’t just convince us to withdraw from our lives, from our friends, and from our family, all of the people who could help us out of this.
No, most of all, it can convince you to stay with it, even if you don’t want to. Even when all you want to do is move on.
I had the flu once, not really the flu but a bad stomach flu that lasted for a couple days. By the end of the third day, I swear I forgot what it was like to not be sick. I’m lucky I didn’t need to depend on my conscious choice to get well. Because I didn’t know what I would need to strive for. I wouldn’t know where to go. The map that once dwelt in my mind had been burnt up somehow. I know I must have had it, and I found it again quickly enough once I got stronger. But in the moment, if my recovery depended on my choice and not my immune system, I would have been in trouble.
For Kōsei, the situation is even worse. He grew up like this. It was all he had known. As a result, you really can’t blame him for his seeming inaction.
Kaori became the force that pushed him forward. And like I said, if were just out of an attraction to her, Kōsei had a quick fix button at his disposal. There was a very easy way to woo her, but he didn’t take it. He couldn’t take it. It’s almost as if he were at the step before romancing her—the part where you become the person that enters into a romantic entanglement.
It was a matter of agency, something he struggled with throughout the story. He doesn’t know how to direct his life. And it wasn’t that he was never taught how. Personal agency or the ability to direct your own life isn’t something you’re necessarily taught. At the very least, it wasn’t something I was directly taught. It was something I took up when I felt as if I had no other choice if I was going to survive to be the person I actually wanted to be with only the model of someone I knew in college to guide me.
As for Kōsei, he finds this model in Kaori. He needs to learn how to love things in a way that isn’t destructive to him. He finds that in her. What Kaori gives him is a model of what it means to love things. She’s the map that can help him navigate the turmoil of his past to arrive at the point where he needs to be not so much as a musician but as a person who may or may not elect to be a musician but certainly loves music.
She is happy playing music, simple as that. She could easily pursue more, but to her, while it’s nice to have more, it isn’t a necessity. And that’s clear from the first time we see her.
At first, we see Kaori play in the first round of a competition, a round that has a set piece that all competitors have to play. Before she comes on stage, we see a couple performers attempt the piece, which helps the audience get a better sense of what the judges are looking for. It’s just too bad that Kaori doesn’t seem to pay as much attention as we are.
While she plays beautifully, the head judge is left foaming at the mouth simply because Kaori made the piece her own. She played it as she wanted to play it with no regard for how it would be received, for how the composer intended it to be played, or for any formality that would just get in her way. And maybe she didn’t know better, or maybe she was counting on popular approval to go on in the competition. But show me some other point in the show where she expresses a desire to wi or an obsession with it akin to what we saw from Kōsei’s mother. Sure, she wants to Kōsei to be her accompanist, but that’s not a strategic choice. It’s just what she wants.
And in some way, it’s what she wants him to want too. She wants him to want this dream that she has, rather than forcing it on him.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
When I first saw Your Lie in April, as hard as it may be to admit, I did think that Kaori was a manic pixie dream girl. If you aren’t familiar with the trope, it’s a female character designed specifically to reinvigorate the protagonist’s appreciation for life at what could be seen as a low point for him or when he is stuck in a rut. It’s only that woman’s compelling nature that can get him moving again. In running after her quirky and often broken soul, he finds that life isn’t as dreary as he previously thought. But ultimately, it can’t be a long term relationship, not to say that she didn’t have a major impact on his life. The lessons will remain long after she is gone.
Sounds supper familiar, right? So obviously, you can see why I thought of her as a manic pixie dream girl, but looking back, I don’t see that anymore. Or at least, not so strong. Because ultimately, Kaori isn’t telling Kōsei what to think about the piano. It’s largely a belief he already holds but one he cannot act upon. Instead, she gives him the ability to act, as it were, by offering him a new frame of reference through which he can relate to the world. Something he successfully mirrors back to her in a later scene that I can’t go into without falling very deep into spoiler territory. His ability to return the favor makes the relationship too reciprocal to be a typical manic pixie dream girl dynamic.
And frankly, I don’t think the story would have been as emotionally moving had it been one-sided. It’s something that happens to all of us, albeit in different degrees. People come and go in our lives, and sometimes we don’t give it much thought after it happened. We may have had a classmate or old teacher who passed away and once we move up a grade, do we even think about them again? We’ve all had people we loved, but we don’t lie awake worrying what happened to them. Life still moves on. Life always moves on. The memories we have of those we’ve lost—the lessons we learned from them—stay with us as something that cannot be taken away. And it’s those past memories that we value, that gave us that reason to hold on in the first place. That’s all it ever about.
But once you pour yourself into something, the stakes change. Sometimes, it’s the sunk cost fallacy talking. We’ve poured so much in that we are just desperate for a return on our investment and the idea that such cannot happen is deeply distressing.
But I think that ignores the reason why we got started in the first place. The loss may not be about what we once had but what we could have had, what we wanted. It’s the knowledge that something can never happen. That a bad situation can never change. We can never have the thing we dreamt most about. We tried to build something, a life with the first person we ever fell in love with, and now have to watch it all far apart. Hopes and dreams hurdling to the ground, shattering when they land. The sound of it must be brutal. But at the same time, you must know it’s something you can prevent, right? If you had just withdrawn from the world or from the person or from the action.
(Music begins to fade out)
Let the forces of your life sweep you away. Bow down to their desires. Give them what they want. Don’t resist it.
Unless, of course, it’s worth it. Because that’s what you want to do and because a beautiful girl who loves desserts reminds you that it’s all worth it. By all means, then fight back. Keep playing and listen to the music.
(New music fades in)
This has been a production of Miscellany Media Studios. Thanks for listening. If you like what you heard, considering subscribing. Or find us online at miscellanymedia.online. But for the latest updates on our current and upcoming projects, follow us on twitter @miscellanymedia.