Hey Hey Heroes, Travelers, and Wandering NPCs, I’m back with another super special awesome OWLS Blog Tour! What’s that you say? You don’t know about OWLS? Well, for those of you new here, OWLS or Otaku Wariors for Liberty and Self-Respect is a group of bloggers, vloggers, and writers who seek to promote acceptance and equality through thoughtful community activism, with an otaku twist! Each month we decide on a theme and each member writes a post or records a video, on that theme through the lens of something from pop culture. We have been known to cover a wide range of topics, from anime and manga to video games and film, most subject matter is up for discussion so long as it fits with our monthly theme. This month’s theme is Pride!
In honor of “Pride Month,” we will be discussing the word, “Pride” and its meaning. We will be exploring pop culture characters’ most satisfying and joyful achievements or skills that they possessed and whether or not these qualities could be seen as a positive or negative aspect in their personal lives and/or society.
I’m just one in a long line of Blog Tour stops this month, and I highly recommend checking them all out when you have the time. Just before me was Irina from I Drink and Watch Anime, with her awesome post about Assassination Classroom.
I’ve kind of been out of the game for a bit, so I had a hard time coming up with a subject for this month’s blog tour. But, I absolutely loved the prompt so I couldn’t very well sit this one out, thankfully inspiration came from none other than Mel from Mel in Animeland. It’s been awhile since we talked but she helped me brainstorm a bit about which anime I should choose, she suggested Haikyuu, but I wanted to do something a little different. So after a bit of back and forth, I decided to go with the music anime Piano no Mori (Piano Forest) currently airing for the Spring 2018 season.
Piano no Mori ~ The Perfect World of Kai is a 26 volume seinen manga series by Makoto Isshiki that ran from 1998 to 2015. The manga has been adapted twice, first as a 2007 feature length animated film and the second time as a 24 episode anime series (currently airing in Spring/Summer 2018 season). While both take some liberties with the source material the premise remains largely unchanged. The story follows Kai Ichinose, the son of a prostitute living in the red-light district just on the edge of a lush forest. At night he sneaks away to play a mysterious abandoned piano hidden deep in the forest. Despite having no formal training, Kai possesses a natural talent for the piano, attracting the attention of retired pianist, Sousuke Ajino, who takes the young prodigy under his wing. Along the way, Kai meets Shuuhei Amamiya, the son of a famous pianist who transfers to his elementary school midway through the school year. Through their shared love of music and the piano, the two become fast friends, but when it becomes apparent that Kai’s playing clearly surpasses that of Shuuhei’s the two part ways in hopes of honing their craft. The series takes place over several years following Kai from adolescence through his teen years and to young adulthood as he follows his own musical path, including the ups and downs he faces along the way.
I usually shy away from ongoing anime series, but, somehow or another, I found myself captivated by the main character, Kai Ichinose, and his journey to become not just a pianist, but to play the piano his own way. For Kai, it isn’t just about being good at playing the piano or winning competitions, for Kai it’s about doing things on his own terms and becoming a musician he can be proud of, as a result, he faces many challenges: not only from his peers, each of whom have their own motivations for playing piano, but, from the musical community at large. But, the biggest challenge Kai faces along his journey isn’t an external foe, but an internal one.
The Technician v. The Performer: It’s More Than Just Playing the Notes
Despite facing setback after setback, Kai’s biggest competition is himself and his struggles with finding his own musical voice. Anyone can be taught to read the notes on a page and to learn the fingerings, but true music comes from within, it’s the musician’s ability to put a little of themselves into the music. It’s one thing to mimic the playing styles of others, but, it’s another thing entirely to move people with your music, to make the music your own. It’s something I myself struggled with constantly when I played the flute back in high school, which is probably why this anime resonates with me so much. I know what it’s like to balance music and musicality, playing an instrument isn’t just about playing the notes or getting them all right, it’s about the feelings your sound evokes in the listener and most importantly in yourself. It’s an important lesson to learn, and sadly, one most musicians never learn, especially when it comes to competitive playing.
1. musical talent or sensitivity.
2. the quality of having a pleasant sound; melodiousness.
Most competitions favor technique over musicality a fact that is brought up several times throughout the series. Rigid competitive structure favor technical players who pride themselves in their ability to play perfectly, rather than musicians that focus on musicality. So, natural talents like Kai, who favor style over technique find themselves at a disadvantage when compared with more classically trained musicians like Shuuhei who strive for technical perfection. Both Kai and Shuuhei are talented musicians in their own right, both produce music audiences enjoy listening to, and yet, there is a distinct difference in emotions behind their music. Neither style is wrong or better than the other, instead it’s more a reflection on their individual approaches to music. So in this post, I’ll be looking at the different approaches the characters of Piano no Mori take when it comes to playing piano and how that effects their feelings towards music and their motivations as musicians.
Taking Pride in Finding Your Own Sound
While their are several phenomenal musicians that appear throughout the series proper, I will focus on the main three: Kai Ichinose, Shuuhei Amamiya, and Sousuke Ajino, as each are representative of a different (and equally important) aspect of a musician’s “journey”.
Kai Ichinose- Finding Beauty in Squalor
Kai is the embodiment of passion music can evoke in people, his journey is one of fulfillment and expression, focusing not so much on technique, but the emotions behind his notes. Rather than taking pride in perfection, he finds joy in conveying the soul of the music he plays regardless of the setting.
His music has the ability to bring out the beauty in anything, because he taps into the very soul of musicality. Case in point, there is a scene in both the anime and the manga, where Kai is hired to work in a local strip club as their “musician” under the guise of a beautiful female pianist, Maria. Rather than entertaining men, Kai simply performs the piano while exotic dancers entertain men with their sensual performances. It’s a jarring image, strippers dancing rhythmically to the sounds of Chopin of all things, but there’s a macabre beauty to the scene that oddly enough works. Here are a group of strippers dancing a piece that is regarded by many to be a musical masterpiece, something that belongs in a brightly lit music hall is instead the backdrop for what many would regard as a vulgar display and yet, the music enhances the dancing.
It’s hard to describe the ethereal beauty of the moment, but it’s definitely one of the most powerful scenes in the series. When Shuuhei witnesses the display he is horrified to see the classics being used in such a way, the very fact that the music is being played in a strip club is an affront to the memories of the composers that created them. But, that line of thinking undermines the very existence of the classics he claims to love, because regardless of what we perceive to be the “correct” setting for the likes of Bach, Chopin, Mozart, etc., the music was composed with the express purpose of being enjoyed by the listener regardless of the setting. Kai understands that music is meant to be shared, whether that is on a performance stage or in a strip club, he brings forth the same passion and energy in his music, which in turn elevates his playing to new heights.
Shuuhei Amamiya- Finding Solace in Perfection
On the other side of that is Shuuhei, who embodies the competitive drive of the musician, he thrives on hard work and dedication to achieve musical “perfection”. Shuuhei focuses on the technicality of music that can only be achieved through vigorous study and practice. Unlike Kai, Shuuhei has been trained from a young age on the intricacies of music, through careful methodological study, he prides himself in his ability to consistently produce “perfect” music. Now, I say perfect, in that Shuuhei’s playing style is much more rigid, rarely (if ever) deviating from the notes on a page, which is both an advantage over more style driven performers and a disadvantage. As I mentioned earlier, Shuuhei’s playing style is best suited for the much more technique focused competitive circuit. However, when compared with performers like Kai and Chinese pianist, Wei Pang, who infuse their emotions into their playing, Shuuhei’s playing, while impressive, seems sterile and formulaic.
Ultimately this is what drives Shuuhei’s one-sided rivalry with Kai, the freedom with which Kai plays taunts Shuuhei, because, despite his best efforts, a player’s feelings and emotions can’t be replicated. Despite that fact, he goes to great lengths to emulate the latter’s style at the expense of stifling his own unique musical voice. In his quest to beat Kai, he loses sight of the main reason he plays piano, not because his father is a famous musician, not because he wants acclaim, but for the simple fact that he loves music. His lack of pride in the his own music only fuels his inferiority complex and further widens the gap between him and Kai.
Sousuke Ajino- Fostering the Next Generation of Musicians
Last but not least is Ajino, retired pianist and Kai’s personal piano teacher. Unlike Kai and Shuuhei, Ajino was once a famous musician renowned for his skill and technique, but at the peek of his career he lost everything. For him, music was his life, it was apart of who he was and in the blink of an eye it was taken from him. He lost his purpose, falling into a deep depression, and severing ties with the musician he once was. His is a story of loss and rebirth, his own career as a pianist is over, but, he is able to reclaim a bit of his past through his relationship with Kai.
He’ll never be the musician he once was, but he can ensure that his legacy lives on in the next generation, by nurturing Kai’s talent. Through Kai, Ajino’s musical journey is given a second chance, but he never attempts to stifle Kai’s own growth, he instead allows Kai to come into his own musical voice, much to his student’s dismay. He doesn’t groom Kai to be the next Sousuke Ajino, he trains him to surpass him. He realizes that his time has passed and that it is time for the next generation to leave their marks on the world. Kai is his legacy and their relationship reflects that, he is more than a student to him, he’s almost like a son to him, and he prides himself in knowing that he had a hand in shaping Kai into the man he is today.
“Why Do You Play?”
There is one question that comes up quite a few times in a musician’s life: ‘Why do you play?’ It’s a simple question, but one that many people struggle to answer and for most, the answer changes significantly over the course of your musical journey. Your journey shapes your answer, the ups and downs, the victories and the losses all make you the musician you are today. Rarely is anyone the same musician they were when they first picked up their instrument, so it stands to reason that your motivations for playing would change too.
When I was first asked the question I was ten, sitting in a room with my soon to be band teacher after managing to play a single note into the head joint of a flute. It was my first time ever seeing let alone holding a real instrument and I was only trying out for band because a friend of mine didn’t want to go to the audition alone. So when I managed to make a sound come out of that cold metal head joint, let’s just say I was a little smug. The instructor immediately wiped that smile right off my face by asking me one question:
“Why do you want to play?”
I was at a loss, I really had no reason for wanting to play the flute, in fact I really wanted to play trumpet (she vetoed that choice), and it was only by chance that I wound up at the audition in the first place. So I did what any snot nosed brat would do when faced with a question I didn’t have the answer to… I shrugged. But, apparently that was the correct answer, because I wound up spending the entire year in band class, despite never actually playing a single note, for some reason I could not get that silly embouchure down until the last day of the year. But, I didn’t quit, mostly because my mom told me that if she was going to drop two grand on an instrument, I was going to play it till I died.
I was asked the question again in middle school (the sixth grade), this time from the director of the 7th grade band. Here I was a scrawny 6th grader, surrounded by 7th graders, scared out of my wits, damn near dropped my two thousand dollar flute because my hands were so sweaty and the director, this big burly dude turns to me and asks me:
“Why do you play?”
And I stammer out something along the lines of, “Because I’m good at it” and the band room erupts in laughter, because this cheeky little 6th grader just declared war on the entirety of her section, all of whom have been playing far longer than I had at the time. I then proceeded to make good on my words by working my way up from last chair to third chair (out of 12).
The last time I was asked was in high school, my senior year, at this point I had been playing my flute for a little over 8 years. That’s 8 long years of late night practicing, fingering through notes until my fingers hurt, challenging my way up the ranks, failed competitions, and learning to play piccolo (I hated learning Pic by the way). I worked hard honing my music, finding my voice… my sound, a beautiful vibrato that can only be achieved by being so nervous that you literally shake your entire flute when you play, every single time you play.
So, it’s the last day of my senior year and I’m sitting in my band director’s office with a few other folks, we’re talking about where we’re going for college and what we plan to major in and he turns to us each in turn and asks us the same question I had been asked so many times before at different points in my musical journey:
“Why do you play?”
Now, I’d already made up my mind not to continue playing in college, so the question kind of hit me pretty hard, because unlike some of my peers high school was the “end” of my musical journey. And, as I sat there considering my answer, I realized something I hadn’t up until that point. I genuinely loved playing the flute, I loved the weight of the instrument in my hands the soft click of the keys as I shifted between notes, and the sound… the beautiful crisp sound of a perfectly tuned flute… there’s nothing like it. I loved those god awful high notes five bars off the staff, the trills, the solos that gave me mini panic attacks, and I will admit, for a fraction of a second that I also loved the piccolo. In that moment, I realized I had come to love playing the flute, and I took pride in how far I had come not only as a musician but as a person because I decided to go with my friend to that band audition eight years prior.
So, I turned to my band director clutching my battered flute case in my lap and said, “Because I love playing.” It was a simple answer that carried the weight of eight long years, of failures and successes. There were moments when I wanted to quit, forget the flute move on with my life, but, I never did, and even now, despite only picking up my flute maybe once or twice a year, I can confidently say that I still love playing the flute. Not because I want to be the best musician around or because someone told me I had to play, I love playing because somewhere along the way I fell in love with music and I take pride in knowing that my music is mine and no one else’s.
Right, so that’s all I have to say about that, there are still a ton of blog tour stops left in the June 2018 Tour, next up are two phenomenal bloggers, first, our newest member, Jack from The Ani Writer and second Marth from Marth’s Anime Blog, so definitely be on the look out for those posts on the 20th!! Also if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the Official OWLS Twitter account @OWLSbloggers and the Official OWLS Blog, to stay up to date on all OWLS news and announcements!
If you are interested in becoming a member of the OWLS team, please feel free to fill out the contact form, HERE! So don’t be afraid to reach out to any of us on our blogs, on twitter, or at the contact page to learn more about us!! You just need an open mind and a willingness to have fun! Catch you guys on the flipside!