Kai Ichinose is the son of a prostitute who lives in the red-light district, but at night he sneaks off into the forest near his home to play on the abandoned piano there. Shuuhei Amamiya is the son of prestigious pianists, and was practically breast-fed by the piano. When the two boys meet at elementary school, Shuuhei is astounded by the fact that it seems like Kai is the only person who can generate sound out of the piano in the forest, which was long thought broken. Earning Shuuhei’s respect, Kai chooses the long and arduous path to becoming a renowned pianist.
Forest of Piano is the adaptation of the manga Piano no Mori: The Perfect World of Kai, by Makoto Isshiki, and the anime film of the same name by studio Madhouse in 2007, directed by Masayuki Kojima. This show will be released in two parts; part 1 consists of 12 episodes, and is available now, while part 2 is expected to be available sometime in 2019.
Out of all the shows I had anticipated Netflix would license this year, I was quite perplexed on why they would choose something like this, although I don’t say that as a bad thing whatsoever, as Netflix’s ‘tastes’ in anime licenses have been a bit wild…from the melodramatic fantasy of Violet Evergarden, to the forward-thinking science fiction of Knights of Sidonia. Netflix is, it seems, trying to cater for every type of anime fan, and by bringing in a show like Forest of Piano, which is firmly rooted in the drama genre, they can perhaps aim towards the more mature viewer. Of course, they’ll never be able to please everyone; there will always be one person who thinks that Netflix’s method of releasing shows is wrong.
The show begins with the adult Kai performing Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 1 in front of a packed audience, and it’s not long before we realise that this is to be a biographical story, with us seeing how Kai changes from a child in poverty to someone who can dazzle audiences on stage. A rags-to-riches story? Well, not quite. When we begin in childhood, we see Shuuhei Amamiya transfer into Kai’s elementary school. There he announces that he plans to become a famous pianist, something the school bullies are quick to seize on. With Kai defending him, he shows him the piano in the forest that grows next to where he lives in the red-light district. It’s abandoned and broken, with sound not coming out when keys are pressed, and yet Kai is able to get sound out of it. This is something that isn’t entirely explained, although to be honest, it doesn’t really need to be, as this alone shows to us as the audience that Kai is ‘the chosen one’, compared to Shuuhei who has learned to play through hard work and practice.
Aside from the awkward blend of 2D and 3D animation (more on that later), this talent vs. hard work is something that bothers me in The Piano Forest…oh, wait…Forest of Piano – how the ‘chosen ones’ get the spotlight as opposed to those who have actually earned their way there. It was this theme that bothered me in a recent show: Hanebado! In that, the third-year Nagisa struggles after practising badminton and working hard for years to be a fantastic player, only to be shot down instantly by a younger girl, Ayano, who appears to be so talented at badminton, it’s frightening. The fact that Ayano isn’t exactly afraid to look high and mighty about her talent as a badminton player doesn’t help either. Here in Forest of Piano, Shuuhei has been practising to become a world-class piano player since the age of four. He occasionally wears gloves so as not to damage his fingers, and he needs to protect his hearing as well. But while he welcomes the idea of Kai entering the student piano competition, he knows that, inside, he is extremely envious on how someone like Kai, who can only master playing one broken and abandoned piano, can be chosen by a former world-class pianist to be his student over someone who has worked hard to be where he is now. And this hidden envy carries on throughout the rest of the show.
But you can’t deny how much research the animation studio have done into music here. So many composers are given the spotlight, and even though I am no expert at the piano (or music playing), you can tell that they didn’t just get anyone to perform piano pieces for this show. That is something that I can call a big positive in this show, and what makes the show what it is.
Okay, so maybe I’m playing the talent vs. hard work thing too much, as it is an integral part of the show. Unfortunately, Forest of Piano stands out for another reason: its poor 3D animation. You can see that the animation studio, Gaina (formerly Fukushima Gainax), tries so hard to get the fingers of a piano player to look as realistic as possible, but this attempt fails miserably, as the combination of mediocre 3D animation of Kai playing a piano with 2D close-up facial shots (or anything else for that matter) looks horrible and extremely awkward to watch. In addition to this, the English dub is…strange. The young Kai and Shuuhei don’t sound their age at all; if anything, they sound like older high-school students than elementary school ones. It even sounds like their voice actors (Johnny Yong Bosch and Griffin Burns for Kai and Shuuhei respectively) played both the child and adult roles. This combined with the possibility that this sounds like a poorly translated script makes want to switch to Japanese straight away.
The opening theme for part 1 of Forest of Piano is “Étude Op. 10, No. 1 (Waterfall)” by Frédéric Chopin. The ending theme is “Kaeru Basho ga Aru to Iu Koto” by Aoi Yuki. Here is one of the Japanese-language promo videos for the show:
I won’t say that The Piano Forest….ahh sorry, did it again…Forest of Piano…is bad though. It is, in fact, quite a heartwarming show with positive themes. As I said earlier, it isn’t quite a rags-to-riches story, but we grow to like Kai straight away. He’s kind, selfless and knows the meaning of hard work, despite appearing to have this inner talent for the piano. We grow to like Shuuhei too and his friendly rivalry with Kai, the one person who accepted him as a pianist as a child when the other kids at school laughed at him and called piano playing ‘girly’.
It’s interesting how a show like this didn’t quite gain that much attention in the West when it was released in April 2018. While other Netflix shows like Kakegurui and Little Witch Academia gained Western audiences long before they began streaming, it’s as if this show just arrived out of nowhere. The second cour will likely arrive months after it ends its run in Japan; it is expected to arrive in the Winter 2019 anime season, so the earliest we may end up seeing it on Netflix is probably the summer of that year. I suppose we can wait that long, as Forest of Piano is quite a charming watch. Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the cringey 3D animation, though…
I have no idea why this wasn’t called The Piano Forest either; it rolls off the tongue so much better than Forest of Piano. Regardless, this is an enjoyable drama about kids who are talented and kids who have worked hard. Yes, it has its notable faults that cannot be ignored, but if you try to put these faults aside, then Forest of Piano is something that can definitely warm cold hearts.