Monday, April 13, 2020

The Forest Piano - The Magic of Chopin's Music in Japan, Anime-Style (Vol. 11, No. 1)

Kai Ichinose arrives in Warsaw's Park and visits Chopin Monument, Episode 9

The more challenging, personal, inspirational, and sensational the music and persona of Chopin have become, the greater number of Chopins arose, many of these idols ending up in the dustbin of history.
Most scholars have agreed that Chopin is a Polish composer, even if they spell his first name Frederic, as he spelled it in Paris, where this son of a French teacher living in Russian occupied Poland spent most of his years, wrote most of his music, and died at 39 in 1849. What made Chopin Polish has been furiously debated in the 170 years after his death. What made him world-famous, and why pianists around the globe are now intensely practicing his etudes, sonatas, polonaises and mazurkas?


I recently came across an amazing TV series of animated shorts, The Forest  of Piano, Piano no Mori, telling a story of a boy from the red-light district in Japan who grows up to be a charismatic classical pianist and perform at the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, Poland.  It is yet another testimony to the importance of Chopin's music in East Asia - I previously saw Korean and Chinese TV series set in music schools, with Chopin featuring prominently among the pieces played by young students. It is quite heart-warming to see Poland's national treasure so venerated in Japan!

It has been quite fascinating to leave one's own world and look at it from outside, as a guest born and raised in another culture. The animated anime series is based on an extensive series of manga books published in Japan. As the Fan Page of the series explains: "Piano no Mori (ハルチカ) is a manga by Makoto Isshiki. It was serialized by Kodansha from 1998 to 2015, initially in Young Magazine Uppers before transferring to Weekly Morning. Serialization is irregular, and went on hiatus in 2002 before resuming in 2006. The series ended after 26 bound volumes." The list is copied below. The writer was supposedly inspired by seeing Stanislaw Bunin win the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1985 and this event inspired him to delve into the world of classical pianists, competitions, and the importance of romantic piano music in contemporary life.


The anime series is not the first visual interpretation of the story. It was first made into a film by Masayuki Kojima in 2007 (or 2005), with the title Piano Forest. In 2018, its anime version was broadcast for the first time, entitled Piano no Mori: The Perfect World of Kai (ピアノの森) produced by Gainax in Fukushima and shown on April 9 2018 on NHK. The anime series had 12 episodes in the first part and was purchased by Netflix, with streaming rights for the series worldwide (The Forest of Piano is the Netflix title of the series).


Kai escapes from his apartment down the tree into the forest, Episode 1

There  are two seasons so far, both of 12 episodes, and my report is based on the first season that I watched on Netflix with great interest and the second season that has been available on DVD. While inferior in some ways to the original 12-episode series, it was also interesting, despite its faults, such as somewhat sloppy animation and graphic design. These aspects  did not bother me so much, since the setting was my beloved Warsaw, its National Philharmonic, the Chopin Academy of Music (now Chopin University of Music, where I got one of my Masters' degrees), its beautiful old town, and parks... I also loved the magical forest where the neglected, lonely boy found a magical piano and learned to play it.


Let's quote the Fan Page again: "Piano no Mori is a story that follows Kai Ichinose, a boy who lives in the red light district but escapes at night to play the piano in the forest. Shūhei Amamiya, the grade-school son of a professional pianist, transfers to Moriwaki Elementary, Kai's elementary school. But it doesn't take long before Shuhei is picked on by the class bullies, and gets involved in a dare to play the mysterious piano in the forest, leading to his meeting with Kai, who seems to be the only one capable of getting sound out of the thought-to-be broken piano. Kai's ability earns him the respect of Shuhei and his music teacher, former master pianist Sōsuke Ajino. Both Shuhei and Ajino try to get Kai to take proper piano lessons, but Kai is at first resistant to refining his piano-playing technique. However, after hearing Sosuke play a Chopin piece he just can't seem to play himself, he relents."

The piano piece that so delights Kai is, as far as I remember, Chopin's "Minute" Waltz op. 64, No. 1. I have not found its recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy, the pianist that performed all the different interpretations of Chopin in the series, but I found its delightful twin, my favorite Chopin's waltz, Op. 64, No. 2 in C-sharp Minor:  https://youtu.be/j8_DjYyZIoo

The Forest Piano,  still from the 2007 film by Masayuki Kojima

The  whole series follows the trajectory of self-discovery and growth to full self-awareness and mastery, what Jung would call "individuation" and Joseph Campbell "the Hero's Journey."  It is beautifully outlined in this masterly series, bringing high-art to the masses in a way few other animated series have done. Perhaps, the magic comes entirely from the story written out by Makoto Isshiki, inspired by the life story of the winner of the Chopin Competition of 1985, Stanislaw Bunin.  I have not read those volumes yet, though some have been published in English translation.

Kai and his friend and later rival, Shuhei in the forest, 2007 version.

But then, that story had only images, no music - and it is a great asset of the anime series that Chopin's works are remarkably well performed by the virtuoso Vladimir Askenazy, one of the most renowned and respected Chopin pianists of our time. He is able to portray the stumbling, awkward performances by students; the brash, loud performances by aspiring virtuosos; and the exaggerated rubato in romantic renditions of Chopin by some misguided youth. He also captures the whole range of boring, mechanical, and interrupted performances by diligent young pianists of diverse ability. These vignettes last for a minute or sometimes just thirty seconds, but we can clearly tell which one of the pianists is gifted. It is quite clear, that Kai and some others are truly inspired and play Chopin as "their own" and fully embodied "Chopin."  As one anime-reviewer stated: "I was pleasantly surprised by how carefully the performances were presented. When characters had meltdowns on stage, they actually made mistakes in a believable fashion: practically unnoticeable to the untrained ear, but wildly obvious to people familiar with the pieces."

The music plays an exceedingly important role in the series, from the first Chopin piece (the Minute Waltz, if I'm not mistaken) that Kai hears his teacher play and, convinced by the master's ability to do what he could not do himself without practice, decides to formally study the piano. Kai is a child prodigy with a natural talent of a magnitude rarely encountered in the concert hall, but without much formal education, technique, or proper work habits. Gradually, he learns to appreciate his own gifts, and learns to look within for inspirations instead of copying others.

Kai arrives at the Warsaw Philharmonic for the competition

He starts winning local competitions and is finally sent to compete in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, held every five years. This is the most important and prestigious international competitions dedicated to Chopin's music, so Kai is both thrilled and anxious about participating.  Among young musicians there is one of formidable technical ability who reproduces interpretations of Chopin based on old recordings by Kai's teacher Ajino, without any individuality at all - but then, his purpose is to win, not to play music for music's sake, or to express his own musical individuality.  Ashkenazy is able to make his performances inspiring, powerful and extremely dynamic.  The series features many fragments of Chopin's Etudes,  which due to their short spans are suitable for use on the screen, like the Etude Op. 10 No. 1 in C- Major - here played by Ashkenazy in a film about him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsyGQYnvkMc.  Other musical excerpts come from works by Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, and Dvorak, so it is not all Chopin, all the time.

Similarly to the competing young man, an aloof and hostile youth filled with anger and a passion for winning at all cost, Kai's friends and frenemies are much more competitive than Kai himself. All they want is to WIN, and their backstories show the abuse and false ambitions bestowed on them by their parents or teachers. Some of these world-famous teachers who guide or misguide the youngsters care only about winning and thus break the individuality and character of their young charges, often with traumatic results. Other music professors, however, truly love the music, creativity and charismatic interpretations that touch everyone profoundly and leave a lasting impression. It is thanks to their support and recognition of his unique talent, that Kai goes on to winning the entire Competition.  This is a major feat and a start of an international career, connected to lucrative financial rewards, recording contracts, concert tours, and more. But he does it for the music, to express his individuality through music. Thus, his win, after such humble start, is completely justified.

Kai at the Warsaw Philharmonic, Episode 9

In the process of reaching the top, Kai has to learn to trust himself, and to not look to others, not to compare himself with privileged and well-educated students, that come from entirely different background. He also has to conquer his inner demons, find the self of a world famous virtuoso underneath the fears of a neglected and abused boy, who found a magic piano in the forest where he escaped to hide his tears from his poor, suffering mother... Listening to and playing music is a huge help in this journey of self-discovery towards becoming a mature, confident artist, whose technical prowess is matched by the uniqueness of his interpretation and the depth of expression. There are many errors Kai makes when he doubts himself and compares himself to others. It is only when Kai returns, in spirit, to playing as if he were still in the misty forest of his childhood, that he finally is able to truly touch the hearts and souls of his audiences and win the competition. The reward is not given for the speed of fingers moving on the keyboard, it is not given for the talent to charm and bedazzle - it is given for understanding that music speaks from the heart to the heart, and for being able to make the piano speak this language of intuition and extra-sensory perception, the music of the forest piano. Impeccable technique is a condition sine qua non, of course.

Grown-up Kai plays while remembering childhood, Episode 12

The animation is the most successful, to my mind, in creating these moments of magic, where the light rays filtered by the trees appear in the concert hall, where mists arise from the keyboard, and magic fills the screen. This magic of a shared experience of being transported into a virtual space of hearing and feeling things that cannot be properly described, as these impressions are completely beyond words is the essence of classical music world, the reason for performing and attending concerts.  Here, music inhabits, as Rainer Maria Rilke masterfully expressed it, the "heart-space" -

An die Musik

Musik: Atem der Statuen. Vielleicht:
Stille der Bilder. Du Sprache wo Sprachen
enden. Du Zeit
die senkrecht steht auf der Richtung
vergehender Herzen.

Gefühle zu wem? O du der Gefühle
Wandlung in was?— in hörbare Landschaft.
Du Fremde: Musik. Du uns entwachsener
Herzraum. Innigstes unser,
das, uns übersteigend, hinausdrängt,—
heiliger Abschied:
da uns das Innre umsteht
als geübteste Ferne, als andre
Seite der Luft:
rein,
riesig
nicht mehr bewohnbar.

To Music

Music. The breathing of statues. Perhaps:
The quiet of images. You, language where
languages end. You, time
standing straight from the direction
of transpiring hearts.

Feelings, for whom? O, you of the feelings
changing into what?— into an audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You chamber of our heart
which has outgrown us. Our inner most self,
transcending, squeezed out,—
holy farewell:
now that the interior surrounds us
the most practiced of distances, as the other
side of the air:
pure,
enormous
no longer habitable.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, An die Musik (Munich, Jan. 11-12, 1918)
from Gedichte aus dem Nachlaß in Sämtliche Werke, vol. 2, p. 111
(E. Zinn ed. 1956)(S.H. transl.). From https://harpers.org/2009/08/rilke-to-music/


It is enough to listen to Chopin's Ballade no. 1 in G Minor  that takes a sizeable chunk of one episode to know that it is true... The many images of Kai and other pianists with eyes closed, and fingers dancing on the keyboard are a testimony to this mystique. Let's hear Vladimir Ashkenazy's version of this  deeply romantic Ballade: https://youtu.be/sXZ70ykfDn0.

The success of the series in teaching classical music to its audiences  - as something that is a natural part of life, that is not "elitist" or "weird" or "un-accessible" - stems  partly from the masterly performances of extended fragments of Chopin's works, selected and edited to fit the story. It also stems from the way it presents the various pieces by Chopin in ways that both push the narrative forward and stop to contemplate the music. The titles are announced, the general mood or genesis of each piece is explained, and its meaning for the pianist is shown in the imagery that arises from their memories and feelings. Longer works are cut down, to small vignettes showing the versatility of pianists, or their particular styles, but some shorter preludes or etudes are played in their entirety. It would be quite informative to analyze the series's and pianist's interpretations and contexts of each piece - the full scale of emotive "content" associated with various compositions, and their role in healing hidden traumas, carried into the concert hall by all competitive pianists.

At the Chopin competition in Warsaw, Episode 11

The appeal of Chopin - as the suffering pianist from a suffering country - to these traumatized and suffering teens is clear. They connect to his music through its personal voice that they adopt as their own voice. His tragic life, that ended at  the age of 39 after a prolonged illness plaguing his entire adult life, is an inspiration, and so is the history of Poland, oppressed by her neighbors.  Chopin's works express  the young pianists's own experiences, their own traumas. Only when and if the music is so intimately personalized, does it become truly authentic and worth listening to. I'd love to review specific pieces and their expressive and narrative content in this series. But would be a longer study; for now, despite its various design shortfalls and visual shortcuts (especially in the 2D segments), I would give this series an A.

I think it is so heart-warming and reassuring about the future of humanity to find a whole anime series dedicated not to killing enemies and exploding cities, left in rubble by idiot "Superheroes" - but to youth that conquer their inner demons with the help of classical music and hard work at the piano keyboard, studying music of Chopin, Mozart and other great composers of our past.

_______________________________________________

I visited the fan sites and various review sites of the series, and found, to my delight that many of the anime series viewers, predictably those with the classical music background, have shared my delight with the very existence of this series:
  • Jersey Jerry: "This has been one of the most beautiful anime I have ever seen a little unrealistic but beautiful and amazing."
  • Jennie: "I'm a victim to these music based anime. They just grab my heart strings so everything else become blurry to the point where whatever is shown i enjoy."
  • Black Sheep: "Being a pianist made me watch it from a completely different perspective and honestly, I really liked Forest Of Piano. The plot was interesting and different, and even though I myself am not a huge fan of 3D anime I understand the reason behind this choice: most of the compositions played in this anime are Chopin pieces... they have a lot of scales going on and they play at a very high speed."
  • Warvetbill: "I had high hopes when I saw this title and was surprised that I did in fact lose myself in the story, the music, and even the animation... thoroughly enjoying it! Perhaps it is because I play by ear and with heart and that I didn't have the discipline to fall inline with the structure of reading, that I identified with Kai and the frustration of monotonous exercises. I will admit that switching from drawn to cgi was a bit distracting but it was completely forgiven by what it accomplished in conjunction with the orchestration. Ultimately, I would like to think this movie would connect with others as it did with me, but I feel my own story is a unique one, like this. It is refreshing to stumble upon this little gem. It's not a huge gem, but it is a little one. The characters are endearing and the situations were interesting. I've yet to meet a pianist whom would not enjoy freedom of spirit and the connectivity to nature of playing a piano in the forest."
  • Jasper Anthony Challin: "his is the BEST, most moving, most emotional anime that I have ever seen. .... The beauty, the passion........my tears flowed and flowed, and I am proud of each tear."
  • Misaki: "THIS IS LITERALLY THE BEST ANIME THAT LITERALLY NOBODY HAS NOTICED"
I have not seen the full feature film made earlier by a different filmmaker as mentioned above, so I do not have a scale to compare both interpretations of the manga series. But I am definitely delighted that such an eminent pianist, with such a profound understanding of Chopin's music agreed to participate in the TV anime series. His interpretations gave the entire series its meaning and life.


Young pianist's hands, Episode 2

More information about the characters, episodes, dates and various technical bits and pieces may be found on the fan page: https://piano-no-mori.fandom.com/wiki/

There were reviews of the cycle, from the point of view of its animation style (usually severely criticized, to the point that it seems that the reviewers object to the character development, growth and the portrayal of classical music as a supreme value rather than simply to animation mistakes):

2018 review by two anime reviewers: https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/this-week-in-anime/2018-10-09/.137864

2018 review narrated with music and video fragments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPtNAsCxgQM by Isla McTear, who notes the contrast of 3D computer animation with beautiful backgrounds and the crude 2D drawings of characters, praising the 3D segments: "the animation really comes alive, the camera angles are dynamic, and the lightning makes the forest and the scenes outside it really sparkle."

2016 Review:
https://atmafunomena.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/analysis-in-retrospect-piano-no-mori-the-expressive-core/ (Analysis in Retrospect: Piano no Mori | The Expressive Core of the Piano).

2019 Review
https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/netflix-forest-of-piano-review/




 https://www.netflix.com/title/80986797

Music by: Frédéric Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Liszt
Arranged by  Harumi Fuuki

The piano album may be purchased separately:
https://www.moshimoshi-nippon.jp/106822 or
https://vgmdb.net/album/76419

LIST OF VOLUMES OF MANGA STORY

No. Japanese release date Japanese ISBN
1 November 30, 2011 ISBN 978-4-19-950274-3
2 February 13, 2012            ISBN 978-4-19-950287-3
3 September 13, 2012 ISBN 978-4-19-950305-4
4 February 13, 2013            ISBN 978-4-19-950325-2
5 June 13, 2013                   ISBN 978-4-19-950345-0
6 November 13, 2013 ISBN 978-4-19-950363-4
7 March 13, 2014                ISBN 978-4-19-950389-4
8 July 11, 2014                    ISBN 978-4-19-950404-4
9 December 13, 2014          ISBN 978-4-19-950424-2
10 May 13, 2015                 ISBN 978-4-19-950452-5
11 October 13, 2015            ISBN 978-4-19-950475-4
12 March 12, 2016              ISBN 978-4-19-950499-0
13 July 13, 2016                  ISBN 978-4-19-950519-5
14 December 13, 2016        ISBN 978-4-19-950541-6
15 July 13, 2017                  ISBN 978-4-19-950577-5
16 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4
17 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4
18 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4
19 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4
20 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4
21 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4
22 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4
23 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4
24 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4
25 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4
26 December 13, 2017         ISBN 978-4-19-950602-4



The trailer for the original film from 2007.


LIST OF EPISODES OF THE ANIME SERIES, 2018

SERIES 1
Episode Title Screen Title Air Date
1 Episode 1 選ばれた手 The Chosen Hands April 9, 2018
2 Episode 2 ショパンを弾くために In Order to Play Chopin April 16, 2018
3 Episode 3 モーツァルトの遺言  Mozart's Testament April 23, 2018
4 Episode 4 一番のピアノ The Best Performance April 30, 2018
5 Episode 5 コンクールの神様 God of Competitions May 7, 2018
6 Episode 6 森のピアノ The Forest Piano May 14, 2018
7 Episode 7 再会 Reunion May 21, 2018
8 Episode 8 挑戦状 Letter of Challenge May 28, 2018
9 Episode 9 ワルシャワの胎動 Commencement at Warsaw June 4, 2018
10 Episode 10 ショパン・コンクール Chopin Competition June 11, 2018
11 Episode 11 ポーランドの新星 The New Star of Poland June 25, 2018
12 Episode 12 フォルティッシッシモ fff (Forte-fortississimo) July 2, 2018

SERIES 2 - 12 episodes on DVD