This Week in Anime
Is Forest of Piano Worth Watching?

by Michelle Liu & Steve Jones,

Forest of Piano has landed on Netflix, but this isn't the first time the classic manga has been adapted to animation. This week, Micchy and Steve swap their classical music nerd observations about this troubled production.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @Liuwdere @itsbonedaddy @vestenet

Micchy, let's do a bit of visualization therapy. You're walking through the forest. Moonlight shines through the canopy, the wind blows cool, and the grass feels soft against your feet. In the distance, you hear the faint notes of a piano. As you walk closer, the sound gets louder, but still soft and delicate, as you begin to make out a lovely Chopin nocturne. You reach a clearing, and across the way a grand piano sits by the thick trunk of a large tree. You're right behind the pianist now. The melody washes over you. Soothes you. You must see this gentleman's technique for yourself. You peer over his shoulder, you look down at his hands, and oH MY GOD WHAT ARE THOSE
Yep, it's time for the nth installment of Netflix Dump Hell, and this week we got the awkwardly-titled Forest of Piano, starring alien noodle monsters who play the piano for some godforsaken reason. This is actually the second anime adaptation of Makoto Isshiki's manga; there was a film adaptation directed by Masayuki Kojima (of Made in Abyss fame) back in 2007.
The story so nice they had to adapt it twice! Now, I didn't see the movie, and normally I don't like to start these by dunking on the show immediately, but these hands are emblematic of one of Forest of Piano's main issues, so it's impossible to NOT talk about them. Basically, animating hands is hard, and animating hands playing piano is really hard and time consuming, so Forest of Piano uses 3D models for most of its many piano scenes.
While I understand why they did it, it doesn't look good.
Forest of Piano isn't by any means the only anime to use 3DCG for its piano scenes; Nodame Cantabile did so (quite badly) a decade ago, while Your Lie in April managed to make it look pretty decent. Unfortunately, Forest of Piano hews closer to the anime from 2006. Late Nodame avoided showing us the hands most of the time, prioritizing the emotions and images that accompanied the music. But in Forest of Piano, the "what am I looking at" factor is on full display.
It'd be one thing if the rest of the show looked great, and it was just the piano scenes that looked like a sausage disaster, but the entire production is kind of a mess, with bad composites, off-model characters, and very limited animation. It's to the point where I legit feel bad commenting on it. Feels like I'm punching down.
Yeah, the production really doesn't have the visual polish needed to make complicated performance scenes work; this isn't Kids on the Slope by any means. And that's a real shame! There's clearly a lot of love put into this show, but love isn't a substitute for manpower, time, and experience. There's a really good story somewhere in here, and you can tell somebody working on the thing really cared about the music. It just kinda looks like a turd.
Yeah, obviously I feel for the production team, who were clearly reaching beyond their means. This is just a hell of a project to put together if you don't have the resources.
I mean, here you've got a shot from the feature film.
And here's the same thing in the TV series.
It's unfair of me to compare the two when one had loads more resources for a much shorter runtime, but looking at them side by side, one's this painting straight out of a fairy tale, and the other's a pre-rendered PS2 cutscene with some filters slapped over the thing to try and disguise the CG.
Even the most troubled of productions can be salvaged by a good story and characters, though. So does Forest of Piano have a good story? My answer is kinda?
The story definitely takes a while to get going. The gimmick you hear about in every synopsis is that Kai, a poor kid with a single mom, is mysteriously the only person who can get a sound out of this piano in the forest, which makes the story sound like a fantasy (or at least some sort of magical realism). But then it turns out to be a pretty grounded story about child prodigies and their journeys to becoming world-class pianists. Wait, did I say grounded? I mean boring. I'm being unduly mean here, but honestly, if I wanted to watch a bunch of fifth graders work themselves up over technical perfection, I'd go visit any elementary school of rich kid overachievers.
I still have a lot of conflicting feelings, because on one hand I really appreciate that the show takes a nuanced approach to its characters and makes their relationships more complicated than you might expect from a show about competition. On the other hand, this nuance frequently ends up neutering any drama, and there are just these long boring stretches where it feels like nothing's happening.
Which is ironic, considering the amount of material compressed into these twelve episodes.
Another problem is that the writing is often heavy-handed to the point of unintentional hilarity.

I'd say that's at least true of the first half. Even putting aside lines like those, sometimes you get shit like lightning striking the piano in the forest, symbolically burning away Kai's childhood innocence. Juxtapose this with the girl crying in a bathroom because she gets bad stage fright and needs her dog to comfort her, and you get some interesting tonal whiplash throughout the experience.
That's not to say it doesn't have its strong points! The rivalry between Kai and Shuhei is classic but compelling. Kai's the natural untamed talent here to shake up the world of classical piano repertoire, and Shuhei is the straight-arrow refined talent with a legacy to uphold.
The two clash with each other as much as they're drawn to each other, forming a solid foundation for the story.
Also they're hella in love.
Okay, for a second I thought I was imagining it, but yeah, they're totally a thing.

I mean, the one girl in the show falls in love with Kai's music and spends years looking for him; Shuhei falls in love with Kai's music and spends years looking for him. If her feelings are supposed to be romantic then so are these boys', prove me wrong.
Their interactions are thick with romantic undertones (and overtones)! It's one of those situations where I doubt the story will actually go there in the end, but the subtext is clear as day.
And really, Kai and Shuhei's rivalry/friendship/??? is the strongest part of the show, particularly in the second half, when they're both a little older and less prone to dramatics.
The show just picks up whenever they're together. My favorite scene in the whole anime happens right after the timeskip when Shuhei runs into Kai, who's now crossdressing and playing Liszt in a strip club.

Like, lmao get owned nerd. ALSO, Liszt totally would have played piano for a strip club.
Rich ladies used to throw their underwear at Franz Liszt and steal his cigarette butts. This is well documented, the man was a rock star.
Google Lisztomania. This was real.
Like of all composers to hold sacred, Liszt is absolutely the wrong choice.
Oh yeah, we should probably mention we're both pianists, so do excuse us for being insufferable.
Fifteen years of classical training bay bee, I gotta put that experience to use somewhere. Actually, on the topic of being trained pianists, 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.
Yeah! The music choices and performances clearly had a lot of thought put into them, and we get a nice variety of both pieces that have been done to death in anime and some that you rarely ever hear.
I was prepared to come here bitching about too much goddamn Chopin and not enough variety (Russians! Give me Russians!), but using extremely standard repertoire was a good choice here. I may not be familiar with the ins and outs of Cui or Liebermann, but show me some Chopin and I'll tell you exactly what I like and dislike about half a dozen recordings.
Now I love me some Russians, but I'm such a sucker for Chopin that I couldn't complain at all about the second half, an entire arc about a Chopin competition. Which is also going to continue into the second season. So I hope you like Chopin.
I do like Chopin! I just don't have good memories of those etudes, haha. Especially not Op. 25 No. 6, those thirds are s u f f e r i n g.
Luckily I have the grace of never getting good enough to play the really hard pieces, so they're mostly unblemished in my memory.
Op. 10 No. 5 "Black Keys" can be played with fruit though, so that's alright by me.
Speaking of slamming round things down on a piano, I have to draw attention to the final moment of the series, which is such shounen-ass bullshit for a show about playing the piano that I couldn't help but love it. Kai basically has to play the final notes as loud as he can, and he decides fingers just aren't good enough.
Hey no that's a totally valid technique. I did it all the time, albeit usually on black keys. Mind you, I also played with three and a half fingers most of the time, so my technique is probably not to be imitated.
To be fair, I've also had moments where I felt like punching the piano.
Now one thing I wish the show did more often was stuff like the scene in the last episode where Kai recalls childhood experiences that led him to the stage. Watching a boneless puppet man play in a concert hall is one thing, but watching a boneless puppet man play in the middle of a fire? Now that's cool.
I think if there were a "correct" way to adapt Forest of Piano AND keep the hand animation to a minimum, that's basically what you would have to do. Refrain from showing the hands and instead delve into the characters' psyches and feelings as they play.
Yeah, that's essentially what I was thinking too. It'd be much more interesting to combine strong imagery with the music rather than trying to replicate a performer's literal motions. Except the runs, the runs look pretty okay. That's one place where weightless fingers don't look too bad.
Like, classical music performances are largely boring, but they're a very specific kind of boring for a specific time and specific place that make them not so boring. And I love them like that! But you can't just go and transpose them into an anime. You gotta add some imagination.
I disagree that classical music is ever boring, but I'm also of the opinion that no anime should be a slavishly faithful adaptation, now that shit's boring. If I wanted to go to a concert, I'd go to a concert. If I'm watching anime, I want to see more than that.
Exactly. And I don't think classical music is boring either! I just know that me saying that means that people might think I'm boring.
How can classical music be boring when this guy plays classical music?
However you frame it, we're still doomed to be piano nerds. There's no hope for us. Unless YOU think you're as cool as Wei Pang, because I know I'm not. I'm more like this guy.
Hey, do you think in season two they'll learn how to handle string instruments?
aaaahhhhhhhh don't remind meeeeee
Oh my god you don't bow over the fingerboard, the part-time cellist in me is SCREAMING. I demand equal opportunity musician CG, goddammit.
please sir, my cello, she's very sick
Anyway, Forest of Piano looks like poo, but it does try very hard. By the end, I found myself looking forward to watching more. Maybe that just means I'm a nerd, I don't know. But even if half the cast gets shortchanged in this season, there's always that second cour coming next year to flesh them out, so for now I'd tentatively recommend Forest of Piano only to fellow music nerds like us.
Yeah, it's got some serious hurdles for audiences to jump over, but given my extremely specific taste and history with the piano, I ended up enjoying it more than I didn't by the end. I'll definitely be tuning in for season 2.
I just hope it doesn't end up looking like this.
Amen to that. May there be fewer of these sausage fingers in the second half!
Oh, is that you?

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