This Week in Anime
Forest of Piano Returns with More Music and Less Animation

by Michelle Liu & Steve Jones,

Forest of Piano's second season lands on Netflix with a tournament arc of classical music concerts. This week, Micchy and Steve break down this series' highs and lows.

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 @A_Tasty_Sub @vestenet


Steve
Hey Micchy, I've got a new life motto, tell me what you think: if you can't handle me at my
then you don't deserve me at my
Micchy
Don't change that channel just yet! The piano boys are back at it in the second season of the definitely-not-awkward title Forest of Piano!
This time with 100% fewer forests, 300% more pianos, and somehow no more sausage fingers!
I know! It seems like they really took our advice to heart after we called out those meaty monstrosities in our first column. Unfortunately, it seems their solution to having less awkward CG animation was to just have less animation, period.
"No more horrible CG sausages!"
"But we regret to inform you that Forest of Piano is now a slideshow."
And even when it's not, they still can't quite figure out how hands work.
As much as I like the show, pretty much all my problems with it can be traced back to the lackluster production. There's not much you can do to make a straightforward depiction of a weeks-long piano competition visually interesting, but Forest of Piano drops the ball on even the basics, channeling all the boredom of sitting through a dozen 40-minute sets a day.
It's not like the first season looked great either, but this noticeable downgrade is honestly sad to see. Jokes aside, it's clear the staff bit off more than they could chew, and they just didn't have the artistic direction to pull their efforts together into something passable. Like, you can make something with limited animation look good (check out pretty much any anime Osamu Dezaki directed), but you need to think outside the box. Forest of Piano never stretches its imagination far enough.
I mean, it does try sometimes, but...
It has moments of inspiration, like when illustrating Pang Wei's tragic past in striking reds and silhouettes, but then you look a little closer and realize the fire is just a stock effect, which looks silly.
Credit where it's due, it still somehow looks better than the fire effect they use in Golden Kamuy.
Luckily, the music direction in this show is still absolutely stellar. Characters' performances are distinct from each other in the intended ways, reflecting their personalities way better than you'd expect. But while the music's doing the heavy lifting, what's onscreen is either a generic nature slideshow or a pan over a nondescript audience, so you honestly could look away and miss nothing. And don't worry, in case you miss the subtleties of each performer finding themselves through their music, every other character will narrate the entire thing like it's an esports match.
I'd honestly love to learn more about how they put the musical performances together and what kind of direction was provided to make them attuned to each character's personality and storyline, because those efforts clearly paid off. But yeah, the story trusts the audience approximately 0% to pick up on any of that themselves. On the one hand, I totally get it; this is based on a manga, so the only way it could originally get these points across was to have its characters narrate everything like it's a shonen battle. But this is the kind of needlessly florid language you'd want to tone down in a medium where you can actually hear what's happening.
Pretty much! If the goal was to remain accessible to people unfamiliar with classical music, then they could've tried to communicate each character's emotional arc visually. But nope, more pans across the same poorly filtered audience shot, as completely irrelevant audience members monologue over perfectly good Chopin. It's a clunky way of delivering information that also annoys the hell out of the people who are paying attention to the music, a real win-win situation.
At least some of it reaches wonderfully over-the-top heights, like Wei Pang fully embracing his inner edgelord.
 
 
His performance actually frightens a little girl. I love it.
Nah, a girl that tiny would be falling asleep after the third mazurka; competition repertoires can get looooong.
True facts, but the music nerd in me has to appreciate Forest of Piano's constant commitment to portraying classical music's power to evoke the breadth of life and drama. Even if that sometimes boils down to Shuhei wanting to f*** his piano.

No kinkshaming now, I completely respect Shuhei's right to be attracted to a Steinway, those things are gorgeous. Though I do have to admonish him for being unfaithful to his totes-boyfriend Kai.

Thankfully, his obsession with overtaking Kai (and sublimating his totally obvious crush on him) finally gives way this season to development of his own piano sound. He doesn't make it past the second round, but his real victory is much more personal and important.

It also means that after moping around for a bit, his character development is pretty much done halfway through the season, so our ostensible deuteragonist doesn't do much this season, which is kind of weird structurally, but hardly the worst thing about Forest of Piano.
It's one of the most satisfying moments of the season when Shuhei finally lets himself become one with his music, putting aside whatever anxieties he may have about rankings. But yeah, after that's over, he's relegated to the background, maybe having some petty quarrels with Kai every now and then.
He also gets yelled at by Wei, which is nice.

I would've liked the show to dig into Shuhei's relationship with his father a little more, really force Yoichiro to confront his misplaced priorities.
But I guess that's all overshadowed by Wei's infinitely worse dad.
Yeah, this raises one of Forest of Piano's biggest writing flaws. It introduces all of these really interesting points of drama and conflict, and then either immediately resolves them or does absolutely nothing with them. It all swirls together into this unfocused anemic mush where it feels like very little matters, even though some of these subplots are absolutely buck wild.
Wei's backstory in particular is one of the worst examples of this. On paper, his life is what would happen if you took both Kai's and Shuhei's tragedies to an absurd degree and foisted them onto one person. He grew up in poverty, was valued only for his talents by a crappy dad, and only copes by throwing himself into the reckless pursuit of someone he believes to be more perfect than they actually are. The show mostly addresses that last part, forgoing any interesting parallels between him and the protagonists. And then the gossip journalist who's pressuring him gets arrested and it hardly comes up again.
Ah yes, by far the most pointless subplot: these jokers.
For two minutes, it seems like they're gonna stir things up by tracking down Kai's shady past. And then they get arrested and are never heard from again, all in the same episode. Why were they here at all? Even Wei's story gets further convoluted when his adoptive father gets into some kind of accident, which he then postures as a near-death experience to get Wei more time to practice and a more ideal slot in the finals, which is being facilitated by some Chinese gangsters, who then turn around and actually murder his father, except he's not quite dead yet, and I just? Don't understand?
Why we needed all that?
I bet those were plot detours that got aborted while the manga was being serialized, probably made more confusing when compressing the story to fit into 24 episodes. The actual biggest crime was that the show left in the (outline of a) bloody gangster drama but limited this woman to like two lines.
Yes, we deserved more of the piano mom. On the bright side, the best character from the first season did return in her regal glory.

TOILET PRINCESS
The Legend
In this house, we proudly worship Piano Mom and Toilet Princess. It is an absolute crime that she only comes back for a hot two minutes. Justice for Toilet Princess.
Kai's mom also returns for a whole one scene.

Just imagine if the show had made more of an effort to address classism in the classical music scene beyond the flimsiest of gestures at Wei's background. The judges' insistence on only recognizing talent from established institutions absolutely stems from classism! That's an interesting thread to pursue!
But who needs to follow up on social issues or important female characters from the first season when we have to devote time to Lech either hallucinating or actually communicating with the ghost of his not-dead sister?
 
 
Seriously, what the hell was with that dead sister subplot?
Like yes, she's obviously a manifestation of his guilt, but Forest of Piano plays everything (besides its music) so flatly that he comes across like he's losing his mind. She's not even dead! Just in a coma! But she has a coma ghost! I guess we needed Lech to have some problem to work through in his music like the rest of the piano boys, but we ran out of ideas and just threw darts at a board until they hit something reasonably tragic. It's absolutely bizarre that this gets a whole episode of focus.
Like you said, the most interesting thread the show could have followed is the inevitably corrupt nature of an "impartial" panel of judges, who are at best limited by their own unexamined prejudices, and at worst they're actively making deals on the sly. And the Chopin competition gets the best of both worlds!

Ostensibly, their goal is to identify the musician who best embodies the spirit of a man who died over a century ago, and while they may have dedicated their lives to understanding his legacy, they can't claim ownership over what Chopin's music represents to those who hear and perform it today. It's so deliciously ironic when they're sitting in the audience nodding to themselves that one performer or another accurately captures the spirit of Poland, when the kids themselves are just agonizing over their personal tragedies. Fundamentally, they're pursuing a mythical "Chopin" they've constructed for themselves, but the best music comes out of the people who recognize that pure imitation is soulless and limiting. That's Wei's big realization too, that simply pursuing Ajino also means being limited by his predecessor's shortcomings.
There's a lot of great and acerbically cynical stuff in here, but it ends like every other plot in the show: too easily and with no consequences. The guy who unjustly had a vendetta against Kai all season just decides to be nice again (only after their corruption is threatened to be exposed in the media), and he even gets applauded for it. There's nothing poignant or satisfying about this.

That absolutely sucks! Forest of Piano dips its toes into such interesting ideas but rarely follows through in any satisfying way, and that's a damn shame. Kai wins a bunch of awards, and I'm just like: none of this friggin' matters, just go play another duet with your not-boyfriend, cuz at least that has emotional stakes.
At least Kai's arc comes more or less full circle in the end. He wins the competition, but he doesn't care about the status as much as helping Ajino get the use of his hand back. There's even some nice reciprocity as Kai ends up being Ajino's rehabilitative piano teacher. It's cheesy, but it's a nice note to end on. Ultimately, the piano is only as important as your own connection to it, and the connections to others you forge through it.
And if that means making up with your boyfriend when you hear him playing secondo to your primo through an insufficiently soundproofed practice room wall, then awesome!
Just piano things:

Those piano boys are still very cute and good.
Agreed. Despite the show's many shortcomings, I think Forest of Piano has enough heart to speak to classical music nerds like us. I wouldn't give it a round of applause, but I'd certainly give it two frames
of applause.
I'll take my shoes off to that.

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