Or, alternatively, let’s talk about imagery and beauty.
Your Lie in April wants to sell its audience on the story of Arima Kousei, a retired child piano prodigy, as he navigates his traumatic experience with music, and his budding romantic feelings, with the help of his two friends and the strange but love-lively Miyazono Kaori. And, like that nail-bitingly cliché synopsis, the show comes out of the gate swinging full of adolescent bluster, leaving nothing to the imagination. Visually, it treats us to a highly polished spectacle of colors, lights, and movement, every shot directing us to how we should feel when Kaori cries or Kousei has a flashback; musically, the strings and the keys cue us into the dramatic moments. It’s a show that’s fully engaged in and aware of its own intense melodrama, set against some exuberance of youth, and has no reservations about having characters shout out ludicrously theatrical lines in order to drive home a point.
And that’s all fine. Criticizing fiction with nebulous terms like “forced drama” or “unrealistic” does a disservice to the concept of fiction itself; which is, of course, just a bunch of lies (笑). Judging a work by how realistic it is a silly endeavor—especially because, in this case, no part of Your Lie in April even attempts to make the appearance of striving for realism. Saying that “no teen ever talks like that” says nothing about any given work: the question is, how well does each element work in concerto (爆笑) with the greater work?1
My answer for Your Lie in April is: too well. To be less facetious: the frequency of the show’s “beautiful” imagery ends up hindering the human emotions that truly empower the narrative. So, let’s talk about imagery and beauty.2
Used properly, imagery is one of the most powerful tools available to a work of fiction and an integral part of a visual work. How quickly a camera pans, the angle of the shot, the colors used in a shot, the interplay of what’s on the screen versus what’s being said off-screen, the motions of characters—all of these things are fundamental to establishing a visual narrative. How something is shot is just as important as what’s being shot.
I said earlier that Your Lie in April synchronizes visuals and audio well, each suiting the melodramatic tone the show’s aiming at. When these shots and scenes are extracted and viewed solely, they’re pieces of art. However, they don’t work to complement each other. The “beauty” of each image blunts the next, dulling the emotional impact in a sort of circus of graphical talent.3
This isn’t meant to imply that works of consistent and unyielding visual spectacle are in some way inferior because of their focus on the visible.4 There’ve been works with strong visual flair—Ping Pong, Mushishi, Mononoke, and Utena come to mind—that have succeeded in some measure or another because of that. But those shows succeed because they’re judicious with their artistic directions in a way that Your Lie in April hasn’t been; they know when to invoke the abstractly “beautiful”, and when to simply let scenes pass normally. Our show has been far less careful in this regard.
In episodes one through four, we’re subjected to a stream of visual beauty. In episode one, we have our gleamy-eyed heroine hunt a cat across the neighborhood, with sakura petals streaming throughout the entire sequence; Kousei meets her while she’s playing the melodica atop a play structure, birds flying around her, and again petals are falling and we even see her cry. The other episodes follow in similar fashion: a spectacular piano performance; expositional monochrome flashbacks to Kousei’s mother; Kaori crying on the rooftop as petals breeze by; a visualization of Kousei’s ‘inability to hear’ the notes that successfully plays off of his monologuing about how he feels ‘underwater’; and this shot, which can’t be summarized but carries some “inexplicable sorrow associated with the complex affections of adolescence” or whatever:
Yet for all of this beautiful imagery, it doesn’t tell us anything about the characters. Kousei can embellish anything, with his teenage inner turmoil, to create a painful image. None of these images are tied with action, and especially not with Kousei’s actions—they’re all products of a world he’s been dragged into. They’re flavor descriptions at best,5 and exercises in empty symbolism and metaphysical epigrammaticism at best—producing the difference between Kaori being a manic pixie dream girl and a human being. There’s no sensitivity to the relative weights of each visual scene, and the impact of every abstractly “beautiful” scene gets swept up in the wake of the next, constantly begging the next instance to go higher (sometimes literally, in the case of looking up and birds) in aesthetic quality. It seems that there’s nothing beautiful in the concrete.
And then we get to episode five, which may be the single best episode of any show this season.6 While still polished in its animation, episode five disposes of the previous episodes’ overt gropings at the beautiful—the majority of the episode is draped in grey as the show finally gives the audience solid glimpses into perspectives that aren’t Kousei’s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they ground the narrative. While never quite giving up the visual presence of mind characteristic of Your Lie, these shots into their lives demonstrate how much Kousei’s perception flavors the world, and how his friends’ lives are so much more mundane—even Kaori’s, the pep girl. But they’re all real problems, no matter how typically adolescent (or not).
So when the show finally returns, at the end of episode five, to the shimmering and reflective eyes that’ve constituted a large part of its visual flair, we as an audience should be reluctant to return to Kousei’s perspective. We’re set to have him make a decision—or damned be this story.
And this is where it gets real clever. After an entire episode of dull and grey, we’re back to the Kousei we’ve come to know. He decides, echoing the repetitive rhythm of the episode (repeated phrases, repeated flashbacks), and the phrases that’ve more or less become mantra for him at this point (“everything you do shines”), that he’s going to take a jump to follow Kaori. It’s a jump that he knows isn’t dangerous, but is risky. And, after the briefest drop of potential regret, he emerges to find that he doesn’t regret it.
But we’re finally out of the clouds, and we’ve dropped to the concrete (ground/water) after all that imagery and fumbling about with the ‘beautiful’. What greets him as he emerges isn’t some flashy imagery of self-pitying mental acrobatics. There are no birds or petals or drowning teenagers. It’s Kaori’s laughing face; and, at last, we’ve touched something human.
 — which may also answer the question of, “why doesn’t Kousei go see a therapist?” The show doesn’t license this development. It isn’t about Kousei coming to grips with himself while lying down on a reclining sofa while looking into the [visual adjective] [color] eyes of a therapist. Questioning the realism of a narrative’s premise is silly.
 — yes, yes, some of you may get on my case about how this is a term used in literature. Don’t be a pedant. You know what I mean.
 — some people may like this. One’s tolerance for the visual aspect of the show is highly subjective. Might just not be the show for me. But there’s no denying that it’s skillful as hell.
 — style over substance is a silly argument. Style is substance, and vice-versa; the only people who say otherwise are probably third year English majors. Your Lie is no doubt a skilled production. It’s just been messy (with the exception of episode five).
 — note that this isn’t meant to be derogatory. Neither is “melodrama.” ‘Sentimental’ and ‘maudlin’ are much better words for the negative connotation.
 — as of November 8th, 2014.
General — the more I like a show, the more likely I am to watch it harshly. Also, there may be objections to my ambivalence towards the first four episodes of the show because “now that I see how episode five wrapped it up, you have to like it!” Untrue—Your Lie operates by imitating its content, but you don’t have to like something to appreciate it. I love the show, however.