Naoshi Arakawa (mangaka); Alethea and Athena Nibley (translation); Scott Brown (lettering)
Cover Design by Phil Balsman
April 21, 2015
There’s something fascinating about the depiction of an auditory experience in visual form. What does it look like to play music? How do those feelings manifest? Can a story about music be as compelling as the music itself?
You’re going to have to answer that last one on your own, of course; our definitions of “compelling” are probably different. Artists and storytellers have been playing with those first two questions for ages, though; just think about the connection between abstract expressionism and jazz. Comics play a part in this, too, from the rock comics of the 90s to today’s revamp of Jem and the Holograms. Are there manga and anime about music? Of course! For instance, there’s K-On, about a girl rock band, and Solanin, which explores loss, healing, and spiritual connection through music. Black Heaven is an anime about rock music, and Kids on the Slope is a beautiful manga about jazz music in Japan during the 1960s. (If you get the chance, I highly recommend you watch the anime version of Kids on the Slope, too; Yoko Kanno is one of the composers and the music is just amazing.)
And now, there’s Your Lie in April. Kōsei Arima sees the world in monotone—or so he says. He used to be a piano prodigy, but since his tyrannical mother died and he froze on stage during a performance, he’s lost his taste for it. In fact, he hates it, but he hasn’t found anything to replace it either. He’s listless and unmotivated, and his friends are worried about him.
“I hate the piano. And yet I still cling to it. Probably because I have nothing else. Take the piano from me … and I’m empty. There’s nothing left but the lingering strains of a clumsily played last note.” [Kōsei’s monologue, p. 41]
Enter violin prodigy Kaori Miyazono. She’s hot-headed, spirited, and determined to reach people through her music. She enters competitions, but doesn’t exactly play by the rules; she’d rather make an impact on the audience. Naturally, Kōsei is sweet on Kaori. She has all the verve and determination that he lacks, after all. He marvels at her vivacity, at her stage presence, at her bold decisions. How does she do it? And can he somehow rediscover the joy in music?
It’s pretty clear that Kaori is performing the role of Kōsei’s muse. However, although Kōsei may put her up on a pedestal at first, Kaori steps right back down. Not only does she pay attention to him (he thought she’d surely go for his athletic friend Watari), but she sees straight through his reticence and is determined to bring out the musician inside. Sadly, Kōsei doesn’t think he’s the kind of musician Kaori is; he doesn’t even think of himself as one at all. And anyway, music was never joyful for him; it was rote, precise, and even, because his mother wouldn’t have it any other way. She was determined to mold him into the pianist she could never become, and now Kōsei doesn’t know how to make music for himself.
But how does something that’s clearly not multimedia bring the music to life on the page? Your Lie in April employs a couple of tactics. The first is, as you may guess, something that I think manga is particularly good at: illustrated emotion. Shōjo and shōnen manga each have their own particular flair, but emotion is conveyed not only through action lines on the page, but also through environment—wind, petals, rain, shafts of sunlight, and the like. For instance, when Kōsei first catches sight of Kaori, she is standing atop some playground equipment and performing with some children. Kaori is shown against the sky, her hair and dress billowing slightly, playing a melodica as doves circle around her and across the two-page spread. I can’t hear the music, but I can easily place myself into the emotion of that scene, and imagining the music becomes easy.
The second thing that Your Lie in April provides its readers are short guides to the specific musical pieces mentioned in the story. Volume 1 features two short musical history blurbs placed between chapters, both written by violinist Rieko Ikeda. These short explanations provide context for the classical music and also allow the characters to converse more naturally about the pieces (that is, they don’t have to go into clunky explanations that they might not otherwise simply for the sake of the reader). And yes, I immediately looked up Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata on Spotify after reading about it. Now I really can hear the music!
I love music as a frame for self-exploration. That may be my own sentimentality showing through, but, well, there you go; I abandoned my own musical path at a young age to pursue art instead, but those hours spent practicing viola didn’t just go away, clearly. Music can key up emotions and memories, encourage daydreams and soaring thoughts, heighten experiences. This makes it an amazing vehicle for young adult themes such as in Jem, Kids on the Slope, and Your Lie in April. Add to that the challenge of rendering musical experiences in visual form and you’ve got a recipe for something that will be amazing … or a flop.
Your Lie in April is the former of those two, by the way. Volume 1 isn’t going to tell us if Kōsei can rediscover his love of music, but I have high hopes for future volumes. To be honest, I’m completely charmed by this manga. Mangaka Naoshi Arakawa’s artwork is lovely. The characters are fully rounded: they’re kind but flawed; they’re supportive of one another; they’ve difficulties to overcome. In short, they’re very real, and I cared about them almost immediately. The first volume is clearly setting the stage (hah!) for what’s to come, as it leaves us hanging as we await Kōsei’s return to the stage. I have no idea where it’s going—and I’m trying to resist the temptation to watch the anime just to find out—but I really hope the momentum keeps going.
I think it will. Don’t let me down, Arakawa-san!