What’s it About? Grade-schooler Kai is an outcast at school, looked down on because of his poverty and his single mother’s job as a sex worker. His only solace is an abandoned piano in the forest, which only makes sound for him. When he makes friends with transfer student Shuhei, who’s been training as a pianist since age four, his world slowly begins to open up.
If the purpose of an opening scene is to put a series’ best foot forward, then The Piano Forest—excuse me, Forest of Piano, because someone in the Netflix subtitle department really hates concise, naturalistic translations—is a bit more second-stringer than prima ballerina.
The piano-playing scenes, in this series about playing the piano (congratulations, you now have the full subtitle experience), look downright cringe-inducing. Apparently lacking the budget to animate intricate finger movements across the keyboard, the production team elected to go with a hybrid of 2D animation for the majority of scenes and 3D modeling for the piano sequences. And hoo boy, does it meld awkwardly.
While the second sequence of the episode fares better, with more precision in the finger movement and a melding of 3D closeups and 2D medium shots, the flashforward that serves as a prologue of sorts is a mess—the model slides across the set like an early Vocaloid animation, and the fingers mush bonelessly across what’s meant to be a professional-grade performance. (It doesn’t help either that Forest of Piano shares a similar premise to Kids on the Slope, which had the budget of MAPPA and the directorial hand of Shinichiro Watanabe backing it up.)
While looking good is far from the most important factor in a show’s quality, here it already poses a stumbling block: characters are meant to express inner torment, awe, and passion through the music being played, and the clumsiness in visual execution kept pulling me out of the experience, and thus out of the characters’ journeys.
Fortunately, the 2D animation fares much better, with a good eye for how to use color and lighting to liven up scenes with minimal movement and set a mood with a well-placed color wash. It’s an important skill for a quiet series about series about serious themes, which….I think is what this show wants to be about?
It’s honestly a bit hard to tell where the series is going, tonally. The bullying scenes are played as harrowing and nod to how those attitudes are learned from adult to child, and the writing seems dedicated to painting Kai’s mother as a warm, supportive figure in his life despite the prejudice they face; on the other hand, the character designs are almost Dickensian in their obvious notation of who is Good and Beautiful versus who is Ugly and Shallow, which makes some of the grounded writing a little harder to take seriously.
Also somewhat disappointing is the positioning of Kai as a prodigy. The opening flashforward assuring us that an older Kai will be on the stage while Shuhei sits supportively in the audience; and because Shuhei is neither cruelly smug about his training nor longing to do something else besides music, it comes across as a bit of the old Vegeta Syndrome, with inborn natural talent winning out over years of hard work.
There are complicating factors that could defuse some of that Chosen One element: there’s a fabulist element to the piano, which only works for Kai and seems to serve as a metaphorical emotional connection to his future teacher and probable father-figure, the disgraced former pianist Mr. Ajino; and while Kai plays like a master on his forest piano, he can’t play a note on Shuhei’s. There’s also an unspoken class tension, with Shuhei granted expensive equipment and lessons Kai can’t access.
If the series can find a tonal balance that doesn’t hit too hard on the melodrama and aims for nuance over caricature, there’s a solid emotional drama here, and a lot to be done in particular with encouraging its young male leads to express emotion and form healthy relationships. Word around the internet tells me the clumsy CGI integration is always going to be clumsy, but hopefully the staff can get a handle on it gracefully enough that the all-important emotional stakes come through. If you liked Wandering Son, Natsume’s Book of Friends, or other quiet emotional dramas about kids, this might be worth checking out.