Spoilers for the ending of Your Lie in April
Content Warning for discussion of parental abuse, sexism, mental illness, and ableism.
Your Lie in April, while perhaps not the most popular show of the decade, is without a doubt one of the most acclaimed. When it aired, it garnered almost universally positive reviews, and even won awards in Japan. When Crunchyroll published their “Top 100 Anime of the Decade” list, many commenters remarked on what they felt was a glaring omission. It has high ratings on almost all of the major anime databases. Unfortunately, I, the Feminist Killjoy, am here to say that Arima has an Oedipus complex and Kaori is a Manic Pixie Dead Girl.
Your Lie in April tells the story of Arima Kousei, a 14-year-old former pianist who lost his ability to hear his own playing after his abusive mother died. One day, the beautiful and free-spirited violinist Miyazono Kaori comes crashing into his life, insists he become her accompanist, and helps him remember his passion for music. She devotes herself entirely to this task once she becomes unable to play her violin due to illness. As soon as he fully comes back into his own, she dies.
Some of you might be thinking, “Wow, that plot sounds awfully familiar.” You’re probably thinking that because it is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope to the letter, in which a beautiful girl comes into a depressed man’s life, teaches him to live again, and then disappears when she reaches the end of her narrative usefulness. While the writer who coined it, Nathan Rabin, regrets the way the term came to be used over time, I find it still can be handy when used as it was originally intended: to point out a certain kind of covert sexism in storytelling that still shows up here and there.
In Manic Pixie Dream Girl narratives, the girl may make some gestures toward internality, but their primary function is a vehicle for the male protagonist’s development, supporting a worldview where men see women only in relation to themselves. Your Lie in April perfectly encapsulates that problem, as Kaori heals Kousei’s mother issues before making a tidy exit.
Girlfriend or Mother? Miyazono Kaori vs. Arima Saki
Kousei’s issues stem largely from his relationship with his mother, Saki, who abused him in the name of his piano training. She beat him and forced him to practice long hours instead of having a childhood, and by all appearances that abuse only intensified in the later stages of her undefined terminal illness. The last thing he ever said to her was, “I hate you,” when she publicly attacked him with her cane so brutally he bled. When she died soon after, Kousei became unable to hear his own piano playing outside the thudding of the keys.
The series begins two years later, when Kousei is in his last year of middle school. He lives mostly alone, with a barely-present father who seems to be away on business for literally the entire series. He hasn’t played the piano since then, other than a few bars here and there for his part-time job transposing music.
Kousei suffers from severe depression and PTSD, remarking on how gray and colorless the world seems, and how little pleasure he takes in life. This depression makes him irresistible to girls, since every single female character within his age range in the show falls in love with him.
Naturally, he seeks out professional mental health advice and begins a course of antidepressants and therapy.
Nah, just kidding. He meets a beautiful girl who is both exactly like his mother and her complete opposite, manufactured exactly to resolve his trauma and “fix” him.
Kaori is visually, thematically, and symbolically linked to Saki. Both are extremely talented, passionate musicians. Both are overbearing and pushy, forcing Kousei out of his comfort zone and yelling at him to spend all his free time playing the piano. Both develop a terminal illness, causing them to pass away at pivotal moments in Kousei’s life and push him to perform as a way of extending their legacies.
Conveniently, Kaori is also different from Saki in all the right ways to heal Kousei from all the trauma her abuse inflicted. Unlike Saki, who insisted he play the music precisely as written, Kaori is a free spirit. Determined to live the rest of her life on her own terms, she enters contests and plays pieces with little regard for the composers’ score, which leaves the judges shocked and appalled and the audience eager for more. She does things like take off her leggings on a warm spring day and attract pigeons by playing the melodica. When she and Kousei play together on stage, he struggles to keep up with her unconventional interpretation of the piece.
While the narrative makes an attempt at convincing us that she’s doing this as much for her own benefit as for Kousei’s, that falls apart on closer examination. Kaori’s tendencies line up a bit too neatly with Saki’s for her to be believable as anything other than a device to heal Kousei.
What was fundamentally most damaging about Saki’s approach to teaching Kousei was her restrictiveness. As a young child, others in the classical piano scene nicknamed him “The Human Metronome” for his precision, but it left him unable to emotionally connect to the music on his own terms. Everything he did was for Saki, and thus when she passed away, he lost his sense of purpose and the directionlessness left him depressed.
Kaori, on the other hand, shows him how to play his own way and on his own terms. He decides midway through the series that he wants to pursue a music program for high school, even though he’d have to move away from his friends and family in order to do so.
In a major recital scene, as he works through his own emotions, he plays the piece completely differently in different phases. The audience even remarks that it’s like three different musicians were playing. Because Kousei is now playing what he feels and can connect to the music his own way, he no longer needs to be pushed to play the piano.
Virgin Sacrifice: Trading Kaori’s life for Kousei’s growth
Of course, now that he plays for himself, he no longer needs Kaori and she is able to pass away in a manner geared for maximum tears jerked. To make matters worse, Hiroko, a leading pianist and his mother’s friend since before he was born, comments that he might need to lose someone to grow as a pianist.
Why? Why would she say that? It’s an absurd line of reasoning, meant only to foreshadow that Kaori is definitely going to die, and it’s definitely going to be for the sake of Kousei’s development.
The viewer doesn’t have to work too hard to see the connection between Kaori and Saki; the show all but explicitly calls it out. Saki is consistently animated using greyish tones to convey her lack of vitality in Kousei’s memories of her being ill. The camera focuses only on her wheelchair-assisted body and the lower half of her face, which is either sneering with contempt or grinning maliciously.
As Kaori’s health worsens, her colors also become increasingly muted and grey. Parallel shots of their hospital beds and piles of medication hearken back to one another. As Kousei’s relationship with Kaori improves and he reconnects to the music, he begins to remember his mother more fondly, when she was healthy and taught him piano for the love of it rather than to carry on her legacy.
The implicit parallels become explicit during one particularly memorable moment, when Kousei goes to visit Kaori in the hospital. As she turns and smiles at him, her face briefly morphs into his mother’s. In his confusion, he denies their similarities, but it’s too late. We’ve already seen him confuse the girl he’s attracted to for his mother. From that point on, there’s an uncomfortably Oedipal cast on his entire relationship with Kaori.
As the show nears its climax, Kaori convinces Kousei to enter a national piano competition. Of course, she selects for him a piece he often played with his mother, saying it was crying out to her from the shelf. His remastery of the piece, this time for Kaori’s benefit, allows him to revisit fond memories of his mother’s coaching, remembering the good times and her love for him.
The audience is treated to flashbacks of Saki shortly before her death, bedridden and sobbing to Hiroko about how she must be strict with Kousei, because she won’t be around much longer. In order to move forward from his past, the narrative implies he must forgive his mother for how she abused him. Instead of recognizing the complexities of the connection between his love of the piano and the pain his mother caused him, the show tries to convince us that she had his best interests at his heart and her harsh treatment of him was justifiable.
Of course, now that he has forgiven his mother and rediscovered his love of playing, Kaori is no longer useful. The only remaining parallel for her is to die, and die she does. She chooses to undergo a risky surgery so that she can play violin again, which just happens to be at the same time as Kousei’s final performance. He has a vision of her as he plays, and as she drifts away, he realizes she is dying. He completes his performance, able to play now because of how Kaori healed him.
The narrative parallel structure is not the issue here. One of the advantages of fiction over real life is that it can be artful while reality is often arbitrary. The problem is that Kaori is an obvious device, perfectly constructed to heal Kousei’s psychological wounds. Even the story’s attempts at giving her depth and humanity—her depression at her mortality, her desire to play the violin—are designed to either parallel Saki or center around Kousei.
Nothing drives this point home as strongly as the show’s final scene, when Kaori’s parents give Kousei a letter she wrote for them to deliver if she didn’t survive surgery. The letter reveals that everything she did was for him, ever since she saw his recital as a small child.
She switched from piano to violin because she wanted to play accompaniment with him. When she found out she was ill, she resolved to live in the moment in some small ways—eating an entire cake by herself, for one—but mostly she focused her energy around Kousei. Her dating Watari, their encounter in the first episode when he stumbled on her playing melodica in the park—everything was to catch his attention. She spent her last few months not on herself, but on him.
Female characters engineered specifically to inspire something in a male protagonist have existed as long as literature has, and will continue to as long as patriarchal society fails to recognize women’s fundamental humanity. We die for the sake of their development, teach them how to be human, adore their major character flaws, and fix their mistakes. Your Lie in April is a beautiful show, but there is no denying its indulgence in the idea that women exist to inspire men.