Processing Grief Through Anime Part One: Your Lie in April

Everyone should be familiar with the tearjerker anime, or at least I assume they are, as they’re frequently ranked among the best anime of all time. Tearjerker isn’t a genre, exactly, although it’s a category with its own hallmarks and tropes. It just happens to expand across every genre of anime, though they’re usually melodramas. Maybe the occasional slice of life or romcom, but these are all about those pesky emotions.

You know what I’m talking about. Clannad, Violet Evergarden, or A Silent Voice could wring tears out of a statue. These are stories designed to bring up all those nasty emotions people get good at burying, right up to the surface. They frequently address sensitive content, momentous turning points in coming of age, and a variety of those buttons that you know get an extreme reaction out of people. And they push the crap out of those buttons.

I’ve been on a kick of tearjerker anime, and that’s because I like to punish myself, so I rewatched a couple of classics. They’re personal favorites, but classics nonetheless. The first of these is Your Lie in April, the phenomenal adaptation by A-1 pictures of the even better manga by Naoshi Arakawa. Unfortunately, it has to suffer as my second favorite manga by somebody named Arakawa because Fullmetal Alchemist happens to exist.

So what does Your Lie in April happen to teach its audience about processing grief? Well, first that you probably shouldn’t rely on anime to teach you how to do that, because therapy is a thing, and I feel compelled to say that I am not in any way a licensed medical professional qualified to tell you how to do that. I’m just a guy on the internet who has dealt with his fair share of grief and much more than his fair share of anime, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to bring both together. Let’s go.


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Promotional material featuring from left to right, Tsubaki, Kaori, Kosei, and Watari.

Like the above says, I will be spoiling pretty much every part of Your Lie in April for this. It’s not completely necessary to write this essay, there’s a fair amount here that is spoiler-safe, but I don’t feel comfortable inhibiting what I can write about. So, if you haven’t seen it, it’s one season, it’s on Netflix, it’s a pretty easy binge.

Your Lie in April is a music anime that follows, get this, musicians. Kosei Arima is a 14-year-old piano prodigy, or he was. His mother taught him from a young age, though after becoming ill, her instruction was corrupted as her condition worsened. By the end, she was vicious and abusive, forcefully extracting a technically perfect but lifeless performance out of Kosei, until her death renders him unable to hear the notes at all. Two years later, and all he hears when he plays are muffled notes buried under an ocean of anxiety and dread.

Kosei abandons the piano, to the chagrin of his rivals, and lives a dreary and colorless life, up until he cross paths with Kaori. Kaori is a talented competitive violinist who has been infatuated with Kosei ever since seeing him perform when they were children, but she lies and says she likes his friend Watari because she can clearly see Kosei’s other friend, Tsubaki, has a whole “childhood friend that’s doomed not to work out because this is an anime” kind of deal. She also conveniently lies and claims to be anemic, when she’s in fact terminally ill.

Kaori’s musical ambition began because of Kosei, and she’s determined to drag him back to the piano, and helping him work through his panic at being unable to hear the notes. His inability to hear the notes is a result of his unresolved grief at his mother’s abuse and passing, and the resentment he feels towards her, so he could use a real free spirit to undo all of that. Luckily, Kaori’s wild and eclectic violin style breaks through Kosei’s apathy, but it takes most of the story and her condition deteriorates as it goes on. By the end, Kaori dies in a risky surgery while Kosei performs in her absence, and while Kosei might have plunged into despair again, she leaves him a letter confessing her feelings, and Kosei finds the strength to carry on despite the loss.

I’ve seen some flack thrown at the second half, but the structure of Your Lie in April is carefully planned, and it perfectly grasps the grieving process. Kosei’s ability to grieve is explored through his relationship with his mother, as well as his bond to the piano. As he breaks through that barrier, he’s presented with the loss of the girl who showed him how to do that, and with one last nudge from her, he handles his grief healthily.

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A watercolor still of Kosei from the show’s first opening.

Kosei learned his love of the piano through being taught by his mom. If you read my review of the shamisen anime, Those Snow White Notes, you’ll know I touched upon the importance of having a creative outlet, and the pain it can cause when that medium rejects you. Kosei doesn’t just lose his craft, it is turned against him by his mother and her illness.

Abuse isn’t just an atrocity committed against the victim, it becomes a way of life. As vile as it is, it’s a format in which a life is lived, one lived in fear of retaliation from the abuser. Children especially latch onto this structure, and it’s how they learn to process information and their surroundings in their most formative years. It’s one reason why abusers are so likely to have been abused themselves.

However, in Kosei’s case, his mother’s abuse is quickly removed by her death, and the void is quickly felt. He loses his piano, his mother, and the structure that her strict behavior gave him. He can’t escape her words, though, those follow him long after she’s gone.

And as though it’s not enough to hijack his artistic passion for her own selfish ends, Kosei’s mother takes his ability to hear the piano when she goes. It’s not quite a physical condition, although it sticks like one. Kosei’s guilt and shame quickly snowballs into an uncontrollable beast, one that happens to manifest as being deaf to his own playing. If playing the piano was just a means to his mother’s fulfillment, then it’s only fitting that he is robbed of it when she’s gone.

Kosei takes most of the series to get over that loss, and you can say he doesn’t even do so until his final performance. He has to learn to not just play the piano for himself, but live for himself. When his mother dies, all the color in life goes out for Kosei, which is a common enough symptom of depression, but it’s compounded by his inability to express himself. Kosei needs to see someone else living life to the fullest, and show him how to do it.

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Kaori’s last performance.

When I first watched Your Lie in April, I immediately pegged Kaori as a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl. It’s a trope often found in young adult fiction, especially those with dull protagonists whose lives are forever changed by the appearance of a wild and creative love interest. However, the trope hasn’t worn itself thin like it has in all my YA books; I mean, Zero Two is still popular long after Darling in the Franxx crashed and burned.

Kaori’s not just your average wild child, though, she’s a terminally ill girl who derives meaning in life through her manic artistic expression. She’s kind and spirited and willing to reach out to the despondent Kosei, but she’s also short-sighted and kind of selfish when it comes to getting her way, even if she thinks she’s acting in someone’s best interests. She’s handling her situation with as much grace as you could expect a kid to, although that ultimately isn’t perfect contentedness in a too-short life.

In all honesty, I relate a lot more to Kaori than I can to Kosei. In all the hard times of my life, I never could have abandoned my writing. It’s a tool by which all the crazy streams of consciousness rambling in my skull can finally become coherent, and as someone with a few of their own manic tendencies, Kaori’s technically all-over-the-place violin playing makes its own kind of sense. Grief forced Kosei’s muse into hiding, but it only gave life to Kaori’s.

And that ultimately is the most important takeaway I have from Your Lie in April, that your art doesn’t belong to the past or the dead. It doesn’t weaken in morning, and giving up on it doesn’t honor anyone, it’s the same as giving up on your loved ones. As Kaori’s life drew to a close, she was able to at least pass that appreciation on to Kosei.

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These kids are pretty adorable.

Your Lie in April is a special kind of story, in the way I cherish any kind of anime that can speak to the truth of artistic expression. It carries resonant messages that can illuminate how grieving is part of the human condition, like any other emotion. Heartbreak is just as good a reason to write a story or compose a symphony as the entire range of human emotion, perhaps even better than most.

I only barely touched upon it here, but Kaori’s reckless violin technique is widely criticized in the musical circles presented in the show. There’s entire undertones railing against the way art is corralled into narrow constricted categories, and how that might suffocate the expression itself. It’s reflected in Kosei’s by-the-book playing being lauded, even though he’s just going through the motions, while Kaori puts her heart and soul into every saw of the string, and is seen as unprofessional.

Your Lie in April isn’t all I have to say about how you can process grief through anime, but it declares confidently that your best and maybe only option is to just let it all out. I’m not much for personal conversations, and I’d rather die than spill my issues with a therapist, but I’m somehow comfortable airing intimate pieces of myself through a blog to strangers on the internet. Still, I have a bit more to say about the subject, and you’ll have to check for the next post to see that conclusion.

You might have your own guesses about what the next essay focuses on, or how it relates to Your Lie in April, as their main similarity is being in one of those Buzzfeed articles, “Top 10 anime to cry to,”. Just wait and see, and follow the Otaku Exhibition to get an update for when that goes up, and follow on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku for those updates and a few more irrelevant comments while you’re at it. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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