This anime appeared on Netflix in 2019 and was on my list shortly afterward. Piano is my favorite instrument to listen to and play, though admittedly I haven't played regularly since my college days...
However, like many people, I have an ever-growing list of media to consume, as well as other distracting things in my life. I only just recently got to watching this show.
Forest of Piano is a seinen about a boy named Ichinose Kai, his friendship/rivalry with another boy, Amamiya Shuhei, his relationship with his sensei, Ajino Sousuke, and his transition to young adulthood as a budding superstar pianist. The show starts with Kai as a poor boy from Morinohata, a red-light district, who is being raised by his young mother, Rei, a prostitute. Dressed poorly and often acting aloof, Kai has no friends at school and often gets bullied. He escapes to a nearby forest where a piano that only he can play resides. One day comes a new student, a rich boy named Shuhei who also plays piano and quickly gets bullied. The two bond over these two facts. Sousuke is the school's piano teacher, and Shuhei recognizes him as formerly renowned pianist. Shuhei asks Sousuke to teach him piano, but Sousuke rejects him; though when Sousuke notices Kai's natural piano playing abilities and finds out that he is playing the forest piano, Sousuke insists that he teach Kai! From there unfolds a sports-like anime of skills development, rivalry, and love for the craft.
It sounds like nothing new, but 1) I like sports anime, 2) I was always interested in this show because I don't know many piano-themed ones (other than Your Lie in April), and 3) the ethereal cover of the piano in the forest appealed to me. I was hoping this show would be as great as, say, The Queen's Gambit in portraying a non-physical sports competitive bildungsroman.
At first I quite liked Forest of Piano. Kai as a child is sunny, stubborn, and rebellious. His relationship with his mother is wholesome and heartwarming; the portrayal of her coworkers and their relationship to Kai is also generally positive. He admires Shuhei and just wants to enjoy growing together as young pianists; while Shuhei secretly internally battles between admiration, jealousy, and resentment for Kai. Kai resists Sousuke at first but grows fond of him. There is a local piano competition that features the boys and other kids, including a girl who gets stage fright until Kai comforts her in a very cute and particular way. The piano music and animation are pleasant. Sousuke has a tragic background, and I do love me some tragic backgrounds... It's all rather happily slice-of-life.
However, as the series continues into the kids' young adulthood – maybe half-way into season 1 – it becomes apparent how male-centered the story is. Rei and the girl more-or-less disappear. Kai's red-light district origins become a source of shame (unsurprising, but still disappointedly less progressive than I hoped). Kai, Shuhei, and Sousuke become the primary focuses, and other respectable piano rivals and side characters are all male. The other male rivals all have some kind of tragic background involving a fridged female character who never speaks alive (because they are dead or in a coma), and at least one of them is never shown in flashbacks with a face or name. The pianists' fathers or grandfathers are who matter, while the mothers are just there for less insightful, emotional support. There is no live respectable female pianist other than three female competitors of an international Chopin competition who get far less screen time than their male counterparts, and that little screen time starts off incredibly poorly:
The main female competitor the series features is a blonde woman with flowing hair who – get this – accidentally snaps her bra strap – and while she recovers quickly and someone comments on how impressive that recovery is (as well as the rest of her piano playing), of course most of the time spent afterward is the audience and reporters commenting on the wardrobe malfunction, whether she should focus more on being a model, and then her brother (her male savior!) saving face for her and pulling her away from the crowd. In a follow-up performance, she trips down the stairs, only to dramatically be caught in another male competitor's arms. He comments on her lingering scent a few times as being distracting and alluring...
The other two female competitors are mentioned more or less in passing, and at the end of the competition, while they all make it to the final round, they are all ranked at the bottom. Great!
In addition to poor female representation, there is not a single Black, Latine, or non-East-Asian Asian character in the international competition! The only possibility there was one was in the audience, but I looked! I looked! Maybe I missed the token one(s), but I couldn't find a single one. There is a Canadian competitor with a Japanese name, and at least a few U.S. competitors, but they are all white (American or European), Chinese, or Japanese.
Beyond representation, the only character with any meaningful development is Shuhei. Kai grows in piano skills, but he remains to be a rather uncomplicated, pleasant character, with I suppose some honorable secret motives. While Shuhei at some parts became loathsome, I appreciated the complexity in their relationship: a sort of one-sided rivalry dancing between admiration and resentment.
As for the art and animation, they are nothing memorable or offensive. They are adequate, and I think where this show shines here is in particular piano playing scenes where they put in extra effort to animate the fingers on the keyboard. My partner joked that Sousuke (the top-left character in the featured image) looks like a Pokemon trainer.
My last bone to pick is in the choice of the English title translation. The beginning of the original Japanese title, ピアノの森 –The perfect world of KAI–, can either literally be translated as Forest of Piano OR Piano Forest. The latter is much more natural and less clumsy in English. Why on Earth did they land on "Forest of Piano"?!
Besides the music theme and the beginning of the show, I really liked the final episode. Without spoiling too much, Kai finds a way to repay his sensei after all the years of teaching and, frankly, parenthood, Sousuke provided for Kai. It's touching, reminiscent of giri, and reminds me of my longing to repay my mentors (particularly my school professors and teachers) for all they have done for me. Yes, these particular mentors get paid to help me, but I still keep in touch with them long past their last paycheck I or my parents put into, and the things they have taught me just don't have a real price tag. I wish I could do for my mentors what Kai is able to do for Sousuke.
Overall rating: 7/10
(+) music and piano themes, very beginning, very end, enjoyable protagonist, heartwarming mother-son and mentor-student relationship, complex rivalry, no unnecessary romance
(-) poor gender and racial representation, imbalanced character development, clumsy English title translation