The Animation Nation film festival has been playing for about 5 days already, and because of my recent travel, I have not been able to catch some of the goodies screened in the last few days such as Sita Sings The Blues, and Bill Plympton's latest feature Idiots and Angels. Animation Nation is one of the more highly anticipated film festivals here given its consistently stellar programme lineup over the years, with plenty of animation fans who turn up in droves to catch the latest the scene has to offer. Japanese animation has always been well-received, and in the past the festival had scored a coup with the first screening outside Japan of Satoshi Kon's Paprika, as well as Makoto Shinkai's 5 Centimeters Per Second.
This year's opening film The Piano Forest was one of the nominees in the 2008 Japanese Academy for Best Animated Film. Directed by Masayuki Kojima, additional screenings had to be provided for given the overwhelming response, and after watching it today, it's easy to see why the popularity and favourable response, and has cemented it as one of my favourite Japanese animated film as well, because it has a strong story to tell.
We follow Shuhei as one of the film's main protagonist in his temporary move from Tokyo to a small town, and being the new student whose interest in the piano gets ridiculed by his class, he gets thrown a challenge to play a strange piano which is found in the forest, reputed to be spoilt, but comes alive at night as the melodic strains could be heard by folks outside. But classmate Kai brings Shuhei to this piano which he lay claims to, and indeed the majestic grand piano sitting idly deep in the forest doesn't respond to Shuhei's attempt to play it, but produces beautiful music under Kai's hands.
It's a perfect, mysterious premise set up to pique your interest from the onset, and of course I'll do the story and to you the reader no favours should I dwell on this mystery any longer. But suffice to say that the story is one of the frienship and bond between the two school boys, who come from different backgrounds and possess different values. To Kai, he's the typical rich city kid who gets bestowed with material privileges and a classy hobby which he intents to turn into a career, no doubt also under the pressure of being his father's son. He can be quite anal at times, and takes pride and care to maintain his assets. In Kai is a spontaneous kid who lives a carefree life, with the piano in the forest being his outlet to connect with his self, coming from a single parent home, with his mom presumably in the world's oldest profession. Comparing the two, one plays the piano as if his life depended on it, while the other plays from memory, observation and feeling like in trance.
Nonetheless the two boys make for interesting characters, and for a 2D animated film, their characters are more than three dimentional, with very real human emotions built into them, and brought to life by the superbly clean animation without any useless fanciful trappings. It's a fantastic story about the human condition of enviousness of someone deemed unworthy, and the negative feelings of frustration when they get a leg up on you with opportunities that you crave for, which were given away nonchalantly.
For those who are not familiar with the piano nor with famous music composers, fear not. There are ample scenes to give you a 101 on the basics, and Mozart's Piano Sonato K.310 gets extended airtime here since it's a fundamental piece used throughout. Well placed humour was a welcome as well, celebrating the innate talents of Kai and his ability to charm and encourage others despite having his own demons to deal with. Although there were some Akeelah and The Bee-ish moments, with the set up for some head to head rivalry between the two boys, I thought that the teacher character Ajino Sosuke, a one time all-Japan piano champion, did look curiously androgynous.
There's nothing supernatural to the film, but it comes with a terrific, rich story and a reminder of doing things that you enjoy, in the process yielding far better and satisfying results than doing things that you're tasked to do.