In Europe, there is a common prejudice that Asians are the worst musicians because they always play the right notes. The Tokyo Philharmonic's playing is technically often superior to the Vienna Philharmonic's but devoid of the continental warmth and charm the latter brings to the music they play (if they feel like it, at least). "You Lie in April" acknowledges and tackles this problem with the story of a prodigy who has been pushed to his limits to play flawlessly, but slowly breaks free and learns to express himself through music -- a good set-up. Unfortunately, the storytelling fails on virtually every level.
The series' protagonist is Kousei Arima, the aforementioned prodigy who was trained by his now-deceased mother to play a score exactly as written by the composer, garnering much apraisal in the local competition. After an operatically tragic turn of events it has however become psychologically impossible for him to play the piano, and he continues life as a normal school boy. After meeting spirited violinist Kaori his fire is steadily reawakened, as she wants to play together and supports Arima on his path to learn to express himself through music. But things take a turn for the tragic when history seems to repeat itself and Kaori is diagnosed with an incurable illness.
It must be said that the way "Your Lie in April" portrays the performance and experience of classical music is beautiful, although there is a notable difference in quality between piano and violin. It is of course hellish work to animate violin playing, but here, where it is a main focus, it looks only slightly less agonising than in, say, "Hunter x Hunter" (2011). The playing itself is not bad, but not very impressive either. This is especially noticeable in contrast with the piano playing, which both looks and sounds great (it even took me a while to distinguish this étude op. 10, no. 4 from Pollini's masterful recording). The visual flair around this -- players being mentally transported to another realm, glowing lights flowing into the public -- is typically overstated, but one cannot deny the craftsmanship that went into the animation.
Indeed, all of the series looks quite beautiful. The animators have opted for a glossy Makoto Shinkai-like aesthetic that is continually appealing. They are however a bit too fond of contrasting multicoloured environments and the most pleasant weather imaginable with striking melodrama.
Yes, ironic that in a series about musicians, tone is one of the most problematic aspects. "Your Lie in April" generally presents the events in a gruesomely overstated manner: very sad characters looking very sad and proclaiming very sad words over very sad music in a very sad surrounding, alternated with sickeningly sweet moments, in which characters are bathing in light and showered with cherry blossoms, spouting asinine dialogue like "Maybe there's only a dark road up ahead. But you still have to believe and keep going. Believe that the stars will light your path, even a little bit. Come on... Let's go on a journey!"
Compare this pretentious, cliché, and utterly superficial dialogue to Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises", another tale of artistry and love doomed by illness. Ghibli films have a very natural and human approach to characters that stands out in anime, stemming from Miyazaki's distaste of 'Otaku' and most of the industry in general. Or even better: compare this to "Erased", which tackled some similar issues, but dosed its emotions better, including the happy. The former is straightforward and natural, stoic but caring, the latter grave, yet tender and cautiously optimistic, whereas this series is so appallingly overdone it is hard to care about the characters' relationships at all.
Furthermore, "Your Lie in April" makes the odd choice of inserting a large amount of stock anime humour that is always good for ruining momentum (take the first half of "Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood"). This involves the characters being drawn as simplistic, big headed versions of themselves punching and shouting at each other for laughs. Firstly, it is hard to care about traumatic child-abuse if it was preceded by a Stan and Ollie routine, and secondly hard to laugh about such underhanded humour when played whilst one the participating characters is slowly and painfully dying of a terminal illness.
Now, forgive me for stating the obvious, but "The Wind Rises" is a film and "Erased" a miniseries, whereas "Your Lie in April" is season-length. Hence, there is place to insert a love triangle, or even two: both for Arima and the childhood friend who tries to repress her crush on him. If this already seems like scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of storytelling, note the other side-plots, concerning i.a. two underdeveloped rival characters and a girl whom Arima has to train. These contribute nothing to the main story. Yes, the girl was assigned to him in order for him to regain the joy in music-making, but that was already the main plot's point. It is hard to shake the feeling that the creators were trying to pad out the series' runtime, culminating in a piano contest of minor importance that takes up three whole episodes, lengthened by exposition-heavy and utterly redundant flashbacks. And even then there is only 22 episodes. Would it have been such a shame to just commit to being a miniseries? As a result the narrative loses focus, which is a doubtful vice, seeing how it detracts from the horrifically handled main plot.
It is remarkable for a series with such an admirable premise to feel so dishonest in the end. Both the drama and the humour are grossly overstated, and did not fit well together in the first place, let alone accompanied by two love-triangles and arbitrary filler. From a technical standpoint "Your Lie in April" may be very good, but its narrative is not only bad but, in a tale about art and terminal illness, a frequent offense to good taste. Compare how other, better anime have tackled these issues. Indeed, as not every orchestra can be the Vienna Philharmonic at its best, it may be preferable to play plain and precise like the Tokyo Philharmonic rather than running completely off the rails in a manufactures attempt to stand out.