Two weeks ago, I made a long, rambling post explaining the two “points of no return” used in fiction for the 3-act structure, along with the mid-point moment of self-reflection, the “mirror moment.”
If you missed that article or want a refresher, you’re able to find that post here.
What I want to do with this post is to further dive into these three key moments using Your Lie in April, an excellent graphic novel-turned-anime by Naoshi Arakawa. This story centers around Kousei Arima, a fourteen-year-old piano prodigy who gave up playing two years prior after the death of his mother. Since then, he’s been unable to hear the piano and he views life in dull grays, an existence he’s content with.
At least until he meets Kaori Miyazono, a free-spirited girl dating Kousei’s friend. She’s a violinist who prefers to perform classical music her own way instead of slavishly sticking to the musical score, infuriating the head judge at the competition she brings Kousei and his friends to and blowing away the audience. In fact, the audiences likes her so much that Kaori is allowed to return for the next round, so she decides to rope Kousei into being her piano accompanist.
He doesn’t want to perform. The memories of his last performance haunt him still, but Kaori doesn’t want his excuses. She recruits Tsubaki and Ryota, Kousei’s closest friends, to convince the wayward boy.
Everything up to this point exists within the first act. Kousei struggles against pressure, stubbornly refusing to confront the instrument that brought him so much pain. Even when Kousei agrees to be Kaori’s accompanist, he agonizes over his decision right up until they take the stage at the violin competition. Our protagonist is living his life when something knocks him off-course, leaving him clawing for a return to his usual existence. We are, after all, creatures of habit.
First Point of No Return
As my previous article discussed, the “point of no return” is the moment when a protagonist is unable to return to their old life, sometimes forever or at least until the main threat is dealt with. In Star Wars, it’s when Luke finds his dead guardians, murdered by the Empire. In To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s when Scout’s father, a lawyer, represents a black man in court. These events push our protagonists into the thick of the story, regardless of how little they want to be there.
Kousei’s moment begins after he and Kaori take the stage. Their performance stars well enough, but shortly into “Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28,” the sounds from the piano vanish. Just like two years ago after his mother’s death, Kousei is unable to hear the music he’s creating. He presses down harder on the keys, begging the sounds to reappear, and in doing so goes off-tempo with Kaori’s violin. The audience wants him to stop as he’s dragging down the performance, and a few minutes later, he does.
Moments after that, Kaori stops, destroying her chances of proceeding to the next round of the competition.
She turns to Kousei. “Again?”
And she does, goading Kousei to follow her. Demoralized, the piano prodigy searches for the strength to place his fingers upon those ivory keys. It would be easy to stop and allow Kaori to perform alone, but there’s something inside Kousei pushing him to play.
This moment is low on external forces prodding Kousei forward. The audience is happy that he stopped, and although he risks disappointing his friends and Kaori, nothing with them is likely to happen during the performance itself. All that’s left is Kousei and his demons, an internal struggle.
He wants to play. Just as Kaori told him in the previous episode, Kousei was born to play music, and although he pushes against this out of fear and sadness, he knows it’s true. He buries the piano at home under dust and books, but he’s connected to the instrument. We see that several times before this point, but his demons are ruining things. He can’t hear the notes, so how can he play?
That’s when something Kaori said before comes to mind.
Often times the “point of no return” forces the protagonist forward, but not always. Sometimes circumstance puts our hero at the door leading to the rest of the story, but it’s his or her decision to step forward. That doesn’t mean they’re not scared, either. She recognizes the risks of moving through that door. She’s scared with a heavy heaping of doubt twisting her stomach, and everything inside her screams to turn away, but she can’t. She won’t.
This is where character motivations and beliefs play a strong role. If the audience doesn’t believe that a protagonist would pass through that doorway for the reasons given, that’s a problem. Fortunately, Your Lie in April makes that case.
Kousei places his hands back on the piano and plays just as bad as before, but then he focuses less on his inability to hear the piano and more on Kaori’s violin. Their performance evolves into a beautiful and natural duet between the two teenagers, enchanting the audience.
By the end, Kousei steps away from the piano energized. And Kaori collapses onto the stage.
The Mirror Moment
To review, the “mirror moment” is…
“It’s about the Lead character, taking a long, hard look at himself (as in a mirror). He asks, Who am I? What have I become? Who am I supposed to be? An example is the classic film Casablanca. In the dead center is that moment when Ilsa comes to Rick after closing time, to explain about why she left him. He’s drunk, and basically calls her a whore. She cries and leaves. And Rick buries his head in his hands. The rest of the film is about what kind of man Rick will be.”
James Scott Bell: The “Write From The Middle” Method, writershelpingwriters.net
Throughout the series, Kousei’s late mother is depicted as a ghostly woman in a wheelchair, sneering at her son from the stands. It’s often the sight of this apparition that causes the sounds of the piano to vanish from Kousei’s ears, so he’s come to view this as a curse by his mother for the last words he said to her.
To explain, the woman trained Kousei to play piano, but her teaching gradually became worse as her illness progressed. She forced him to practice for hours, eventually withholding meals and sleep. Kousei suffered without complain, even making excuses for the bruises on his arms. In his young mind, he figured that winning piano competitions would cure his mother, so he withstood the abuse and became amazing. His ability to accurately play the sheet music earned him the nickname “the Human Metronome.”
Even as people turned against Kousei, accusing him of being his mother’s soulless puppet, he kept performing. The abuse continued too, at least until one competition. Despite winning, his mother hit Kousei with her cane, yelling that he didn’t play good enough, until he bled. Finally, in view of others, twelve-year-old Kousei struck back the only way he knew how.
That was the last thing he ever said to his mother. She died shortly after. On the very next performance after she passed away, Kousei became unable to hear the piano for the first time. This was his curse, he figured later, for rejecting his mother.
Kousei’s mirror moment strikes during a performance of “Love’s Sorrow” by Fritz Kreisler, a song he admits comes with baggage. His mother played it often, long before the abuse began, so he’s hesitant to play it. When the time comes to take the stage, Kousei begins by hitting the keys. He can’t hear the sounds, but he knows it’s wrong. One person from the audience compares it to a child having a tantrum. It’s a far cry from how Kousei heard it as a little boy falling asleep beneath the piano.
He can’t help from being reminded of those earlier days, before the illness sucked the hope and compassion from his mother. “Mom… This song… If it were her,” Kousei thinks to himself, “would she have played it like this?” His performance evolves, shifts from hard to soft. He recognizes the music that exists in him… Music given by his mother. “I knew all along” he recognizes. “The ghost of my mother was a shadow of my own creation. An excuse for me to run away. My own weakness. Mom isn’t there anymore. Mom… is inside me.”
The song ends. The auditorium is silent. The audience forgot to clap for a moment, enthralled by the performance. Kousei bows to the audience and looks to the place in the stands where he expects to find his mother. Frowning, he walks off. His mother is gone.
Through half of Your Lie in April, Kousei is tortured by the illusion of his mother, but in the spotlight of the stage, he looks internally and recognizes that he created an excuse to run away from the thing that reminded him most of his mother and her abuse. He still can’t hear the notes, but that’s okay. By tapping into his thoughts of his mother and Kaori and his friends and rivals, Kousei is able to create gorgeous music.
He suffered, went through his mirror moment, and came out with a clearer picture of himself. Kousei never saw his mother’s specter again, but that doesn’t mean his memories of her won’t cause trouble for him in future events.
Second Point of No Return
The second and final point of no return doesn’t take place on a stage, but another location that makes Kousei just as uncomfortable: a hospital. Through the third act, Kousei watched Kaori surrender to her own illness. She lashes out before weeping without warning, becomes unable to hold her violin bow, and quotes a book she’s been reading when she asks the pianist, “Want to commit double suicide together?”
Naturally, Kousei compares this to what he went through with his mother, but instead of giving up, the pianist puts on a performance for Kaori meant to give her a kick to the butt, a musical challenge to keep fighting. It’s a challenge that she takes by deciding on surgery that, if successful, will prolong her life, if only a bit.
Before that happens, Kaori gets worse and is moved to the ICU. Kousei and his friend Ryota arrive as the nurses scramble to move her. The boys witness Kaori’s right hand go from gripping the rail of her hospital bed to going limp. The door slams shut. On his way home, Kousei finds a cat resembling the one he had as a boy before his mother took it away, an event he always regretted. The cat laid in the road, recently struck by a car, so Kousei rushes the feline to a animal hospital. It’s too late, though.
These make up our second point of no return.
Despite everything going on with Kaori, Kousei found himself in arguably great shape. He overcame the drama around his mother, he’s able to perform better than ever, and he’s planning on going to a music school. Where the start of this story saw Kousei in a colorless world, moving without direction, he now has purpose and someone he loves. Sure, she’s not in great shape, but he brought up her spirits and gave her something to push towards. Surely she’ll survive.
And with the second point of no return, he crashes back to earth. The person who means everything to him and brought him back to life through music is, as far as he knows, dead. Their story together is quickly drawing to a close, forcing Kousei to react. Does he return to the piano again? Will he return to how we met him at the start? The story makes a hard turn towards the end, forcing this pianist to either find a way to continue or less everything be for naught.
And, of course, will Kaori survive?
That’s what the fourth and final act will reveal.
What I believe Your Lie in April did well was build upon the three story beats in a way that makes things scarier for our heroes. Each makes him struggle to continue, becoming worse along the way for both Kousei and Kaori.
1) It began with Kousei dragging Kaori down during their first duet, but it’s because of Kaori that he’s able to come back and pull off a performance that rekindles his desire to play.
2) The second, our mirror moment, removes Kaori entirely from her own performance (hardly a good thing for her) and forces Kousei to find a way to perform without Kaori anywhere near him.
3) The last has Kaori seemingly about to die, regressing Kousei to the same state he was in after his mother died. Will he play again?
Of course, these events impact the scenes that follow, providing a strong foundation for the story that follows.
This is my second attempt at writing about, well, writing, although somewhere along the way it might’ve morphed into a weird summation of Your Lie in April. The hope was that by describing events, I’d be able to show the impact of the two points of no return and the mirror moment, granted I admit that I didn’t expect to summarize so much of the story.
If nothing else, maybe I’ll convince someone to watch Your Lie in April. While I did spoil major scenes, there’s plenty of good stuff packed in that I believe it’s still worth watching. Then again, I’m still able to get choked up by the more dramatic scenes even after so many viewings. Maybe I’m just weird that way.
Back to games next week.
August 19, 2017: Switched a word to a different word with a similar spelling, changing the entire sentence. Man, I hope nobody noticed that blunder.