Be careful what you wish for, Tsubaki.
I know I beat this horse dead last time, but before I get going I just want to delineate where I stand on whether or not what Kaori and Tsubaki did to Arima is bullying. Honestly, bullying is a really subjective word; having been bullied most of my own life, I know very well how bullies, even those who aren’t doing so with necessarily malicious intent, rationalize things. “We’re just messing with you, don’t be a baby!” “That doesn’t even hurt,” or even worse, the ones where emotional manipulation is a little sneakier. I’ve had all sorts of experiences up and down the spectrum, from people kicking me, throwing my things away, being hit by sports equipment, being made fun of, called names, and ones where people who said they were my friends were peer pressuring me to be someone I wasn’t if I didn’t want to be abandoned. Why am I saying all this? Because what counts as bullying is different for the victim than the person doing the bullying. Some of the things that have been hurled at me, like exasperated questions as to why I couldn’t just stop crying about my parents’ divorce as a child (the worst one is when people try to force you to stop crying), or people trying to push me out of my comfort zone “for my own good” might have seemed like helpful things, but in reality they made me feel worse. That’s not about not being able to take jokes, or needing to learn how to not get hurt; it’s about being a human being with feelings and real problems. And people like Arima, people like me, have real problems we’re not all ready to face yet. I know for some the scenes with Kaori hitting and pushing Arima aren’t a big deal, but you should ask yourself, why isn’t it a big deal? Why is it treated like a good thing that this boy with mental problems has friends who physically hurt him and also force him to confront very real and deep seated fears before he is ready? Why are we getting this all wrapped up in a cherry blossom package? How would you feel in that situation?
My problem isn’t that Kaori and the others are doing this to Arima. My problem is that the series treats it as a solution to his mental state. Arima isn’t just running away; he has a very real psychological reaction and aversion to playing the piano. He was abused by his mother and is now being abused by his friends. But he’s seeing it as an eye opening experience, as a wonderful gift embodied in Kaori. Why is that a bad thing? It’s bad in that it’s condoning Kaori’s behavior and saying it’s okay to treat people with psychological issues like that, and that the abused can find inspiration in that. It’s just not healthy, and to be honest it’s actually worse in the anime than in the manga because of all the dramatic and technical focus on Kaori (those pretty colors and flair are not helping, A-1). I just hesitate to see this being passed off lightly.
Well, I beat the horse’s corpse to shreds now, so I should probably talk about the episode proper. I liked this episode a whole lot more than the last one, for obvious reasons, and also because I love music (if you don’t why are you here?). I think it’s important to state two things before I get into this in more detail. First, there is no true right or wrong approach to music. It’s all about expression, and no matter how technical or improv you play, it doesn’t ultimately matter as long as you enjoy it and it’s pleasant to listen to for at least one person. Secondly, that doesn’t mean you get a free card to do whatever you want in technical competitions. I’ve already seen some music lovers complaining about how Kaori’s approach to music is pretty disrespectful and simplistic. There’s no doubt that it is, but there’s nothing really wrong with that. What’s the issue is that she’s using platforms like these competitions to do it. If you go to a competition, you’re expecting to showcase your technical skill set, your practice, and your ability. Not your creativity. Its disrespectful to the people who came to watch the former and the people who came to perform seriously. As to simplistic, well, she’s really just doing whatever she wants. Still, for a musician, that’s an important thing to cultivate. You need to really get into your music, and you’re honestly free to reinterpret a piece however you want. Just, not in a competition. It’s kind of understandable that she wants to leave her mark considering the little hints here and there about her health, but still.
I understand that that freedom is what Arima loves in Kaori, but I hesitate to accept that at face value. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he is bound by his mother, in more ways than one. In the flashbacks we have seen that he clearly loved his mother, and that he worked hard for her sake. But we also know that she was abusive and beat him when he didn’t play as she wished, so that he’s become conditioned to playing without any emotion at all. Now that his mother is gone, his psychological trauma only makes that worse. His inability to hear the piano causes him to panic, and his attempts to snap out of it only make the playing sound more forced and out of sync. As a result, he ends up relying even more on technical aspects of playing, which constricts him even further in a spiral out of control. It doesn’t help that in this competition he was essentially forced to play something he hadn’t even had time to practice (this feels more like abuse to me, and could have really screwed him up for life about playing ever again, but I digress). But that, to me, is the essence of what makes this series so compelling. Arima’s condition is stark and difficult, and it makes you want to see him overcome his nightmares and truly grow into the musician he wants to be. That’s why even though the last half is pretty deus ex machina, the episode still hit some very powerful emotional chords.