An American Piano
Directed by: #PaulLeeming
Written by: #HamishDownie
An American Piano tells a true story from World War 2-era Japan, portraying the emotional impact that this conflict had on the life of Youko Koshida and her family. Focusing on the final few months of the war, An American Piano is a compassionate, sombre short, given weight by its incorporation of actual footage of Youko playing the piano at its conclusion.
The film’s opening is an exceptional, clever musing on the intrusion of violent conflict into the innocence of youth, as the childish bliss which Youku indulges in, playfully looking for shapes in the clouds, is shattered by the arrival of military planes flying overhead. The specificity of being a child and seeing familiar figures in the clouds is so relatable, so universal, that it causes you to really consider the consequences of war on those affected by it, and how we can often take safety and happiness for granted.
Unfortunately, the film is unable to build effectively on this initial promise. Though An American Piano is never insincere, it quickly descends into melodrama and stereotype. It is somewhat difficult to criticise the relationship between Youku and the American soldier who is affected by her piano playing, which he can hear from his cell in a prison camp next door, because it is based on truth. However, its portrayal here feels too similar to stories which have been told before about the relationship between foreign strangers and how there is ‘more that unites us than divides us’, and it doesn’t really contribute anything original to this trope.
Furthermore, the doll which plays such a pivotal role to the film’s ending seems an underdeveloped idea within the film. Though these dolls really were given to American soldiers by Youku, they aren’t given any significance at any point, which makes this climax feel confusing, and devoid of the sentimental impact it seems to be trying to create.
In fact, it could be said that much of this film fails to connect emotionally. Though there is lots of sadness evident on the screen and in the unrelentingly sorrowful piano music which makes up the film’s score, this sadness is implemented in such a way that the audience feel like observers to the grief, rather than participants in it.
This is because the film opts to simply bombard us with melancholy from its onset. For example, both Lou Ohshiba and Jun Matsuo seem to have been directed to be glum and tearful from the beginning of the film to the end, and the effect of this is that the scenes in which they interact become uninteresting and lack energy. We don’t get to experience any kind of change or development in these characters, which makes it hard to engage with their story as a whole. Its simply an exhibition of sadness, but a sadness which feels somewhat contrived. Thus, though An American Piano’s well-meaning intentions cannot be doubted, it is unable to portray it’s story in an emotionally compelling way.