On this week’s episode of No Rest for the Weekend, Jason Godbey and I discussed some of the entries from this year’s New York and Mill Valley Film Festivals. One of them is the upcoming animated film, They Shot the Piano Player, which explores the life of a jazz pianist who became collateral damage during Argentina’s military dictatorship. It will release in theatres later this month, and I’ll provide a full review then, but one of the highlights I mention in the video is that the animation style conjures images that make it feel like you’re watching bossa nova music, like the sound itself is being literally rendered into a visual.
The same can be said for high energy hot jazz in a spiritual companion piece, Blue Giant, a new anime film based on the popular manga series of the same name from Shinichi Ishizuka. Released in Japan back in February, the movie has made its way to the States through GKIDS, offering some absolutely stunning art that more than effectively translates the sound and passion of the music at its core, as well as the young musicians who play it.
Dai Miyamoto (voiced by Yuki Yamada), is an enthusiastic tenor saxophone player, who wishes to become the greatest jazz musician of all time. Having received the sax from his brother, Dai has dedicated himself to his craft, practicing alone by a river every night to make sure that neither the physical nor figurative gift goes to waste. Eventually he moves to Tokyo, crashing at the apartment of his friend, Shunji Tamada (Amane Okayama), who is attending college. Searching the city for the local jazz scene (and impressing a small bar owner with his knowledge to the point that she becomes a mentor), Dai is blown away by the performance of pianist Yukinori Sawabe (Shotaro Mamiya), whose skill is so great that he can accommodate the bandleader’s solos, as well as his own, with just one hand at a time.
Dai proposes that he and Sawabe form a band, the latter being impressed by Dai’s skill despite only playing for a few years. Needing a drummer, Dai asks Tamada to join on a temporary basis so that they can at least all practice together. Tamada is a complete novice, but he finds a sense of focus and emotional release in learning, putting in hours upon hours of hard work and practice to become even competent. The group eventually names themselves JASS (if only they had a member named Hugh) and begin booking gigs, with Sawabe writing their original songs. The ultimate goal is to perform at the prestigious So Blue club, the most famous jazz spot in all of Japan, where Sawabe has dreamed of playing since he was a child.
I’m very much not an expert in jazz, though I do enjoy listening to it on occasion. I’m aware of some of the great artists, but I can’t necessarily distinguish one from the other, and to be perfectly frank, Lisa Simpson was my entry point into the genre. That said, when I enjoy hearing something, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from. If it hits my ear the right way, I love it. The music in this film does exactly that. The high octane wails of the sax, the intricate yet speedy piano riffs, even the elementary drumming, it all sounds wonderful, even when there are errors (in a fun running gag, Sawabe expresses his affection for Tamada by playfully noting how many mistakes he makes in a given performance, noting his gradual improvement).
Even if there were no visual element to the story, I’d like this music because we can hear the fire that’s put into it, the raw, unadulterated passion that only comes from true musicians. This translated in other animated projects like Coco and Soul over the last few years. Music, just like any other artform, only works if you can feel the emotion behind it. That doesn’t mean that everything has to be super serious or dramatic, but there has to be the clear sense that there’s a commitment to quality and expression. That’s a big part of why I don’t care for a lot of modern pop music. You can tell how manufactured it is, how phoned in, how mass-produced and capitalistic it all is. It doesn’t matter if it’s Ariana Grande belting out some nonsense about trying to make herself a sex symbol while insisting that only one side of her face be photographed, or Billie Eilish mumbling entry-level emo lyrics that prove she’s never faced any real adversity, or Panic! at the Disco bragging about how they “made” it when everyone else couldn’t. You can always sense the bottom line at play and hear how disingenuous most of it is. They’re cultivating an image and a social media following, not creating art, which is why I always hesitate to actually call them “artists.” If you stand in a sound booth and half-sing into a microphone while an engineer auto-tunes your voice to play over computerized beats you didn’t write and that don’t align with any actual notes because there are no instruments, you’re not making music. You’re making noise, and you and your corporate overlords are banking on an audience that either can’t or won’t think critically and will just fork over their money because Ryan Seacrest tells them to. Every once in a while I hear something — even from these same sources — that hints at something real, but for the most part it’s completely artificial. With the music of JASS in this film, even though it’s in an animated movie where the physical movements of the characters can be manipulated to elicit an emotional response, you can still hear the effort of real musicians independent of the visuals. That’s the major difference.
And for what it’s worth, those visuals are quite eye-popping. It’s a supplement to the audio profile, but there’s still an infectious energy to it all. When Dai is essentially contorting himself to hit the highest notes, you see the physical exertion required. When Sawabe gets into his personal zone on the piano, there’s a zen-like ease and flow to accompany it. As Tamada’s skill improves, so too do the myriad cuts and bruises on his hands, evidence of the work he’s putting in. It’s not just a cartoon character putting a reed in his mouth. It’s the full act of the deep breath, the nervous fingering, the bracing for the voluntary bodily assault that’s about to come, capped off with crystal clear sweat and a need for hydration and catching of breath afterwards.
That character action is paired with some absolutely dazzling lighting and color design and camera work, making the audience into an almost literal fly on the wall, darting in between the players and in and out of their instruments. The use of reds, yellows, and blues, along with the immaculate shadow work, goes a long way to depict each member’s own version of his ambition and drive. It’s one thing to hear great music. It’s quite another to see it, and director Yuzuru Tachikawa delivers in spades.
The overall story isn’t perfect by any means. The plot is extremely predictable, including the so-called “twists” that present obstacles to the group’s endgame. Similarly, there are scenes that are presented in a documentary interview format from some time in the future, where friends, club owners, and music industry professionals comment on Dai’s talent and how they knew him when, implying that he’s achieved his goal of being the world’s most famous jazz musician. It’s interesting visually, but it robs the movie of its stakes, because we already know that Dai succeeds in one form or another. Finally, a side plot about how Sawabe became infatuated with the piano stems from his childhood friendship with a student who he believes gave up after financial hardship forced her to move away. It’s hinted that she shows up for the climactic performance, tearfully praying for “Yuki-chan,” but weirdly they have no formal reunion. Given the warm fuzzies that the rest of the film gives us, I’m surprised at the unnecessary restraint here.
But maybe there’s a thematic point to it. It’s something of a cliché in pop culture that when it comes to jazz, the notes they don’t play are sometimes just as important as the ones they do. This could be a representation of that idea, similar to how the band’s early performances highlight Tamada’s drumming mistakes, little moments where he loses the tempo or hits the tom-tom instead of the snare. If that was the intent, I can respect it even if I don’t fully agree with it.
Still, what the film needs to get right, it very much does. Like I said, I’m no jazz aficionado. I simply know what I like. And I like this. A lot. In an age where the human element is increasingly missing from music — and film, to be honest — it’s comforting, reassuring, and at times downright inspirational to hear, and see, real passion play out. It’s heartwarming to know that there are still people who can fulfill their dreams through dedication and hard work, not just the characters in this story, but the artists across media who made it happen. That’s a tune we can all dance to.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What other ways can music be expressed profoundly via cinema? What would your band’s name be? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!