PPPPPP – Why I Keep Reading a Music Manga That I Can’t Fully Recommend (Review/Analysis)

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Source: VIZ Media, https://www.viz.com/shonenjump/chapters/pppppp?locale=en

By: Beata Garrett  | @zhongxia246​​

PPPPPP is a manga about a family of geniuses with piano superpowers, and it’s everything I expected something with that premise to be, yet underwhelming in ways that I’ll do my best to describe. I feel like it’s the kind of work you’d read if you want to read a mashup of The Umbrella Academy and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but I can’t promise you’ll have as good of a time consuming it in comparison to either. 

When I wrote this review, there were only 16 chapters available on VIZ, but the representations of music in it has been stuck in my mind since I began reading it in September (2021). I’ll delve into the art later, but will focus on PPPPPP’s themes and plot first.

What It’s About

The protagonist, Lucky Sonoda, is the only mediocre child in a family of piano-virtuosos but continues loving it from afar while taking care of his ill, hospitalized mother. 

He’s like other shounen main characters: he’s optimistic, resilient, and has a deep passion for something he may not have the talent for even though the rest of his family does.

Since his parents’ divorce ten years ago, Lucky has been sidelined in the family as the untalented and oft forgotten seventh child of what should be the Otogami Septuplets. From the sidelines, he’s been forced to watch people fawn over his genius siblings, called the “Otogami Sextuplet Pianists,” along with having his surname changed to their mother’s, hence him being the only “Sonoda” of the seven children.  

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Source: Chapter 1, PPPPPP

Lucky now lives with his aunt from his mother’s side and her spoiled son rather than his father or mother. The trauma of Gakuon and the aunt’s abuse are clearly affecting him, but he doesn’t blame anyone else other than himself–regularly attributing their terrible treatment of him to his mediocrity at the piano. He also blames himself for separating his mom from the rest of the siblings because he sees himself as the cause of their divorce, and is unable to imagine any future with his siblings as a result. 

He doesn’t exist to the family, especially to its patriarch, Gakuon, or to the rest of the world.

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Source: Chapter 1, PPPPPP

Everything changes when his mother encourages Lucky to become a pianist because she loves his playing. She tells him to also prove his father wrong by showing him that anyone, including the mediocre, can play the piano. This is only the beginning of his journey into the musical profession that will inevitably draw him deeper into the world of his siblings and father.

Meaning in The Title

PPPPPP stands for pianissimo (or, pianississimo if you prefer the British-English spelling) repeated twice. A pianissimo note should be played very, very softly. In terms of voice, this would be even softer than a whisper. Playing pianissimo is difficult because you can’t hit keys with the typical force you would use, but it helps train your sensitivity to subtleties in music. 

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Source: https://socratic.org/questions/what-does-ppp-stand-for-in-music

I do like how pianissimo represents Lucky’s gentle nature and soft playing–a tendency born from playing for his mother in the hospital. It nicely contrasts the more aggressive styles of the siblings raised by Gakuon. 

It wasn’t a bad trait to give Lucky in and of itself, but when combined with the power of granting wishes by recreating reality… well, that makes him overpowered. 

To be fair, unlike other music-focused manga, PPPPPP tries to tackle experiential-visual music as though it’s really happening rather than some fantasy the listener is simply imagining. It’s really interesting that, instead, Lucky is creating these images himself with music and sharing it with his listeners. In my search, I haven’t found anything that fits this in reality besides sound-color synesthetes (a form of synesthesia), a phenomenon in which one can associate music with colors. There’s also visual music, but that requires artists to make a visual component based on the music, which is not expressed within the manga. Moreover, I haven’t seen this brought out in other manga or comics before either. 

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Chapter 12, PPPPPP

That said, PPPPPP’s idea, though great in visualizing music most of the time, also feels like a shortcut to avoid the more difficult issues that face any artist about their self-worth in their chosen field.

What makes this stand out is how clear of a level difference Lucky has compared to his peers. After all, once Lucky enters Shibuya Music High School, it’s clear that he’s below his peers in terms of skill and knowledge. He’s unable to discern notes that are played or follow along with much of what’s being said. However, despite this, his mentor, Hideo, tells him that his playing is special because of his history, desire, and its softness.

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Source: Chapter 2, PPPPPP

While being able to play pianissimo better than other pianists allows Lucky to stand out and understand the nuances of his pieces better, it doesn’t compensate for other necessary techniques. It also puts him at a disadvantage for pieces that require louder emotions like joy or anger. 

I expected the manga to raise questions about authenticity, skill, and talent, and the worth of these traits in discerning the winner or best pianist in a competition. These are topics that have been raised frequently in sports manga like Haikyuu and Ping Pong, and music manga like Blue Giant and Blue Orchestra. One of the marks of a great sports or music manga is how they’ll approach these deeper themes of competition, talent, and skill.

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Source: Chapter 3, PPPPPP

When Lucky begins competing with others, PPPPPP removes a lot of the musical complexity from the plot. For the first competition, Hideo challenges Lucky and Ako, a girl with perfect pitch, to compete. They have to play “Pavane pour une infante défunte.” It is a piece intended to be played very slowly, and Hideo advises Lucky to use his talent to take the listener to another place, as seen in the image above. 

There’s no clear winner of the battle, as Ako is technically superior in her playing, but Lucky passes by granting Ako’s “wish.” Her wish is for her mother to pat her on the head like she used to, and Lucky grants it through his playing of the piece using his magical powers. 

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Chapter 3, PPPPPP

Unlike the other Otogamis, Lucky can only bring others into his memories and can’t conjure anything he hasn’t experienced. It’s a good limitation to his powers, but he remains a horrible player on a technical level and has to rely on it to win all of his competitions. 

Because of this magic that so many people seem to ‘magically’ appreciate, there isn’t a great need to improve his technical skills and so, instead, he focuses on choosing a memory to bring someone into rather than developing holistically as a pianist. 

This scene is what made me realize that PPPPPP is best when it’s centered on the Otogami family and their issues rather than deeper themes of musical composure, competition, or innate talent versus earned skills. 

When Lucky battles his siblings, the manga utilizes his power to create very strong emotional moments, often reflecting on how his father has hurt him, and thereby helping his siblings begin to break free of their father’s abuse. It is a far more interesting and cohesive part of the story than nearly any focus on the musical profession or education. 

The Six Otagamis of the Septuplets 

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Source: Chapter 3, PPPPPP

In PPPPPP, Gakuon (their father) uses emotional and physical abuse on his children so they stay by his side. This is seen primarily in the isolation tactics used on Lucky, showing his siblings what happens when you don’t have talent, but certainly expands when looking at the other six.  

The lives of Lucky’s siblings revolve around winning to earn their father’s approval and to grab any chance of agency in their micromanaged lives. All of them are assigned their own personal manager who report directly to Gakuon, and are unable to even dream of quitting the piano.

Their father’s influence is revealed best in Reijiro’s flashback to the only time he lost, albeit purposefully, to someone. Gakuon punished Reijiro physically by slapping him and later tells his son, “You’ll never be normal. Your only friend is the piano” (Chapter 9, PPPPPP). It also served as reinforcement for the other children who wanted to avoid being treated the same way, each of whom watch and even shamed Reijiro further, thereby perpetuating the abuse:

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Source: Chapter 9, PPPPPP

While Lucky has also been abused by his aunt, he was able to have a semblance of normalcy through his mother. Moreover, by leaving the aunt to go pursue music at his new school, he’s able to advance and gain freedoms beyond what his siblings have had under Gakuon. 

When Lucky plays in the competition against Reijiro and fulfills Reijiro’s wish to walk home with a friend, he thinks, “Reijiro’s wish is just normal for me. But that ordinary experience is what [Reijiro’s] been tearfully longing for” (Chapter 12, PPPPPP).

After Lucky finishes, Reijiro hugs him and requests that they go back home and Lucky play the piece for him everyday. However, Lucky gently reminds him that that would be escaping reality and he wants all of his siblings to get the opportunity to live in the real world. 

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Source: Chapter 12, PPPPPP

It’s a powerful goal that’s made effective because it comes from a member of the family that has already been abused and abandoned. It’s not from some random stranger who wants to save some children–which would be fine but not as emotionally impactful. 

These abused siblings can understand each other on a deeper level in many ways, so I appreciate PPPPPP addressing the ways in which they react to each other and to their abuser. In this case, the abuser is their parent and mentor, and that makes for an even more complicated relationship because they’re two positions that society teaches you to not fight back against. It’s hard to read, but powerful. 

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Source: Chapter 16, PPPPPP

Another interesting example of how trauma manifests itself is in Lucky’s sister, Mimin. She’s sent to Japan to win as many competitions as she can for their father, and is personally invested in this mission because she believes beating all the pianists who lose to her will allow her to play the piano style she wants. 

Her logic is that people who enter competitions and win become judges, judges who restrict the freedom that can be found in piano. She’s not interested in whether a piece is “good” but wants to “live freely” and feels she can only do so if there are no other pianists to be compared against (Chapter 16, PPPPPP).

Mimin hasn’t realized yet that she doesn’t live freely because of Gakuon and that he’s redirecting her frustration towards other pianists who could be her friends, and not her enemy. It shows how far Gakuon’s ideology has taken root within his kids and prevented them from living fulfilling lives.

The Art

Now onto the fun part: the art. PPPPPP is visually striking with its way of depicting music through “fantasies” that are sometimes whimsical and sometimes painfully realistic. These are a few examples of the more whimsical panels:

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Source: Starting top-left, going clockwise: Chapter 1, Chapter 8, Chapter 16, Chapter 5, PPPPPP

While it could benefit from changing the art style in the same way Blue Period does by hiring different artists, I still enjoy PPPPPP’s present style. 

The more realistic panels are emotionally impactful as they reveal the deep desires of the people Lucky plays for, such as when his playing conjures up a sunset and a friend for his brother Reijiro:

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Source: Chapter 12, PPPPPP

There’s another great scene where Lucky allows a classmate to briefly taste his dream of being good enough to receive a standing ovation through his music:

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Source: Chapter 7, PPPPPP

The classmate himself doesn’t really matter, but everyone can relate to that desire to be seen and appreciated by others. As a musician, standing ovations are an acknowledgement that your music has resonated with the audience and it’s bittersweet to see someone want it so badly in comparison to the Otogamis, who receive them so much that they’ve become bored of it.

It’s little moments like this that keep me returning to this manga and I applaud the mangaka, MAPOLLO 3, for creating a music manga that visualizes the experience of playing and listening to music in a way I haven’t seen before. 

Conclusion

I really hope the manga treats each Otogami with dignity and consideration. So far, MAPOLLO 3’s done a decent, if simplistic, job with Reijiro and Mimin, so I’m curious to see if they can keep it up with the other kids. 

Unfortunately, other parts of the story thus far have remained tedious in comparison. It’s hard to care about Lucky fulfilling some random classmate’s dream or believe in his new friendship with Ako when those characters have no personality and little time with him.

PPPPPP’s message isn’t unique or excellently done, but the way it combines a mix of realistic and fantastical art with its (touch-and-go) emotionally resonant story keeps me coming back. On that same note, the music is not for an elite audience or elite pianists but is for everyone, including the mediocre.

In the end, the message appears to be that the true growth and healthy self-value as a pianist comes from loving piano and learning from other pianists instead of dominating them. 

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