First Impressions – Sakamichi no Apollon

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How can a show with such ridiculously high expectations possibly exceed them?

OP: “Sakamichi no Melody” by YUKI

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What was without question the most anticipated day of premières this season kicks off with Sakamichi no Apollon, the long-awaited return of legendary director Watanabe Shinichiro (of Cowboy Bebop fame). I’ll get the suspense out of the way quickly – yes, it’s great. This has already been a very strong season, though I’m not ready to call it great just yet based on (though it’s hardly easy to say so early on) the small number of series that seem to have the potential to be classics. Well, here’s one that does – and it represents (along with Tsuritama, hopefully) a return to greatness for the NoitaminA block.

This is definitely a NoitaminA series. It’s thoughtful, subtle and character-driven, lacking in any of the transitory qualities that tend to make a series a hit. Sakamichi could have aired in 1992 or 2002 – it just happens to be airing in 2012, which perhaps gives its fond but slightly cynical look back at the 1960’s a little more resonance. Given the pedigree here – not just Watanabe but music by the great Kanno Yoko (who also plays piano on the soundtrack) – you knew music would be a central theme and spectacular, and it is. Watanabe himself has been music director on a number of series and he and Kanno-san have partnered with spectacular results. I’m of the view that Cowboy Bebop – while excellent – is slightly overrated as a whole, but mostly because Watanabe-sensei was working with a fairly routine premise – direction and music were off the charts. Here, he has a critically-acclaimed manga to work with – albeit one that will have to be trimmed considerably to fit into 12 episodes.

Young Nishimi Kaoru (a brilliant Kimura Ryouhei) is a navy brat – a nerdy-looking kid with glasses who’s bounced around from school to school because of his father’s naval career, and whose mother has apparently abandoned the boy and his father. His latest move lands him in an unnamed town in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Kaoru is used to awkward first days – the cold stares, the dismissals, the loneliness. The only one to talk to him right away is Maruo Shigetora (Murasae Ayumu, debut performance)) a social outcast himself. Mauro warns Kaoru about the bully who sits behind him, a boy to be avoided and placated at all cost. The class president Mukae Ritsuko (Nanri Yuuka, Saori from Hourou Musuko) offers to show Kaoru around the school and he’s immediately smitten with her, but when the bullying begins the walls start to close in on him – and a peculiarity of Kaoru is that whenever he feels this sort of thing happening (which is apparently often) the only way he can cure his nausea and panic is to flee to the roof.

All of that being prologue, this is where the story really begins, as Kaoru finds Kawabuchi Sentarou (Hosoya Yoshimasa, playing against type) sleeping under a tarp outside the locked roof. Sentarou is the bully Maruo warned Kaoru about, and fights three seniors for the key – and whups them – only to offer to sell it to Kaoru for 100,000 yen (which is about $1200, a ton for a high-school student now, never mind in 1966). This is unquestionably the key relationship in the story, and in many ways Kaoru and Sentarou represent the cultural divide that was beginning to crystalize then. Sentarou and Kaoru are opposites in every way – the one huge and muscular, the other wispy and bookish. Sentarou is a free spirit, Kaoru still locked inside himself – as Watanbe (and mangaka Kodama Yuki, presumably) demonstrate beautifully with a scene where Sentarou casts aside his umbrella and exuberantly allows the rain to wash over him as Kaoru watches, astonished.

People are naturally going to speculate on the nature of this relationship – they already have, in fact – which begins with Sentarou reaching out and grabbing Kaoru’s hand as he wakes up. With such reflexive suspicion among many anime fans for anything remotely resembling a sensitive relationship between males, a hue and cry of “Yaoi!” has already been raised here. I don’t see it myself, as Kaoru for certain (and probably Sentarou too) seems to have a crush on Ritsuko. It looks more like bromance to me but frankly, I don’t care – with writing this good, any relationship is interesting and this one is no exception. Sentarou and Kaoru do appear to have one major interest in common – music. But even here we see the cultural divide in play – Kaoru is studying classical piano, and Sentarou’s world is focused on jazz, and nothing but (he’s a drummer, and a good one).

I was pretty astonished by the scene in the basement of Welcome Records, the music shop Ritsuko’s father owns and above which the family lives. The basement is a studio, and there Kaoru sees Sentarou show off his talents on the drums (a beautifully animated scene) – again, in astonishment. It seems that being in Sentarou’s presence lifts the weight from Kaoru’s chest and takes away his panic – and it seems to me that it’s basking in the glow of Sentarou’s freedom that has this effect. Given that Kaoru’s home life is apparently no bargain either – he’s living with a seemingly wealthy Aunt who seems to hold him in low regard and a bratty cousin (we see the second memorable NoitaminA usage of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” in a year as Kaoru plays it at their large house) it’s only in Sentarou and Ritsuko’s company that Kaoru seems to escape that pressure always keeping him on the edge of panic (Watanabe portrays this beautifully by showing Kaoru “swinging” down the slope as Sentarou’s drums play in his head). Ritsuko tries to push her old friend and new together, but when Kaoru haltingly but correctly taps out the into to Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ “Moanin’” on the studio piano, Sentarou derides him for playing it with no swing whatsoever. Kaoru promptly buys Blakey’s recording (the Blue Note 4003 version) and determines to learn to play the song well enough to shut Sentarou up.

I won’t speak for you, but I absolutely can’t wait to hear Sentarou and Kaoru jam together on “Moanin’” – and I suspect Ritsuko’s Dad will be a part of that, too. The love of music is infectious here, and intertwined perfectly with the elemental feelings of teenage isolation and the first pangs of romantic love. This seems to be a very simple story about very basic human experiences, but it’s in the telling that the magic comes – the youthful and bright OP by YUKI and gorgeous piano & strings ED by Motohiro Hata, the detailed and lovely backgrounds, the authentic dialogue, the way Kaoru’s sense of isolation, fear and finally astonished excitement feel so personal and real. I haven’t seen school scenes this good since Hourou Musuko, which like Sakamichi brilliantly captured those emotions we feel in that peculiar environment and put us inside the minds and hearts of the characters. What comes through here is artistry, and love of the subject on the part of the creators – a love for music, and a love for anime. If NoitaminA is about brining us anime as art, then Sakamichi no Apollon truly does represent a triumphant return to form.

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ED: “Altair” by Motohiro Hata

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  1. d

    I'm looking forward to this and Uchuu Kyoudai

  2. Based on what I know of your tastes, I think you'll love it – it even features Claire de Lune!

  3. d

    Despite Twilight almost ruining it for me, I can't deny that I still love listening to it. haha.

  4. s

    The first episode of this show really made me understand why GE raged when an abomination like Guilty Crown aired on NoitaminA. I despise anime snobs who look down on others for enjoying shows like K-ON, Bleach, Naruto or whatever, however those shows will always remain popular and typically be the ones rewarded with multiple seasons. But dammit, we need more stuff like this too!

  5. A

    Your view: Cowboy Bebop is somewhat overrated as a whole
    My view: Cowboy Bebop is STILL much better than your beloved Kenshin (or Chihayafuru) as a whole

    See what I did there, Enzo? You can see I read your posts. Ha!

  6. Wow, pat yourself on the back – that was Nobel worthy stuff there. I'm humbled. Way to sign your post, too.

  7. A

    sure, pat pat. I'm good~~.

    And I would so sign my post with a name!……once I figure out how to do it without having to sign up for an account!! ha ha As I haven't, it'll remain "Anonymous"!

    Anyway, Enzo, you know there is no malice on my part here, right? It's just a banter. I know it can always be interpreted as serious if no "LOL" is added at the end; I told ya I read your posts.

  8. You wanna go? Let's go! 😉

    I know Cowboy Bebop is kind of a third rail, but Jeebus… It's not like I said it sucked, and I'm just stating my opinion.

  9. A

    Wonderful. Without a doubt my number one pick for the season.

    I was worried a bit when I heard that it was only going to be 12 episodes (a change of format for NoitaminA I see) and that they were going to adapt the entire series in such a short time span, but having seen the first episode, all doubts that I had were blown away. This show is fantastic.

    ''How can a show with such ridiculously high expectations possibly exceed them?''

    Come on now Enzo, Guilty Crown had already ended, let's not take any more shots at it. Just let it go.

    ''I’m of the view that Cowboy Bebop is somewhat overrated as a whole''

    Do you understand how much that hurts me 🙁 ?

    I know it wasn't you intention, but in a lot of way I'm reminded of that one time where I read some one describe Hourou Musuko just from a quick read on wikipedia (though with a whole lot more malice, so I guess it doesn't really compare, since your giving an honest opinion … but it still stung the same 🙁 )

  10. Actually, that wasn't a pot shot at GC at all – just a comment about how hyped SnA was among anime snobs like me…

    And the Cowboy Bebop thing – no offense, but that's just my opinion. I didn't say it was bad or anything!

  11. j

    I didn't want this episode to end.

  12. S

    Acclaimed director & soundtrack runner on an acclaimed, award-winning Manga about Jazz Music. This has "snob" appeals to the N-th degree. But this is good, really good. I just hope it's an all-time great.

    Oh how I wish more music scenes were animated like that drum solo. Though that's probably where the entire episode budget went. You don't get many like that. It's was wonderful to see.

  13. L

    This is officially my porn I had a nerdgaism listen to sentarou drumming >_< I love swing and jazz music (granted I may not know specific artists (ok I knew a few like ray clarles and benny goodman) but I love the instrumentation enzo if you can recommand me certain artists it would be great I love the piano playing at for Moanin. The drum solo for each sequences ahhhhhhhhh I love it I love it I love it
    By the way I dont understand a word of french but seriously check this out:

  14. Well, you could start with the very album mentioned in the anime – Moanin' by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I'd also highly recommend "Kind of Blue" by the Miles Davis group as a great into to jazz.

    I'm a huge fan of Charlie Parker (alto sax) Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans (piano) and Sonny Rollins (tenor sax) so a well-reviewed best-of collection from any of those dudes should serve you well too.

  15. I

    I really like this show. Its animation, sound, story and characters are through the roof good, but for some reason I feel more drawn to Uchuu Kyodai. Ill wait with bated breath for this and F/Z each week, but the show I will enjoy watching the most will be probably be space brothers.

    That aside, Noitamina really is back with swing this season. That drum solo was worth a thousand views alone. I love old school blues bands so this was delight to my ears, although a proper jam session with a few more instruments would get me high.

    On the chacarter side, I don't think Sentaro has a crush on Ritsuko, rather that guy who cricked his neck when Ritsuko invited Kaoru over seems to be the jealous one. Kaoru's "moso" isn't as hilarious as the ones in Ano Natsu, but it really displays his, uh, purity well (she was completely clothed in that scene) and was worth the laugh.

    The number of must watch shows just keeps increasing this season and Hyouka hasn't even aired yet. You have my condolences GE, but I'm sure you're going to enjoy this season all the more for it.

  16. R

    Cowboy Bebop…. oh no you di'nt

    Rurouni Kenshin OVAs got me started in anime and Cowboy Bebop clinched the deal.

    I liked this Appolon show.Potential to be really great. If it gets any gayer than this I'm gonna be pissed though.

  17. d

    my take is that he thought he was grabbing the inchou's hand.

  18. S

    Old school coming of age story with a jazz twist, I like what I'm seeing 😉
    Ritsuko's totally shipping Kaoru x Sentaro. Closeted fujoshi? Nishishi…

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