I almost feel as if I shouldn’t defile this episode by even trying to talk about it, but I guess that’s my job – and the hard part at the moment is to do it without gushing like a smitten fanboy, because that’s what I feel like. I can’t recall many instances where I’ve been so thoroughly gobsmacked as I was after that confession scene – I didn’t know whether to be speechless or shout out my approval to the universe. In the end I grabbed my head with both hands and as soon as I snapped out of it, immediately jumped backwards to play it again.
One thing that strikes me is that really great anime directors have mastered the art of intra-episodic pacing. In other words, the critical thing is that an episode has to finish better than it starts – the section after the eyecatch is the most important. In boxing they say that the last minute of the round is more important in impressing the judges than the first two, and so it is with anime – the lasting impression comes from the final act. You can see examples of this in the work of Nagai Tatsuyuki, who demonstrated it to perfection with Ano Natsu de Matteru earlier this year. I was pleased with the first half of the episode, but nothing was especially thrilling me – it was just really good. But the second half was the best 10 minutes of an already great show so far, culminating with the confession scene.
Now I’ll be the first to admit I have a bias here – I absolutely love Bill Evans. He’s probably my favorite jazz pianist ever – his restrained, delicate melodic lines unlike anything that had come before and a huge influence on this who would follow right to this day. After playing on Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” (along with Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly, among others) – arguably the greatest jazz album ever – Evans founded arguably the greatest piano trio ever with Scott LeFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. It was this trio’s 1959 debut LP “Portrait in Jazz” that Kaoru was looking at in this episode, and for which the song he played for Ritsuko, “Someday my Prince Will Come” (written for Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”) was recorded. It would be no exaggeration to say this was my favorite confession scene in anime, and that’s saying something as there have been some great ones.
This scene works on a great many levels, most obviously with the gorgeous cover of Evans’ classic recording. But I was also blown away by the imagery, the cuts between Kaoru’s ecstatic state at the piano, Ri-chan’s rapt attention, and especially the intercuts of Kaoru as he diligently transcribes Evans’ version, right down to the sketch of Ri-chan’s face on the sheet music. Wow – that was art. And it was all the more powerful because of the build-up earlier in the episode, with the makings of what felt like a conventional misunderstanding-driven anime love quadrangle. The payoff was Ritsuko’s heartbreaking “I’m the dress rehearsal” – a line of dialogue staggering under the weight of hidden meanings and depth – and Kaoru’s simple declaration that no, this song was for her. This wasn’t the rehearsal, but the performance.
Sakamichi no Apollon is a love story in so many ways. Ultimately I think it’s a love letter from Watanabe to the music he adores and to the idealism he felt in his youth, when the power of our emotions has a purity they’ll never have again in life. With a 9-volume manga being adapted into a 12-episode anime it’s inevitable that the pacing is going to be quick, and there were times that events and feelings felt as if they were rushing along too fast – but in a funny way I think this may work in the series’ favor, because it appears as if the romantic side of the love story will be largely free of equivocation and very much to the point. The cards are already on the table – Sentarou loves Yurika, Ri-chan loves Sentarou. and Kaoru loves Ri-chan. It’s a mess, but Kaoru’s beautiful and heartfelt confession changes everything – the regrets we carry with us are almost never what we did and wish we hadn’t, but what we didn’t do and wish we had. As Kaoru says himself, Ritsuko’s eyes are only on Sentarou – but that’s all right for now, because he’ll never have to wonder what would have happened if he’d only told Ri-chan how he felt.
Is it a surprise that Sentarou would turn out to be so shy? Not to me, as he seems to intentionally disconnect himself from his deeper emotions with his flippant behavior. It was interesting to see his family life – a house full of younger siblings, a pet pigeon named Sarah Vaughn. That emotional disconnect makes it easy to believe that he’s genuinely unaware of Ritsuko’s feelings for him – he’s been looking at her for so long that he only sees the little neighbor girl he grew up with, while Kaoru seems the young woman who silently pines for the neighbor boy. Her “No!” reaction when Yurika suggested climbing to the top of the stone arch with Sentarou was transparent to Kaoru – and to us – as was her quick explanation that it was all for safety’s sake. Now that she’s been presented with a new reality – there’s a guy right in front of her who does notice her, who doesn’t consider her a dress rehearsal or tell her she’s pretty just to make her feel better – it will be fascinating to see how she reacts. I’ll also be interested in whether Kaoru confronts Sentarou about what he walked in on – which I suspect was not exactly what it appeared to be.
As a final note, I’m mention that the Sakamichi no Apollon OST is officially released. And it’s every bit as good as you’d expect – a mix of classic tracks and original Kannou Youko compositions for the series. Buying OSTs is another way to show support to NoitaminA for using their platform to showcase brilliant and individualistic expressions of anime as art, like this one – and if you’re really feeling fashionable, you can also pre-order Kaoru’s glasses from the NoitaminA shop…