Really, it isn’t supposed to look so effortless as Watanabe-sensei is making it look.
I watched Watanabe Shinchiro’s Baby Blue from Studio 4C’s “Genius Party” this week, and it made me realize just how much he’s changed as a director from his Bebop and Champloo days. He was always a huge talent, but he seems to have evolved into a much simpler, more understated style – stripping the material of everything that isn’t necessary and leaving a final product where everything means something and there’s just no wasted space. It’s an elegant way of presenting what at heart, in the case of Sakamichi no Apollon is a strikingly straightforward story – albeit one with some very complex human interaction.
Once again this week we’re left with a strong impression that an awful lot of manga material was crammed into one episode. I can imagine the exposition surrounding Sentarou’s past took much longer, and the romantic dynamics didn’t move anywhere near this quickly – or so I’m guessing. It would certainly be interesting to see what Watanabe would have done with sufficient time to do a full adaptation, but once again I see this as a positive in that it suits his style perfectly – there’s no wasted space and no irrelevancy. Everything means something, and we get to the point without a lot of fluff. This would likely be a huge problem in lesser hands (anime history is littered with countless examples of rushed anime adaptations dead at the side of the road) but this is a guy that can handle it. And thank goodness, because things certainly are moving quickly.
What Watanabe lacks in time, he makes up for in artistic flourish – a small moment that takes a few seconds can be forgotten, but he gives us imagery that makes them profound and memorable. Take for example the moment that Kaoru kisses Ritsuko for the first time, surely a significant moment in its own right – but one we’ve seen many times in anime. But by the simple act of having Kaoru take off his glasses before he kisses her, he makes it special, because so much meaning can be inferred from that simple gesture. I see it as a subtle way for Kaoru to gather his courage, the blur what was in front of him and make it less terrifying. Sentarou’s grim past is a huge part of the story, but what I’ll remember from that sequence are two images – the child Sentarou reaching for his step-father’s hand, just as the man pulls it away. And Sentarou and Kaoru playing the into to “Moanin’” at the organ, not as the young men they are but as the kids who never knew each other. it’s a moment of fantasy, but it enlightens the reality of who they are and what the music means to them.
The dynamics of their friendship – which with apologies to Ri-chan is clearly the heart of the series – seemed clear from the beginning: Sentarou was the free spirit, the wild child, the embodiment of the new youth of the 1960’s. And Kaoru was the closed, cautious relic of the 1950’s with his horn-rimmed glasses and classical training. But there was more to it than that, and this was the first major dynamic of the week. For all Kaoru’s certainty that he knew Sentarou and the jealousy it made him feel, he didn’t see the entire picture. If you think being of mixed parentage is an issue in Japan now, in this era – only two decades after the war – it was a stigma an order of magnitude greater. Kaoru’s isolation and loneliness at “home” is quite genuine, as was the loving family life he saw in Sentarou’s home – but the reality of Sentarou’s background was well-hidden and his insecurities just as real. Both these boys have the same fears – they just deal with them in dramatically different ways.
The funny thing is, even all this new knowledge doesn’t really change anything. Sentarou is the child of an American serviceman, was abandoned by his parents and wears the rosary as a memento of his mother, Kaoru is the lone male heir in what’s clearly a moneyed family. But Sentarou is still a rebellious spirit and Kaoru is still a lonely guy who knows that he’ll be moving on yet again, sooner or later, and must wrestle with the conditioning that tells him not to get attached. What has changed, certainly, is the nature of the romantic relationships in the show – and more than just the revelation that what Kaoru walked in on last week was indeed a modeling session. Yurika and Junichi wasn’t something I saw coming, but I probably should have – even the guys in the show are half in love with Brother Jun (including Ritsuko’s father) and he seems a better fit for Yurika in many ways. This has implications for every relationship of consequence in the series, make no mistake – the ripples from those last few seconds are going to lash against every shore before long.
In closing, this episode was quite a feast if you’re a jazz fan. From the moment I saw the “Chet Baker Sings” album in the background I knew we’d get to “If Not for Me’ sooner or later, and it happened at the “Gaijin Club” where the “Mukae Tsutomu Quartet” made their debut. There was a lot to this sequence to be sure, including the complicated nature of the relationship between the Japanese and the American servicemen stationed there. It’s hard for Americans to imagine what it would be like to have foreign military in the country, whether they were wanted or not, but to say there are many issues involved is an understatement. But it was these Americans who basically brought jazz to Japan, where it flowered in ways no one could have predicted – and jazz clubs like Bar Stella were common in towns near American bases. And so, sadly, where drunken racists like the fathead at the bar who railed against “coon music” and asked for “white jazz” instead. And indeed, that’s what Brother Jun delivered – a classic piece by George and Ira Gershwin, very much in the style of Baker’s rendition from that album. Baker’s tragic life story was all too common in jazz – a rare talent, an instrumental virtuoso with a beautiful voice, he was also a heroin addict who died far, far too young – leaving so much unfulfilled potential behind.
There’s one other, subtler jazz moment I want to highlight, and that was Watanabe’s tribute to one of the great moments in American jazz. In 1938, Benny Goodman and his orchestra played Carnegie Hall in New York – the first time a jazz band had ever played this renowned temple of classical music. The band was very nervous, “tight” – and this was obvious to legendary drummer Gene Krupa. During “Sing, Sing, Sing” he launched into the most famous drum performance in jazz history – he “went crazy” in order to shake his bandmates out of their trance – and it worked. That it was Kaoru, the pianist, who did it here in order the shake up Sentarou, the drummer, only makes the moment that much better.