I can see where this episode might not be to everyone’s tastes, because it was certainly the least flashy of the five so far. I commented last week, though, on Watanabe Shinichiro’s ability to do a lot while seeming to do very little, and I think it strongly applies here. There was very little overt “direction” in this episode at all – all Watanabe-san did was effectively turn the cameras on his principals and watch them go through some important but subtle self-discovery in a completely non-sensationalistic manner. Not only was this “realism” is the true sense of the term, but even slice-of-life – because he literally made us feel as if we were eavesdropping on a short but important section of Kaoru’s life. Watanabe-sensei has become, in a sense, the anti-Shinbou.
Given all that, “Lullaby of Birdland” doesn’t lend itself to discussion as the previous eps did, which makes my job as a blogger harder even if it’s just as easy to be a viewer. If I were to use one word to describe the episode it would be “lovely” – perfect little snapshots that added up to a rich experience without any flash or grand moments. For example, the short scene where Kaoru played with Sentarou’s sister Sachiko (15 year-old Miyamoto Yume, who played young Monami in the underrated gem Capeta) was quietly brilliant – a lot of credit goes to the mangaka here, I’m sure – as Kaoru treats it as both an excuse not to face Ritsuko and a therapy session. When Ritsuko commandeers the tin-can telephone to gently break Kaoru’s heart as Sentarou eavesdrops, it highlights the fact that all three of them are stuck at that perilous stage between child and adult, wrestling with feelings none of them are really equipped to understand yet.
The fallout from Kaoru’s confession and kiss was certainly still being felt this week, acting as a wedge to drive Karou away from the shop and the studio as he deals with his pain. Meanwhile Brother Jun continues to flirt with Yurika and we’re left to wonder just what goes into the intense curiosity Sentarou has about who Ritsuko likes enough to turn down “Bon”. Does he not realize the feelings she has are for him – is she that dense? And does he feel the same way about her, despite his crush on Yurika? I like that this messy pentangle isn’t the obsession of the show, but is never far from our minds – because it’s never far from Kaoru’s. Of all the potential pairings, Sentarou and Ritsuko is still the simplest and the one that makes the most sense, especially given that Kaoru is likely to end up leaving again in the end. But this is not the main theme of “Sakamichi” – in its own words, “Unlike love affairs, friendship is for life.”
Surprisingly low-key is the entrance of Kaoru’s Father (Terasoma Masaki) into the story at last – and he’s not the only parent we’re to meet, either. The interaction between father and son is too brief to draw many conclusions, except that Dad seems like a supportive and understanding sort. His main role here is to pass along the info that a former housekeeper has crossed paths with Kaoru’s mother in Tokyo, and gotten an address. Kaoru’s hesitation is understandable, especially considering how deeply he’s mired in his own heartbreak over Kaoru, but Sentarou’s interference is predictable. From his perspective not going to see his mother would be an unforgivable act by Kaoru – because it’s something he could never do himself, even if he wanted to.
Again, Watanabe treats the reunion of mother and son – a potentially explosive event – with surprising understatement and restraint. Mom works at “Blue Butterfly”, which can only be a kyabakura, a hostess club – not a highly respectable place, though not as disreputable as most Westerners (who likewise might think Geishas are prostitutes) might assume. After a brief visit to Jun’s dorm reveals that Brother J. is both a confirmed womanizer and has been “missing” for a month – and a mixup that has the college guys drinking water and the high-schoolers shochu – Kaoru and Sen return to the club (slightly hung-over) to meet Mom. Part of me felt that Sen was being pretty rude by intruding on this moment, but he at least had the grace to excuse himself after lunch, and in his own mind I’m sure Kaoru was grateful for the support.
The conversation between the son and the woman who abandoned him is restrained and almost subdued – she obviously feels terribly guilty, and he can’t quite bring himself to ask the question that’s the only one that really matters to him. But there’s an understanding of a sort between them, and a hint of future meeting – in fact Kaoru asks his mother (a singer) to learn “Lullaby of Birdland”, a classic jazz ballad performed by many legends (this is the well-known recording he gives her) so that he might accompany her on it the next time they meet. And with that, the meeting is over and Kaoru and Sen are off to Kyuushu again – with only a few quiet tears shed by Mom for pure drama.
I can see where some viewers might have wanted more emotion here, and out of the ep in general – but that doesn’t seem to be the style of either Watanabe or Kodama-sensei, who’s shared sensibility makes Watanabe a seamless choice to direct her manga. There are really three separate relationship explorations happening here – first loves, parents and children, and male friendship. And none of them dominate the story at the expense of the others, though ultimately it’s Kaoru and Sentarou’s relationship that’s the essence of what the series is about. And in depicting emotions, as with the character and plot elements, the series is more concerned with balance than bombast.