Seriously – as a huge NoitaminA fan (albeit a disappointed one lately) I don’t say it lightly, but this is the best pair of shows the block has offered in my view. Not only are they both superb on their own, but they complement each other perfectly – Tsuritama is surrealistic, bright, joyous and full of bombast. Sakamichi is sober, subtle, layered, realistic and beautiful. Each manages to tell a compelling story about wonderful characters in a totally different way. Last time Sakamichi had a slightly down week, merely “great” as opposed to its usual sublime, while Tsuritama was off-the-grid fantastic. This time Tsuritama was “only” great, while Sakamichi was back on it’s “A” game. How in the world do I choose?
One of the things I love about Sakamichi especially is the way it weaves themes of social change into the lives of its characters. Whereas some series are set at a certain time for atmosphere, this one could only be in the mid 60’s, as the pace of societal change was terrifying “normal” people everywhere. In Japan it mostly took the form of student unrest, but the music world certainly felt it too – jazz, while once viewed suspiciously as the music of outsiders, had found an adoring audience in Japan, and was suddenly under threat from a strange outsider, rock. And this was never more apparent than in the strange mop-top foursome from Liverpool that had all the girls screaming. To fans of jazz, reacting in this manner to music defied logic – perhaps even more so to the Japanese character than most.
I could never choose between jazz and rock – any more than between Tsuritama and Sakamichi – because I love them both. And just as I don’t have to neither did music lovers then, though convincing them of that would largely be impossible. Rock and Roll, of course, is a creature born of jazz – and blues, and R & B – but music was undergoing a period of intense change just as the rest of society was, and the pace was frightening for almost everyone. Sakamichi not only ties this conflict into the theme of societal divisions forming in the 60’s, but also into Kaoru’s personal journey. As a Navy brat, he’s spent his whole life trying to avoid getting close to people – because he’s paid the emotional price of doing so and being yanked away from them, and doesn’t want to go through that again. As rock threatens jazz, so its presence here threatens to rip Sentarou away from Kaoru, and his anxiety disorder rears its ugly head again after lying dormant, fed by the fear of abandonment that’s so much a part of him.
Both the musical and personal threats are personified in Mastsuoka Seiji (Okamoto Nobuhiko, always a genki addition to a cast), a classmate of Sen’s in Class 10 and a fellow art club member with Yurika. He’s an odd boy, complete with his own fang – small, a little effeminate with a bowl haircut – and he sees something in Sentarou that interests him immediately. This is intentionally irritating character who will no doubt annoy the audience – but he’s supposed to, and as played by Okamoto-san I rather like him for the completely different sort of character he is from the rest of the cast. He’s as weird and exotic as rock and roll, and as a poor kid with a house full of siblings, he’s decided than singing in a rock band is his ticket to helping his family – and that Sentarou is the drummer he needs. He’s already got Yamaoka and Maruo on-board, and to lure Sen he loans him a copy of “Please Please Me” (the Japanese import edition).
When Kaoru sees this is Sentarou’s bag, it’s as if he’s found strange hairs on his lover’s pillow – and given the increasingly complex romantic issues also playing out here, this creates an extremely difficult and awkward situation. Kaoru is still working through his own feelings for Ritsuko, and beginning to suspect Yurika’s feelings for Brother Jun (I hadn’t realized that was Yurika’s letter in Jun’s overstuffed Tokyo mail slot). Mainly he seems to be trying to push Sen and Ritsuko together, and when Sen asks him for advice on a date with Yurika, “Bon’s” actions are hard to read. He initially discourages Sen on what seem like sensible grounds, but when he says she’s simply too good for him Kaoru fears he went too far (he did). It’s hard to say with certainty just why Bon does what he does here – he’s in an extraordinarily dangerous minefield, and I actually think he’s navigating it fairly well. I think in the end he’s actually trying to do the right thing as he sees it – to preserve his friendship with Sen, and keep Ritsuko from being hurt. His own feelings for Ritsuko certainly haven’t dimmed, as witness his momentary thoughts of performing “My Favorite Things”, one of her favorite songs, as a way to try again to win her heart – but he checks himself, at least for the moment.
For Ritsuko, the movie that song comes from – “The Sound of Music” – is a metaphor for her missed chance with Sentarou (in those days if you didn’t see a movie in the theater, you didn’t see it). And for Bon, after all the work he’s done to try and preserve his friendship with Sen, his friend’s flirtation with rock and roll – and Seiji – is a betrayal. He curses Sen for disloyalty, and curses himself for letting his guard down and allowing himself to care too much. “After all, I’ve made it this far all on my own. No problem… at all.” While Seiji’s courtship of Sen is no doubt quite calculated, I for one wouldn’t mind seeing Sentarou play rock and roll drums at the school festival (and a little more live music in general) – and Kaoru should remember that he didn’t forsake classical when he befriended jazz. There’s room in the world for Mozart, Coltrane and The Beatles – and there’s room in our hearts for more than one friend, and perhaps even more than one love. For a boy with a fear of abandonment as strong as Kaoru’s – and as well-earned – that’s going to be a hard and painful lesson to learn.
I know the reactionaries will be all over Kaoru’s tearful reaction to the thought of losing Sentarou as a friend, but I think back to the amazing film Colorful – and how it accurately portrayed the fact that often in a difficult adolescence, the best friend is the most important relationship – and the one that saves us from despair. As fast as the pacing is here, I don’t expect that Watanabe-sensei will take emotional short-cuts, and I know they aren’t in Kodama’s writing. Things are complicated and I don’t expect them to sort themselves out neatly – no one is in love with the right person (they rarely are) and Junichi is back in town, apparently on a bender and in real trouble. Rock and roll and Seiji aren’t going away, and neither are the problems of Kaoru and the main cast. Ultimately I think Sakamichi no Apollon is more about friendship and love of music than anything else, and that’s where I expect the focus to be in the second half of the series.