Fundamentally, if a series is going to meet the threshold of greatness, it has to be rooted in characters we can relate to and emotions that feel true. Sakamichi, Tsuritama, Moribito, Cross Game, Chihayafuru, Rurouni Kenshin, even NGE and FLCL – the list goes on and on – though these shows couldn’t be more different superficially, they’re all alike in this very fundamental way. Comedy or drama, absurd or realistic, fantasy or farce, they’re all built around human interactions that feel real enough to make us care what happens. If that’s missing a series can be good, even important – but in my view, it can’t be great.
As NoitaminA winds down what’s probably it’s finest season ever, both shows appear to be headed towards bittersweet finales. But I have less confidence that Sakamichi no Apollon will end on a fundamentally upbeat note than I do with Tsuritama. In the latter case I fully expect sad things to happen in the last episode, but that show feels to me as if it’s optimistic at its very core. With Sakamichi I continue to be haunted by the ED – both for its innate quality as a song, and for how the lyrics express a deep-seated melancholy that seems to pervade everything about the show. With Tsuritama it seems as if the sad moments are always going to be swept aside by the ocean of positive feeling, but with Sakamichi it feels as if the happy moments are the ones tilting at windmills, and that life will always be full of regrets.
Fundamentally this episode was split into two thematic halves, with a potentially game-changing twist at the very end. It’s pretty clear – perhaps as much as at any time – just how rapidly things are moving here in comparison to the manga. Picking up where we left off, Kaoru is stewing over the gift Ritsuko left on his piano. Of course it’s frustrating as an audience to watch him continue to thwart himself with his lack of confidence – were the mittens a mistake? Were they an afterthought? But of course, we’re supposed to be frustrated – Kaoru is frustrated with his own inability to be direct with himself and Ri’ko, and she’s frustrated by his innate lack of belief in himself – and in her.
Of course in a sense, you can’t blame Kaoru – she rejected him, and has given him no overt statement that her feelings have changed. The signs are obvious, and I think Kaoru knows at some level how she feels – but he’s trying hard to convince himself that it couldn’t be so easy. It’s also a question of overcoming that last wall of resistance from his conditioned emotional distance, and a worry about hurting Sen. Certainly when Sen-boy hears her tapping out “Someday My Prince Will Come” he gets the picture, and steps in to fill the role Kaoru filled earlier- trying to push his two best friends together. The conversation in the bath was where the frustration peaked for all parties, and the aftermath on the front walk might have seemed a bit over-the-top. But in point of fact this has proved itself a series quite taken with (and adept at) grand emotional moments. It’s a complicated situation because everyone’s feelings for each other are muddled together – as witness Kaoru’s comment that Sen “even takes my breath away sometimes” – but ultimately, Ri-chan’s courage to be honest (and his fever) push Kaoru to be honest too, for a change.
Then that pacing thing rears its ugly head – all of a sudden the snow is gone and “It’s summer and I haven’t made any progress with Ri’ko!” I got a little whiplash from that transition, but onward and upward – and the story turns on a dime to re-focus on the core relationship, Sen and Bon. Earlier in the ep we got some nice moments with Kaoru at Sentarou’s house helping him study and watching him interact with his siblings, and Kaoru’s comment about Sen’s “having a big family someday” made me think that just maybe Sen will end up becoming a Priest as some have suggested – it felt like the equivalent of a “family death flag” for him. But the payoff for that sequence didn’t become clear until later, after Ritsuko informed the boys that Seiji and The Olympus had “thrown down the gauntlet” and called out the “old-fashioned jazz musicians” that they’d kick their butts at the next school festival. I’m thinking Seiji did that in part because he’s secretly a fan of Sen and Kaoru, but the real point is that it drives them back into hard-core musician mode, and it looks as if they’re closer than ever.
That’s when the bomb drops. Sentarou’s father is coming back after many years. The younger kids – who don’t remember his drunken rages – are excited. Sa-chan, who does, is terrified (and Kaoru commiserates with her and brings her home). But of course it’s Sen’s reaction that really matters. He’s devastated (how could he not be?) but as usual plays it cool and unfazed. But he looks as if he’s decided to bolt town in the dead of night, leaving behind only a goodbye message to Kaoru with instructions to look after Ritsuko. But it can’t be that simple – not just because it wouldn’t work dramatically for the show, but because it would be out of character for Sen. Irrespective of what this decision would mean for his own life – and the fact that he’d be leaving behind the people he loves – I just can’t see Sentarou leaving his family to deal with his father without him to protect them. Certainly, Sen’s father deserves no sympathy – he treated Sen like an embarrassment, then walked out on the family. But Sen can look after himself now, and if his father tries anything, well – it probably isn’t a bad bet that Sentarou could beat the crap out of him. Is Sentarou the kind of guy who would leave a woman and his younger siblings to face a potentially violent drunk unprotected?
One way or another, it’s been my feeling all along that Kaoru and Sentarou (and likely all three of the main trio) would be split up in the end – though the likeliest scenario seemed (and still does in my view) to be that Kaoru would leave Kyushu either to be with his father or to go to college (or even, perhaps, to be with his mother for a while). The return of Sentarou’s Dad is certainly a major plot twist and a watershed moment for Sen, but it doesn’t feel right that it would be the driver of events as the series wraps up. Instead, I see this as the major hurdle for Sen to face in growing up, and for him to do so and for his friendship with Kaoru ultimately to be validated, even if the series ends with their parting. The events of this ep certainly shuffle the cards enough to make me uncertain, but great series almost always ultimately fall back on what the very essence of their nature is, and Sakamichi is ultimately about Kaoru and Sentarou – not Sen’s father, or even Ri’ko. And I still have faith it will give us an ending that’s true to that essence, and worthy of a great series.
As an aside, the sky was strikingly purple all throughout this episode. I wonder if Watanabe-sensei was going for a deeper meaning here, or merely wanted to show off some beautiful backgrounds…