I mentioned last week that Sakamichi no Apollon and Tsuritama – and indeed, all great anime – were much more alike than different, no matter their superficial dissimilarities. But if I were to call out the biggest difference between the two series it wouldn’t be the surrealistic vs. realistic visuals, the fantastical vs. grounded plot, or the busy vs. minimalist direction – all of those things matter less than it appears. No, for me the biggest difference – and the main reason I consider Tsuritama the best show of the season, with Sakamichi second – is consistency.
There’s a lot that goes into that – tone, pacing, characterization – but in every sense I think that’s the one area in whish this show has struggled. As much as anything I think it’s a question of fitting such a long manga into such a short time slot, because everything that’s gone wrong can be traced back to that. When events feel rushed or transitions are jarring – such as last week’s “Six months later and nothing’s happened” romantic timeskip – it’s a pacing issue. When character behavior doesn’t quite seem consistent, it’s because whatever would have explained it is on the cutting room floor. The fact is, I’m fully convinced that if a less talented director than Watanabe-sensei were at the helm, this could have been an absolute disaster. That it’s an outstanding show that could still be great if the finale saves the day is a testament to Watanabe’s genius – but I can’t help but grind my teeth a little when I think of what he could have done with 26 episodes and this source material.
I also mentioned a while back that Sakamichi was like a banquet full of delicious dishes that we’re only allowed to take one bite of before the waiter yanks the plate away, and that’s how I felt watching the beginning of this episode. The cliffhanger of last week – the return of Sentarou’s father – was set-up beautifully, and the scene where Kaoru intercepted him and foiled his plans to flee town was brought off splendidly. But it felt as if as soon as we were really brought into the moment, it was over – and the show had moved on. I was with it until the scene where Sen received the fountain pen from his father, but all of a sudden the focus was elsewhere – the next dish (the school festival) was on the table. The series would certainly be better if these threads – Kaoru and his mother, the romance with Ri’ko, the return of Sen’s Dad – were allowed to flow to their natural conclusion. But how? The series is almost over as is.
That’s frustrating, but then we segued into the best sequence of the episode – and probably one of the two or three best in a show that’s offered the best individual scenes of any anime this year. I adored the entire sequence with “My Favorite Things”, starting with the jam with Mukae-san and even more when Ritsuko walked in humming “My Favorite Things”. It was a beautiful, flawless Watanabe moment – the pencil-sketch animation, Nanri Yuuka’s hesitant but heartfelt Engrish singing, the scenes of the trio lying on the floor like children afterwards, sharing their own favorite things. The whole thing was full of the sort of magic that makes Sakamichi no Apollon feel like a true work of art when it’s at its best.
Then, in a flash, it all changed again. I had my suspicions that we wouldn’t get to the see the festival come off without a hitch, but I confess I was quite surprised by the events that transpired. Mind you, I certainly felt a flash of dread when Sen started riding off down the slope on his motorbike, but what happened – even before I knew the details – felt somewhat out of character for Sakamichi. There’s been plenty of drama, but it’s been pretty organic to the characters – this was the first time I really felt like the author was manipulating events to create drama for its own sake. I was expecting something a little more immediate and perhaps even serious than what we’ve seen, but I thought it might be a physical confrontation between Sen and his father or some such.
So I guess the question I should be asking myself is, do I have any justification in feeling disappointed by this turn of events? I don’t feel this sort of event was necessary to have a dramatic finale, and it may even be a distraction from it – but is it a mistake? Is it out of character for the show? I suppose everyone will find their own answers, but it seems that what we’re left with at the end of the day is Sentarou leaving and Kaoru and Ri-chan missing him – and couldn’t we just as easily have had that based on the cliffhanger from last week, without all the stuff with the motorbike and Sachiko? I would rather have skipped all that and spend the intervening time exploring the dynamic in Sen’s family, and seeing why his departure would have felt in character. The scene with Sen and Bon on the hospital roof almost saved the episode – it was excellent, especially with the pointedly jarring electric guitar BGM Watanabe chose for the moment – but it was robbed of some of its potency by the oddity of the scenes that came before.
That leaves us with one episode to deliver an ending, and I’m assuming Watanabe is going to deliver one that’s consistent with the one in the manga since he’s been running so hard to get there in time. Endings are critically important (obviously) and devilishly hard for any series, but it seems that the ending for Sakamichi is going to be exceptionally critical. Will it have emotional resonance given all the shortcuts Watanabe has had to take to get there? Irrespective of any consistency issues I have total buy-in with these characters, and I’m fully prepared to be devastated by the kind of conclusion I’ve been expecting based on the ED (and the last episode title). I just hope Watanabe finds a way to apply his trademark simplicity to the ending, because I think it desperately needs to be as straightforward and stripped-down as possible. That’s going to be a huge challenge, but there’s no director in anime better at delivering that sort of magic than Watanabe-sensei. I’m going to have faith in him and expect him to come up big one more time, with everything on the line.