As a viewer, my relationship with Sakamichi no Apollon has been a lot more complicated than it has with its NoitaminA stable-mate, Tsuritama. I think Sakamichi’s highs have been the best of any show this season – maybe the best of any show for many a season, truth be told. But my affection for it has waxed and waned a bit with the ups and downs the series has taken. One cour really isn’t long enough to tell a story of this complexity with this amount of character development, especially an adapted one, and the series has sometimes paid a price for that.
What I see with Tsuritama is potential realized – a series that was built to spec, and achieved everything it might reasonably have set out to achieve. My enjoyment of Sakamichi is always tempered by the thought of what might have been, had Watanabe-san been given the space to deliver this story to us the way it was intended to be delivered. That might not be totally fair to Sakamichi but it is what it is. And the reality is that it’s only because what worked here was so magnificent that this gap between potential and realization is so inescapable. Miraculously, Watanabe was able to give us something magical while leaving much of the source material on the floor on the cutting-room floor.
And my goodness, so much of this really was magical. I’ve rarely seen an anime so convincingly convey a sense of time and place – this really did feel like the mid 1960’s. Change was in the air in a big way, and this pervades every aspect of the series – most obviously with the music, where we see Kaoru the classically trained pianist exposed to serious jazz for the first time. And we see the emergence of rock and roll as a new force on the scene, threatening jazz the way jazz threatened classical. Kaoru’s journey, musical and otherwise, is at the heart of Sakamichi. He’s a cloistered soul in every way when we meet him, conditioned to keep others at a distance and terrified of even being noticed by others. Sentarou is the catalyst for change in every aspect of his life, and for me, this is the relationship that defines the series.
It should go without saying that the jazz is a huge component of the show, and a highly successful one. I’ve heard complaints that there isn’t enough of it but I was never under the impression that Sakamichi was a musical. It’s a series about love (as most of the good ones are) and love of music is a powerful force in defining it. As a lover of jazz it’s wonderful to see it showcased so brilliantly by a director as knowledgeable and passionate as Watanabe. Jazz isn’t just the soundtrack for these kids’ lives, it’s a part of them – such as Kaoru’s use of “Someday My Price Will Come” to confess to Ritsuko. As with Sen, Bon is more eloquent with a keyboard than with words – and this scene is arguably the jaw-dropping highlight of the season. Every jam session was a love letter from Watanabe to the music and the show seemed at its clearest and most poignant when music was in the air.
Rather than a seamless whole, I think I’ll probably remember Sakamichi in two ways – for the way it made me feel when it really clicked, and as a patchwork of the incredible moments that stood out during its run. I don’t think that’s entirely different from the way we remember our adolescence, to be honest, so perhaps that’s as it should be. When the disappointments and the regrets about what might have been have faded, it’s those feelings and the magical moments of genius that will surely remain. As a series that achieved a rare brilliance, even if only intermittently, Sakamichi no Apollon will be remembered and revered as a series long after less ambitious works have been forgotten.