Sakamichi no Apollon – Series Review

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Any anime fan should fervently hope that Watanabe Shinichiro doesn’t wait nearly so long to direct his next TV anime.

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.

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  1. I

    Whenever I tell people how the best shows are usually Noitamina shows, I point to Honey and Clover (1+2) and Nodame Cantabile. I have always found the peak of Noitamina, an incredible feat of story, characters, music, direction and emotion. These two shows for a long time were the ones I that I held dearest to my heart.

    Watanabe has just given a third. It may have waxed and waned as what if almost any other hand would have been a train wreck but in his was a majestic ride. From start to finish there was hardly a jolt as it seamlessly steamed past a beautiful countryside. He has been a masterful conductor.

    I think the best word to describe Watanabe ambitious. This isn't Cowboy Bebop or Champloo Samurai, its a different ambitious and Watanabe has pulled it off.

    I don't think I have a best anime list or something like that because I have seen so many shows that I love that it would be impossible. But if I did have a list of all the shows I truly love than Sakamachi no Apollon is its newest addition.

  2. A

    Cowboy Bebop is on a completely different level over Champloo 😉

  3. A

    Yeah champloo is better

  4. A

    Quality review… I would've liked to have seen further elaboration of the unfavorable parts of the series (at least in your opinion). I liked every part of it, and I believe the ending did the manga justice. I'm probably the only person who thinks the 8 year skip was somewhat of a good thing.

    Although I have not read the manga, from my understanding, the 8 year period did not include Sen at all. It felt like the anime was focusing more on Kaoru's place in the Sakamichi world, and how he affected the two other protagonists. He had an underlying crush on Ritsuko, but their relations (I wouldn't even call it an actual relationship going by the anime) peaked in only two places IIRC: when Kaoru was sick and the final episode. Otherwise, before he confessed his feelings, he tried to get Sen and Ritsuko together. And after his confession, Kaoru went through different phases of depression, if you will, that completely masked anything he had going for Ritsuko. Without Sen in the picture, I feel like the anime's plot would have gone in a completely different direction for the worse.

  5. R

    Hey Enzo, are you ever going to read the manga? It would be interesting to hear your thoughts (and everyone else's) after reading the ending.

    I think whether the ending was good or not, this series was really great.

    And your comment about how this series isn't necessarily about music, but rather about love is spot on. In the manga, the author writes that there is no sound in her manga, it isn't the type of manga to portray sound. Rather she hoped that she was able to convey the love of music that she has (and of course that her characters have).

  6. I might – no promises. It's on the bucket list.

  7. L

    I'm sorry, but LOL

    Most people would put stuff liek the Isle of Man TT or Wingsuit Basejumping on a bucket list, not a manga. 😛

  8. Manga spoilers.

  9. K

    This is another series I'm going have to check the manga after the end of the anime. It's really too bad how so many series with an abundance of material must be compressed into a single cour.

    For me, the music (and the accompanying animation) was the highlight of Sakamichi, with Kaoru and Sentaro's relationship coming in a close second.

    That last "cover" of Moaning was ABSOLUTELY AMAZING.

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