While the output it’s produced has understandably been inconsistent, I’m heartily glad Anime Mirai exists. Every year has produced a really good-to-great offering (Oji-san no Lamp, Death Billiards, Harmonie) and with Aki no Kanade, 2015 is guaranteed to be no exception. More than that, though, it serves some critical functions that are desperately needed in the modern anime industry. It gives a showcase for talented industry hands to make a splash (Death Billiards/Parade’s Tachikawa Yuzuru is the most striking example). And it keeps the OVA format alive artistically, giving it an outlet to be what it was before it became largely a commercial for TV series – a place for stand-alone stories, especially those not commercial enough to receive a series commitment.
I’ll say upfront that I’m not unbiased about Aki no Kanade, because I love Wadaiko – the Japanese drum – and the ancient performance art that exists around it. It was one of the first elements of Japanese culture that drew me in – while I was older than Aki when it happened, my reaction when seeing and hearing (and feeling) a Kumi-daiko ensemble in person was very much like hers. Taiko drumming has become quite popular on the West Coast, which has a thriving Japanese-American population, and it traces its American roots to Tanaka Seiichi. He was the first Japan-trained teacher to open a taiko dojo in the United States, and his San Francisco Taiko Dojo is the parent group for many of the ensembles that now dot the Bay Area and the West Coast.
Like Aki, I thrilled at the way my heartbeat seemed to resonate with the beat of the drummers. Like Aki, I longed not just to watch, but to play. And like Aki I did – going through a training session with a dojo in Berkeley, and joining a small ensemble (led by a SFTD member) in my San Francisco suburb. And I watched every performance by Tanaka’s group and the excellent San Jose Taiko Dojo at every local matsuri and Bon Odori, and even attended a few of SFTD’s international banner concerts at U.C. Berkeley. I love taiko to this day, and I’ve never found anything that can match the feeling of synchronizing with a group of fellow drummers and feeling every beat throughout my entire body.
Aki no Kanade tells a simple story, but one with a lot of resonance. Taiko experienced a period of decline in Japan even as it was soaring in popularity with immigrants in America, and then experienced a revival which is still ongoing. Lots of small towns like Aki’s “Kariyama” have been swallowed up in the merger fever that’s gripped Japan as the rural population has dwindled, losing their identity in the process. And lots of Japanese in her generation have stretched their connections to their families thin by emigrating to Tokyo, which was the only place where they could find work (or spouses).
As a single episode, Aki no Kanade doesn’t have a whole lot of time to dig deep into its characters and their situations, and as a result the story comes off as a bit cliched. Nevertheless I think it’s effective because of that grounding in truth, and its general emotional honesty. It’s clear Aki (Satou Rina) fell in love with Yoshioka-sensei (Hamada Kenji) from the moment she joined the taiko class he was teaching as a grad student when she was in grammar school. It’s obvious she hasn’t been completely honest with her family and hometown about her “success” as a professional drummer in Tokyo. It’s clear her schoolmate and fellow drummer Naoto was in-love with her from the first, and that she was clueless (and presumably is to this day) that he intended to confess to her by giving her his collar pin after middle-school graduation. And her father’s disdain for her choices is certainly a trope we’ve seen play out a thousand times before. But none of it feels false – it just doesn’t have a whole lot of depth.
The point of the story here, I think, is a love of tradition and a respect for history – our own as individuals, and our culture’s. Family is a big deal in Japan, and the term has many meanings that go well beyond the immediate and biological family groups. I’d like to see all this developed further as a series, because it’s right up my alley and it’s be fascinating to see how all this superficial drama could soar if it did get fleshed out. But Aki no Kanade works just fine as a stand-alone, a kind of survey course in the story it rushes through. And the taiko is wonderfully portrayed (the audio provided by Tachibana Hibikiza Daiko, based in Miyazaki in Kyushu, where the OVA is set) – this is a visual art as much as a musical form. All those movements are an integral part of the performance, and in fact in Japan Wadaiko is not considered music, but a martial art.
One interesting subtext for me is that if I hadn’t known that this was a J.C. Staff production, I would have bet the farm it was from P.A. Works. Seriously, from the character designs to the backgrounds to the themes of the story itself, I could hardly imagine a more prototypical PAW production. But while P.A.W. did do in-between animation on Aki no Kanade none of the major staff seem to have P.A.W. connections, so this is J.C. Staff through and through – and full credit to them. The OVA looks and sounds great, and it’s nicely if discreetly directed by Suzuki Youhei. I also liked the added touch of getting stalwart seiyuu like Nakahara Mai and Kugimiya Rie for relatively small roles like Aki’s sister and friend, respectively. As long it keeps producing stories like Aki no Kanade, Anime Mirai will always have a vital reason to exist.
ED: Tachibana Hibikiza Daiko