Review: Sakamichi no Apollon (Kids on the Slope)

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It felt inevitable that I should review this anime at some point. As a creation of Watanabe Shinichiro’s, who’s masterpiece Cowboy Bebop is still easily one of the best anime productions of all time, Sakamichi no Apollon was garnering a lot of anticipation months before it’s televised release date. Certainly I was excited – and to add to my euphoria, as with Cowboy Bebop, legendary composer Kanno Yoko was once again behind the soundtrack. With their powers combined, what could possibly go wrong?

In the interest of fairness, I should point out that I tend to be fairly harsh on anime that I feel can be held to higher standards than your average release. Had Watanabe and Kanno not been involved in Sakamichi no Apollon’s production, I would no doubt be less critical of the details even if everything else about the anime had been exactly the same. That said, I may as well just get this out of the way now and say that I enjoyed this series very much. While it occasionally had its weaker moments, it was still by far the best new anime series release of 2012.

So, the quick lowdown: Kyushu, summer of 1966. A first-year high school student moves from bustling Yokosuka near Tokyo to live with his aunt and uncle in the much more rural city of Sasebo in Nagasaki. Up until this point, Kaoru has been a model student whose social anxiety has kept him from making any meaningful relationships with others. He plays classical piano, albeit possibly as a result of the pressures he feels from his home life. His meeting with infamous ‘thug’ classmate and jazz drumming enthusiast Sentaro will have a lasting impact on his life – not least of which his appreciation of music.

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I’d like to start off by tackling the show’s artwork and animation, since this was evidently going to be one of Sakamichi’s major draw cards given the names behind it. Prior to this series, I think it would be fair to say that Watanabe’s style tended for the most part towards a (relatively) realistic tone, with most of his characters designed with smaller eyes and an all-around worldlier vibe than what you might typically see from many other anime titles. Then again, Watanabe had never directed a series primarily involving teenagers before, much less one targeted towards the josei demographic. Moreover, whereas Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo were created by Watanabe from scratch, a manga version of Sakamichi was already in existence, and so the artwork was already predetermined to some extent – cue larger eyes and a much cleaner, more innocent feel than you could obviously expect from an action series. Whatever the viewer’s thoughts about this, there’s no denying that the animation of Sakamichi is flat out stunning. I very much hope that anyone watching this does so in high definition; it would be an absolute waste not to. Every movement is smooth, but there are also several scenes where my inner fangirl was flailing just because of how beautifully things were animated. Scenes depicting Sentaro on the drums are particularly stunning, with the hand movements matching the sound perfectly and looking exactly as they would had an actual person been playing. It’s no exaggeration to say that it actually is a pleasure simply to watch.

Which I suppose brings me to the musical aspects of the show. I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, the music is nothing but lovely, and perhaps more importantly it fits well with the general atmosphere of the anime. On the other hand, I can’t deny that I was after something more… I want to say something vague and unquantifiable like ‘va voom’. See, whenever Kaoru and Sentaro played a set together I was absolutely beside myself with delight – the musical vibe at these times is really just that good. The problem is that I’m not sure this occurred often enough. No doubt a show where the characters do nothing at all besides play jazz would have eventually gotten monotonous, regardless of who was in charge of the music. Still, I can’t help but think that while Cowboy Bebop‘s background music is striking nearly all the time, the background music in Sakamichi is perfectly nice but blends in rather than stands out. I do realise that this is probably the very point of ‘background music’, but I find myself a little let down nonetheless. Given that this is the one and only Kanno we’re talking about here, I expected something a bit more than merely ‘nice’.

In fact, having read over that last paragraph again, I mostly wish that Sakamichi spent more time with Kaoru and Sentaro (and the rest of the gang) as they do their thing. Looking back over each episode, there’s not the least bit of uncertainty that the strongest ones are those that focus more on the music than the drama. In episode one, Kaoru is introduced to jazz and frantically tries to put together a decent rendition of Art Blakey’s “Moanin'” – at first just to show Sentaro that he can, but then because the jazz begins working its magic on him. In the fourth episode, he and the group play a live session at a bar before being interrupted by a drunkenly aggressive American who insists they stop making ‘coon music’ and instead play ‘white jazz’. When Sentaro quits the stage in disgust, Kaoru and trumpeter Junichi manage to lighten the mood with an impromptu performance of Chet Baker’s “But Not For Me”. And in episode seven, Kaoru and Sentaro give a spontaneous and truly magnificent, heart-pounding jazz medley at their school festival to keep the crowd’s attention when the electricity cuts out halfway through another group’s act.

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These are the episodes I don’t just like, but rather adore. The scenes more concerned with the romantic interactions between Kaoru and Ritsuko, or even the more interesting love triangle between Sentaro, Junichi and Yurika aren’t bad by any means, but don’t have the same intense pull for me that the musical sequences do. In part this is probably because school crushes and teenage angst has been standard fare for decades now, no matter how many titles have attempted to inject some creativity into the mix – but mostly it’s because, much like the effect it has on Kaoru, those jazz-centered episodes always have me on the edge of my seat and yearning for more.

Having said all that, unlike a lot of other people out there I’m actually quite content with the anime’s conclusion. Reliable sources inform me that the manga is much better fleshed-out, but frankly I never saw the value in directly comparing one medium to another. My overall feelings upon watching the final episode was happiness at seeing that Yurika stuck it out with Junichi (the latter being my favourite character of the series), and conversely at Kaoru and Ritsuko not ending up together (which would have been a little too convenient). I can also very much appreciate that even after all the romantic tensions between the characters, Sakamichi still finishes on a musical note, with Kaoru and Sentaro playing “Moanin'” on the church organ and old drum kit like no time at all has passed between them. In the end, that’s where the heart of the anime lies for me – in nothing more than three friends who are brought together through their shared love of jazz.

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Question of the post: What did you think of Sakamichi no Apollon? What was your favourite/least favourite aspect of the series?

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23 thoughts on “Review: Sakamichi no Apollon (Kids on the Slope)

  1. I adored this show. I particularly liked the (relative) roughness of the music, and the reason for it: they deliberately picked young, up and coming, jazz musicians as the stand ins for Kaoru and Sentaro & it really worked IMO.

    You really need to see the making of specials if you haven’t already. Much of the key animation was storyboarded from filming the musical stand-ins playing & then using stills from the many video cameras. The making of scene where dozens of amateur video cameras are being gaffer taped on to booms to get the angles is hilarious.

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  2. It’s sort of funny in a way that you reviewed this, as I had stumbled across this series’ OP just recently and was considering watching it. After reading your praises it will most certainly be added to my queue!

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    • I saw the first season of Nodame Cantabile and a couple of episodes of the second. I don’t really remember why I ended up dropping it after that, because I know I was enjoying it. Possibly it was because I was just at a really busy stage IRL and simply never ended up getting back into it again afterwards. In general though, it’s a solid show from what I can recall.

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  3. I was amazed at how well plot and character development came through the use music alone. Kaoru and Sentaro can argue with words, but music will always mend any wounds between them. I think the school festival performance is the strongest scene of the series because every ongoing plot thread intersects in that piece of music, just as much as it causes Ritsuko’s feelings to develop in different ways.

    I was so swept away by this series, I would often forget Shinichiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno were even involved.

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    • Me too, I just loved that school festival performance scene. It’s got to be my favourite scene of the whole series in fact, although I also really liked that scene in the club with the drunk American. And you’re right, the use of music alone to convey story here was brilliant – I only wish there had been more of that.

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  4. I saw the first 2 episodes with friends a while back. This is something I’ve really been meaning to pick up again, especially if the rest of the series is as enjoyable as the begining was.

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    • I certainly enjoyed the whole series – it isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the best anime revolving around music that I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think there’s any denying its high quality either.

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  5. I think I’m pretty well on the same page as the rest of the world in adoring the show. It reminds me very much of Paradise Kiss (the manga version, anyway), elevating what in other hands would be pedestrian romantic entanglements with the hands of a talented writer and an infusion of passion through the kaleidoscope of creative muse. While I do have great respect for Watanabe, I saw him most in the music, and the rest of the series disappeared into a very tender realism that I found applause-worthy. For example, the Junichi/Yurika relationship would likely have felt cheap at best and uncomfortable at worst if the writing were anywhere below its existing quality – and you can bet any other show would’ve gone the boring route of tying up Ritsuko and Kaoru together as well (I, too, found the ending a fitting one). I do think I get what you’re saying by va-voom – while I was delighted with the series, I haven’t been drawn to rewatch it in particular.

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    • I re-watched Sakamichi no Apollon just recently (right before righting this review, actually), but yeah, my main reasons for re-watching were in the music and the cast’s relationship with the music rather than with each other. And I think you make an excellent point that if the writing hadn’t been as good, the relationships between Junichi and Yurika and Kaoru and Ritsuko would have felt either cheap, dully cliched, or both.

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  6. After reading this article I started watching Kids on the Slope and I’ve been waiting to post a comment. I loved it in a different manner to a lot of my favorites. It was like a delicacy to appreciate slowly, I felt no need to blast through it as I’m tempted to with some shows. Having never been a jazz fan, Kids generated an interest in me for it. I enjoyed the moments when they all practiced together, watching them getting into the swing. I adored the constant references back to “the Slope” or rather the feeling of togetherness they felt at those times. I was also really satisfied with the ending, all them on the Slope, experiencing that feeling once again. If I felt the show could’ve had anything more, I’d say more of those awesome jam sessions. All in all it’ll go down as one of the rare animes that’s really got “soul” for me. Thanks for introducing me to this memorable show! 🙂

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    • I feel much the same – my favourite parts of the show were and still very much are those jam sessions. While there are plots revolving around love triangles and romantic misunderstandings, I feel that the main theme of this series isn’t romance, but rather friendship, while the music is what ties it/them all together.

      Anyhow, you’re very welcome. I just love it when people rec me a show and I end up loving it, so it feels good to know that I’ve been able to do the same for somebody else. 🙂

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  7. This show was very different from what I expected…I certainly didn’t expect music. Plus my cousin scoffed at this, saying it probably won’t be good, but I was pleasantly surprised.

    My favorite parts were the jam sessions. Every episode, I really looked forward to them. They were the most memorable part of the show. Plus, the friendship through music depicted in the show was amazing.

    This was a pretty good series.

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  8. I am very picky when it comes to watching anime. This anime is worth the shot! I cried like a kid because of what happened at the end. It would take days before I can move on with this emotion I am feeling with this anime.

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  9. I just finished this one! There were parts I enjoyed a lot, and some that I weren’t so fond of, but overall I really liked it. My favourite aspect would have to be… the jazz of course, haha! When Kaoru and Sentaro played together, their chemistry was amazing. Basically any time they jammed or performed, I was madly in love with the anime (episode 7’s concert was my favourite scene). Sakamichi made me realise that I’m a sucker for characters making up/communicating/letting their emotions flow through music. Though it sounds kinda lame when I put it like that. I’ve also definitely gained more of an appreciation of jazz after watching Sakamichi.
    Obviously the romance was another big part. I found the Sentaro/Junichi/Yurika one more interesting, because it had a bit more of a darker tinge to it. Kaoru/Ritsuko wasn’t as much my thing. My main complaint for the series would be Ritsuko – I found her to be a rather dull character, who was only defined by her interactions with Sentaro and Kaoru.
    What did you think of the OP, by the way? I thought it was a really nice catchy tune, with some interesting melody lines (though I wasn’t too keen on YUKI’s voice). And I loved the trumpet at the end.

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    • I completely agree – those jamming sessions are just amazing; I got chills the first time I saw/heard them. The music (not just listening to it, but watching the relationship between Kaoru, Sentaro, and the others developing because of it) is by far my favourite aspect of the series. Junichi is still my favourite character though, and as far as the romance of the show goes, his relationship with Yurika is the one I found the most compelling.

      The OP grew on me more and more as the series progressed, but like you, I enjoyed the instrumentals much more than the vocals. Overall I think it’s a fine OP, but not a standout one.

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