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.
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.
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.