How can a show with such ridiculously high expectations possibly exceed them?
OP: "Sakamichi no Melody" by YUKI
Watanabe Shinichiro (of Cowboy Bebop fame). I’ll get the suspense out of the way quickly – yes, it’s great. This has already been a very strong season, though I’m not ready to call it great just yet based on (though it’s hardly easy to say so early on) the small number of series that seem to have the potential to be classics. Well, here’s one that does – and it represents (along with Tsuritama, hopefully) a return to greatness for the NoitaminA block.
This is definitely a NoitaminA series. It’s thoughtful, subtle and character-driven, lacking in any of the transitory qualities that tend to make a series a hit. Sakamichi could have aired in 1992 or 2002 – it just happens to be airing in 2012, which perhaps gives its fond but slightly cynical look back at the 1960’s a little more resonance. Given the pedigree here – not just Watanabe but music by the great Kanno Yoko (who also plays piano on the soundtrack) – you knew music would be a central theme and spectacular, and it is. Watanabe himself has been music director on a number of series and he and Kanno-san have partnered with spectacular results. I’m of the view that Cowboy Bebop - while excellent - is slightly overrated as a whole, but mostly because Watanabe-sensei was working with a fairly routine premise – direction and music were off the charts. Here, he has a critically-acclaimed manga to work with – albeit one that will have to be trimmed considerably to fit into 12 episodes.
Young Nishimi Kaoru (a brilliant Kimura Ryouhei) is a navy brat – a nerdy-looking kid with glasses who’s bounced around from school to school because of his father’s naval career, and whose mother has apparently abandoned the boy and his father. His latest move lands him in an unnamed town in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Kaoru is used to awkward first days – the cold stares, the dismissals, the loneliness. The only one to talk to him right away is Maruo Shigetora (Murasae Ayumu, debut performance)) a social outcast himself. Mauro warns Kaoru about the bully who sits behind him, a boy to be avoided and placated at all cost. The class president Mukae Ritsuko (Nanri Yuuka, Saori from Hourou Musuko) offers to show Kaoru around the school and he’s immediately smitten with her, but when the bullying begins the walls start to close in on him – and a peculiarity of Kaoru is that whenever he feels this sort of thing happening (which is apparently often) the only way he can cure his nausea and panic is to flee to the roof.
All of that being prologue, this is where the story really begins, as Kaoru finds Kawabuchi Sentarou (Hosoya Yoshimasa, playing against type) sleeping under a tarp outside the locked roof. Sentarou is the bully Maruo warned Kaoru about, and fights three seniors for the key – and whups them – only to offer to sell it to Kaoru for 100,000 yen (which is about $1200, a ton for a high-school student now, never mind in 1966). This is unquestionably the key relationship in the story, and in many ways Kaoru and Sentarou represent the cultural divide that was beginning to crystalize then. Sentarou and Kaoru are opposites in every way – the one huge and muscular, the other wispy and bookish. Sentarou is a free spirit, Kaoru still locked inside himself – as Watanbe (and mangaka Kodama Yuki, presumably) demonstrate beautifully with a scene where Sentarou casts aside his umbrella and exuberantly allows the rain to wash over him as Kaoru watches, astonished.
People are naturally going to speculate on the nature of this relationship – they already have, in fact – which begins with Sentarou reaching out and grabbing Kaoru’s hand as he wakes up. With such reflexive suspicion among many anime fans for anything remotely resembling a sensitive relationship between males, a hue and cry of “Yaoi!” has already been raised here. I don’t see it myself, as Kaoru for certain (and probably Sentarou too) seems to have a crush on Ritsuko. It looks more like bromance to me but frankly, I don’t care – with writing this good, any relationship is interesting and this one is no exception. Sentarou and Kaoru do appear to have one major interest in common – music. But even here we see the cultural divide in play – Kaoru is studying classical piano, and Sentarou’s world is focused on jazz, and nothing but (he’s a drummer, and a good one).
I was pretty astonished by the scene in the basement of Welcome Records, the music shop Ritsuko’s father owns and above which the family lives. The basement is a studio, and there Kaoru sees Sentarou show off his talents on the drums (a beautifully animated scene) – again, in astonishment. It seems that being in Sentarou’s presence lifts the weight from Kaoru’s chest and takes away his panic – and it seems to me that it’s basking in the glow of Sentarou’s freedom that has this effect. Given that Kaoru’s home life is apparently no bargain either – he’s living with a seemingly wealthy Aunt who seems to hold him in low regard and a bratty cousin (we see the second memorable NoitaminA usage of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” in a year as Kaoru plays it at their large house) it’s only in Sentarou and Ritsuko’s company that Kaoru seems to escape that pressure always keeping him on the edge of panic (Watanabe portrays this beautifully by showing Kaoru “swinging” down the slope as Sentarou’s drums play in his head). Ritsuko tries to push her old friend and new together, but when Kaoru haltingly but correctly taps out the into to Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers' “Moanin’” on the studio piano, Sentarou derides him for playing it with no swing whatsoever. Kaoru promptly buys Blakey’s recording (the Blue Note 4003 version) and determines to learn to play the song well enough to shut Sentarou up.
I won’t speak for you, but I absolutely can’t wait to hear Sentarou and Kaoru jam together on “Moanin’” – and I suspect Ritsuko’s Dad will be a part of that, too. The love of music is infectious here, and intertwined perfectly with the elemental feelings of teenage isolation and the first pangs of romantic love. This seems to be a very simple story about very basic human experiences, but it’s in the telling that the magic comes – the youthful and bright OP by YUKI and gorgeous piano & strings ED by Motohiro Hata, the detailed and lovely backgrounds, the authentic dialogue, the way Kaoru’s sense of isolation, fear and finally astonished excitement feel so personal and real. I haven’t seen school scenes this good since Hourou Musuko, which like Sakamichi brilliantly captured those emotions we feel in that peculiar environment and put us inside the minds and hearts of the characters. What comes through here is artistry, and love of the subject on the part of the creators – a love for music, and a love for anime. If NoitaminA is about brining us anime as art, then Sakamichi no Apollon truly does represent a triumphant return to form.
ED: "Altair" by Motohiro Hata