It would be hard to imagine an anime having two better opening episodes than Sakamichi no Apollon.
Sakamichi is many things. Where Tsuritama is surrealistic, Sakamichi is hyper-realistic – right down to the expensive and precise rotoscopic animation used for the jam sessions in Mukae’s basement (I’ve never seen drumming look this good in an animated film). I’m trying to find the words to describe this series – “elegant” certainly comes to mind, maybe even “regal”. Indeed, this has the feel of anime royalty to it – classy and smart and sensitive. There’s a certain nostalgic quality to it’s look at the mid 60’s, but the effect is as if we’re eavesdropping on the lives of these characters, picking out small details and getting caught up in the passions of the moment. There’s no element here that seems average – the cast is superb, and the music is incredible. I could listen to the ED over and over (I have, in fact) and never tire of it.
Sakamichi seems like a fairly straightforward story – two boys and a girl – but we’re seeing complicating elements begin to enter the narrative. One interesting twist is that Sentarou and Ritsuko are Christians, which is a relative rarity in manga and anime. Kaoru discovers this in a beautifully animated scene in their church, as he peeks in on a service while waiting for what he thinks is a study date with Ri-chan. It’s not at all clear yet what role their faith will play in the story, but there are hints that it plays a significant role in Sentarou’s life – Ritsuko is about to share the reason why he wears a cross at all times, but this is a topic Sentaro is clearly not willing to share with Kaoru yet.
Before that happens, though, we can see that music is one thing he is willing to share. After a painfully realistic scene of bullying that results in Kaoru again being rescued by Sentarou (which for him is almost worse than the bullying, since in Kaoru’s mind it highlights for Ri-chan how different he and Sentarou are) the trio end up in the studio under the music shop, where we meet Junichi (Suwabe Junichi). “Brother Jun” is the Mukae’s neighbor and a college student home for summer break, and he serves as the trumpet player in the jam sessions Ritsuko’s Dad (Kitajima Zenki) joins in on upright bass. Kaoru has been practicing – playing the intro to “Moanin’” on the phonograph in his room and dashing downstairs to practice before his Aunt gets home (surely a scene that will feel familiar to many of us who loved music as kids) but he’s still reluctant to join in the session, doing so only after Sentarou insists.
As great as the episode was on the whole, I won’t deny this jam session is my favorite scene. Part of it is certainly the fact that I love jazz – when Kaoru said “I thought I understood the distinctive features of jazz in my head, but reproducing them was proving to be extremely difficult” I thought he perfectly captured both the magic of jazz and the agony of frustrated musicians everywhere. As much as my love for jazz, though, it’s Watanabe-sensei’s love for jazz that makes this scene sing for me. It’s a pleasure to watch a great director express his love for something as profound as jazz on screen, and Watanabe’s passion is evident in everything in this series – from that rotoscopic animation to his choice of jazz tracks to Kanno Youko’s BGM.
If there’s an overarching theme here, it’s definitely freedom. It cuts through the story at all levels – socially for starters, as the mid 60’s was the time when the cultural revolution was exploding everywhere and splitting society neatly down the middle. It seems to play out in Karou’s contrast with Sentarou too – both as expressed musically and in the way they live. There’s the imagery of the titular slope, which Kaoru loathes but Sentarou gleefully runs down. There’s the freedom of musical expression, with jazz representing the exhileration of improvisation and the classical that Kaoru is trained in the importance of structure. Kaoru doesn’t get this at the start of the episode - his method of trying to capture Bobby Timmons’ intro to “Moanin’” with musical notation - but he gets a taste of it by the end of their jam session in the basement. In short, Sentarou represents freedom and Kaoru inhibition (right down to choice of underwear) – but in almost all cases, freedom comes at a cost, and that’s the part of the story we haven’t reached yet. What is the price Sentarou pays for his freedom – is it tied into that cross he wears around his neck? I think this is going to be a subtle and layered exploration that defines much of the series.
Of course there’s a love story here, too, with Kaoru obviously smitten with Ri-chan, to the point where he sacrifices his popsicle to prevent her from indirectly kissing Sentarou. Sentarou’s feelings about his osananajimi aren’t crystal clear. But after another lovely scene where the three leads row out into the islands of Kyushu to swim near a lonely beach, Sentartou engages in yet another rescue – this time a young woman named Yurika (Endo Aya) being harassed by three boys on the beach – and appears to fall in love with her on first sight. In addition we have the signature humorous touches that mark Watanabe as a director – the boy on the bicycle showing up at both ends of the boating trip, Kaoru’s cousin peeking in on him as he practices Timmons’ intro, the bully saying “Hey – my neck feels better!” after Sentarou roughs him up. Watanabe is among the very best at balancing whimsy and gravity, and he’s showing his mastery again here. Maybe “masterful” is indeed that one word I was looking for to describe Sakamichi no Apollon, because it certainly fits.