Sakamichi no Apollon – 01 Review
Sakamichi no Apollon – Episode 01
You should go watch this. Yes, that’s right. I’m talking to *you*. Put down whatever else you thought you’d rather be doing and go watch Sakamichi no Apollon. Right now.
Summer 1966: Kaoru Nishimi has moved to live with relatives in Kyūshū. He’s been an aloof honor student his whole life, but that starts changing when he meets Sentarō Kawabuchi, the school’s notorious bad boy. Through him, he learns the appeal of jazz and forms his first real friendships.
The episode opens up with the main character, Nishimi Kaoru, transferring into a new high school and not enjoying it at all. His classmates seem to think of him as a nerdy, rich, city-kid, and they automatically don’t like him. The disdain seems to go both ways though – between Kaoru complaining to himself about how ignorant and back-woods the other students are and dissing the only classmate who tries to reach out to him – and it’s clear that Kaoru isn’t the most socially adept or friendly guy on the planet.
Enter Mukae Ritsuko, the cute and extremely friendly class representative. Kaoru has the hots for her right off the bat. She gives Kaoru a tour of the school on their lunch break, interrupted by some jerk throwing a softball at Kaoru’s head. By the way, there’s something wrong with the students at this school – they’re really mean, which is very atypical for an anime. In most series I’ve seen, the other kids are all over the “mysterious transfer student” and friendly to the point of being creepy. Not in Sakamichi. For some reason, it seems like everyone in this school can think of nothing better to do with their time than point and stare and make stupid and insulting comments about how Kaoru is the new/rich/nerdy kid. Kaoru starts freaking out, and we learn that he’s been transferring from school to school since he was in first grade. Apparently, he’s got some sort of anxiety disorder that seems like a moderately bad panic attack combined with severe nausea. I bet that’s not helping him fit in with his classmates. Hehe.
The only thing that can relieve these attacks is to rush straight away to the roof of the school. So, without any explanation to Ritsuko, he makes a break for it. He has an awkward first meeting with Kawabuchi Sentaro, who is blocking the door out to the roof (trust me, it’s really awkward).
Sentaro is the class thug/bully, and unsurprisingly, some events occur which force Kaoru and Sentaro to get to know each other a little better (yes, I know that’s vague – just go watch the show already).
There’s a little background on Kaoru – his father is in the navy (that’s the reason for all the moving around), and we learn that at some point his mother abandoned him. Kaoru is currently staying at his rich uncle’s house, with his bratty and manipulative cousin, and his aunt who seems like a real bitch. It’s pretty clear that the guy’s got a crappy home life and some dad-issues.
One thing leads to another, and it’s revealed that both Kaoru and Sentaro are musicians – Kaoru a classically trained pianist, and Sentaro a self-taught (or so I assume) jazz drummer. Conveniently, Ritsuko and Sentaro are childhood friends, and it just so happens that Ritsuko’s dad owns a record store with a sort of venue/practice space in the basement. Ritsuko brings Kaoru there after school, and they run into Sentaro who is downstairs playing the drums (best part of the anime – Sentaro’s kick-ass drum solo). Ritsuko seems to be trying to get the boys to be friendly and talk about music, but their respective tastes (classical versus jazz) are somewhat at odds. Sentaro is pretty vocal about his distaste for any music besides jazz, and it ends up in with the boys a having a bit of a pissing contest. Playing the opening of “Moanin’” by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers on the piano, Kaoru accuses Sentaro of playing inaccurately, and Sentaro throws it right back at him, telling Kaoru that he has no “swing”. Kaoru impulsively purchases Art Blakey’s album on his way out of the store, full of what appears to be a determination to practice and perfect the song (Moanin’).
It is unclear how much time passes at this point (a couple days?), but at the end of the episode it’s apparent that the three are growing closer. Kaoru seems to be starting to open up and make some positive changes, thanks to Ritsuko’s friendliness and Sentaro’s unique and inspiring “rhythm”.
It’s plenty obvious from this episode alone that Sakamichi no Apollon is going to be the best series of the season…. for a specific audience, at least. It’s clear that this is going to be a character-driven, coming-of-age, friendship/relationship-heavy josei series, so if you’re not into that sort of thing, this probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you loved series like Honey and Clover or Nodame Cantabile, you’ll love this too. There’s a lot to love about it so far, even though there are a few “issues” here and there. I’ll tell you what I thought was so great, but I do feel some obligation to say what I thought wasn’t as good – if for no other reason than to go against the overwhelming sea of bloggers out there proclaiming that this is the end-all-be-all of animes.
For starters, let me say that I’m really excited about the musical element in this show for a number of reasons… During one of the zillions of previous lives I’ve lived where I wasn’t just your average anime-blogger, I used to be a trumpet player. I was pretty damn decent, too…. decent enough that I was on the path to going pro. One thing led to another, obviously, and I changed my mind and hopped on a different life path (or else I’d be busy playing at the Met tonight instead of writing this review). I’m not a jazz aficionado or anything, and I never excelled at that sort of playing (although I did eventually end up playing quite a bit of jazz music). I was similar to Kaoru in a sense – I was just a stuck up little white girl, classically trained without a whole lot of rhythm or “swing”. Suffice to say, I’m no stranger to the struggle of a really talented classical musician trying to let it all hang out and play some jazz. I’ve also had plenty of close friends who are the polar opposite – they could wail like nobody’s business and had more groove than you could shake a stick at, but were miserable at both reading music (and obeying the instructions contained therein) and cooperating with other musicians in a large orchestra.
I do love jazz though. Who doesn’t, right? I’m really curious about what role the music will play in the series – it’s pretty obvious that the music will be the foundational element that allows the characters to become friends and grow. But I hope that the music’s role isn’t limited to that. I’d like to see some discussion about it, like some of the philosophy behind jazz, or at least a little more discussion about the jazz versus classical thing. Actually, I’d be down for hearing all about the evolution of the Japanese jazz movement, but I should probably just go read a book or watch a documentary for that kind of info. J I am interested to see if the series continues to take a Nodame-Cantabile-esque approach to presenting the music in each episode, like it did in this one, by prominently showing the album cover for the song the boys were playing. We’ll just have to wait and see whether or not the series has that sort song-of-the-week approach, but I do hope that jazz continues to be an important part of the story.
There’s not much to say about the characters at this point, since it’s the first episode and they haven’t really developed much. Kaoru’s kind of a whiny, lame guy (as nearly all anime main-charas are), but at least he’s got some background to explain his behavior. It’s tolerable though, if for no other reason than because you know he’s going to grow up at least a little. I do like his sarcasm – when the dorky kid was pestering him to join the radio club and the class jerks started to make fun of them – that was a great moment. I also laughed when he’s trying to stab Sentaro with his umbrella on the roof… subtle, but funny stuff. Sentaro is cool. He’s tough, he’s cute, he’s talented, he’s quirky, he’s fun, and he’s probably got a big sensitive side. Sentaro might be just a little too cool though, but we’ll see. And Ritsuko? Hmmm… She seems a bit dense and naïve for now. I’d like to know why she looks out for Sentaro so much – is it a crush or just because they’re childhood friends? I’ve got a feeling there will eventually be some sort of romance, too. Perhaps something with a Chihayfuru sort of feeling? You know, two guys who are close friends, one of them is childhood-friends with the girl, and they both like her but it doesn’t ever really go anywhere? That’s the sort of thing I’m imagining. Judging from the OP, there looks to be a few more characters that will be introduced into the cast, so the dynamics may very well change a bit.
The animation in this episode was great, but it’s pretty subtle for anime. Realistic characters, muted colors, warm indirect light, and soft, blurry, water-color-ish backgrounds are what Sakamichi’s all about. There’s a level of detail that I’ve gotten used to in modern anime that was lacking in this episode, but instead of detracting, I think it added to the atmosphere. The show is set in 1966, and those little things – like the minimal shading and shadows and the absence of computer-generated infinite detailing – they really enhance the period feeling. The details are there when they should be though, like during Sentaro’s kick-ass drum solo, which was awesome! More than anything the overall effect is a stylistic thing that works quite well. There’s no sparkles, googly-eyes, or hot-pink-glittery anything here, and it’s refreshing – it leaves room for the focus to be on the story and the characters’ interactions instead of on what they look like or how absurdly enormous their breasts are.
Like the art, the sound was surprising too – surprising, simply because there wasn’t much of it. For an anime that features music as a main theme, there’s not very much music in the episode. There’s sound effects and whatnot where they need to be, but most of the episode is without any BGM at all, but it works. The lack of sound makes the music that is there really pop, in a good way. I like the OP song a lot – it’s by YUKI who also did the OP for Honey and Clover. The ED song didn’t leave much of an impression on me one way or the other. The voice acting is fine so far. I did notice that Kaoru’s seiyuu (Ryohei Kimura) is also doing the main-chara in Sankarea this season. He must be pretty busy.
So, as for the things I didn’t like… Mostly, my concerns are about the length of the series. I haven’t read the manga at all yet, and I don’t even know how long it is, but it seems like 11 (or is it 12) episodes might be too few to manage to develop believable relationships, have the characters undergo some coming-of-age stuff, showcase a lot of jazz standards, have some emotional and dramatic conflicts, and have the inevitable romance aspect. It just seems like a whole lot to cram into a season. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I’m worried that things will feel rushed. Already there was a bit of some confusion for me towards the end – they’re in the basement of the record shop, Kaoru buys the record, and then there’s these flashes of him tapping out the music in class, and it ends with them all walking to school being really friendly. How much time passed in that last one and a half minute? Was it a day? A week? Where does Episode 02 start? I hope that the boys aren’t suddenly best friends and looking for other people to join their jazz combo. I understand that both Sentaro and Kaoru are kind of weird, but it feels a little implausible how quickly their relationship is deepening.
Along those same lines, there were a few questions that I felt were just sort of glossed over, probably because there’s no time to answer them. Mainly, I didn’t really understand why everyone at the school had such a problem with Kaoru. And what exactly made them think he was rich, urban, and geeky? I imagine it has something to do with their accents – from the one sentence Kaoru said about the other students’ “Kyushu dialect” it seemed like the other kids sounded really country while Kaoru did not. I suppose that (and the fact that Kaoru wears glasses), could possibly lead to *every single person in the entire school* assuming that he’s some sort of stuck-up-dweeby-city-prince-type, but it’s a bit of a stretch. I also wasn’t entirely clear on Kaoru’s past and his transferring schools a lot. He said he’d been moving since first grade, but then there’s the part with his dad telling him about his uncle’s house having a grand piano, but he’s in high school during all that. And, I suppose that there are a lot of clichés and all-too-convenient coincidences all around – like how Kaoru just happens to crush on Ritsuko and she just happens to be childhood friends with the class thug who just happens to want to show off his nice guy side only to Kaoru… And how the whole time they’re in school there’s no actual class happening and they’re all just wandering around… Oh well, I’m not going to get too hung up on it. The episode was good enough that these details didn’t matter too much, but I felt like I should mention them.
This first episode didn’t totally blow my mind, but it definitely promises a great season to come. Everything’s there and ready to go – stylish animation, awesome music, interesting characters, emotional depth, a good story, and a great setting. There’s a possibility that the one-season length of the series may cause some problems with pacing or feeling rushed, but at this point I don’t think it’s worth worrying about. There’s a lot of hype around Sakamichi no Apollon, but it seems to be legit. So in case you haven’t yet, go watch this already!
What do all of you people out there think so far? I’m curious to hear what other people really liked about Sakamichi. Needless to say, I’m even more curious to hear if someone out there *didn’t* like it and why. Also, for your listening pleasure, I’m pasting in the YouTube video of “Moanin’” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – the song that’s been featured in this episode. Mmmmm…. that trumpet sounds good. See you next week!