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Sakamichi no Apollon – 03 »« Sakamichi no Apollon – 01

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「 サマータイム」
“Summertime”

It would be hard to imagine an anime having two better opening episodes than Sakamichi no Apollon.

I promise never to take NoitaminA for granted again. Nothing like a couple of rough seasons (especially this last one) to make one appreciate what a luxury it is to have great and artistic anime in the middle of the week, and it’s been a long time since the block had two series of such stature and quality as Tsuritama and Sakamichi. The product of two renowned directors with a very individual sense of style, these shows couldn’t be more different – yet that and the fact that both are visually stunning and completely engaging makes them that much more perfectly complementary as partners.

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.

April 19, 2012 at 5:12 pm
53 comments »
  • April 19, 2012 at 5:21 pmIntricateRadiance

    This show.. is amazing. The relationships between everyone is so fun and heartwarming to watch. I’m glad it’s doing well. :)

  • April 19, 2012 at 5:29 pmsatuors13

    He Wished IPOD was invented in his era so he wouldn’t have to go up and down them stairs (>__<!)

    • April 20, 2012 at 12:13 amRandomFact

      Actually cassette players were already invented at that time since this show took place in 1966
      Although Sony Walkmans won’t be made till a decade later.

  • April 19, 2012 at 5:35 pmleokiko

    Watanabe extended that fight scene…not that I’m complaining.

    The live session was better than just Sentaro’s drums last week, it was perfect.

  • April 19, 2012 at 6:20 pmpwnzarsaurus

    why do they call the song “moanin”? isn’t it “so what?” by miles davis?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEC8nqT6Rrk

    • April 19, 2012 at 6:33 pmGuardian Enzo

      No, it’s Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Blue Note, 1958. Completely different song.

  • April 19, 2012 at 6:22 pmgrey

    i’m entirely smitten with this anime, just like how the characters had their breath taken away by their love interests. it’s so refreshing to have this type of mood while watching this. i can never JUST finish the episode, i have to rewatch it tbh. (and since i usually never rewatch anything..anytime i ever do it’s a pretty big deal, especially when it’s right after finishing the episode..)

    but i can’t say it’s my first time having this feeling. i had it with chihayafuru too. and i’m so glad there’s another series that has..~replaced it – an anime that i look forward to watching every week and has such strong characters that i already feel emotionally connected to, oh and enzo’s amazing posts.

    • April 20, 2012 at 12:41 pmronbb

      I did the same – for both Apollon and Chihayafuru – re-watching the episodes…but in my case again and again…can’t help it. Apollon is very polished, and I really love how well the main characters play off one another…the chemistry, the bond…

  • April 19, 2012 at 6:40 pmCorn

    Woah that was fast. 1 whole volume summed up in 2 episodes.

    This anime reminds me of Honey and Clover mixed with Nodame Cantabile. It really is a heart-warming anime to watch where each relationship is beautiful and bittersweet.

    Thank you for blogging this. Can’t wait till next week :)

  • April 19, 2012 at 6:54 pmAnomalous

    I always thought Richie looked like he was praying at one point in the OP.

    Personally, I think it would be refreshing to see an Anime with a religious message. So long as it’s kept subtle rather than attempting too shove something down the viewers throats.

    I mean, even a character converting too a religion is enough.

    • April 19, 2012 at 7:40 pmGuardian Enzo

      Interestingly, Kodama-sensei (the mangaka) has said that she’s not a Christian, but she attended a Christian school as a young girl and fell in love with Jesus because she thought he was hot…

      I think there have been any number of anime with some religious themes, but Christianity is pretty rare as a central theme. It’s a pretty small minority in Japan – less than 1% of the population.

      • April 19, 2012 at 8:10 pmpieprsn

      • April 19, 2012 at 9:57 pmAnomalous

        The more you know… Thanks, Enzo.

        Also, I can kind of see where Kodama-Sensei is coming from.

        http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7192/6949289532_de098a4cdb_b.jpg

        I mean, really. Wouldn’t you worship her?

        Kidding aside, I think it would be good as a tool for character depth as well… I hope it ends up like that, actually. Christianity is an interesting religion, and it’s just nice too see it portrayed at all- especially in a non-negative light in an Anime. Considering, as Enzo said, Christians make up a small minority of the Japanese people- Quite small. Either way, I am looking forward to seeing how this turns out. I love Jazz, I love Jesus (not in that sense, although were Jesus a cute girl, I can’t say it would be the same- don’t judge me) and I just love… This. Everything Sakamichi no Apollon has been so far. Everything it promises to be.

        I’m looking forward to your continued coverage, Enzo ^^

    • April 19, 2012 at 8:14 pmfragb85

      Well there’s a difference between using religion as a message and using religion to give some depth to the characters and setting. Here it seems to be the latter, perhaps to give a bit of perspective to the air of conservatism of the 60′s.

    • April 20, 2012 at 7:50 pmrufe

      There is a surprising amount of Buddhist influence in a lot of Anime. The most striking I can remember is the dead bird in Honey and Clover, but it’s all over.

      Incidentally, Christianity has a longer history in Kyushu than the rest of Japan. Nagasaki is famous for showing the influence of missionaries and traders, but there is a little of that flavor in other parts of the island as well. It’s a really interesting place!

  • April 19, 2012 at 8:08 pmAizen

    You should’ve captured that scene with the bullies unzipping his pants with a “It’s not what you think!” look.

  • April 19, 2012 at 8:09 pmfragb85

    The jamming session was the best part of the episode. Part of the appeal of live performances is that you get to see the effort put into the music like how a guitarist works the electric guitar in a rock concert. Watanabe understood that as it shows shots of the different instruments being played in loving detail. I felt myself being caught up in the jazz groove. It’s the magic of Watanbe’s visuals especially for something so simple.

  • April 19, 2012 at 8:45 pmterrukallan

    Enzo, is retroscopic animation just something I’ve never heard of or were you perhaps referring to rotoscoping?

    The jam scene animation was definitely impressive and if it was rotoscoped they did a pretty good job of masking it. Animation of playing musical instruments in general is something that seems to be hard to get right (though a few shows have done it well; Nodame Catabile comes to mind) but I agree that this is the best I’ve seen.

    • April 19, 2012 at 9:50 pmGuardian Enzo

      Yep, that’s it. Trying to crank out too many posts in one causing brain freeze.

    • April 19, 2012 at 10:55 pmRyan

      This seems way more convincing and possibly way more work than Nodame’s piano scenes. In Nodame they definitely look like they were 3D computer graphics, and probably animated with motion capture. So yeah, an amazing scene for sure!

  • April 19, 2012 at 9:02 pmDayriff

    I was a little unsure about the first episode, but I really liked this second episode. Stronger than the first, IMO. The characters are showing a lot of hidden depths.

    I actually feel a little bad for Sentarou, because he honestly thinks that he and Kaoru have become friends. Meanwhile Kaoru is just tolerating him for a chance to hang out with Ri-chan. Obviously Kaoru probably likes Sentarou more than he’s letting himself acknowledge, but it still feels a little skeevy every time Sentarou honestly wants to be buddies and Kaoru is all like, “Well, whatever, as long as the girl is around.”

    • April 19, 2012 at 9:49 pmGuardian Enzo

      I disagree that Kaoru is just tolerating Sen-kun. It may have started that way, and Sen makes him uncomfortable because he’s so much more uninhibited. Plus, as a navy brat I think Kaoru is highly unused to having friends to begin with. But he’s beginning to get swept up in Sentarou’s enthusiasm and open nature.

    • April 19, 2012 at 10:07 pmZammael

      I got the same sense, but I don’t think Kaoru knows himself that well to be transparently self-centered. Sentarou’s charisma is too strong and will wear down Kaoru’s initial reluctance in no time.

  • April 19, 2012 at 9:59 pmNamlet

    For anyone who wants to know the song from this episode, it’s ‘Bag’s Groove’ by Milt Jackson.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyTS7uzVM6A

  • April 19, 2012 at 11:04 pmJo Jo X

    “It would be hard to imagine an anime having two better opening episodes than Sakamichi no Apollon.”

    Lupin III Fujiko Mine comes close. :3

    Great shows all around this season.

    • April 20, 2012 at 12:23 amGuardian Enzo

      Heh, not for me, but that’s personal taste. Lupin is very good, but I’d rank it 6th or 7th for the season probably.

    • April 20, 2012 at 4:47 amShuA

      What’s your top 3 so far Enzo? Just want to know

      • April 20, 2012 at 10:45 amGuardian Enzo

        Hmmm. Really tough, as this is a great season so far. I can’t rank them in order, but the top tier for me is Sakamichi, Tsuritama, E7, and MGX. I’d put Jormungand, F/Z, Sankarea and Uchuu Kyoudai just a notch below that.

      • April 21, 2012 at 7:56 amZammael

        Heretic. Git thee to a nunnery and repent thy blasphemous rankings, POST-HASTE!

        For me, it’s Fate/Zero by a large margin, and then Mouretsu Pirates, Mysterious Girlfriend X, Apollon, and Space Brothers in some order. Sankarea & Tsuritama are unexpectedly moving up the ranks.

  • April 20, 2012 at 12:23 amCyrano

    Another excellent episode. I don’t really listen to a lot of Jazz, but this show really gives me a better appreciation for it. Once again the animation is top notch. For a slice-of-life anime, the fight scenes are pretty darn impressive, but I guess it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, knowing who is helming the director position.

  • April 20, 2012 at 3:18 amStereoman

    I’m speechless. I don’t think any comment here is good enough to describe the beauty in this show. You simply have to watch it. It’s so good ;o;
    And Enzo, I loved the post!

    • April 20, 2012 at 10:47 amGuardian Enzo

      Thanks, Stereoman, much appreciated. It was hard to write it without gushing too much myself (which I think I let myself do with the E7 post). Thursdays are just too good not to fanboy a little.

  • April 20, 2012 at 5:18 amMonroe

    Actually the character relationship among them was quite simple, like a line, A love B but B love C…= =

    • April 21, 2012 at 1:53 amJunglepenguin

      Is that truly it? At this point, I’m thinking it looks more like this:

      A likes B, B doesn’t like anybody and has yet to take hints from A, B and C are childhood friends who get along well, C likes jazz, until D gets bullied on a beach, whereby C rescues and falls in love with D.

  • April 20, 2012 at 6:11 amThe Truth is in the Axe

    This anime is, with no other words to describe it, like a gift. A neatly wrapped one that when opened is one of those things you’ve always wanted but forgot all about it.

    I should probably restrain myself, y’know in case that I let crazy feelings cloud my mind, but it really does hit right here *thumps chest* on how much it means to me.

    And also, how happy for me to know that Junichi Suwabe is voicing this! He’s one of my top favorite man-voices, which includes Hiroaki Hirata (Uchuu Kyoudai, YAY!), and thank god he’s getting more anime work!

  • April 20, 2012 at 6:31 amLitho

    Best series of the season so far. Not surprising with Watanabe directing, but special mention has to be given to the mercurial Yoko Kanno with regards to the timing of the music. The way the keys came in as Sentarou laid eyes on the chick was sublime.

  • April 20, 2012 at 3:11 pmLeticia

    Simply P-E-R-F-E-C-T. I cannot say anything else.

  • April 20, 2012 at 4:14 pmHana

    Great stuff. And re:

    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

    I thought that this was just one of the many wonderful moments in this show so far. I also liked how you could just as easily replace ‘musician’ with ‘artist’ or ‘writer’ (etc.) and it would still work, highlighting the theme of creativity, as well as freedom.

  • April 20, 2012 at 6:04 pmAni_BEE

    Each episode so far is packed with so many nuances and small details that don’t need to be beaten over the head to get the emotional depth from the characters and the situations they are in. This series is pure magic.

    “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.”

    These are the details i loved seeing in the show as well that manages to put a smile on my face. I’m a sucker for the details.

    Also a little note one rotoscope: It’s like live captions suits are to CG. It’s only a tool but the execution of the jam sestions, is something alsmostly godly in the details that would have to be painstakingly added like the moment of sticks in Sentarou can’t be just copied frame by frame you can feel the added work(love)put into such a simple but realy complex motion.

    I’ve seen rotoscope done badly, I’ve seen it done well and this is just divine at parts.

    End of gush!
    I come from a cell animator family with my Uncle working for Nelvana in it’s prime before all the Animation house got axe of downsized when GC came on board as a cheaper way to spit out cartoon with less detail (or though) put into them. He learned to become a sound editor on the job as a trained animator as felt that vice clamp down on the cell animation industry in North America. Seeing this type of work that NOW is almost a miracle in it’s self.

    • April 20, 2012 at 6:21 pmAni_BEE

      This is no way a statements to diss studio houses like Pixar, It’s was a general shift in the industry to make it cheap (more computers less people) and make it quick (less detailed and more glaring flaws). So long as it’s CG the buyers didn’t care as they were just trying to ride on the coattails of others.

  • April 20, 2012 at 7:57 pmMagewolf

    Sentarou may be an orphan headed to the priesthood.That would explain his free spirit and desire to help people.

    • April 21, 2012 at 1:56 amJunglepenguin

      Did you just intentionally spoil the series for everyone? Because I wouldn’t know, considering I’ve yet to read the manga. But if not, then huh, that sounds quite right.

      • April 21, 2012 at 7:33 amMagewolf

        No,I was just going by the cross thing and thinking of what would work as a good twist in the story.

  • April 20, 2012 at 10:52 pmmtle

    Well as long as the love situation doesn’t become like Ano Natsu

  • April 21, 2012 at 6:10 amunderMebius

    I really liked this anime. It’s really a pleasant surprise. Mind you, I watch a lot of moe anime so watching this is such a huge relief. That being said, I can’t help but giggle when Kaoru is wearing tighty whities. Okay, I wear them too, but I would never be seen wearing that in public, ESPECIALLY with a girl that I like.

    That being said, I’m not a huge fan of jazz but like everyone here, it makes me appreciate it more. (And I think it’s bad but nontheless the first few opening notes of the song they played reminded me of Queen’s Blade ED “Buddy Body”.)

  • April 21, 2012 at 11:23 amStyxounette

    Sorry to discuss a minor point but it’s been bugging me : I never saw any christian women wearing something on their head when going to church. On the contrary, aren’t you supposed to take down any kind of hat ? What the hell

    • April 21, 2012 at 1:33 pmKT

      Actually, up until the 2nd Vatican Council, (which happened in the 60s when Sakamichi no Apollon takes place) introduced a new form of the mass, women were expected to wear head coverings in church. They’re called mantillas, and you can sometimes see older ladies wearing them in church, or if you go to a Tridentine mass (the older form before Vatican II) women are still generally expected to wear them as a sign of respect.
      As a Catholic who has gone to many Tridentine masses, I really appreciate the accuracy of showing Ritsuka with a mantilla in church.

      • April 22, 2012 at 5:21 amNandaka

        Yep, the religion is Catholic, not Christian (Protestant). Catholic have more focus on Virgin Mary, compared to Protestant. In Japan, the Catholic is the one which spread since old times (see Rurouni Kenshin in Sekigahara arc)

      • April 22, 2012 at 5:36 amKurisu Vi Britannia

        I find it hilarious that you mentioned Christians as being Protestant but not Catholics. They’re both subsets of Christianity and I’m sure Catholicism has been around much much longer. Protestants were made by king henry iirc.

      • April 22, 2012 at 6:01 amfragb85

        Henry founded the Anglican Church. The Protestant Church was founded by Martin Luther.

        But yes, Christianity is a religion with different subsets. Such as Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant etc.

      • April 22, 2012 at 3:54 pmStyxounette

        Thank you very much I had no idea, even though the main religion in my country is catholic xD @Nandaka when I said christians I meant catholics I’m sorry I wasn’t accurate there is like almost no protestant at all in my country so in my language christians = catholics ;)

  • April 22, 2012 at 4:11 amdustshadow

    The first one was decent but hampered by the fact that they had to force the relations between the lead characters. The second ep was already much better. In particular the jam sessions are great. I thought the Ritsuko-Sentarou-Kaoru triangle had a lot of potential so it will interesting to see where they are taking the romance aspect now.

    The one thing that keeps me bothering to no end is the glaring and over-prominent CGI on the brick wall in the basement room. Tune it down already.

  • April 25, 2012 at 3:45 amv3000

    Again a masterclass effort, silky-smooth and cool. :) There’s nothing else like it for this year.