“You Don’t Know What Love is”

If you ask me what my favorite NoitaminA series this season is, my answer might have to be “What time is it?”

Seriously – as a huge NoitaminA fan (albeit a disappointed one lately) I don’t say it lightly, but this is the best pair of shows the block has offered in my view. Not only are they both superb on their own, but they complement each other perfectly – Tsuritama is surrealistic, bright, joyous and full of bombast. Sakamichi is sober, subtle, layered, realistic and beautiful. Each manages to tell a compelling story about wonderful characters in a totally different way. Last time Sakamichi had a slightly down week, merely “great” as opposed to its usual sublime, while Tsuritama was off-the-grid fantastic. This time Tsuritama was “only” great, while Sakamichi was back on it’s “A” game. How in the world do I choose?

One of the things I love about Sakamichi especially is the way it weaves themes of social change into the lives of its characters. Whereas some series are set at a certain time for atmosphere, this one could only be in the mid 60’s, as the pace of societal change was terrifying “normal” people everywhere. In Japan it mostly took the form of student unrest, but the music world certainly felt it too – jazz, while once viewed suspiciously as the music of outsiders, had found an adoring audience in Japan, and was suddenly under threat from a strange outsider, rock. And this was never more apparent than in the strange mop-top foursome from Liverpool that had all the girls screaming. To fans of jazz, reacting in this manner to music defied logic – perhaps even more so to the Japanese character than most.

I could never choose between jazz and rock – any more than between Tsuritama and Sakamichi – because I love them both. And just as I don’t have to neither did music lovers then, though convincing them of that would largely be impossible. Rock and Roll, of course, is a creature born of jazz – and blues, and R & B – but music was undergoing a period of intense change just as the rest of society was, and the pace was frightening for almost everyone. Sakamichi not only ties this conflict into the theme of societal divisions forming in the 60’s, but also into Kaoru’s personal journey. As a Navy brat, he’s spent his whole life trying to avoid getting close to people – because he’s paid the emotional price of doing so and being yanked away from them, and doesn’t want to go through that again. As rock threatens jazz, so its presence here threatens to rip Sentarou away from Kaoru, and his anxiety disorder rears its ugly head again after lying dormant, fed by the fear of abandonment that’s so much a part of him.

Both the musical and personal threats are personified in Mastsuoka Seiji (Okamoto Nobuhiko, always a genki addition to a cast), a classmate of Sen’s in Class 10 and a fellow art club member with Yurika. He’s an odd boy, complete with his own fang – small, a little effeminate with a bowl haircut – and he sees something in Sentarou that interests him immediately. This is intentionally irritating character who will no doubt annoy the audience – but he’s supposed to, and as played by Okamoto-san I rather like him for the completely different sort of character he is from the rest of the cast. He’s as weird and exotic as rock and roll, and as a poor kid with a house full of siblings, he’s decided than singing in a rock band is his ticket to helping his family – and that Sentarou is the drummer he needs. He’s already got Yamaoka and Maruo on-board, and to lure Sen he loans him a copy of “Please Please Me” (the Japanese import edition).

When Kaoru sees this is Sentarou’s bag, it’s as if he’s found strange hairs on his lover’s pillow – and given the increasingly complex romantic issues also playing out here, this creates an extremely difficult and awkward situation. Kaoru is still working through his own feelings for Ritsuko, and beginning to suspect Yurika’s feelings for Brother Jun (I hadn’t realized that was Yurika’s letter in Jun’s overstuffed Tokyo mail slot). Mainly he seems to be trying to push Sen and Ritsuko together, and when Sen asks him for advice on a date with Yurika, “Bon’s” actions are hard to read. He initially discourages Sen on what seem like sensible grounds, but when he says she’s simply too good for him Kaoru fears he went too far (he did). It’s hard to say with certainty just why Bon does what he does here – he’s in an extraordinarily dangerous minefield, and I actually think he’s navigating it fairly well. I think in the end he’s actually trying to do the right thing as he sees it – to preserve his friendship with Sen, and keep Ritsuko from being hurt. His own feelings for Ritsuko certainly haven’t dimmed, as witness his momentary thoughts of performing “My Favorite Things”, one of her favorite songs, as a way to try again to win her heart – but he checks himself, at least for the moment.

For Ritsuko, the movie that song comes from – “The Sound of Music” – is a metaphor for her missed chance with Sentarou (in those days if you didn’t see a movie in the theater, you didn’t see it). And for Bon, after all the work he’s done to try and preserve his friendship with Sen, his friend’s flirtation with rock and roll – and Seiji – is a betrayal. He curses Sen for disloyalty, and curses himself for letting his guard down and allowing himself to care too much. “After all, I’ve made it this far all on my own. No problem… at all.” While Seiji’s courtship of Sen is no doubt quite calculated, I for one wouldn’t mind seeing Sentarou play rock and roll drums at the school festival (and a little more live music in general) – and Kaoru should remember that he didn’t forsake classical when he befriended jazz. There’s room in the world for Mozart, Coltrane and The Beatles – and there’s room in our hearts for more than one friend, and perhaps even more than one love. For a boy with a fear of abandonment as strong as Kaoru’s – and as well-earned – that’s going to be a hard and painful lesson to learn.

I know the reactionaries will be all over Kaoru’s tearful reaction to the thought of losing Sentarou as a friend, but I think back to the amazing film Colorful – and how it accurately portrayed the fact that often in a difficult adolescence, the best friend is the most important relationship – and the one that saves us from despair. As fast as the pacing is here, I don’t expect that Watanabe-sensei will take emotional short-cuts, and I know they aren’t in Kodama’s writing. Things are complicated and I don’t expect them to sort themselves out neatly – no one is in love with the right person (they rarely are) and Junichi is back in town, apparently on a bender and in real trouble. Rock and roll and Seiji aren’t going away, and neither are the problems of Kaoru and the main cast. Ultimately I think Sakamichi no Apollon is more about friendship and love of music than anything else, and that’s where I expect the focus to be in the second half of the series.


  1. I thought the Seiji fella would have blonde hair, but I guess darker colors are more suited to the 60’s. Mandom wasn’t around back then, after all.

    I’ve run out of stuff to say about this show. It’s kind of like watching a live jazz act who’re “in the zone”. Using words to describe them will only go so far. Sometimes it’s best to just sit back and enjoy the show. Hearing the voice of your own thoughts only pollutes the experience.

    Looking forward to the next ep.
    Show Spoiler ▼

    1. yes I know (about the blonde hair thing in manga).

      But having a bleached hair in 60s in Japan make zero sense. Heck, I am not even sure if anybody anywhere could have bleached the hair in the 60s. There was no technology (precisely the chemical hair dying thing was invented in early 20th century, but no one bleached their hair in 60s. No one. By bleaching, I mean going dark black/brown -> blonde). But then again, the japanese anime have rainbow hair everywhere you turn, so why I am invoking logic?

    1. It only adds to the experience for me. Knowing what song is going to play adds to the anticipation and excitement.
      For example, I cannot wait for Rin to sing “My Favorite Things”.

      Bio D
  2. If you haven’t read Sakamichi no Apollon the manga: the anime is still good. Carry on, carry on. Nothing to see here.

    If you read the manga or currently reading it: suddenly the anime is not as good. Mind you, it’s relatively speaking. It’s still better than the most.

    I keep complaining about this, but they have cut so much stuff from the manga, which are NOT fillers, but very important character developments and plot points, it’s not even funny anymore! This sort of thing was totally negligible in the first 2-3 episodes, but once the plot really picked off, it’s been a real disservice to the great project to cut so much and patch things together -very clumsily at times- to make things work. Now once again, you will only understand what I am grumbling about here if you’re reading the manga.

    To be sure, I am not knocking off the show, but merely lamenting on the lost opportunities. Maybe I’m in the minority to think this way?

    1. Agreed. I’ve spoiled myself by reading the manga too even though I usually don’t because I knew the anime would be adapting the whole thing and I want to see what they cut. It’s pretty surprising how much they cut without the whole thing feeling out of whack.

      Only manga readers would notice it which goes to show how the director is doing a great job considering the limited amount of episodes to air the story. 9 volumes in 12~ episodes just ain’t enough.

    2. Oh and on the more positive side, I’d like to add it’s awesome to see the music in animation. That’s the part where it shines and shows something the manga never could do properly.

  3. I’d disagree a bit with you, simply because I’m viewing the anime as a separate, stand-alone entity. Even if I were to put the two together, I feel the anime edges it simply because it adds another layer with the soundtrack.

    The parts of the manga that the anime skips on may be relevant with regards to progression of the manga (hence “not filler” from your point of view), but the anime was meant to be (as far as I can tell) a collage of vignettes/snippets about the lives of these kids through their time school in that era; focusing on the friendship and the music that catalyzed it.

    At least that’s my opinion. I am enjoying both the manga (I’m up to volume 6) and the anime. The anime just has more life in it for me.

    1. yeah, okay. I accept that the anime can’t be carbon-copy of the manga. And of course, voice+moving images (albeit still 2-D)+music do bring extra oomph when comare to 2-D drawings on pieces of paper. When I was complaining, I was purely talking about in terms of merit of plot obviously. Nothing more and nothing less.

      I suppose the correct way to approach Sakamichi no Apollon would be watching the anime first and then after finishing that, going back to the manga and picking up extra details and tidbits that the anime had to forego. It’s usually more pleasant to go from less to more details once you are familiar with things. If you go the opposite way and yo go from more to less, there’s bound to be a fellow like me who grumbles and grumble while gingerly accepting what I get, ha!!!

  4. I’m with Litho on this one. How can a long manga being adapted into 12 episodes not have cuts you could label vital? That die was cast when the decision was made to adapt it this way – Watanabe effectively had to create a different series for TV. Therefore judging the anime by the standards of the manga really isn’t fair.

    And so far, it’s great. I feel for the manga readers disappointed at the changes (even more so when I watch Game of Thrones) and I’m happy to not have that baggage when watching this one. But I think under the circumstances Watanabe is doing exceptionally well.

    1. We’re doing the same thing for the two shows/adaptations!

      I think it’s good to keep to one medium before going to the other. That said, I’m finding nothing lacking of Sakamichi. But Game of Thrones? Why is Jon Snow such a wimp in the TV adaptation, anyone? Haha 🙂

    1. yeah, he gets more time in manga and therefore explained better, which then you could understand more. So I suggest you read it. Here, he’s just some annoying character that show up for 2 min and not worth fuming about, really. He’ll be gone before you know it. It’s shame, but can’t be helped. Very similar to Richie’s mum during last episode. There is simply no time to properly introduce these bit part characters in this anime.

      some guy
      1. I must say that i was really annoyed with what they did with Kaorus mom. What they changed just gave the completely wrong imression to her situation and why she could not take her son with her her.

    1. I’m sorry, you must be a newbie to Japanese anime watchers. Throngs of them (males) seem to have this weird fixation on teen girls with eyes big-as-your-fist-and-no-nose look being grandiosely immature. And now take a look at Sakamichi. As beautiful as Yurika may look or endearing Ritsuko may look, they are not that. They look very realistic as this being Josei. And the throngs won’t even bother = less $$ for the industry that needs to make $$ to exist. That’s what Hyou-ka has over Sakamichi. Many don’t care about plots just as long as these characters act cute and all for them to watch. Sad, but true. I know I’m generalizing the issue a bit, but no one would argue against this claim.

      And also it’s not 13, but 12.

      some guy
    1. I try real hard to figure this question out whether it is legit or not, but there is no merit to respond such question. So Enzo, you shouldn’t have bothered, really.

      What’s a bit part character being gay or not has got to do with anything unless you are at least mildly homophobic? To brace yourself against all the gayness to come later? Geez. It’s always the same, isn’t it? It always goes “I’m not racist/homophobic/misogynistic/misandristic/hater, but…..” or “I’m fine with …., but….” Well, it’s a good thing that culture has evolved that nowadays, haters have to go into closet or risked being outcasted.

      1. Agreed.

        I also think that it’s weird that the commenter was explaining that he (i’ll assume this is a he) is only asking because he wants to brace himself for what to expect. This anime is set in the 1960s. People are changing the way they think about social identity and expectations all over the world, with the Mod fad in England to the burgeoning counter-cultures in America as a result of emerging music genres. Movies are starting to incorporate realistic violence and sexuality, and French cinema is developing new editing techniques that are influential in how movies are seen today and what kind of stories are being told.

        If there’s anything to expect from this show, it’s to see examples of the 1960s counter-cultures being shown, as well as changing gender roles and expectations. It’s not going to be sock hops and teeny-boppers forever.

        The Truth is in the Axe
      2. Way to overanalyze my question. On the contrary, I’m LGBT myself, and would be interested to see a depiction of an LGBT character in a period drama such as this. My comment about being fine with it was intended to head off accusations of homophobia. Seems there’s just no getting away from them though, huh? Also, I’m a girl. Baseless assumptions sure do suck.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *