Sakamichi no Apollon: the curse of noitaminA strikes again?

Don’t you love those musical notes and symbols?

When it was announced that Watanabe Shinichirou and Kanno Youko would be teaming up again for the first time since Cowboy Bebop, and for a series centered around jazz, parts of the Western anime fandom exploded in reverent anticipation. Whilst Kanno has remained quite prominent as an anime music composer, Watanabe has only directed a handful of shows over the years, and English-speaking fans were understandably excited about the prospect of another series that could go down in history. However, when it was confirmed that Apollon would only have the standard 12 episodes of the noitaminA block, fear and disappointment replaced those formerly positive emotions. There was no way that the manga’s 9 volumes could fit into just 12 episodes, right?

Show, don’t tell – Watanabe shows us exactly how that’s done.

Apollon had arguably the best opening episode of the spring season: it established two contrasting characters and introduced the music, the key over which they could connect. And it did so with subtle and brilliant direction from Watanabe. The juxtapositioning of the stark coldness of the school life that has followed Kaoru all his life and Sentarou’s cheerful drumming on his way to school; the immense fluidity of the brief fight scene; and the highlight of the episode – a 35-second drumming riff animated without a single repeated frame. This – and similarly amazing animation in all the other jamming sessions interspersed throughout the anime – is what elevates this series above the Nodame anime, at least for this viewer.

In all honesty, words cannot express how amazing this sequence is the first time you see it.

That isn’t all, of course. Unlike Nodame, the music isn’t meant to be the central attraction – it merely complements the stories told. Stories of love, struggle, growing up and, above all, friendship. There is even a hint of the wider social issues of the day, of the student protests that spread across the world during the 1960s. Given that it’s set in Sasebo, which was then and continues to be an important navel base for the US, I’d actually expected a few more tensions between the Americans and their hosts. Then again, I guess the salient social issues that arose from the time are represented: the stigma associated with working for/with servicemen, especially for women; racism directed from white Americans at ‘coons’ – at the time, was there an equivalent amount of discrimination directed by the American’s against the Japanese. Arguably the most important of these issues, from these standpoint of the characters, is the discrimination directed by Japanese people at ‘the other’, or to those with ‘other blood’, and it was addressed fairly well, though not with as much depth as some of us would have preferred. Complaints about slight melodrama came up as usual, but in all honesty, the main characters are high school students – it’s somewhat realistic for them to perceive the world as revolving around them, don’t you think?

Context? Or main story? Sometimes, it’s a choice between a rock and a hard place.

Ultimately, however, I would say that the fears about the restrictive 12 episode timeframe were warranted. Although a few anime viewers maintain that the show can and does stand tall on its own merits, others were highly disgruntled with the thinning of the story over the last few episodes. The manga is somewhat guilty of this too, but the necessity of trimming it translated into several noticeable disjunctions: the uneven passage of time, bringing us from, for example, the winter thaw straight into summer; a lack of proper closure for certain issues. Objectively, some of them still work to a certain extent, if the viewer is inclined to look for clues to interpret the show a certain way. However, the last episode, in particular, was noticeably cramped.

Honestly, what happens to this camaraderie?

The people who worked on adapting 9 volume manga into 12 episode show probably did their best. No one is credited for something like “series composition”, so I’m guessing that it may have been done by any combination of Watanabe, the two script writers, the author of the original manga (Kodama Yuki) and perhaps one or two of the producers (though I would expect a maximum of about three people, or it might have been difficult to get any consensus). As previously mentioned, the first episode was a highlight of the season, as were a few others, including the seventh. However, it is difficult not to lament about what might have been achieved if they’d had even 21 more minutes of screen time. And had judiciously done away with the openings and endings in some of the episodes on top of that.

It’s impossible to see on a still, but the reflection in those glasses (and in the rear window of
the bus a few shots later) was something that I loved noticing.

It’s difficult to know how Sakamichi no Apollon will go down in anime history. Amongst its (and Watanabe/Kanno’s) fans, it will probably be remembered for its flashes of brilliance, especially the first episode and most if not all of the jamming sessions. The astute viewer will also have appreciated its high production values – one of the details that floored me was the reflections of the evening sky in Kaoru’s glasses as he made his lonely way home following one of his disagreements with Sen. However, questions will always linger over what might have been had the series not been confined into that 12 episode box.

All things considered, I do recommend this series. If only because you could say that life is like a series of slopes. Making your way up is difficult, but going down will put wings on your feet.

p.s. darn it…Watanabe is going to be at a Singapore con in November!

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

2 Responses to Sakamichi no Apollon: the curse of noitaminA strikes again?

  1. Cadentia says:

    Sakamichi no Apollon would have been an instant classic had they got 24 episodes to work on instead of just 12. The series just felt to me like an example of what it could have been if it could have been expanded to its full potential.


    • karice says:

      Whilst I hesitate to say that it would have been a classic, I agree that it would probably have been better if they’d had more time to flesh out the story and the themes. For the most part though, Watanabe and co. did brilliantly with what they had…and I hope to focus on that aspect if and when I write about Apollon again…


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