Confused, distraught, distressed, these are all adjectives that describe my state the second the OP started. I will concede that, going in, I didn’t expect much of the plot, or characters, I would’ve watched the anime just for the sake of its soundtrack, but the OP, sacred in Bebop with its Tank!, had been defiled with vocals and surprising state of not-jazz, despite the whole anime being focused on that genre. Gone were my hopes of a spiritual successor to bebop with its themes and tunes, and in its stead I got this; a bewildering series of scenes, coupled with an even more perplexing song. Needless to say, that within the first minute of the first episode of this anime, my expectations were crushed- badly.
(A little disclaimer: Keeping in line with the tradition of the asian high school student to do anything other than study, I won’t be able to update the Tamako Market episodic this week. So as an apology, take this review of Sakamichi no Apollon, I did a long time ago as a peace offering. Of course, this was written in a time where I actually had time, so to say that it’s long would be a massive understatement, and there’re a lot of differences in the writing style of a me from a year ago, and the me typing this introductory paragraph right now. But I’ve chosen to upload it as it is, mostly out of laziness for editing. So forgive the blatant lack of pictures, and the terribly worded introduction, it gets better after the first two paragraphs- trust me.)
But what more can be said about a boy and his lofty anticipation of the reunion of the acclaimed Shinichiro Watanabe with the musical genius of Yoko Kanno, coupled with his inability to read blurbs? It takes a surprising amount of frustration to make me want to drop an anime, and to be honest, Sakamachi treaded that precipice through the first few episodes, but it would’ve been a mistake if it actually did.
The real and only reason I found the first few episodes so tiresome to watch, was because I had expected it to be so much more… different. Watanabe’s 26 episode-long theses in style and general bad-assery, bebop, had almost nothing in common with this. But, It became embarrassingly apparent that that didn’t necessarily make it any worse of a series; what Sakamichi isn’t, is more than made up for, by what it is: An incredibly genuine, and surprisingly human, take on the slice of life genre.
If the premise isn’t drenched in the unbelievable, its scenes are soaked in hyperbole, seems to be a very popular motif in anime, while actions and reactions, which go above and beyond even the most liberal definition of the word “exaggerated”, are commonplace. That always seemed rather disingenuous. However, Sakamichi seems to serves the post of being the archetype for the antithesis of those animes very well.
Sakamichi is really about realism against a backdrop of idealism, both that of the characters and viewer. The sense of reality that this one anime exudes is a welcomed break to the incessant amounts of escapism. Though, trading fantasy for actuality does have some side effects that might prove frustrating for some, but enjoyable for others.
Contrary to what some animes would have you believe, going to the x is not as exciting as it seems, in fact most of real life has its roots in the mundane, opposed to the excitement emanating from those shows. Sakamichi doesn’t bother with these events, privy that any attempt for the unnecessary would be too tedious with its realistic style, and streamlines its episodes to the extent that there are literally months, and years of monotony that passes in-between episodes. Fully aware of its 12-episode schedule, Sakamichi doesn’t have time for the gratuitous, each episode is a plot heavy episode, against common norms of only 3. Without this fat of superficial tedium that punctuates the in-betweens, you’re only really left with a crap-load of meat, and within a short span of a few episodes, Sakamichi fits more plot points than an overly precautions Asian student with a graph pad.
But, putting fleets of SR-71 blackbirds to shame isn’t the only thing that the speed its plot does. There is a certain charm to Sakamichi’s more than succinct structure, something to the effect of keeping an attention deficit 6-year old engrossed with constant, perhaps arbitrary, changes to the tone and story. Though I watched each episode individually when they came out, I can imagine somebody would be coerced into marathoning the entirety of the series rather easily, since so much happens in the frame of one episode, its hard to wait or anticipate what comes next.
The breakneck pace of Sakamichi also comes with a set of problems, however. The lack of emotional traction, with Sakamichi’s friction-ignoring tempo, between the viewer and some of the characters- doesn’t bode to well with Sakamichi’s heavy reliance on them to drive the plot. Without enough tedium, and ennui of everyday life, the viewer to some degree is forced to feel some degree emotional separation from the character, take for example the saddest moment in any media that you’ve seen, imagine that scene being removed from any context, and your left with apathy for their plight, but shed light on their situation and personality, and you turn a comedy into a tragedy.
The same goes, or perhaps doesn’t go, for Sakamichi’s brevity. The lack of attention, and miserly proportion of camera-time that some of these characters get only serves to sever any potential emotional ties the viewer might’ve developed, and in turn affecting how much the viewer really cares about their situation later. Which is really a shame because the characters are really one of the stronger points of this anime.
But before I go on about what makes the characters so special, it seems apt for me to spend some time to pontificate on the usual cast of characters that one might encounter when watching this anime. I won’t go into details of Tsunderes, Yanderes, and the likes, but rather just one character- the protagonist.
You see, in other worldly scenarios, universes separate from our own, even the most ardent wanderlust won’t be able to compensate for the sheer amount of xenophobia that might come with how foreign a setting might be. In order to make up for that, animes, as well as other media, tend to rely on an identifiable character, the sort of character that most people would fit under. His confusion towards the given scenario, allows us to better relate with him and through this we realize that we aren’t alone in the predicament of having to sort out the workings of this new world, the questions that he might ask, might be the same questions that we might ask, and the actions he takes, might be the same actions that we take.
However, this is not the only reason why such a character is thrown in; in literary universes based on our version of reality or at least something close to it, an identifiable character might be put in despite the apparent lack of a need to explain a world that we’ve spent our whole lives in. This is usually done, to allow for the viewer to experience some form of role play albeit a very indirect almost subliminal form of it. As mentioned above, the key factor of an identifiable protagonist is the ability for his list of characteristics, to fit the bill for most people, he’s apathetic about somethings, but enthusiastic about others, and for everything else the least bit controversial, or which the general consensus is divided upon, is intentionally made vague, on the fence or totally unheard for the viewer to avoid conflict of personalities. The viewer is given a glimpse as to how his life might potentially, though would highly unlikely, end up in the same situation, and how such a scenario would then proceed. What comes after that is entirely up to the viewers imagination, and… fantasy.
Though there are exceptions, animes seem to follow a certain trend, whether its a sci-fi epic, or a simple slice of life set in tokyo, the protagonist is usually this identifiable protagonist. What makes Sakamichi so special, is that it won’t have any of this. The silhouette of your character might translate well in 2 dimensions, but it won’t take the form of the anything with a Z-axis, i.e. the three main characters of the show. Every character that you might have thought was meant to be relatable, is flushed out so well, that backgrounds themselves become foreign, while every other character apart from the main cast isn’t flushed out whatsoever.
So they’re un-relatable, so I might find some traits that they have that I don’t, how is this in any way better? The thing is that while you might not be able to identify any of the characters as yourself, you might be able to do so with others since your idea of their character, however detailed, is never as fully realized as that of your own, thus finding characteristics easier fit that of the charters. So while you might not be able to view any of the characters, unless you’re the chosen few to happen to just be exactly like them, through a quasi-first person window, you’ll still be able to relate to the events of this spectacle from a third-but-equally-as-engaging-person view.
The characters are so dynamic and so believable, that it almost seems as if you gained the ability of time-travel and invisibility and just so decided to go to Japan in the 60s. As a result, you never actually feel that this 12-episode series, or any other length of a series, could totally explain and elaborate on the personalities of each and every character. And this is fine, in fact, this is great- the fact that a full exposé on this characters is never managed and will never be managed only lends to credit how real and human these characters really are. Though they could have probably put a little more time into one of their sub-plots, which really seemed like a waste of time after this thing was over.
This anime, unlike how I made it out to be in the beginning of this wall of text, also isn’t a stranger to style. Sepia-stained canvases of scenes, the sense of cinema from the camera angles and shots, a jazz-soundtrack worthy of the rainiest day of the rainiest month, and an atmosphere nostalgic of a place you’ve yet to visit, all lend itself to its distinctive 1960s Japanese vibe. The art style, unique enough to be distinctive, and an animation quality suitable for its decidedly-simple premise, does suffer from time to time, but only when juxtaposed to its impressive use of rotoscoping in its music scenes
The music scenes themselves ooze a form of coolness not foreign in Watanabe’s repertoire; such suaveness can be found, especially but not exclusively, in the cultural festival scene. Although even with the intrinsic coolness of the Jazz genre and some of its scenes, it scarcely is able to administer the same near lethal dosages of this element as Bebop. But with that being said, a brand of warmth, unique to Sakamichi and a few others, is present and with the progression of the story, only grows stronger as your appreciation for the characters’ quandary grows with familiarity.
There are obvious flaws in Sakamichi’s structuring and its briefness, though, this is collateral to its incredibly realistic depiction of its characters, and Sakamichi has a lot more going for it than just that, even the OP in retrospect isn’t that bad. Still this might not be enough to earn Watanabe the same acclaim, or the accolades that he received for his earlier work, but it just might be enough to get him a Nobel Prize in Physics, for discovering a way to progress a plot faster than the speed of light.