Monday, July 2, 2012

Sakamichi no Apollon Review

AniDB description - The coming-of-age story of love, friendship, and music follows a naive boy and a scruffy boy in a provincial town in Nagasaki Prefecture in the late 1960s. In the early summer of 1966, Kaoru transfers to the local high school from Yokosuka. Thanks to his family's nearly constant cycle of moving from town to town, Kaoru has only known school as a difficult place for readjusting every time. However, on his first day at this new school, he meets Sentarou and takes a new direction in life.

Anime about music are few and far between. Same goes for anime with good music. Of course, there are enough anime with good OSTs.... but they are usually either piano based instrumentals, or techno/electronica, or some form of rock which might or might not be hybridised with Japanese music, or simply J-pop. But anime whose music really stands out as something unique are not all that easy to come by. Similarly, I have not yet come across any other anime till date which is set in the backdrop of 60's Japan. My knowledge of that period comes only from Murakami books. So when I read about this anime and found out that it is going to have a lot of jazz, I was really excited. Especially with the 60's connection, since those were the heydays of jazz in the west.

Then I read about who will be the director and the music director, and the names Watanabe Shinichirou and Yoko Kanno left me stumped (if you don't know why, just read up on them). I have been waiting for this anime for quite some time now.

People who were expecting a jazz version of Beck or Nodame would be disappointed. This is less of that and more of a slice of life anime. But jazz permeates it to the very core. Can you think of Cowboy Bebop without jazz? No, right? Same goes here. Like the music that is present in our day to day lives, jazz is present in every frame, every note of this anime. When it is not the protagonists jamming to some hard bop and getting lost in the music, jazz is still there in the background, setting the environment and pushing the story along.

The story is a simple enough slice of life. The backdrop gives it a tint that one would normally not find in most anime. The era and the atmosphere have been faithfully recreated. As have been the differences between the 2 main characters, Kaoru and Sentarou. Everything about this anime is so believable that it takes us no effort to immerse ourselves in the music.

And yes, I keep coming back to the music. This anime would be a pretty decent story even without the music factor. But the music is what really sets it apart. Without the music, the story would have to revert to a either a lot of melodrama or to tons of gags, but the tension and the sheer energy of the jazz duo and the jazz quartet is enough to make all that unnecessary. Bonding over music is one of the most natural things in the world, and that has not been forgotten. In this setting, Sakamichi becomes a story of growing up, of friendships and love, and of inexplicable forces that bring people together and also tear them apart.

I loved the detail in this story. Everything, from life in the 60's, school uniforms, family reaction to rebels, to the cover sleeves of the jazz albums, everything has been researched thoroughly. Right down to one of the characters mourning Coltrane's death, and another guy who intends to use Beatles' mania to be popular with the girls. The visuals, too, were gorgeous. The character design made me really glad, since most characters in almost every anime look very similar nowadays. The characters in Sakamichi looked like real people and not like anime stereotypes. The plausibility of Sakamichi makes it a delight to watch. 

From the point of a music lover, this anime is a treat. There are some really famous tracks rearranged and played. This is vintage Yoko Kanno. I especially fell for this anime due to the choice of two tracks which form, in a manner, the motifs for this anime. My favourite things (Gone with the Wind) and Moanin' (art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers) are repeated time and oft', and make for amazing hearing. All the tracks, including ones which are covers and ones which are OCs, makes the OST flawless and makes you go back and listen to parts again and again.

Even though I am completely sold to Sakamichi, the anime is not without flaws. Just like Beck, the end is rushed. I heard from people who've read the manga that they have compressed a lot into around 3 episodes, and it did feel like that. the last episode itself spans around a decade. Even though the ending was quite good, I would have liked to see it fleshed out for a few more episodes. That would also have given more space for some more music (I would never get over this music). But then again, extending it to 20+ episodes might have turned it into a bit of a drag. At 12 episodes, this series is a bit short (maybe 13-15 would have been kind of perfect), but I was comfortable with the pacing of this anime in general.

Sakamichi no Apollon is not perfect, far from it. But it is definitely something special. It evokes visions of a world faded away, a world that actually was. This anime is not make believe. It is very real, and it definitely deserves the attention and the applause it has been getting.

AniDB Rating - 8.09
Reviewer Rating - 8.50