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Sakamichi no Apollon

A coming-of-age story unlike any other

17 December, 2012 by

Sakamichi no Apollon (坂道のアポロン, translated officially as Kids on the Slope) is an anime adaptation of a manga series of the same name by Kodama Yuki. Set in 1960s Japan, the series is a coming-of-age story that focuses on a group of friends in a small town on Kyūshū. Apollon is aided by a soundtrack that is unparalleled and weaved deeply into the narrative, making for a series unlike any other in recent times.

Sakamichi no Apollon

The slope from which the anime derives its name.

Despite not being much a fan of recent TV anime (mostly due to the moeblob invasion), Sakamichi no Apollon came highly recommended by friends acquainted with my own tastes in animation. Looking at the credit roll however, it is not hard to imagine why. Director Watanabe Shinichirō heads the list, with composer Kanno Yoko doing the music for the series. Much like their previous collaboration Cowboy Bebop, music plays an important role in Apollon, but even more so this time.

Sakamichi no Apollon

One of the main characters, Nishimi Kaoru.

Nishimi Kaoru, a typically weak (both physically and mentally) high schooler, moves to Kyūshū after years of regularly moving due to his father’s profession as a sailor. In class, he ends up befriending the well-known school bully, Kawabuchi Sentarō. Along with the class monitor Mukae Ritsuko, the three form a bond unlike any other, as the characters are confronted with the usual issues that plague anime high-schoolers – friendship, love, and everything in between.

The trio is characterized by a shared love for music, namely jazz. This was actually the only reason I even decided to watch this series; I was delighted to find out that jazz plays a big role in the series, unlike any other anime I’ve seen, including ones that are actually about music. Jazz cats would be happy to know that the series takes its music seriously, and references to legends such as Art Blakey and Coltrane are thrown around with accorded reverence.

Sakamichi no Apollon

My Favorite Things.

Story-wise, Apollon pans out like many other high school anime, but it inherently feels more ‘adult’ if only because of the music. There are some parts where it turns rather stereotypical, but the intricacies of the plot play out more like that of a josei manga than the shoujo manga. At no point during watching Apollon did I need to skip a scene due to rising levels of fremdschamen, something I usually find myself doing when watching anime.

Sakamichi no Apollon

Episodes are named after jazz standards.

One thing that I found interesting was how Apollon does not go for the lowest denominator when it comes to narrative conflict. The setting in which Apollon is set is rife with stereotypical anime tropes, but the anime seems to deliberately gloss over them, instead finding that conflict elsewhere. Said tropes were kept in reserve and used sparingly, and accordingly resulted in a much better impact when they were actually used.

Sakamichi no Apollon

That doesn’t mean there’s none of it though.

For example, one would expect Kaoru’s high brow upraising to be the main point of juxtaposition, especially placed next to Sentarō, a high schooler with 4 other siblings. However, this fact is treated as though it is of little significance, coming up only in passing and only really being shown when Kaoru decides to practice on his own piano at home.

Instead, Apollon goes in a totally different direction; at the start of the series, Kaoru’s difficulty in learning jazz is blamed on his background as a musician. He finds jazz hard to grasp due to his classical training, and gets thrown off by the seeming chaos of jazz improvisation. Anyone who knows a classical musician can easily tell you how true this is.

The anime is full of references like these, which are a treat to discover for those in the know, and yet simple enough to appreciate if not.

Sakamichi no Apollon

AKB48 fans would be delighted to know that Satou Amina has a small role in this anime as well.

Mention anime with music, and some would name you series like Beck, Noiseman Sound Insect or Samurai Champloo. While music played a very big role in each of these shows, the music integration of Apollon is more like Nodame Cantabile than anything. Jazz provides the series with a very formidable soundtrack, but it is how the music is navigated in the narrative itself that really brings out the brilliance in the series.

Sentarō, who plays the drums, has a passion for jazz that is driven not simply by a superficial love for the sound, and this shows in how he plays it. As his mood changes in each episode, so does the way he plays the drums; a viewer who does not share his passion for music can nonetheless hear and feel the difference as he drums to tunes by Miles Davis, or improvises some drums to Lullaby of Birdland.

It is this particular attention that is paid to the music in Apollon that sets it apart from the rest, and ultimately makes the show what it is. Jazz is integrated so deeply and perfectly in the anime that music is moved from being simply a nifty addition to one that plays a significant role in the shaping of the narrative. Sadly however, it might also be the same reason that some people cannot stand watching the show; jazz is not for everyone, after all.

Another area that Apollon excels is in its animation. There are many anime titles that skimp on animating people playing music, although there are entirely reasonable decisions to do so. It is good to know however, that Apollon is not one of them.

Sakamichi no Apollon

Apollon’s animation of music playing is great.

Much like Nodame or that one bunkasai episode of Haruhi, the music-playing is animated perfectly, with each beat resonating both audibly and visually. Slight camera shaking whenever the ‘camera’ zooms in close also gives a nice impression of being in that cramped jamming area as the band plays around you, and it adds to the authenticity of the anime.

While the anime doesn’t do anything wildly out of the ordinary (think Gankutsuou), the plain style works well for Apollon. The characters, while stereotypically ‘anime’, do not look exaggerated proportionally, which is what turns me off most other anime. In that sense, you could say Apollon‘s character design is a plus.

Sakamichi no Apollon

Characters are drawn to look like people.

Fans of music-focused anime should definitely check Sakamichi no Apollon out, if only for its near-perfect integration of jazz music. Its differing approach to the genre is also refreshing (in this writer’s opinion) for those who prefer their anime with a dose of reality. Sakamichi no Apollon stands out for more reasons than one, and for that reason, comes highly recommended, even to those who don’t regularly watch anime.



Mus

Writer who also doubles as the photographer during event coverage. Mus' interests in Japan lie in the language, literature, popular culture and underground rock bands. Having an academic background in Japan, Mus is also particularly interested in the study of Nihonjinron.