Shinichirō Watanabe is a name that, when you hear it as an anime fan, your ears perk up and you pay attention. Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo are likely the two series you know from him, and for good reason: they were instant classics. While I was a bigger fan of Cowboy Bebop than Samurai Champloo, to deny the quality of, well, everything found in Samurai Champloo would be a disservice. It’s a very competent series and has something special there for those who really like it. As for Cowboy Bebop, I mean, come on, if you’re reading this and never experienced it, please stop what you’re doing and go do so. You honestly won’t regret it! But that’s not why we’re here, that’s only to show Watanabe’s pedigree, so let’s focus on the post-World War II period piece Sakamichi no Apollon or Kids on the Slope.
Set in 1966, Sakamichi no Apollon is centered on Kaoru Nishimi as he moves to Sasebo to live with relatives due to his father’s job. Naturally, he’s a loner, a great student, and completely isolated from people since he’s always been moving around; he doesn’t try to get attached to people in case he must leave them again. But there’s something in the air in Sasebo, and it’s not just love or friendship, it’s a new sound (to Japan at least) known as jazz. Music isn’t new to Kaoru as he’s a classically trained pianist, but jazz is certainly new and interesting to him, as it takes him some time to ‘get it’. All the while he’s studying school and jazz, he’s also developing a social life with the school bad boy Sentarō, and his friend Ritsuko. Not breaking trope norms, Sentarō isn’t a brute as his size implies, he’s actually a kind-hearted, caring young man. Ritsuko is in love with Sentarō, which obviously causes problems with Kaoru, as he loves Ritsuko. I know, I know, love stories and slice of life series are not usually my thing. I don’t often go for the dramas and similar ideas, but Sakamichi no Apollon does it so well, in every episode, that it’s hard to step away.
Watanabe’s direction, storytelling, and pacing are just so excellent, and there’s rarely a dull moment in the entire 12 episode run. Everything is well planned out, and leads to a satisfying climax. There are a few moments and questionable plot devices that get thrown in near the end that aren’t really for the best, but looking back, they weren’t too pivotal and quickly forgotten anyway. Sakamichi no Apollon is a strong long at not only a new sound in Japan, but religion in Japan also. Something rarely discussed or mentioned in many of the series I’ve seen; at least, something besides Buddhism or Shintoism. Sentarō and Ritsuko are both devoted Catholics, and while it’s not impossible for Kaoru to understand this, it is still a little bewildering for him. It’s never the focus of the main story, and there are a handful of moments about it, so it’s never force-fed or heavy-handed, but it’s still a prevalent component to Sentarō and Ritsuko’s characters. The series starts to show some weakness just before the finale, but it quickly pulls itself together by the end to produce an ending that’s not to be ranked ‘one of the best, or most original, but it’s satisfying and gives nice closure to the entire story.
Now accompanying every scene and poignant moment, Watanabe got the best Japan has to offer in the composition department and tasked Yoko Kanno in the role of handling it. And she absolutely killed it in the end. Sakamichi no Apollon’s soundtrack is gripping, but subtle, aware, but hidden. It’s all there, and even when you do not want it to, it will knock on the door to your feelings and come inside and affect everything found within. There are perhaps a few tracks that may seem out of place due to their sound Rosario is one that stands out for me), but they’re still exceptional tracks and they help make the scenes they’re used in so much more powerful. Yoko Kanno and the team she collaborated with to not only make the tracks for scenes, but for the jazz pieces too; they’re incredible. I usually don’t care for jazz, in fact, I really don’t like it, but this series, and the sounds and implementations of it, made me care (at least while watching the series). Yoko Kanno has always been on point with her soundtracks, and Sakamichi no Apollon ranks up there as another glorified treat for fans.
Another feast for the senses comes from the animation teams over at MAPPA and Tezuka Productions and their brilliant (and likely expensive) use of rotoscoping to animate several scenes in Sakamichi no Apollon. Rotoscoping is the process of tracing over live-action footage, then animating it for a more fluid, life-like presentation. A lot of Disney films used this over the years, and a few anime studios have done so too, but it’s a time-intensive and expensive process, so very few studios will opt-in to using it. For Sakamichi no Apollon though, it works, because the minute details of keys strikes, drum patterns, and plucking of the bass matters, and with the help of this animation style, they nail it. It’s used sparingly, and in other instances when not overtly necessary, but its uses never distract or hinder the rest of the show. Rotoscoping is truly a treat for the eyes, and I wish more animation were still done this way, because it invokes a natural, almost realistic production that pulls me in more.
Sakamichi no Apollon is still relatively new to the anime ether, and it will take the new few years to see if it stands out as one of Watanabe’s best, or sit on the shelves as just another series that exists. If you’ve read this far already, you’ll know what I think: you should be watching Sakamichi no Apollon. It’s likely unlike anything you’ve seen if you’ve never delved into romance or coming-of-age series, but it is well worth the venture and 12 episodes found here. You can find the full series subbed over at Crunchyroll, or physically own it via Amazon or other anime sites like Right Stuf. Be sure to stick to Geekenstein for more “You Should Be Watching” pieces as more, and perhaps forgotten, series will show up here for me to urge you to watch!