Sakamichi no Apollon – 12 (Fin)

With Sentaro gone, Kaoru sticks to studying, not returning to the shop basement to play. He has a falling out with Ritsuko before graduation, and after apologizing, he leaves town for college in Tokyo. Eight years later, Kaoru bumps into a pregnant Yurika, who has a photo of a young priest that resembles Sentaro. Kaoru travels to the remote island village, finds drums in the church, and starts to play “Moanin'” on the pipe organ. Sentaro comes in and jams with Kaoru as the orphans he’s caring for listen with glee. Ritsuko, having recieved news Sentaro may be there, arrives at the island.

We expected a bittersweet conclusion to this often moody, sometimes elated, always musical series, and we got one. Never able to shake the memory of Sentaro, Kaoru elects to cut his ties and leave town, leaving Ritsuko behind. While we understand the guy’s gotta look after his education and future, we thought the two had something special, and it was a shame to see their relationship simply die not long after it started…not that we’re saying a long-distance relationship would have worked, either.

Anyway, the series takes huge leap forward in time, not one or two but eight years. We’re not quite sure why it had to be such a long time, other than the fact they wanted Kaoru to have become a rookie doctor in residence. You’re telling us he never went back to his former home once? Never wrote to or laid eyes of Ritsuko again? Harsh. The kids are no longer kids, but there is a slope, with a church atop it, where Kaoru goes on a hunch that turns out to be right, and we get one last triumphant jam session from the two (amplified by the church’s unique acoustics), and in the end, the three friends are reunited. We stop lamenting what could have been and start thinking about what could be – like the rekindling of friendships. Which is as good a note as any to end on.


Rating: 7 (Very Good)

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Sakamichi no Apollon – 11

Sensing something is up, Kaoru returns to Sentaro’s house to stop him from running away. After waking up both Sentaro and Ritsuko’s families, he doesn’t really have a choice. The next day Sentaro’s father arrives, and gives Sentaro a fountain pen as a gift. Sentaro and Kaoru begin practicing for the festival, recruiting both Ritsuko’s father to play the bass and Ritsuko herself to sing. The night before their performance, Sentaro heads out on his motorbike with Sachiko aboard, and they’re hit by a truck. Both survive, but Sachiko is touch-and-go for a time. Blaming himself, Sentaro disappears.

We thought we had been too hasty when we declared Sentaro gone for good in the last episode, and this one builds up a lot of hope and happiness and gives the trio of Kaoru, Ritsuko and Sentaro a few more days together before events take a turn for the worst once more. In the midst of one of Kaoru’s “favorite things” – being among his good friends – we thought there might be a return to the dizzying highs of Sentaro and Kaoru’s triumphnt jam session before the school, only with a bass and Ritsuko, whose English singing was so cute and endearing. But their concert never happened.

The incident that precludes it demonstrates why playing the blame game is most often unproductive and unfulfilling. Sentaro blames himself for letting Sachiko ride with him. Sachiko blames herself for insisting she ride (she’s old enough to know when she’s being willful). But if we look back at why Sentaro was on that motorbike, Kaoru could potentially blame himself for leaving his sheet music at the shop. The point is, something unfortunate happened, but it’s the last straw for Sentaro, who is convinced he’ll only bring further hurt to those close to him if he sticks around. It’s a deeply-engrained self-loathing that finally comes to the fore.


Rating: 8 (Great)

Sakamichi no Apollon – 10

When Kaoru learns the gloves are indeed for him, he’s unsure about what it means. He asks Ritsuko why she made them for him and not Sentaro, frustrating him. When he takes ill, Ritsuko visits him, and finally snaps him out of it; as she’s leaving he races out to meet her and confess, but passes out before he can kiss her. Kaoru and Sentaro plan to perform at the school festival again, but when news comes that Sentaro’s father is returning, he takes off, sending Kaoru a note by pigeon.

And then there were two. With Yurika eloping with Jun and now Sentaro taking off for parts unknown, it’s just Kaoru and Ritsuko, which, at one point in the series, was all he ever wanted. And to his credit, he stands up (not an easy feat when you’re riddled with fever) and makes his feelings clear, after much hand-wringing and looking of gift horses in the mouth. It was thanks to him Ritsuko built up the confidence to knit him gloves as a symbol of her love; she makes it clear she may lose that confidence if he doesn’t cut the crap and exhibit some of his own, which he thankfully does in a very romantic scene that even impresses his aloof cousin. There’s no kiss, but he already stole one a while back, so we don’t feel cheated.

On to Sentaro: throughout the episode, he hides the pain of losing Yurika well, even letting two students take down Yurika’s painting he modeled for. But the moment we see the look on his face when he hears his father’s returning, we knew something would come up. The question is, will Kaoru blame himself for Sentaro leaving – for coming between him and Ritsuko, or will both he and Ritsuko be overcome by sadness and possibly even anger towards Sentaro for checking out so suddenly. If his dad is a problem, he should face it, not run away…but he runs away anyway.


Rating: 9 (Superior)

Sakamichi no Apollon – 09

Kaoru attends a Christmas party with classmates but can only think about Sentaro and Ritsuko. When he runs into Ritsuko after, he inadvertently upsets her, and she throws his gloves out. At the music store, Sentaro apologizes to her for not knowing about her feelings, but doesn’t see her that way; she laughs it off. Deciding not to stay silent anymore, she returns to the trash can, and a passing Yurika helps her fish it out. Sentaro challenges Jun to one final rousing jam session before he leaves. Yurika is at the station to see him off, having run from her marraige meeting, and after a brief hesitation, Jun pulls her aboard the train to Tokyo.

As Christmas passes by and the year’s end nears, most everyone is at a crossroads. Kaoru contemplates distancing himself from the friends who he believes will pair off, and find new friends. Ritsuko, who’s developed feelings for Kaoru has to decide if she can accept his after rejecting him before. Yurika has dived into a relationship with Jun, be he’s leaving to join his college buddy at a publisher in Tokyo. Sentaro has to settle things with Jun, who he looked up to as a brother, and acknowledge (if not accept) Ritsuko feels; though he’s kind of late for that, as she’s moved on. That’s what keeps this love polygon interesting…the dynamics are constantly changing up.

This week, some people make some definite choices about which way they’re going to turn, which will dramatically affect the story that follows. Yurika, a model student, is now a runaway. Jun has crawled out of the gutter and is going to face his friend again and have another go at the “movement” (nice nod to the nuclear carrier USS Enterprise not exactly being universally welcome in Japanese ports at this time). A less life-impacting but still important decision is made by Ritsuko regarding being clear about who she likes. We just hope Kaoru doesn’t remain as dense as he was this week. He’s an otherwise sharp kid, and the gloves on his piano should be a dad giveaway. Earth to Kaoru: Ritsuko likes you. This is good. As is this show.


Rating: 8 (Great)

Sakamichi no Apollon – 08

Kaoru and Sentaro deal uncomfortably with their newfound fame around school, while Ritsuko gets the idea to make a scarf for Kaoru. Jun is no longer in the Mukae shop basement, and has a small apartment where Yurika happens to spot him up and about. She insists on talking with him, and he tries to scare her off by making moves. She knows he’s in pain and wants to support him, even if doing so will be with disapproval from her father. Sentaro stops by Jun’s to talk, but flees when he sees Yurika is there. After a brief, tense session, Kaoru sees Ritsuko knitting the scarf and assumes it’s for Sentaro. While on a walk after church, Sentaro first starts to realize Kaoru is in love with him.

So far we’ve learned that Kaoru’s in love with Ritsuko, who’s in love with Sentaro, who’s in love with Yurika, who’s in love with Brother Jun. All face their own set of obstacles to being with those they love, particularly those the one they love loves (we haven’t lost you, have we?). Things aren’t as simple as that anymore. Ritsuko may be starting to develop feelings for Kaoru after all; Sentaro is finally noticing Ritsuko’s affections; and Yurika may have made progress making her intentions clear to Jun: he isn’t scared of him; not physically, not mentally. Whatever he’s done or been through, she wants to be there for him. And he’s not in any position to turn her down: he’s been disowned by his father and dropped out of school. He’s aimless, and if someone doesn’t take him by the scruff of the neck, he may destroy himself.

Jun has always been a mystery, aside from the fact we kinda gathered he wasn’t the perfet saint Sentaro (and by extension Kaoru) made him out to be. Jun studied (in Tokyo, gaining his dad’s ire) and played music, and thought that was enough; until he met an upperclassman named Arita and joined his movement protesting teachers’ pay, and probably other elements of society they believe to be unjust. Arita also happened to be a sax player, and when his hands were broken in a protest, Jun blamed himself, lost hope, started drinking, and didn’t stop. This fantastic episode was a bit of a splash of cold water, washing away the high of the festival jam session. After all, all that solved was Kaoru and Sentaro’s row. All the other problems they’ve been struggling with remain. We finally learned about Jun’s story, who’d come off as such a jerk of late, and the depth of Yurika’s devotion to him, which will be a rough path beset on all sides by hardship and potential for ruin.


Rating: 8 (Great)

Sakamichi no Apollon – 07

The day of the school cultural festival draws near, and Kaoru still won’t speak to Sentaro. Kaoru and Ritsuko are elected to the festival committee by their class, who have begun to noticce their mutual affection for one another. Sentaro makes a move on Yurika, but they’re interrupted by a bedraggled Jun, who Sentaro punches. Kaoru wastes an opportunity to clear the air with Sentaro, and the two drift far apart. When the festival arrives, the rock concert is cut short by electrical problems. On a whim, Kaoru decides to occupy the crowd by playing jazz on the piano. Sentaro joins him on the drums, and their jamming draws the whole school to the gym, spellbound. When they’re done their impromptu set, they run down the slope.

Whew…now that was a goddamn powerhouse of an episode. Just as jazz was the catalyst for Kaoru and Sentaro’s friendship, it’s also the salve that mends it when it’s asunder. The episode is a roller coaster of bleak emotional valleys balanced by dizzyingly estatic peaks. Beginning with a breif recap of Kaoru telling Sentaro off, potentially (though unlikely) for good, and ends with the most jaw-droppingly epic jam session in the most unlikely venue. The entire school witnesses their catharsis, and are so captivated they almost forget to applaud (Yurika gets it going). The scenes of students running into classrooms beckoning their peers to come to the gym adds to the energy. This week the school learned a lot more about Sentaro and Kaoru.

They jam for just over three and a half minutes, but times seems to drift away altogether during that period. We’re dared to not tap our feet or drum our hands on the coffee table to the music, and we can’t resist. The medley harks back to all the pieces they’ve played thus far – and one Kaoru played just for Ritsuko – but all of them have a new energy, which Ri’ko puts very nicely: “Like two princes arguing good-naturedly as they come back home.” It is an argument: between two momentarily estranged friends; between piano and drums; but once they’re both on the same wavelength and jamming away with such energy and purpose, not even a drunken racist Yankee sailor would deign to interrupt. Ri’ko’s dad mourns the loss of Coltrane at the episode’s start: it’s no time for silent halls or friends…and rock ‘n’ roll just ain’t gonna cut it.

10_masterpiece
Rating: 10 (Masterpiece)

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Sakamichi no Apollon – 06

A new school year begins, and Sentaro is in a different class than Ritsuko and Kaoru. Sentaro asks Ritsuko to look after him more. Kaoru tells Yurika about Jun being missing, and then she asks Sentaro on a date to get him a gift for modelling for her. Art Club member Matsuoka Seiji wants to recruit Sentaro for his rock band during the school festival, lending him a Beatles album. While on the beach clamming with Kaoru and Ritsuko, he finally asks, and Sentaro agrees. Feeling betrayed, Kaoru storms off. Ritsuko’s dad finds Jun drunk in a bar.

Kaoru tried reminding her estranged son not to fret over one rejection, and that he’s in the heydey of his youth, but enjoying said youth is easier said than done, especially with someone as cerebral and introspective as Kaoru. Sentaro and Ritsuko are his first real, good friends, and he fears losing them even as he pines for Ritsuko’s heart. A new character threatens the status quo, and he doesn’t like it. About this Seiji fellow: he’s very friendly and even a little effeminate, and rubs Kaoru the wrong way. But he’s not really a threat until he seduces Sentaro into drumming in his -gasp- rock band. ‘Who needs rock, especially early Beatles pop rock, when you have jazz?’, Kaoru must be wondering.

What Kaoru doesn’t understand is that Sentaro and Seiji have more in common than meets the eye: both are poor with big families, and hope to support those families in the future. But the way Sentaro tries to comfort him makes him remember when he was little, and was told the same stuff by other friends, only to be alone in the end. Kaoru lashes out like a little kid, and even better, knows he’s acting like a little kid, and almost instantly regrets it, but then thinks about how he’s never been a social creature, and continues on the bus route of isolation and lonliness, which he apparently believes to be his natural state. It will be interesting to see where he’ll go from here…not to mention what the heck is up with Jun.


Rating: 7 (Very Good)

 

Sakamichi no Apollon – 05

When Ritsuko turns Kaoru down (because there’s someone else she’s in love with), not even the arrival of his dad can cheer him up. Vowing never to return to the music store, Sentaro sneaks in his room to snap him out of it. Kaoru’s father gives him the address of his mother in Tokyo, and Kaoru decides to take a trip to get over his heartache; Sentaro tags along. After getting drunk with some of Jun’s neighbors, he finally reunites with his mother, who isn’t what he expected, but is kind and helps him get over his lovelornness. Back in Kyushu, Kaoru returns to the music store to practice, and is friendly to Ritsuko, to her relief.

If you’ve never been rejected, the events of this episode may not move you all that much, but with both rejectors and rejectees among us, we can attest that it’s not usually fun for either party. When dealing with a friendship you may have damaged with one-sided romantic feelings, it can feel worse, because it means you’re out a good friend, which Ritsuko most certainly is (she even makes him lunch for his train ride!). What Kaoru needs is to take a brief break from his bleak world. What better way to escape than to visit one of the biggest cities in the world?

We can also attest that Tokyo is a place that can make you feel like a million bucks, and, depending on your feelings about big cities, will either make you feel like you’re merely a hopeless ant in a maze, or a part of something great and amazing. It’s important to have a place to go and a reason to be there, even if that reason is just wandering around, but Kaoru found what he needed: A.), shochu, and B.) the comfort of an estranged but still loving mother, who reminds him he’s in his heydey of youth, far too young to give up on happines. So he doesn’t. He moves forward.


Rating: 8 (Great)

Sakamichi no Apollon – 04

Jun comes by the music shop with good news: he’s gotten the quartet a live audience in the form of a gaijin jazz bar U.S. troops frequent. Christmas (also Sentaro’s birthday) arrive, and Kaoru bumps into Ritsuko at the music store, where they each buy a drumstick for Sentaro. When it starts to snow, Kaoru kisses Ritsuko, but she runs off in tears. When Kaoru sees Sentaro with his family, he yells at him in frustration, but later Sentaro shares his past with him, and they make up at a Hammond organ. When the night of their gig arrives, they start off well, but a drunk heckles them, and Sentaro leaves the stage. Jun and Kaoru continue with a rendition of Gershwin’s But Not For Me.

Jazz may be helping Kaoru to be more unexpected – after all, we would never have guessed he’d give Ritsuko a big ol’ smooch before hearing having an idea how she feels. But considering tears have been involved both times, we’re guessing she doesn’t like him that way, or otherwise her emotions are as confused as an out-of-sync jazz quartet. And while a piano, trumpet, bass and drums make a happy family in a jazz band, Kaoru has some major envy for Sentaro, believing he “has it all”, until of course Sentaro tells him he doesn’t. He had a rough life, being half-American and hated for it by other kids and his grandmother, who died in his arms, leading to his dad giving him the cold shoulder. It would seem he was partially raised by the church, and Ritsuko was always around as well.

Knowing the truth, the rich and privileged Kaoru feels bad that he pitied himself just because his aunt and cousin are unwelcoming bitches. And his own dad may never come home, so like Sentaro, he’s going to have to find another remedy for his lonliness. He thought that Ritsuko would help, but knowing she really loves Sentaro (and now understanding more about why), he feels his love is petty by comparison. This was another excellent episode that not only delved into Sentaro’s past, but also served up lots of unexpected little twists that parallel the unpredictablility of jazz. Be it the sudden snow, Kaoru’s stolen kiss, the racist drunk at the bar almost ruining their first set, or Yurika suddenly getting the hots for Jun (after a rough introduction where he thought she was there to patronize the troops!), life is indeed sometimes like jazz.


Rating: 8 (Great)

Sakamichi no Apollon – 03

Kaoru notices Sentaro has the girl he saved, Yurika, on his mind, and proposes a double date, with Sentaro asking her out, and Kaoru coming with Ritsuko. Sentaro screws up and tells Yurika Kaoru invited her, which she relays to Ritsuko on the day of the date. Even so, Sentaro clearly has the chemistry with Yurika, and Ritsuko gets upset, troubling Kaoru. He and Sentaro have a fight, but make up with a jazz session in Ritsuko’s basement at her behest. Later, Kaoru plays Bill Evans especially for Ritsuko and confesses, but doesn’t ask for an immediate answer.

Absorbing. Uplifting. Compelling. Captivating. Lovely. All of these things can describe this, our favorite episode yet of Sakamichi no Apollon. Such realistic and interesting depictions of groups of friends coming to terms with feelings for one another – and the challenges of those feelings not necesarily lining up – are rare, and should be cherished. But love triangles aren’t all that’s going on here; there’s those excellent, inspired scenes of jazz. First, Ritsuko misunderstands that Kaoru is feuding with Sentaro because he likes Yurika, so does the logical thing: lock them in the basement with a piano and drums and let them work it out, which they do.

No physical or verbal argument takes place: they duke it out with music. Then, Kaoru decides to do the same with Ritsuko: convey his feelings with a lovely and moving rendition of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” a real song we think had moreimpact than anything he could have written (he’s still green, after all). When she still doesn’t get it, he tells her, and then there is no more misunderstanding. We don’t hear how or if she responds, but we can imagine as flattered as she is, she won’t immediately get over Sentaro.


Rating: 9 (Superior)

Sakamichi no Apollon – 02

After hearing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ “Moanin'”, Kaoru practices his jazz piano intently, wanting to Show up Sentaro. On the way home from school, he’s cornered by a gang of bullies; Ritsuko sees, alters Sentaro, and they both come to Kaoru’s rescue. Kaoru tries and fails to insert himself in the counterattack. The arrival of Jun at the record store leads to a jam session with Jun, Sentaro, Ritsuko’s dad, and Kaoru, who holds his own.

Kaoru asks Ritsuko out on a summer homework date, and when he arrives at the meeting place, he learns both Ritsuko and Sentaro are Christians. They take a bus to the sea, rent a boat, and dive off a cliff. Kaoru is frustrated by Sentaro’s presence, wanting to be alone with Ritsuko. Later Sentaro rescues a girl from more thugs, and the two seem to fall in love right then and there…

One of our favorite non-anime shows on television is Treme, in for no other reason than because for large chunks of the show, there is nothing happening save the playing of music. Jazz, Blues, R&B, Rock…Bounce…doesn’t matter; those moments are why I watch. No dialogue or plot can compare to the pure, primal, eclectic languages being spoken. This week, there was one of those moments: an impromptu jazz session; Kaoru’s first, which perfectly and effortlessly captures both his initial jitters, to finally settling down and having fun.

But there was a lot more to like this week: Kaoru may not be the strongest kid, but he isn’t going to sit back and let Sentaro do all his fighting (and rowing) for him. We like that beyond his wimpy looks, he’s got fire, and he won’t be cowed by bullies. We also like his interactions with Ritsuko. He seems to be falling for her quickly (he’s likely as inexperienced with women as jazz) but there’s a carefree beauty to their summer day in the sea that’s only blemished by the presence of Sentaro. By the episode’s end, the boy/girl ratio balances out at 2:2, which should console Kaoru. But we can’t help but think Ritsuko doesn’t quite feel the same way about him.


Rating: 9 (Superior)

Sakamichi no Apollon – 01

It’s 1966, and Nishimi Kaoru has move to Kyushu to live with his aunt while his dad is away at work. He is a shy and asocial kid who manages high grades and plays the piano, but makes a prime target for bullies. The most notorious is Kawabuchi Sentaro, who actually takes an odd liking to him after fighting three seniors over the key to the roof. Kaoru also quickly makes friends with class rep Mukae Ritsuko, Sentaro’s childhood friend, whose family owns a record store with a practice room in the basement. Kaoru is inspired when he hears Sentaro play jazz on the drums.

It’s series like this that make us feel like we’re seriously wasting our time on drivel like Shining Hearts or unfocused dreck like Dusk Maiden, shows we’ll gladly drop to spend more time on something like this. First of all, when we learned both Shinichiro Wantanabe and Yoko Kanno were working on this, a light went on in our head; it’s doubtful this would be a dud. This whole episodes swings, and has a really nice lived-in feel to it. None of the characters are over-pretty or over-huge; though Sentaro looks a bit like Archie.

Most importantly, everyone is likeable, from the kind and friendly Ritsuko to Kaoru himself, who may be a bit angsty but at least has a reason to be. Sentaro is a big, lovable goof, who can handle himself in a fight and lay it down at the drums. The animation of his drumwork (both on drums and with twigs earlier on, before we even meet him) are a highlight of the episode, as is the promise of more excellent jazz to accompany the series. We’ve already got a nice nucleus of friends, and it looks like Kaoru is going to be just fine judging from the way he jaunts down the hill with Ritsuko by episode’s end.


Rating: 9 (Superior)