Within each story, there are many essential components such as the plotline and characters. While these aspects encompass the main body of the work, it is ultimately the pacing of events which holds the structure together. As such, each story needs to be able to find the perfect rhythm where it can successfully convey its message, accomplish its goal and develop its cast.
Of course, this is easier said than done as many modern works run into the common problem of trying to place too many things on the table. Especially when time is of the essence, writers and directors can often run into issues when adapting a lengthy source. In particular, acclaimed director Shinichiro Watanabe’s adaptation of Sakamichi no Apollon is a work with all the right cards in play but faces an ironic opponent in the form of its own tempo.
Like any good coming of age drama, Apollon’s story unfolds in a rather humble manner, effectively establishing the main cast and setting the tone of the series. Kaoru Nishimi is a high school freshman who faces the uphill challenge of transitioning from life in the big city to a small, rural town as a result of his father’s job situation. Due to his highly restrictive upbringing, Kaoru has become somewhat of an introvert, choosing to keep to himself whenever possible. However, in an unexpected twist of fate, he finds himself face to face with his polar opposite who also happens to be the biggest “bad boy” in school, Sentarou Kawabuchi. Unlike Kaoru, Sentarou comes from a much lower social class, is somewhat shunned by society for his heritage and mostly acts on impulse, appearing as a symbol of rebellion. Through a series of unexpected events, Kaoru manages to befriend Sentarou along with his childhood friend, Ritsuko Mukae, sparking the start of a rosy friendship; thorns included.
A large portion of each episode revolves around the characters bouncing off one another and bridging the gap between their respective lifestyles via a common thread. And this thread happens to be none other than the power of music, a motif which may seem rather contrived at first glance but actually fits very nicely into the context of the characters’ backgrounds. While the show features a number of musical performances, the focus isn’t so much on the technicalities but rather how they are used to catalyse character development. As such, this makes Apollon a very character-driven piece in which the chemistry between the different pairs is the central element driving the plot forward. In particular, Kaoru and Sentarou deserve a special mention as they are undoubtedly the pair with the most realistic set of dynamics. Though there are plenty of scenes detailing the two boys overcoming their differences and bonding, the most powerful scenes in the show generally involve their unspoken interactions during the musical performances.
During these sessions, both characters’ respective personalities come across in their execution of the musical piece. Kaoru’s sheltered lifestyle is conveyed by his highly technical application of the classical piano whereas Sentarou’s wild and carefree attitude is reflected in how he forges his own play style with the drums. While each character starts the performance in their respective style, as it progresses they slowly begin to find the same rhythm before blending together into a synchronized accord. Though simply listening to the movement during these pieces is enough to understand the full extent of the pair’s connection, the show’s choreography takes it an extra step further by clearly detailing both characters’ facial expressions and body language. The most incredible feat is that not a single line of dialogue is ever uttered during these performances, which allows the focus to be placed on the music, enveloping the viewer in both characters’ worlds. Of course, these performances aren’t just for show either as a clear progression in both Kaoru and Sentarou’s relationship can be noted throughout the story. As the two develop a deeper bond through their performances, they begin to better understand the full extent of each other’s personality and help one another out in times of need. This is highly evident from situations such as Kaoru knowing where to find Sentarou after a tragic accident befalls one of his family members without being notified of his whereabouts. By the end of the series, both characters achieve a perfect sort of harmony, creating an inseparable bond between them.
Unfortunately, achieving the ideal rhythm for both the characters and the direction of the story isn’t always an easy feat. While Kaoru and Sentarou’s relationship is fleshed out in a natural fashion throughout the series, the same cannot be said for everyone else. While it is understandable that not every pair will receive the same level of attention due to the series’ limited duration, it still doesn’t excuse the rushed approach taken. Prominent characters such as Sentarou’s childhood friend, Ritsuko, tend to receive the short end of the stick throughout the series. Though Ritsuko does have ample screen time, the fact of the matter is that her role in the story is limited to being a romantic interest for Kaoru and Sentarou. What this ends up doing is instigating a love triangle in order to create some tension between them. And while this isn’t an inherent flaw in and of itself, the approach taken with some of the romantic drama does unfortunately cheapen the character interactions. Instances such as Ritsuko walking in on Sentarou at exactly the wrong moment and then getting all depressed due to a simple misunderstanding impedes the romance in places. When these misunderstandings occur multiple times throughout the series, they no longer act as legitimate plot developments. Instead, they become contrived and artificial, adding unbelievable melodrama towards the trio’s relationship. To that end, characters such as Ritsuko fall victim to this aforementioned malady. While she does face her own dilemma and experiences a change by the end of the series, said development is almost entirely dictated by coincidental plot events and misunderstandings rather than the input from her character.
To make matters worse, the pacing of events in Apollon is the one area where the show falls apart the most. Since a great deal of the show hinges on the characters and their relationships with one another, the amount of exposure given to each pair’s development is crucial in allowing their chemistry to take flight. Unfortunately, due to some glaring issues with the show’s tempo, Apollon is unable to allot sufficient time for proper interactions between some of its main characters. While Kaoru and Sentarou’s relationship isn’t negatively affected for the most part, others such as Sentarou’s tension with his mentor, Jun, receive the full brunt. Furthermore, the show’s format also falls victim to a number of rather large time skips, which only increase in number and frequency towards the end of the series. Though the passage of time is well conveyed by an attention to detail such as a change in season and the start of a new term, the actual relationships between the characters take a hit. To this end, Apollon requires the viewer to make a great deal of assumptions regarding some of the characters’ relationships to compensate for a lack of time and detail given to them. And while many stories will require the audience to assume certain liberties at times, the extent to which Apollon does this can only be called a sloppy way of filling in the gaps.
However, the show does have other elements which redeem the overall product from the pit of mediocrity besides Kaoru and Sentarou’s relationship. Since Apollon’s story is set during the mid 1960’s in a small, rural town, it provides an interesting context which distinguishes the series from the bulk of high school dramas. While the setting isn’t exactly the main focus of the story, there is a solid amount of attention placed in the artwork which successfully conveys the atmosphere and culture of the time period. Elements such as the rustic decor found in many of the residential housing units to the smoked-filled taverns of a well known jazz bar for American soldiers really brings the setting to life. Besides the backgrounds, the quality of animation benefits the characters by highlighting their movements and body language during important scenes.
The show’s soundtrack, assembled by renowned anime composer, Yoko Kanno, is highly effective in conveying the different genres of music which were reflective of the time period. As Kanno has previously worked on other series featuring a jazzy soundtrack such as Cowboy Bebop, her musical talents are put to great use with Apollon’s score. Though there isn’t quite the same level of variety compared to some of her earlier works, considering how central the theme of music is to the plot and characters, there is plenty to be impressed about with how Apollon integrates many of the pieces. The performance segments involving Kaoru and Sentarou are one such instance where Kanno’s score really takes flight, essentially driving these scenes forward. Aside from that, the different styles of music help to emphasize changing trends during the time period such as the fading of jazz and the coming of rock and roll.
Though Sakamichi no Apollon certainly had all the right cards in play, it encountered the unfortunate dilemma of not having enough space to place them. Due to some glaring issues with how the show chose to implement its romantic drama along with a haphazard pace, the execution of the overall product was not nearly as graceful as it could have been. And while aspects of the show such as Kaoru and Sentarou’s relationship along with the setting and score do remedy these flaws, they still aren’t enough to form a cohesive product. Despite some difficulty, Sakamichi no Apollon still manages to convey its central theme. It’s just somewhat ironic that a title centered on music still couldn’t find the ideal rhythm that Kaoru and Sentarou were able to achieve.