Fear exists in every anime and it manifests itself in varying forms depending on the genre and the characters. In Sakamichi no Apollon, fear is not a foremost aspect; Sentarou is fearless, Ritsuko shows no distress, and Kaoru does surprisingly well given his personality. But fear exists in Apollon and it is primarily shown in Kaoru’s character as an obstacle to his goals. Rather than take the popular approach and show Kaoru nervous and timid around the girl of his dreams, conversely it’s quite the opposite with our protagonist, Kaoru’s fear was presented in relation to music, specifically playing jazz in front of others. Despite his love for the piano, his newfound familiarity in jazz, and the opportunity to join in a spontaneous and groovy jam session, Kaoru declined as best he could. And as it turns out, it would’ve been a mistake if he didn’t join in. Though seemingly an inconsequential detail in Sakamichi no Apollon, fear is producing a considerable influence in the anime.
Of course, other examples of fear have been brought up in the anime but none have had as much impact on the story or Kaoru’s character than the fear he showed when invited to join the jazz trio. By dismissing his fear and joining in on the piano, Karou played jazz for the first time. Everything he did before doesn’t count since they were all attempts, like messing around on the piano or correcting Sentarou who misplayed a few keys. All the previous piano playing he did was not jazz or at least what jazz lovers (read: Kaoru’s new friends) recognize as jazz. But here, with Jun on trumpet, Ritsuko’s father on bass, and Sentarou on drums, Karou finally played a melody with enough heart and rhythm to match everyone else. He finally played jazz and he loved it. Had Kaoru held the fear inside him tighter and never joined the live session, his growth as a musician would not have progressed and his bond with Sentarou would have weakened. Fear almost ruined one of the most significant moments in this young anime by stalling both the story and Kaoru’s character.
But why does Kaoru have such fear, especially after spending the time and energy to learn jazz and in order to ‘defeat’ Sentarou and ‘win’ Ritsuko? Perhaps Kaoru doubted his abilities to play jazz and figured him joining in would ruin the melody and he’d be ostracized by the trio and Ritsuko. That would be consistent with his response to Sentarou’s first request: “I can’t,” but the fear might be deeper than that. The reason is that had he joined in and messed up, they would’ve taken the time to show Kaoru the steps in order to match their style of jazz. Yes, the fear Kaoru has rooted in playing jazz music is that he fears to be outdone by Sentarou.
Consider what we’ve seen in the series so far regarding Kaoru and Sentarou. Probably the most evident is that Kaoru wants to win Ritsuko for himself and he believes it can be done by besting Sentarou in jazz. That would explain his determination and energy spent learning and practicing jazz at home and at school, Kaoru wants to show Sentarou and then show up Sentarou (his grandiose daydreams were cute). Since Ritsuko loves jazz so dearly, Kaoru fears he won’t be able to sway Ritsuko from him otherwise. Kaoru really believes his mastery of the piano and his adept learning ability will prevent him from losing out on her. Another reason why Kaoru has a fear of being beaten by Sentarou in the realm of music is because he is a delinquent. The stereotypical delinquent is often portrayed as someone unsuccessful at academia and the arts but proficient at being a brute, brawling, and getting in trouble. To be defeated by someone like that in an area of one’s specialty would be especially demoralizing and also ties in to the previous point about losing Ritsuko. A final point on the origin of Kaoru’s fear is that Kaoru wants to impress Sentarou and a way of saying ‘Thanks’. Sentarou has displayed countless acts of kindness to Kaoru already, such as giving him access to the roof, defending him from bullies, and encouraging him to join in his private jam session. This works into Kaoru’s fear of being bested by Sentarou as he is not able to show his gratitude and satisfaction to Sentarou. Kaoru wants to impress Sentarou and show him his appreciate for all his done and by passing him in jazz (or at a minimum, affect Sentarou with his jazz) then Kaoru can truly return all that Sentarou has done for him.
What’s interesting about this idea of Kaoru’s fear is that it can also be applied to non-jazz situations, too, and the results are similar except in the influence it has on the story and the characters. Take the fight with the bullies for example: Kaoru joined the fight despite being woefully disadvantaged in brawling after Sentarou initiated the fight. Had Kaoru not cared about beating Sentarou, he would’ve started the fight long before he was tied up and his underwear exposed (that’s gotta be really embarrassing in front of your crush). But Kaoru wanted to impress Ritsuko, show his superiority, and thank Sentarou for resucing him. At the swimming spot, Kaoru didn’t want to swim since he didn’t have a swimsuit but after Ritsuko mentioned that Sentarou was swimming in his underwear, he dropped his pants and joined in the fun (totally not embarrassing anymore!). Here, he wanted to join in with Ritsuko, show he isn’t afraid of swimming without the proper attire like Sentarou, and, though this is a stretch, show thanks to Sentarou for bringing him out to the swimming spot where they’d all have fun together. Another example at the end with Kaoru wanting to replace Sentarou as the boat’s rower. I’m sure you don’t need me to link the three aspects of Kaoru’s fear to this scene but I will mention it’s one of the first times that Kaoru was able to overcome fear by himself rather than being persuaded or convinced by someone else. It may not always be presented as fear but Kaoru wants to prove his worth compared to Sentarou and not be left behind.
Kaoru’s fear in Sakamichi no Apollon is quite different when compared to how this device appears in anime. Fear is shown as Kaoru not wanting to be outdone by Sentarou because it shows his inferiority to him. Because of that, Kaoru does not want to prove this to everyone, especially to Ritsuko, Sentarou and himself, and fear wants to stunt Kaoru’s character and prevent him from adapting to his new environment with his new friends. Fear is still used as a method of developing a character by overcoming challenges and reaching new heights, and the fear that drives Kaoru is what has allowed him to grow as a person and bond with those who think of him as a friend. By overcoming his fear, either through his own drive or through outside influences like Sentarou encouraging him to join the jam session and Ritsuko convincing him to take get naked, Kaoru has grown as a character and has allowed the story of Sakamichi no Apollon to progress. Fear is a dangerous and inhibitory element of a character but overcoming it certainly does wonders for the person and the story we are following. Overcoming fear is undeniably one of the best methods of storytelling.
I’d admit, I was a bit surprised to see Christianity and Catholicism in Sakamichi no Apollon. Apparently, so was Kaoru. The topic of Ritsuko and Sentarou being Catholics was never really explored besides a brief conversation on the boat to the swimming spot but it does appear to be a sensitive subject for Sentarou, which is a first for him. The fact that Ritsuko brought up the fact that the priest believes Sentarou is special means we’ll be hearing more about this theme throughout the anime. The question is, how much detail and how much significance will this angle take in Sakamichi no Apollon? It’s worth keeping an eye out for since this is the only subject Sentarou doesn’t feel comfortable talking about, at least around Kaoru. What it is exactly, we really have no idea, but it could be the next most significant element of this anime after jazz.