Sakamichi no Apollon – 4

Consider the setting of Sakamichi no Apollon.  Even on its surface, it is distinctive compared to most of the other anime airing, residing in an unusual time period and in an uncommon location (Kyushu, rather than say Tokyo or its suburbs).  But that alone has a trivial effect on what makes this anime exceptional; the story and characters could feasibly be transplanted to any number of eras or localities in Japan and retain most, if not all, of its qualities.  No, the paramount characteristic of the setting that elevates Sakamichi no Apllon above the rest is not its unique time or place but rather how realistic the setting is portrayed and utilized.  This authenticity and accuracy of the real world bleeds throughout Sakamichi no Apollon and is responsible for how remarkable the setting of this anime is.

Present-day Tokyo or its urban and suburban equivalents have become the prevalent setting in current or recent anime.  Though there are slight variations and modifications between every setting, it is the dominant choice for modern anime. Due to the sheer volume of anime airing each season, there are always several that branch out from this norm and depict a setting unlike the rest.  For fans of varying settings and styles, it’s enough to make us jovial but it often does little to impact the story or the characters: the setting is often arbitrary in these stories and they could easily revert to present-day Tokyo or something else without altering the anime too much.  Even Sakamichi no Apollon falls victim to this test given its basic perimeters.  However, it is not this distinctive trait that allows for the setting to have as powerful an influence though the unique time and place seem like the obvious choices.  Rather, it’s something rooted deeper within the setting.

For Sakamichi no Apollon, what makes its setting down-right outstanding is how realistic it is.  It would be impossible to change this characteristic of the setting without having a significant and negative impact on the anime.  Going back to the previous example, the slight variations employed by anime on the present-day Tokyo standard often is substantial enough to differentiate itself from the rest of its kind.  Among the most common are spicing up the setting with elements of fantasy or science fiction, such as giving the characters superhuman abilities during fights or incorporating giant robots or aliens into the story.  These adjustments are often required for the anime to tell its story and, as a consequence, remove some of the realism in the setting.  Even for comedy anime that have no such elements of either can have the realism is undermined, often seen in physical humor or characters who are way too wacky or strange to be believable.  Sakamichi no Apollon has no such complications.  Given the stringent restrictions, it’s often rare to find an anime where every character in its cast is plausible and there are no elements of fantasy or science fiction that would weaken its illustration of the real world.  Altering this unique characteristic of the setting would have drastic and detrimental effects for the anime.

So what is it about this realism that is so essential to Sakamichi no Apollon?  To begin, the realism allows for each character’s personal problems to feel more authentic and their solutions to be just as such.  In anime with less realistic settings, there are often components of the environment or era that are affecting the characters and that play a role in solving their problems.  The cast of Sakamichi no Apollon have no such advantage, no hope of magic or robots or alternative dimensions will lend a hand in dealing with their problems.  The fact that we see these characters deal with these problems, think them over, and act on them gives the anime a genuine feel to it and this appeals to the audience.  The characters deal with the problems like how we deal with the problems (though the world we live in has an impressive assortment of technologies and strategies to solve them compared to rural Japan in the mid-1960s).  It is this realism in the setting that allows us to connect more effectively with the cast and understand their issues and though-processes to the point where we can relate to their challenges and experiences.

Though Sakamichi no Apollon has a distinguishing setting by taking place in a sleepy seaside port in Kyushu during the surging economic growth that revitalized post-war Japan, the strength of the setting and its influence in the anime lies deeper in how is represents itself.  By being as realistic as possible and ignoring elements from other genres, Sakamichi no Apollon is able to strengthen its story, its characters, its themes, and its message and generate a lasting and impressionable effect on the audience.  Without such devotion to a genuine world, the anime would become less authentic and the story and characters might worsen as a result.  This, the realism of Sakamichi no Apollon, is the most significant and persuasive aspect of the setting in this anime and a crucial reason why the anime receives the admiration and acclaim it does.

Though I always like the final part of my episodic posts to cover a topic different than what was covered in the main part, I’m going to continue on the realism of Sakamichi no Apollon but through another angle.  The art plays an important and necessary role in keeping the anime grounded in realism, too, given its style, animation, and use of visual effects.  The art style gives the characters all the clothing that is typical of Japan in the 60s, ranging from the style the kids wear when their out on the town (Yurika and Ritsuko were an optimal example of that on the date in episode 3) to the brief-style bloomers the girls wore during gym class.  The level and prevalence of detail in the art, too, also assists in the realism of this anime by constantly giving us thorough and comprehensive shots and environments.  Because of this, we never feel shortchanged when it comes to the details in this anime.  The animation, too, has a function in enhancing the realism of this anime by giving everyone lifelike motions and kinetics rather than becoming sloppy or lazy and leaving it up to our imagination.  Really, the setting is not the only component of what makes Sakamichi no Apollon realistic but a variety of factors working in combination with each other.  Beyond the setting and art, the story, characters, and even sound all play roles in creating an anime with a realistic backdrop as what we are currently watching.  I believe it is one of the most significant and influential aspects of this anime and I wanted to flesh out the topic to see what I could learn about it or what others thought or realized about this characteristic.  And, knowing about this subject now, it will be fascinating to see how the realism of this anime plays out for the remainder of the anime, whether it continues to be a dominant aspect to the series or if the anime will ever deviate from its path and incorporate new storytelling elements to complete its story.


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  1. #1 by Joojoobees on May 3, 2012 - 7:42 PM

    I really didn’t expect the bigoted reaction to Jazz in the bar. When it happened it seemed completely believable, however. I don’t know how the concert would have played out in a different, less realistic, anime, but I can’t imagine it being similar.

    • #2 by avvesione on May 3, 2012 - 9:02 PM

      Actually, that was the point in the episode where I decided on my subject for this post though my original idea was looking at the social change going on in Japan and America (this anime takes place before the Civil Rights movement ended). Eventually the topic turned itself around into something more simple and applicable to the entire episode but that scene with at the bar really stood out to me as an important piece of the episode, especially since the group was playing jazz because they figured the Americans would love it. The way it was employed and handled really shows how realistic this anime is and I love it for being the way it is.

  2. #3 by Zammael on May 4, 2012 - 10:32 AM

    I sense a tension between romanticism and realism in this post, almost a romanticizing of the realistic setting in 1966.

    Apollon is not entirely a product of realism because it holds several traits of romanticism: we are given access to characters’ inner feelings, emotions, and use of imagination (hypothetical scenarios). Also the element of Jazz presents a key feature of romanticism: mystery and individuality.

    Were Apollon entirely realistic there would be no demonstration of overcoming tremendous obstacles or any other heroic acts. It would consist mainly of reaction, prosaic observation and other demonstrations of the universal over the individual.

    Oscar Wilde captured the tension between the two best: the 19th century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his face in the glass; the 19th century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his face in the glass.

    • #4 by avvesione on May 4, 2012 - 6:56 PM

      I absoultely agree with you about there being romanticism in this anime and a struggle between it and realism, especially since we’re allowed to hear the character’s thoughts and feelings, the way jazz has been utilized throughout, and the conflicts and challenges that have appeared in the story. But to me, those romantic tendencies are elements of the characters and the story and not the setting which is what I tried to focus on in this post. I still believe the setting of Sakamichi no Apollon is entirely realism.

      My inital version of this post kinda toyed around with the idea of looking at the realism in all aspects of the anime (art, characters, setting, sound, and story) but I have a limited knowledge base for art and sound, so those thoughts were redcued to the ending paragraph. Like you mentioned, there are some non-realistic occurances in the story and characters given how events have played out and how it has enhanced the drama artificially, so I thought I’d shy away from those themes for this post. What remained was just the setting which I am perfectly fine with since I am an avid fan of various settings and their role in anime, so I tried my best to keep the subject of this post strictly on the realism used in the setting and how it affects the anime in a positive way.

      I understand and agree with the point you’re making in your comment, there are clearly romanticized elements in the story and they play around with the realism in this anime. But when focusing solely on the setting, I believe it is realsim in its purest sense and that’s a major factor to why this anime is so enjoyable.

      • #5 by Zammael on May 6, 2012 - 10:27 AM

        Well said, and I apologize if I implied anything otherwise.

        There seems to be a deeper level of how Sakamichi manipulates surface realism in its construction/deconstruction of post-war Japanese nostalgia. Whenever we see an endorsement of nostalgia, surface realism & deliberate archaism are always in play (Marc LeSuer) because the nostalgic impulse is tied with assertive social & political currents (e.g. revolutions) in order to assign nostalgia as escapist to avoid some of the social effects.

        The two aesthetic approaches of surface realism & deliberate archaism define nostalgic art as follows: surface realism produces a visual period authenticity via the use of recognizable objects from the era (clothes, furniture, cars) as noted in your blog. OTOH deliberate archaism is the practice of imitating past media forms or recreate the appearance of art from an older time. Pleasantville reproduces the look of a 1950s sitcom, for example. Sakachimi seems to avoid the modern anime style with its apparent retro-style as well.

        Sakachimi may be more complex than this aesthetic dialectic proposed by Le Sueur, though. :)

        • #6 by avvesione on May 6, 2012 - 5:21 PM

          Ah, you bring up an interesting point in breaking down the realism further into more specific categories and are able to get more out of it. I agree with you that Sakamichi is more surface realism in that it had the modern techniques and styles of anime and not going for the full package and being drawn like AstroBoy or the likes. Thanks for the input, I learned something here!

  3. #7 by fabricerequin on May 5, 2012 - 7:50 AM

    I felt that kiss A bit too rushed and desperate move from him. Oh well I wonder how things will pan out. Sentaros past is really sad didnt expect that, but Im surprised that the way the grandmother died was a tad exagerated compared to the manga. Also that Jazz session was awesome, love brothers Jun singer, expressed like Yurika! who I think she falls for him, wonder how Sentaro will think about that :/

    • #8 by avvesione on May 5, 2012 - 3:41 PM

      Oh, you read the manga? I’m curious now becuase you said the death was a bit exagerated to that but you didn’t expect Sentarou’s past to be that sad? So were these scenes altered for the anime or were they just minor details touched up for presentation here rather than in the manga?

      And yeah, the kiss was a bit rushed but those a person in love is different and that same person normal are entirely different people (if that makes sense). The way Kaoru acts and thinks about Ritsuko are different than when she’s not around, so it’s not surprising to see him do something daring and thoughtless like ruin their day together with a surprise kiss. Hope everything works out but I can’t imagine how Ritsuko feels knowing that her crush is chasing after another girl and now her friend is making advances on her.

      And yeah, I love the jazz in this anime and was impressed with the singing. Really that Jun is around for the jazz though he is kinda mucking up the romance now.

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