Freedom and guilt in Sakamichi no Apollon

When you watch Sakamichi no Apollon, I think it’s important to ask why the story is set in the late 1960s. To answer this question, let’s take a brief look at the past. If you’re afraid that this post will turn into a history lesson, however, you needn’t worry because I’ll only touch on a few important ideas.

I think it’s safe to say that the 1920s were mostly marked by a sense of Western decadence and newfound modes of expression. Hell, I’ll just quote myself from a previous post:

Bourgeois culture loves to leak out of its boundaries, for better or for worse, and the androgynizing Western culture caught the attention of many in Japan, especially for its “qualities of hysteria, temperamentality, and nervousness that departed from the inspid character norms of an earlier era.” Even then, however, it was nothing new. It was simply digging away at an old reality of Japanese consciousness. Japan has always had a certain fascination with gender ambivalence, starting with the gender impersations in the Kabuki theater. Even the advent of Confucianism’s codes and conducts only resulted in sexual confusion in the urban pleasure quarters of the 1600′s. While Meiji leadership did its best to crush the exploration of sexuality, the influences from the West in the 1920′s only served to awaken it. And it woke up in the Japanese youth.

Of course, such changes prompted massive amounts of discourse on both sides about the implications of androgyny on  the development of Japanese society. Scholars who fancied themselves “Neo-Kantians” wrote extensively on the change: “…the development of culture is prone to a reduction of the previously existent distinctions between male and female culture. Herewith arises the so-called feminization of civilization.” Many were beginning to realize that gender roles were constructed by culture rather than nature, and thus it is only culture that can destroy these barriers. Others, however, wrote derisively against the social change, “warning of dire social consequences should nothing be done to curtail the ‘unnatural’ excesses of Taisho culture.”

So whatever happened to this “feminizing” Taisho culture? We might find a clue by taking a closer look at the demise of Japan’s “modern girl:”

After a military coup in 1931, extreme Japanese nationalism and the Great Depression prompted a return to the 19th century ideal of good wife, wise mother.

Would attitudes have changed drastically in the following decades? At this point, I can only speculate, but I can’t imagine that the postwar period would’ve been highly receptive of what critics have characterized in the modern girl as “decadent, hedonistic, and superficial.” I think it’s likely that it would have taken until the turbulent 60s, a decade marked by worldwide protests and youth discontent, to finally rekindle the rebellious spirit that permeated much of the 1920s.

Jazz, then, serves as an outlet for our characters. I’ve written before about the need for improvisation in the world of Sakamichi no Apollon:

My impression of Kaoru is that he has settled into a routine. His life has developed a pattern to which he resides comfortably within. After all, he has a condition where “even minor stress would trigger nausea.” A routine would thus make life predictable, and when life is predictable, stress becomes manageable.

Jazz is all about the offbeats and the notes you don’t (but not that you can’t) hear–the freedom to break free from structure and improvise. And for someone in a rut, improvisation is just what Kaoru needs.

One important factor that I had failed to mention in the past is the sense of agency one can find in jazz. Jazz is about “freedom, exploration, and improvisation.” Jazz is more than just playing the notes on the page; it’s about playing what’s in your heart. When we first meet Kaoru, he is bound by the safety of routines and predictability. As I’ve previously said in the quoted passage, nausea washes over him when the unexpected happens. As a result, life controls him instead of him controlling his own life; he lacks agency.

Kaoru’s jazz sessions with Sentarou are a way for him to reclaim his agency. By reclaiming his agency, he can also resolve his guilt. We see one such example in Ritsuko’s rejection of Kaoru’s confession of love. Why does he need to see his mother in Tokyo in order to get past a rejection? Memories play a large part in prefiguring our actions and behavior. Kaoru’s been rejected before by a woman he loves: his mother. He doesn’t love her in the romantic sense, but it is only natural that, as a young child, Kaoru might’ve blamed himself for his mother running away. By reconciling with his mother, and understanding that she didn’t leave him because of him, I think it helps Kaoru understand Ritsuko’s rejection. Kaoru’s mother had her own life to lead, and on that same token, Ritsuko was already in love with someone else. By freeing himself from his Oedipal guilt of abandonment (please don’t assume I’m implying in any fashion that Kaoru is “in love” with his mother), Kaoru regains his agency and can move on from Ritsuko.

I’ll continue on about Kaoru later. I want to switch gears now and talk about Sentarou. Similar to Kaoru, he is bound by guilt. He is the product of a Japanese mother and an American father, so already, Sentarou is defined by his “Other-ness.” As a result, he has been labeled as a delinquent every step of the way. It’s not his fault that he was born half-American, but he could’ve blamed himself anyway. There might have been days where he would ask himself, “Why do I have to be different?” This is only compounded by a home situation where he is unfairly blamed for his grandmother’s death. Like Kaoru, life has defined him and not the other way around. Jazz, then, is more than just an outlet for Sentarou’s brimming energy and aggression. Jazz gives Sentarou the freedom to break free from other people’s expectations of him. In other words, he’s more than just a delinquent; he’s more than just another half-American freakshow with muscles. So why does Sentarou run away at the end of the series?

There was always one trauma that jazz could not help Sentarou overcome completely on his own. He was unfairly blamed for his grandmother’s death, and I think his guilt has haunted him ever since. To a large amount of success, Sentarou has managed to seek salvation in religion, but even then, he is ready to run when he hears that his foster father is returning. The unexpected happens, however, when Sentarou’s foster father accepts him as a son. All of a sudden, Sentarou is freed from the guilt of his grandmother’s death. Unfortunately, the motorbike accident soon followed, and once again, Sentarou sees himself as the black sheep of the family. I love the scene where Kaoru encounters Sentarou on the rooftop.

First, Kaoru has to run through layers and layers of white hospital sheets. I’ve written elsewhere — most recently for Mawaru Penguindrum — that white hospital sheets are a recurring death motif in stories. During this very moment, the soundtrack is also gripped by an electric guitar. Earlier in the series, we had a bit of a standoff between jazz and rock. If jazz is characterized by freedom and improvisation, rock is most accurately characterized as drama personified.* That’s not to say that rock can’t be improvisational as well, as we’ve seen from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and other great guitarists, but rock is all about putting the individual’s emotions front and center. When Kaoru finally encounters Sentarou, he is covered from head to toe in a white hospital sheet as if he’s a cadaver:

In other words, Sentarou is dead. He has tried to conform to the society around him, but the guilt of putting his sister Sachiko in danger was too much to bear: “Why was I even born?” The guilt has destroyed his agency and he needs to atone for his sins.

At this point in the anime, Sentarou disappears because, as I’ve said before, he is dead. Not physically dead, but the Sentarou-as-we-know-him is gone. He needs his salvation and, as a result, when we finally see Sentarou again, he has become a man of the cloth, i.e. a clergyman. Aha! We can now see how the hospital sheets from before served as a foreshadowing of his fate. In any case, through Christianity, he can be reborn. In a Christian birth, we are baptized and our sins are washed away. Sentarou commits himself to a religious life in order to assuage his guilt and wash away his sins.

Brother Jun is another character grappling with both guilt and freedom. At the start of the series, Brother Jun is smooth and worldly; he’s an intellectual. In a lot of ways, he’s the opposite of Sentarou. When we see Jun again, his appearance has grown haggard. He’s been disowned by his family. He’s become despondent and morose. What has happened? We’ve been talking all this time about guilt. We learn that Brother Jun had join a Communist youth organization and started protesting. His speeches inspired Arita, another young man, to join the cause.

On one unfortunate day, however, Arita was arrested and, as a result, lost his ability to play the saxophone. Jun feels the guilt of having destroyed another person’s life. He thus exemplifies the dangers of jazz: “…it flirts with chaos, opens itself to a dangerous freedom that can only be mastered with technique….” This guilt imprisons Jun, and as a result, he becomes listless and despondent. Jun is eventually freed from his guilt, however, when he receives a letter from Arita. The latter implores Jun to join his publishing company and renew their fighting spirit for reform. Jun thus leaves behind the small town for Tokyo yet again. It’s only fitting that he has a jazz battle with Sentarou before he leaves, signifying his return of agency and freedom.

Having just talked extensively about Jun, I should now address Yurika’s character. I think she has been unfairly maligned for her decision to run away with Jun to Tokyo. It’s true that they have no money, and she has no education, but I feel as though she would have been a caged bird had she stayed in her small town. I don’t think Yurika’s parents were letting her get off easy at all when they found out she had cut her hair and been seeing Jun on the side. I think the threat of an arranged marriage was more than merely a suggestion. In a similar way, I interpreted the gynecology exam as an attempt to slut-shame Yurika. In her mind then, and likely Jun’s mind as well, Yurika would have been trapped in a loveless marriage chosen for her by anyone but herself. Is Yurika’s escape with Jun an example of pure feminine independence? In 1960s Japan, probably not, but even if we assume that she’s simply going from her dependence on her parents to a dependence on Jun, at least she will have chosen her path in life.

Sakamichi no Apollon is all about freedom and guilt, but since Yurika seems to lack the same traumas that plague her male colleagues, she comes off as selfish and spoiled. In a lot of ways, I see a similarity between Yurika and Emma Bovary of the novel Madame Bovary. One can validly argue that both women are selfish and foolish for their destructive (at the very least, on Emma’s part) actions, but we must remember that they are trapped within an oppressive system in which the only meaningful act of rebellion is an incomprehensible outburst. For Yurika, that outburst is her decision to run away into the unknown. What awaits her on the other side? Nobody can really say, but if we really consider her options, it was either stay and be married off or affirm her freedom. What else could she hope for? That her parents would allow her to strike an independent path in life?

Although Yurika doesn’t play jazz like the male characters in the show, she has an analogous talent: “After all, painting and jazz are relatively close cousins, aren’t they? A painting is created on a space called the canvas, while jazz is created during a time called the performance. It’s like etching your living self into that place and time.” The important thing to note from this passage is the idea of agency: art and jazz allows one to maintain a sense of self in the transiency of space and time. I think it is very likely that had Yurika stayed, she would’ve been married off. For someone who values “etching [her] living self into… place and time,” it would only make sense for her to run away.

Finally, I want to revisit Kaoru and his decision to attend college in Tokyo. Could he have stayed with Ritsuko? Possibly, but I think Kaoru, too, felt a sense of guilt after Sentarou’s accident: “It’s okay to cry, Sen. You’ve been keeping it bottled up all this time….” Could Kaoru have spotted Sentarou’s pain earlier? Could he have reached out to his friend before the guilt had gotten to the point that Sentarou could no longer bear to be Sentarou-as-we-know-him? Any attempts to discern Kaoru’s motivations at this point would simply be speculation, but I think it’s worth noting the career paths that the two friends eventually chose for themselves: doctor and priest. In essence, Kaoru becomes a healer of the body, and Sentarou becomes a healer of the soul. Having spent their formative years on the fringe of society as a result of their guilt, the two friends have coincidentally decided that they will both dedicate the rest of their lives to helping others.

Although Sakamichi no Apollon only briefly references the turbulent aspects of the 1960s, I think the characters’ struggles with their expressions of freedom and the guilt that binds them completely embodies the spirit of the decade. I never felt as though the romantic subplots ever superseded the show’s larger message. Was the ending a little anticlimactic and abrupt? Did it seem weird that Sachiko happened to be riding with Sentarou at the time of the accident? In the end, I think the anime’s ability to weave jazz into the narrative makes up for these inconsequential flaws — inconsequential in the sense that they hardly affect the anime’s themes and values.

*When I first watched the anime, I was initially turned off by Seiji’s portrayal. He seemed extraordinarily effeminate, and I wondered whether or not the anime was stereotyping gay men in attempt to create a rival for Kaoru over Sentarou’s friendship. If we understand rock as drama, however, we can see that Seiji merely embodies the theatricality of expression. We even see him dressed in a toga at one point, mimicking the Greeks and, of course, their Greek dramas.

21 thoughts on “Freedom and guilt in Sakamichi no Apollon

  1. Andmeuths

    A very fascinating analysis of Apollon. Anime needs more shows like Apollon, and less of that sorry bunch on Harem Hill. Alas, for strange reasons, animes like Apollon or Rendezvous find it hard to win wide-spread commercial success within Japan, though it does seem more popular among Audiences outside Japan that follow anime by the season.

    I’m looking forward to your analysis of Rendezvous, a few months from now.

    1. E Minor Post author

      Alas, for strange reasons, animes like Apollon or Rendezvous find it hard to win wide-spread commercial success within Japan, though it does seem more popular among Audiences outside Japan that follow anime by the season.

      I heard a lot of people didn’t like the ending for SnA though. I also heard they would compare it to Tsuritama, but I haven’t weighed in either way on which of the two series are superior — assuming that this is even possible.

      Hm, well, I’ve already been doing analysis of Natsuyuki Rendezvous.

      1. Andmeuths

        Tsuritaima and SnA are two different genres altogether. Arguing which is superior would be very hard, if not a blind alley and as meaningless as comparing Apples and Oranges.

        Personally, I felt that Tsuritiama couldn’t hold my attention, but oddly, SnA did.

        1. E Minor Post author

          Oh well. You’ll be happy to know that neither this post nor a hypothetical post on Tsuritama will garner even a quarter of the views or comments that Guilty Crown got.

        2. Andmeuths

          Because, Guilty Crown get’s the blood of many boiling, or attracts a certain fandom (namely, those that pushed it’s BD Sales above 10K.)

          And, your article on Guilty Crown had a very provocative title that made everyone surfing through Anime Nano sit up and take notice.

          On the other hand, I think many Anime Blogger Lurkers and readers have read plenty paeans of praises for Apollon. Unfortunately, just looking at the title gives that kind of impression, even if this is far more profound than a mere article of praise.

          I seriously think we’d be getting another GC, with ultra high production values and painfully cliche and derivative plotting within the next six to twelve months. And you know what? Odds are, it’s going to garner another 10k in sales, instead of tanking.

          1. E Minor Post author

            I obviously don’t agree with all the stuff you say about GC, but I won’t argue about it here.

            As for the post’s title, it captures exactly what the post is about. There’s no judgment value being made in any of the title’s words. I’m not sure what else I could’ve called it. In any case, I didn’t write this post expecting a lot of people to read it anyway. I’ve been in the game long enough.

  2. seelosopher

    I found myself distracted by those “inconsequential flaws” during Sakamichi no Apollon’s run, so I judged the final product as a veteran outing that was ultimately meandering and unfulfilling. But quite frankly, you may have just changed my opinion on this show and its ending with your post.

    1. E Minor Post author

      To be honest, I’m not sure how I would’ve felt had I blogged the show weekly instead of having the luxury to take in the whole series all at once.

  3. Anonymous

    For a show about jazz, there was a surprising lack thereof. I wish SnA were 26 episodes in order for the characters to fully develop and plotlines to come to fruition. We barely learned anything about Kaoru’s father issues, Jun’s rebellion, or Sentaro’s spirituality. Ritsuko and Yurika didn’t have any conflicts outside of the mens’ sphere. It seemed like the series ran out of novel things to say about their characters (or didn’t delve deep enough), so opted to spin a never ending web of will-they-won’t-they love triangles that go nowhere 90% of the time–dragging on till the very end. Conflict springs simply due to characters not talking to each other. I’ll be damned how many times Ritsuko stood there pouting “Kaoru, no bakaaa!”. I don’t mean to be negative on your positive post, and I agree the show was good thematically, but I just felt disappointed from little flaws given the show’s lauded creators.

    1. E Minor Post author

      I personally draw a distinction between plot and story (I believe I’ve expressed these views before). To me, a plot is basically some arbitrary order of events. This happened, that happened, etc. The story, however, takes the visuals and the audio, and gives a certain perspective to the plot. In my mind, the story of SnA is about freedom and guilt. Those things you mentioned — Kaoru’s father, Jun’s rebellion, Sentaro’s spirituality — they would’ve enriched the plot, but I’m not certain that they would’ve added to the story. Would we get a deeper understanding of the interplay of freedom and guilt with a longer series? In any case, I don’t expect others to judge anime in the way that I do, but as you can see, I disagree.

      1. seelosopher

        I’ve seen you mention this before, and it always confuses me. Aren’t things the other way around? A story is a sequence of events that could be told through a number of different media and genres, in whatever order you desire and as thrifty as a linear drama or as convoluted and furnished as a space opera, and this package is what I understand to be the plot. In other words, a story is what’s plotted.

        1. E Minor Post author

          I disagree, but it doesn’t matter at the end of the day if you want to change the terms around. The important thing is that we draw a distinction between the literal events and the totality of combining the events with the strengths of the medium, i.e. animated visuals and audio for something like anime. Could we know more about Kaoru’s relationship with his dad? Sure, but will it deepen our understanding of the anime overall? I argue that this is actually debatable.

  4. Anonymous

    Perhaps the romantic subplots did not interfere with Apollon’s overarching theme of Jazz/guilt, but I feel like the romance did nothing to enhance the story. In many ways, it detracted from it–Kaoru’s bipolar switches from ultra shy to making moves on Ritsuko back to ultra shy. The way that he throws hissy fits and wears his heart on his sleeve throughout a few of the episodes are completely contradictory to how a person with his condition would respond. It’s sad, because in the first four or so episodes, both the timing of the show and the believability of the characters are almost perfect. But it eventually degraded until it somewhat picked itself off the ground in the last two episodes.

    1. E Minor Post author

      I guess I never saw Kaoru’s behavior as bipolar. He thought Ritsuko didn’t like him, so he got out of his friends’ way. After all, Sentarou is a buddy of his. If Ritsuko really did like Sentarou, why would Kaoru want to make either of them unhappy?

  5. appropriant

    Ha, it’s on your Top Anime list now. Winner is me for being one of the people to recommend it.

    I’ve personally had the misfortune of reading the manga due to impatience that the episodes weren’t coming out fast enough. Not misfortune in the sense that the manga was bad, but rather in the sense that I now understand why everyone else who has read the manga aren’t necessarily satisfied with how the series was handled. For example, Kaoru’s first visit with his mother in the manga does end up in him finding out why she left him (obvious family issues, but that’s not the point). In another scene Seiji actually enters the basement of the records shop, a place that was explicitly said to be a haven for jazz and jazz only, to further portray him as an agent of discord between Kaoru and Sentaro. There are quite a bit of details here and there that can obviously be included to enhance the story. However, the time allotted was indeed a mere twelve episodes. The cuts had to be made.

    As such, seeing this series by itself rather than side-by-side with the manga can be difficult if you know that the anime is an adaptation of the manga. There are parts that I like in the manga that I know will, at this point, never come to life. And it’s hard to both know that and be fair to Sakamichi no Apollon for what it has accomplished. Well, actually, that’s how people are supposed to feel when they read the manga. I myself have become more impressed with how the staff managed to fit that much meaningful content into that timeslot. Yes, it’s regrettable that some things weren’t able to translate into moving pictures and voice acting, when it came down to it the anime really didn’t need all that stuff in order to get its main themes across, one of which you have gloriously expounded upon and one of which I was most keen towards. Lovely read, by the way. You don’t get enough credit for the post itself in the comments.

    Also whee I’m back on the interwebs. Didn’t think I was important enough to have to page you about my absence. :U

    1. E Minor Post author

      I’m operating on two hours of sleep in the last two days, so I will give you a proper response once I’ve gotten my requisite nap in.

    2. E Minor Post author

      There are quite a bit of details here and there that can obviously be included to enhance the story.

      Hm, I don’t know about that. Usually, when fans take issue with an adaptation, they get hung up on the amount of information being left out. I think it’s obvious why Kaoru’s mom left. We can speculate, but it’ll all amount (no pun intended) to the same effect: she just wasn’t happy. She’s happy now as an independent woman. You just put two and two together and you can pretty much surmise her motivations. Do we thus really need to know the exact details surrounding her circumstances?

      See, you use the word ‘story’ here and that’s what I’m hung up on. The simple fact of knowing more about the plot won’t necessarily enhance the story. You simply know more. I don’t see a causal relation between the amount of knowledge we receive and our actual understanding of the story. Sure, sure, if the plot is too bare bones, it’s hard to enjoy a story, but I have my doubts whenever fans complain that their favorite stories have been abridged to some extent. Of course, I haven’t read the manga so I won’t comment any further on this issue.

      1. appropriant

        Indeed so, and I agree. Adding these kinds of details does not add anything significant to what was already given in the anime. Kaoru’s mother’s reasons for leaving are not exactly what you have predicted, but this is a good thing. If we were informed of this in precise terms, then the anime would have to devote more time into exploring Kaoru’s family and time was something that wasn’t available to exploit given how much material there was to work with and how little was able to fit in.

        Still, I sympathize for those who complain because these minute details don’t enhance the story, but they do enhance our understanding of the characters who are involved in it. Whether it’s an obsession with the Word of God (author’s intent) or wanting an anime to spell things out so that they don’t have to, I believe people find additional little tidbits about the characters appreciative and closer to the manga. Which, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily a good thing, but given the demographic I speak about it is quite a popular concern.

        1. E Minor Post author

          Whether it’s an obsession with the Word of God (author’s intent) or wanting an anime to spell things out so that they don’t have to, I believe people find additional little tidbits about the characters appreciative and closer to the manga.

          I have opinions about textual analysis — ‘textual’ here is being used in a broader sense of the term that might include media such as film — that others find hard to swallow. Essentially, I believe that authorial intent is, at best, a guess. But in any case, I can’t sympathize with these fans the way that you do. I believe that ‘reading’ something involves more than just being told the bare facts. The ultimate joy of storytelling is sifting through the details and putting the pieces together, i.e. connecting the plot with the visuals and the sounds. In a novel’s case, I suppose you’d connect the plot with the syntax just to name one example. In a sense, you’re almost “re-authoring” the story if you will. At the same time, however, it’s not solipsism. You’re not just — to be a little crude — making shit up. Every interpretation has to undergo rigorous analysis by all parties involved, which is dependent upon the evidence of the text before you. I see it like being an archaeologist. On the other hand, intentionality is too retroactive for my tastes. I mean, what’s really the point of watching a movie or reading a book if I can simply ask the creator about the “true meaning” behind the work?

  6. Pingback: Terror in Resonance Ep. 6: Wild card | Moe Sucks

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