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.