Sakamichi no Apollon: Kids on the Slope Episode 1

They say expectation is a harbinger of disappointment, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that I was expecting a lot out of this show. From what we’ve been offered, though, in just this first episode, I already feel like we’re in for something special.

The show comes across as very genuine in a number ways, in part due to its attention to detail. The subtle difference between the softer, more textured tone of the grand piano at Kaoru’s house and the colder, brighter sound of the upright in the record shop basement stuck out to me. On the character side of things, I loved the way Kaoru almost unconsciously removes his glasses when talking with Ritsuko after being told by her earlier that they obscured his “pretty” face. There’s no other practical reason he would, and he does nothing of the sort at any point previous, and is a clever way to indicate a budding romance.

Speaking of romance, I object to the general sentiment as to how “gay” the show apparently appears. It seems that any time two guys in a show develop as characters and grow closer to one another, people become so insecure and uncomfortable with their friendship that they’re automatically labeled gay. If you absolutely must resort to such fantasies to justify your discomfort, so be it, but let’s hold off on the name calling until there’s actually an episode about them coming out of the closet.

Moving on, despite being a show about kids on a slope, I’d actually like to talk for a second about the roof.

The roof is Kaoru’s comfort zone. It’s where he retreats to stave off his stress-induced nausea, and it’s where he feels safe and secure. A slope is an upward climb, a place where effort and hard work will bring you to a higher place. On the other hand, a roof represents flat stagnation. It’s the highest point of a building where you cannot advance upward, only idly languish at that altitude. Moving between schools so often, he is used to being ostracized as an outsider and find comforts in being alone on the roof, above the pain of others’ stares and judgment. To have this haven disrupted by Sentaro, to have it so boldly breached was his wake up call. It was the point where Kaoru stopped being dependent on this stifling, limiting roof, and became a “kid on a slope,” able to grow as an individual. It might be a slippery slope, one with pitfalls and dangers, but it is an improvement nonetheless.

The rain on his haven represented the encroaching threat of an interloper in Sentaro. He attempted to hide himself from the rain with his umbrella, his fragile façade he’s built up over the years, but it’s cast aside by Sentaro, off the roof and out of his reach. Now bathed in the frightening waters of friendship and faced with all the joy and suffering friendship entails, he ultimately finds that it’s actually not all that bad despite his fear and doubt. In fact, he has been cured of his nausea in the face of his peers, and, in a symbolic water baptism, has been born a new person.

You might remember these lines from the episode when Kaoru played that excerpt from “Moanin'” after listening to Sentaro attempt to play it on the piano:

Kaoru: “I can’t hear anymore. It’s like this.
Sentaro: “Wrong! That ain’t even close!”
Kaoru: “What are you talking about?! I played it exactly right!”
Sentaro: “There wasn’t any swing! If you play it without feelin’ it, it don’t sound like no jazz to me!”

Considering jazz is a genre where one of the most biting insults you can give to a fellow player is “you sound like an Asian man,” I found this exchange amusingly genuine. “Asian man,” of course refers not literally to a man of the Orient, but moreso the stereotype that Asians tend to be sorted and uptight – two traits that are not often encouraged in jazz music. It refers more specifically to someone playing something in an overly straight, clunky, and monotonous way. Players starting out from a classical background will almost always have this tendency and must be taught the proper way to “swing” notes in the typical jazz/blues style.

I just thought that this part of the scene perfectly captured this particular dissonance between jazz and classical. It’s a natural mistake for a jazz newbie to make, but, in jazz, the right notes played in the wrong style is worse than wrong notes played in the right one.

This, I think, neatly encapsulates in a musical context the thrust of the main conflict in this first episode. It’s the organized, safer, closed “classical” life of Kaoru versus the freer, swinging, looser “jazz” view of Sentaro. It’s the difference between fearfully going through the motions of playing notes on a page versus daringly playing the music of life with feeling, style, and emotion.

Ah, yes, speaking of music, there really wasn’t that much of it. There were a few short sections of a bass comp playing with some drums, but it’s obvious the show hasn’t hit its stride with regards to Yoko Kanno’s contributions quite yet. I suspect we’ll get less of the big band numbers from Cowboy Bebop and more smaller combo setups with some solo piano numbers this time, judging from the setting of the show. As for the OP and ED, I am extremely disappointed that neither has even a hint of jazz to it. They sound like they could have been used in any generic josei drama and don’t stand out to me in any way other than being decent pop songs.

The show seems pretty set from here to start digging into the meat of its story. It doesn’t seem as if the show will pull any punches in terms of storyline, but it remains to be seen just how deep they go into the jazz rabbit hole.

This week, enjoy Jeff Coffin and Victor Wooten melting your face with Coffin’s 17/8 time “The Mad Hatter Rides Again.” Keep an eye out for the section where he plays two saxophones at once. Two of them.

24 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. ericdano says:

    I dunno, I liked it. Nodame Cantible started kinda slow too…..

    • Aftershok says:

      I enjoyed the episode as well! Some people have mentioned that the pacing is a bit on the slow side, but I really thought the show handled itself quite well. Fits the material perfectly, I think.

  2. random says:

    The episode was pretty slow but I hear the manga is the same way.

    > There were a few short sections of a bass comp playing with some drums, but it’s obvious the show hasn’t hit its stride with regards to Yoko Kanno’s contributions quite yet.

    Don’t expect too much. We’re only getting 10 original Kanno compositions according to the soundtrack listing. I’m guessing next episode we will hear Takashi Matsunaga’s arrangement of Moanin’.

    >As for the OP and ED, I am extremely disappointed that neither has even a hint of jazz to it.

    Sure it’s not jazz, but YUKI is singing the OP. That’s a plus in my opinion.

    • Aftershok says:

      I think the pace matched the show’s tone and subject matter very well. First episodes are usually full of character introductions and wordy exposition, but I think it managed to avoid drowning us in verbosity. The thrust of the show is very character-driven and thankfully doesn’t have to explain everything to death.

  3. Canne says:

    I love your review a lot not just because it is a good review but also because it makes me understand the show better. I honestly have no Jazz knowledge what so ever. Worse, I used to study classical music and piano.

    This episode was surely slow but it’s just an overture I supposed. And the animation especially during piano playing was amazing.

    • Aftershok says:

      Haha, I’m glad the post benefited you. I only hold slightly negative feelings that you are a classical musician.

      I actually think it’s quite fitting to call the episode an overture in ways. Overtures should lay out the framework of the thematic material to appear throughout the entire work, and it feels like the episode accomplished that quite well.

      It’s funny you mentioned the piano playing, because it really was one of the best animated piano playing I’ve ever seen in anime, if only in the “weight” of the keys. You can almost feel the grand piano’s keys’ tactile click under your fingers. I’d just like to point out that painstaking effort was taken to make the fingerings match the actual notes played, but I did notice that there are some errors. It only really stuck out to me because they went to the effort to make it so accurate, only to make big, easily avoidable mistakes. I’m mainly referring to the right hand when Kaoru is playing at his house with that awful cousin(?) of his.

  4. TWWK says:

    The first episode was amazing…I haven’t been this entranced by a series in a long, long time.

    I’m really looking forward to your continued posts on the show. Your knowledge of music really adds to your already terrific commentary – this is exactly what I was looking for in an episodic for this series.

    • Aftershok says:

      Thanks! This is my first episodic post ever, and it was hard to strike that balance between a general commentary and a deeper music-focused aspect. I’ll try my best to relevantly, meaningfully combine the two. It’s compliments like yours that give me the fuel to keep going like this, so thanks again!

  5. krizzlybear says:

    You really nailed the theme of musical duality between classical and jazz, as represented by Kaoru and Sentaro, respectively. Even though there isn’t really much going on when looking at the big picture of the episode, it’s the subtle, tiny changes that really stand out to me. Particularly, Kaoru’s visit to Ritsuko’s dad’s record shop was initially due to him wanting to find some classical recordings, but he ends up leaving the shop having purchased a copy of Moanin’. You could say it…really struck a chord with me.

    • Aftershok says:

      Yeah, the strongly character driven nature of the show will likely mean every little development shouldn’t be taken for granted. It was really rather clever how they instilled the motivation for Kaoru to buy the record in the first place. It’s compelling that he was directly challenged by Sentaro, and it’s satisfyingly logical that he ended up wanting that disc. You could say that it… baroque the ice between the characters.

  6. Fumoffu!! says:

    A anime all about Jazz yet neither the Op nor Ed are jazz? I was surprised by that as well.

    Good episode though.

  7. Joojoobees says:

    If I understand correctly, there are only a few Kanno compositions/arrangements, but she worked with musicians to capture improvisations that “captured the characters mood at the time”, which will be featured in-situ, that is they are not just BGM, but supposed to be played by the characters (e.g. the drum solo in this episode).

    As to the show itself, I think it is off to a good start. The characters are pretty interesting, and I like the potential for music to play a big influence in each of the male leads’ lives.

    • Aftershok says:

      I honestly did not know that, though it makes sense. A composer’s role is lessened considerably in jazz. The performers are what make the music great, and they’re obviously taking that approach with the score. It’s not like Kanno composed the bass comp note for note in the backgrounds, and there’s not really much Kanno can do in the traditional composer position as she has in the past, even with Cowboy Bebop.

      It’s also fascinating that they are recording the music that the characters will be playing in real-time, so to speak. That’ll probably mean that the musicians will have to purposely dumb themselves down to the level of amateurs in some ways, especially the piano. If you’ve ever heard a beginner student learning to improvise, you know what I mean.

  8. fabrice says:

    This was – this was brilliant. By far the best episode of the spring anime that I’ve seen so far. As soon as the episode ended I googled Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. Downloading ‘Moanin’ right now.

    • random says:

      Hadn’t heard “Moanin'” before? I suppose that’s one nice thing about this anime – that it will introduce plenty of people to some nice, classic jazz.

    • Aftershok says:

      There’s a lot of jazz out there to experience, to say the least. I hope to introduce various artists at the end of these posts, like I have been. For a different style on a similar instrument lineup, you should definitely check out the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

  9. Maureen says:

    Hey, classical music used to be strongly improvisational too! People didn’t go to operas just to watch the ballet dancers and each other; they went to hear spectacular improvised aria runs. Bach was a great improviser. (Etc, etc….) I hear a lot of cookie-cutter jazz, sometimes, and some folks teaching jazz seem to think they’re running a museum. Soooo… It Could Happen To You. :(

    Of course, there’s a lot to say for throwing yourself into a classical piece, and there can be a lot of individual voice in how a person plays even the tamest classical piece on piano. Kaoru’s problem is that he’s using music as a sort of hole to pull in after him; he’s not trying to express his individual voice but trying to hide himself in the notes. It doesn’t matter what kind of music he plays, as long as that’s his attitude. But changing genre and style, and developing new skills, are also good ways to start psychological changes (as well as being a really nice audial metaphor).

    • Aftershok says:

      That’s a good point you make, but I think the general stereotypes of the two genres stands as being the prevailing descriptions. There’s certainly an improvisational, free aspect of some types of classical, and there are lots of pre-written aspects of jazz, but to extend the metaphor to such a specificity would have been spreading the point too thin. I would argue that improvisation in jazz is inherently encouraged to be more creative than that in classical, as in the latter there are still intrinsic limitations as far as style and theory are concerned. I’ve never heard an opera singer purposely sing a phrase in a key a half-step above the written chord to induce tension, but that sort of intentionally wacky, off-the-cuff experimentation is commonplace and actively encouraged in jazz. Then again, I don’t know enough about opera or improvisation in classical in general to really know for sure.

  10. raisuke16 says:

    i thought this is another yaoi series due to that scene in the stairs to the rooftop…lol but i’m going to cover this series too in the coming days… :) this series also has good songs…jazz is kinda my new favorite right now :)

    • Aftershok says:

      Well, fantasize as you please. Looking forward to your coverage, though your site gets my browser lit up with warnings of malware for some reason?

      Jazz is sort of awesome, yeah. What have you been listening to? [troll]Kenny G and Dave Koz are kind of the best jazz musicians around.[/troll]

  11. Taka says:

    I’ve been mulling this for a bit and I think I’ve finally come up with what so irked me about how you boxed up classical and jazz.

    “It’s the difference between fearfully going through the motions of playing notes on a page versus daringly playing the music of life with feeling, style, and emotion.”

    There’s some kind of inherent assumption that improvisation in music is always good. My metaphor to that is would you rather watch a haphazardly put together “Whose line is it” skit that’s just awkward enough to be endearing or would you rather watch a well scripted scene between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock that leaves your sides splitting?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: