Sakamichi no Apollon: Kids on the Slope Episode 4

Would a death metal song have the same edge to it if it were performed by octogenarians? Would a country-western tune have the same appeal if an Arabic man sang it?

That’s the thing about music. People will happily eat gourmet French food cooked by a British master chef. A beautiful portrait of Italy by an Argentinean painter is no inherently inferior to one done by a Florentine. Music, though, is as much a product of who is playing it as what’s being played. The who behind music irreversibly colors the what. A samba sung by a rap artist instantly loses its authenticity, as does a Bach symphony performed by jazz musicians. It’s this selectivity of origin that has defined the ebb and flow of the musical landscape throughout history.

As an example, consider that historians generally consider the work of Elvis Presley to be fairly derivative of the music of his time. There were many groups around then with sounds similar to what Elvis would become famous for. In fact, Elvis himself admitted the influence of then-contemporary black artists on him, such as Fats Domino and B.B. King. The reason that he was so successful, then, was not that his music was particularly fresh, but that he was a white man who sounded like a black man. When black people made “black” music, it was detestable “coon” music, but when a white man does the same thing, an entire nation accepts it with open arms.

How does this apply to Sakamichi? I touched upon the role of race and origin in music above to argue that the show’s themes on race and acceptance are fairly weak. The heckler at the bar was an interesting touch, but written from a narrow perspective. The episode was at the verge of tapping something potentially fascinating and relatively unexplored, namely Americans’ reactions to Asians playing jazz.

But what was that intoxicated gentleman worried about? His issue with the music in the bar was that it was “coon” music. Black music. This seemed odd to me. Would an America with the aftertaste of the internment of Japanese-American citizens in WWII still lingering really be concerned that music in a Japanese bar sounds too black?

Granted, a single drunk man speaking his mind doesn’t exactly speak for all of America, but the show still failed to ask the more obvious question: how would these surly white-American sailors react to a bunch of narrow-eyed Japanese men playing jazz? By making the issue of race one between whites and blacks instead of Americans and Asians, Sakamichi avoided making the more powerful statement. Further, I feel there were many missed opportunities to flesh out parallels between this and Sentarou’s ethnicity, as there was great irony that there was indeed a white man on stage that night.

I would give the show props, though, for its continued faithful portrayal of live sessions. The way the tune just stops dead in its tracks as a player drops out feels all too real for players who have been in a similar situation. There’s that palpable, stiff deadness in the air as if something alive and breathing had just unjustly had its life cut short.

With this, I feel like the show has redeemed itself deeply with its music. Jazz has once again become strongly thematically tied with the plot and the state of the characters. We see Kaoru retreating back momentarily to playing stiffly and awkwardly but returning to the forefront to become Sentarou’s strength. We see how each character’s music becomes an extension of what they are experiencing. With Kaoru, a momentary conflict with Sentarou cripples his playing, but he recovers as he learns about and empathizes with Sentarou’s family situation. Jun-nii’s playing is absolutely soaring (he’s even quite the vocalist) as it becomes evident that Yurika in fact fancies him over Sentarou. Further, Sentarou finds his drumming disrupted and difficult as he loses his crush to the man he looks up to most.

Speaking of, the episode’s featured tune, George Gershwin’s “But Not for Me,” fits nicely with the plot’s progression. It’s one of those jazz standards along with “Just Friends” that’s fairly upbeat and catchy that actually deals with rather sad and bitter sentiments. Perhaps it’s telling that both those tunes were originally featured in those sappy love story musicals of Gershwin’s day. Ironically, Jun is the one who sings it, a character who seems to have everything going for him.

They’re writing songs of love,
But not for me:
A lucky star’s above,
But not for me.
With love to lead the way,
I’ve found more skies of gray
Than any Russian play
Could guarantee.
I was a fool to fail!
And get that way,
Heigh ho! Alas!
And also lackaday!
Although I can’t dismiss
The mem’ry of his/her kiss…

But not for whom, Jun?

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

I’d like to talk, in closing, about the wonderful job the show is doing on being a gateway drug to jazz. I’ll occasionally YouTube a tune from the show if I don’t have it in my collection, and my hearts warms up a bit when I see a comment or two about how “Sakamichi brought me here” or “Sakamichi opened my eyes to jazz.” It’s obviously not an overly pervasive phenomenon, but to see new twinkling optimism for jazz in any amount is really a treat.

"He is playing the piano loudly. I must abruptly stop my playing and stare at him for several seconds."

As just a humorous aside, I found it hilariously unprofessional to just stop and stare at a player while on stage because their playing surprised you.

This week, listen to a very different, modal take on “But Not for Me.”


A huge jazz nerd and unabashed fan of alternative rock, I joined Anime Instrumentality in December 2010. I tend to get very passionate when it comes to music and try my best to understand how it works. An enormous fan of The Pillows, among my favorite anime composers include Ko Otani and Yoko Kanno. My tastes in anime vary wildly, but I try to be as thoughtful about my viewing as I am about my listening. I play the saxophone.

3 thoughts on “Sakamichi no Apollon: Kids on the Slope Episode 4

  • May 11, 2012 at 12:03 am

    Your introductory paragraphs are odd. You talk of various artists partaking in art outside their national origin or identity–Arabs playing country, British chefs cooking French, etc–without suffering from accusations of inauthenticity. But when you come to your main point, the contrast with musical authenticity, you talk of genres–jazz musician playing classical, hip hop artist singing samba. Wouldn’t the natural examples have been closer to a Chinese playing Russian music or an Argentine playing French music? Or how about an Argentine playing American music written by a Frenchman? The conflict is cultural boundary transgressions. Perhaps I’m misreading the “instantly loses its authenticity” lines as your opinion instead of “people’s,” but it is no more inauthentic for a Japanese to play American jazz than it is for an Englishman to cook French food.

    Also, are you saying it would have been more interesting if the soldier was offended that Japanese were playing “American” music instead of “coon” music? This wouldn’t work, because I don’t think most white people would have considered jazz to be American music. Like the drunk said, it was “coon” music. For “proper” Americans, jazz, like blues, rock, swing, and rap, was dangerous and unruly, requiring banishment or censorship (even of Elvis’ hips). Now, if it had been a black soldier doing the heckling, that would have been an interesting conflict and in line with your thesis. The effect on the characters would be complex, perhaps bringing up feelings of trespassing in alien territory among the quartet.

    A final question: what does this mean? “Would an America with the aftertaste of the internment of Japanese-American citizens in WWII still lingering really be concerned that music in a Japanese bar sounds too black?”

  • May 12, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I agree with the commenter above me that it’s not about inauthenticity as much as “you ignorants should learn to play the right music”. It’s far stretched to interpret this from the drunk based on what is shown in the episode alone, but when the yellows who need to be shown the correct ways are more enchanted with noise of the blacks than proper white music, then don’t those who claim to bring enlightenment to the land fail their mission? You have a point about Sakamichi doesn’t say much on the sensitive issue that is American presence in Japan after the war though. Only Sen’s past, and a brief moment of Jun’s comment to Yurika that a proper girl like her should not visit the bar because it’s where foreign soldiers frequent.

    Off-topic, I really like your series of posts on the use of music in Sakamichi!

  • August 12, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    America is still in the midst of the African-american civil rights movement and the drunk soldier was heavily discriminatory against blacks. I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.


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