Initial Impression: Sakamichi no Apollon on Fundamentals and Improvisation

They stand back to back, Jazz and Classical, fully pressed against one another.  Although they face in different directions, a fundamental connecting line runs between the two.  There’s an undeniable relationship between Jazz and Classical music that many musicians have the misfortune of never acknowledging, but that nonetheless is ever present in every note and beat.  I was one such musician.

Sakamichi no Apollon burst onto the scene of the Spring 2012 line-up with its groove and jive.  Nishima Kaoru is a classically-trained pianist who knows next to nothing about Jazz and how to play it.  Kawabuchi Sentarou is a jazz drummer who craves soul in his music and renounces the strictness that Classical music demands.  These two stand at opposite ends of the spectrum, and yet have much in common through their love of music.


Kaoru’s experience with and initial dislike for the jarring clash of the cymbals is similar to how many of the classical musicians I know, including myself, came into contact with anything other than the constrained measures of a musical score for the first time.  Having played the piano from the age of five, I thought that signing up for the middle school Jazz Band would be easy-peasy-pie.  I remember glancing at the score covered with strange chord symbols.  My pride prevented me from raising a hand and asking what it was that those symbols meant, or why my part seemed so devoid of melody and line.  It wasn’t until just before high school during my first attendance at a summer music academy where I learned how to read jazz notation, in all its intimidating glory.  And yet, even after learning, I still couldn’t grasp the seemingly impossible skill for improvisation.  Back then, I chalked it up to my lack of talent, claiming that I just wasn’t creative enough.

My undergrad years saw me through three years of Music Performance, before the politics and demands of it all overwhelmed me and I ran away to other studies.  But in that brief moment in time, the Music Department’s awe-inspiring piano instructor hammered all major and minor scales into my mind, and my Music Theory and Ear Training courses taught me the musical knowledge I had craved growing up in my isolated hometown.  When the annual Concerto Competition came up, I played the third movement of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in f.  Now, anyone who has watched Nodame Cantabile or Sunday morning cartoons will recognize George Gershwin’s tunes; they have come to embody a feeling of American ingenuity and progress, blending orchestral harmonies with jazz-inspired piano riffs and lines.  Without my classical technique and greater appreciation of music, I doubt I would have come to such an understanding with the nuances of the piece, nor would I have won the competition in the way that I did.

There’s a beautiful, though shortened, scene in the first episode of Apollon where Kaoru begins to play Debussy’s infamous Clair de Lune.  His moment, as brief as it was, was enough to display his passion for his craft, as well as reveal a partiality for dissonance.  If you were unaware, Debussy was an artist of the Impressionist era (a title which he abhorred), where subtlety and lightness were in favor after the drama that preceded in the Romantic era.  Dissonance became increasingly prevalent, featuring variations of sounds that any jazz listener will undoubtedly recognize.  Some other great pianists of the Impressionist era include Maurice Ravel (my personal favorite), and Frederico Mompou.  Kaoru’s determination to “learn soul” was as inevitable as Debussy’s promised moonlight.

So far, Apollon has shown us how a classical musician discovers Jazz, but what I’m really hoping to see is for Sentarou to gain an equal appreciation for Classical in much the same way that Nodame did in Nodame Cantabile.  I’m of the belief that learning the fundamentals and history can only increase understanding and love for any given craft, be that for music, writing, or even dance.

More reads on music and Apollon:

19 thoughts on “Initial Impression: Sakamichi no Apollon on Fundamentals and Improvisation

  1. Ravel’s Bolero is a favorite of mine, since you mentioned him.

    Yes, it’d be nice, if we could see an equivalent understanding for classical music. I have a hunch it might come through the Christianity theme (with the baroque music and so on)… but we can’t be sure until we see. (I don’t read the manga, since I’m scared it’ll ruin my fun).

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    • Thank you for sharing your favorite from Ravel! I am always pleased to find a fellow fan, and Bolero is definitely worthy of the praise.

      I’m glad you point out the hymns, which in their own history have quite the conflict between beliefs on content and accompaniment. I was also as surprised as Kaoru at Sentarou’s presence and seeming devotion.

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  2. This was a fun read. I didn’t realize you were so passionate about music. Seeing how the anime led you to your thoughts and history with music really worked. Then again I always enjoy seeing people so into something, maybe because I don’t have a passion.

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  3. Well, all the support this show’s received has convinced me to give it a go. There’s also one other very important detail we must remember about this show: NO TEEN IDOL POP SONGS TO BE FOUND!

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  4. Remember Marina you can change that neglect. Rather than regret that you have lost touch with your passion for music why not let this spark you to rediscover it?

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  5. Based on typical trends in Japanese manga and anime, I have very low hope for this series giving classical music training its proper dues. I was not pleased with ep 1 not giving classical training its proper dues, but at least they didn’t continue to show an attitude of disdain for classical musicians in ep 2. With hopes that “things will get better,” I plan to continue watching this series. Sadly this would mean I am dropping Tsuritama.

    Good article about music playing based on your experience. It is bit sad that so many people who are in popular music business failed to realize how a little bit of classical music theory and performance training can bring about great improvements to their music.

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    • well, I’m sad to hear your plan about dropping Tsuritama, which is another show I’m greatly enjoying this season. I wouldn’t write off hopes for positive discussion of classical music just yet, since we’ve still got Kaoru’s awkward situation at “home” and his memories of his father. I have a feeling that those may come into light and affect Sentarou.

      I was also reminded by how I knew some drummers who just didn’t want to do anything other than play the drumset. They didn’t want to learn rudiments, which would have greatly improved their skills on the set. This was why when I also took percussion from middle school to college, I insisted that people call me a “percussionist” and not a “drummer”.

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  6. As long as you don’t lose sight of yourself Marina.

    Unrelated, but promised I’ve checked out your opponent in the tourney and I’m rather relieved to report you’ll be geting my vote. I admit he’s a really good blogger and it was close. You’ll be getting my vote based on three main factors.

    1. You have more variety to your blogs. A wider range of taste. That means I have a better shot at sharing anime with you and discovering new ones.

    2. Visually your blogs are more pleasing. You break up yours with pics and he just posts one pic at the beginning and that’s it.

    3. You seem more interactive with your readers. It’s nice as a blogger to get feedback and it’s nice as a commenter to know the blogger reads and appreciates those comments. A good blog attracts readers of certain blogs, but it’s in the comments where loyalty is built. You get that and for these reasons you’ll get my vote.

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    • I’m glad you checked out my opponent before voting for me. I tried to avoid advertising just myself, or asking people to vote for me, because I want to know the true ability of my blog to grab new readers and retain the affections of my current ones. I also find Anipages to be wonderfully detailed and didn’t want the quality of writing to go unnoticed.

      Variety can be both a strength and a weakness. I fear that sometimes I cover so many different areas because I have no depth in any particular one. It’s like I’m in the shallow end and somehow can never delve into the really heavy, profound stuff. I hope to become more knowledgable and skilled in my observations and writings so that I can feel better about my randomness :p

      I can never understand bloggers who don’t reply to their readers. It just smacks not only of laziness, but of a complete disinterest in their readers. If they don’t want to interact with people, then why make it a public blog at all? I cherish every one of my comments and want people to know that their thoughts are appreciated.

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  7. I understand what you mean about depth. I can’t deny Anipages often delved deeper into his subjects. Too deep for my tastes tbh, especially on individual episodes. However you’re selling yourself short by saying less knowledgable. If you both are reviewing new stuff then you both have just gained new knowledge. The fact that you have more wide spread taste and blog about more stuff means your gaining more anime knowledge and can share it with your readers.

    Does that mean that maybe you can’t devote as much time taking in each anime as Anipages? Perhaps, but it also means you don’t overload your blogs with one subject and it’s always fresh. I prefer having those always new and different posts.

    Of course I read Anipages! I was fully prepared to vote for Anipages and come here explaining why and apologizing. I really was relieved I preferred your blogs.

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  8. Interesting analysis. Very true that Jazz and Classical are like night and day, but I do think the two do share some similarities; not only as music, but also just containing some fundamental ideas. Trying to place myself in Karou’s shoes (hard to do with the information given), playing Jazz to him is like switching from Football to Soccer (American ver for both, lol) the fundamental are the same, but their are specific differences that call for something different. You can not carry the ball in Soccer, so it just takes a little work to getting use to using your feet like you would moving in Football. AkA for Karou, learning to feel the rhythm, in and outs of jazz and playing from heart rather than from classical training.

    Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, eh? Great one (fond of his symphonic poem, An American In Paris) and does contain some the elements found in most jazz pieces. I think Willam Grant Still did the same thing with one of his symphonies (can’t remember if it is #1, #2, or #4 though). I am also very fond of Debussy (Afternoon of The Faun), which does sort of match Karou to extent. Only difference was Debussy was ahead of his time (in my opinion) and could vary his technique – yet Karou is the same, but does seems afraid to embrace and use it. He does have it though. Just my opinion though.

    Again, great post ^^

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    • I can’t help but enjoy your soccer metaphor, especially since I’m currently watching Area no Kishi! It will be nice to see Kaoru gradually come into his own as a jazz pianist, instead of mechanically in much the same way I do when I try to play Jazz.

      Judging from the strange family life that Kaoru has, I’m guessing that his guardian won’t take kindly to his new found passion, particularly after she stopped him from playing Debussy. His cousin, however, seems to have a secret fondness for Kaoru’s piano, so perhaps she’ll be the window for the family members coming to a better understanding with each other.

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  9. This show puts me on good mood. The characters feel so real and the interaction between them is really pleasent to watch. Add some excellent music and beautiful visuals to the mix and you got a damn good anime.

    Also that live session scene was so beautiful. I can repeat myself 100 times but the animation was just gorgeous and it really felt like you were down in the basement with them.

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    • I hope that the future live sessions are like the ones we’ve already seen. Lots of time and money must have gone into such short segments. I get a good feeling every time I watch this, too🙂

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