Sakamichi no Apollon has garnered praise for its unique setting. Certainly, 1960s Kyushu represents a refreshing change of pace from the standard schoolyard show set in Futsuu-no-machi, Japan. However, Sakamichi no Apollon really fails to utilize its setting effectively. It’s quite a shame.
The rustic, earthy Kyushu accents of Sentaro and Ritsuko immediately set Sakamichi no Apollon apart from its peers. However, Kyushu itself has almost no impact upon the story’s progression. It is utilized as a device to introduce Kaoru to a foreign environment. Salient characteristics of Kyushu (closer contact with foreigners, Christianity) are introduced, but these traits of Kyushu play very little role in the show’s narrative. I’ve spoken already about Apollon‘s simplistic views on race and race relations. The influence of foreigners is not really felt by any of the characters. They exist in an isolated environment, and can only be accessed and engaged when the characters want to engage them. Similarly, Sentaro’s Christianity serves as an equally flimsy marker of “otherness.” There is nothing uniquely Christian about Sentaro’s worldview. For example, he never quotes scripture or prays outsides of church. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that his faith does not play a big role in his life, but if that is the case, then why discuss it in the first place? His Christian faith is nothing more than a marker. It’s all very cosmetic and superficial.
Similarly, 1967 is utilized simply as a mechanism to contextualize conflict and aspirations. Junichi’s political activism presents us with a poignant example. By portraying him as a leftist agitator, the creators of Sakamichi no Apollon place Junichi within an appropriate historical context. However, there is no unique outcome of his agitation. He becomes a social outcast, but it’s interesting to note that his change in behavior arises not from his political convictions, but by his subsequent societal rejection. Again, we see that “political agitation” is nothing more than a veneer. It could have been anything else― drug addiction, truancy, even sheer laziness. Anything that would have caused abandonment by his family would have led to the exact same end result for him.
The use of The Beatles as a plot device is equally telling. It would seem that the students at Sentaro’s school are all musically un-educated. They seem to have zero inclination or preference for either jazz or rock n’ roll, and will simply listen to anything thrown their way. The Beatles are nothing more than an “alternative” force, a new kind of music which serves as a generic source of tension. Overall, the musical scene of 1967 seems awfully monotonous in Sakamichi no Apollon.
Frankly, I think it is fair to say that the creators of Sakamichi no Apollon did not think too carefully about the show’s setting. The setting is nothing more than a means to an end. There is little indication that the setting fundamentally alters any of the characters. It is simply a tool to define the limits of mainstream society, which then allows for the creation of an “other”. We see this use of setting fairly frequently. It manifests itself in Sentaro’s Christianity, Junichi’s advocacy, even Kaoru’s standard Japanese. It’s problematic that these characters exist in a certain time period, but somehow are not truly of that time period. They have oddly modern concerns, and are near-indistinguishable from the modern Japanese teenager, save for their aspirations, which are contextualized by the setting. I believe this to be a simplistic portrayal of 1960s society. This may be terribly cliche, but I truly believe that one’s environment has a fundamental impact upon one’s personality and disposition. In this regard, Sakamichi no Apollon‘s setting is fairly throwaway. It is superficial and does not truly engage the 1960s. The tale it tells is “timeless”, which does not necessarily preclude it from being good. It simply precludes it from being tied specifically to the historic moment of its own setting. Whether that’s good or bad is up for debate.
As a quick note, I also don’t think that there’s anything sinister or exploitative about Sakamichi no Apollon’s use of the 1960s. It just fails to engage 1960 Japan in a meaningful way. You can discuss this with me further @Akirascuro on Twitter.