Sakamichi no Apollon and the Failure of Setting

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.

Place

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.

Time

This is nothing more than stock footage, really.

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. 

Implications

This isn’t really discussed, either.

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.

12 responses to “Sakamichi no Apollon and the Failure of Setting

  1. Good post, and pithy too. As you said, the shallowness of SnA’s world is directly related to how the characters are never fully fleshed out and become real humans with souls.

    I have only read one chapter of the manga, so I can’t confirm whether this is a problem there. It certainly is the kind of problem that often come from the original work.

    • Thanks for your kind words! I can’t really speak for the manga either, unfortunately, but it would certainly make sense if this shallowness ran through the original work as well.

  2. However, developing the setting for a story and mixing the characters in it is good practice, but not a necessity. You can write a full fledged story based on either setting, ideas, characters or events and disregard all others depending on your style. This is not generally the case in slice of life, but lets take for example NazoKanojo which belongs to a genre called magic realism in which the setting is completely disregarded in favor of developing the characters; it is exposed, just as in sakamichi, but it is not really influential.

    • Hmm, I think that there’s a huge difference between magical realism and realistic fiction, especially historical fiction. Magical Realism, as seen in NazoKano, serves a purpose, even if it isn’t fully explained. (Same with NatsuKise, another show that exhibits magical realist traits.) In historical fiction, the setting should matter. It’s one of the show’s major draws, and to simply squander it as a pretty aesthetic veneer is pretty disappointing. The characters develop in a way which does NOT make sense for the time period; i.e., we have a situation where 2012 people are living in a 1960s world. That’s a no-no. We need 1960s people to inhabit the 1960s.

      • I guess I hadn’t seen sakamichi as historical fiction, maybe for the same reason of the disjoint character-setting, but if that is the case then the setting would really be very important. Can we even call it historical if the background events aren’t really that important? I will try to keep in mind the decade when looking at the characters, sadly I don’t know that much about how people acted in post war japan.

  3. I find it amusing that you and I came to the same conclusion about the setting, at least both time and location, but have wildly different views about its impact on the story. I certainly agree with you about how the little oddities about Christianity and music have had minimal impact on the characters, but I found those to be more aesthetic touches rather than points to affect the character. Rather, I saw them as details to differentiate the setting from more mainstream ones and a means to use it as a way to strengthen the story, characters, and themes.

    If you’d like, I wrote my post on the setting back around episode 4, so obviously some things have changed, but it manages to hold up pretty well because of how general it is: http://avvesione.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/sakamichi-no-apollon-4/ I’d be interested to see what you think.

    Also, you won my vote in the ABT. Wishing you the best of luck from here on out.

    • My good man, that is exactly WHY I critique this show’s setting. It’s nothing more than details used to differentiate the show from other shows― there’s no real purpose and no real impact of the setting upon the show itself. I think that’s a tremendous waste. It reflects poorly on the creatives’ planning abilities.

      Thanks for your vote! Didn’t win in the end, but hey, whatever. Your support’s more important.

      • I understand where you’re coming from but I’m not sure how much more of these setting details they could add before they begin to detract from the story. They certainly could incorporate the whole Christian and student activism roles into the anime more and use it influence and change the characters but I’m uncertain of how they’d change the story, especially given the focus on romance and jazz throughout. While it would’ve been nice to see the setting play a more active role in the story and on the characters, I’m content with it being merely details that aid in solidifying the chosen setting rather than being active participants in the story. At least that’s how I feel about the setting.

        We’ve both come to the same conclusion that the setting currently has no true impact on the story since we both feel it could be placed at any era and in any location without losing a beat. And I don’t mean to be rude or demanding, but if you were able to change the anime in any way so that you would appreciate the setting more, what would you do to improve it? I feel somewhat blinded by my approach and I’m curious what you see that I am missing out on.

        Sucks that you were unable to advance in the ABT, but hopefully you got a positive experience out of it.

        • I believe that setting needs to serve a purpose, especially in historical fiction. I would make the story a 1960s love story, as opposed to a love story in the 1960s, which is what we have. I’m critiquing Apollon harshly here because people praise it for its setting. I’m arguing that the setting doesn’t quite make a difference, and isn’t really praiseworthy. That’s all.

        • Ah, that makes more sense given what your post was about and what I thought you were talking about. Yeah, Apollon doesn’t really do a good job of incorporating anything from the era or region into the story besides jazz. I guess what I appreciate about it is that it is authentic and realistic which augments the story rather than making an impact on it. And I must say that’s quite unique view on the anime since everyone else has been hailing it as a masterpiece.

  4. Interesting article. I came across it through a google image search looking for a picture of that church. I am living in Sasebo (the city where this anime is set) now and I attend that exact church every Sunday. That is what drew me to the anime in the first place.
    I am always excited to notice a landmark or something that I am familiar with (the church, the kujukushima islands where they go swimming/boating/clamming, the arcade mall, the American navy officers, etc.).

    Strangely I am not as bothered by the insignificance of the setting as you are. I am more disappointed in the limited amount of jazz music used so far and that the story arc hasn’t had more to do with jazz practicing/performing/etc (especially considering that Yoko Kanno is doing the music!). Of course, as a Catholic, I would be thrilled if they had an arc focusing on the meaning of Christianity for the characters (as you say, it doesn’t seem to affect Sentaro’s world view – he actively seeks fights all the time). I haven’t read the manga so I guess I will just have to keep my fingers crossed and keep watching.

  5. I did end up enjoying Apollon on the balance, but was also disappointed by the failure of the show to utilize the time period in any meaningful way – I expected more about the revolutionary flair to the era, but we see so little of this that one almost wonders why they bothered at all (we do know why, of course – to make it unique, even if only superficially so, and to provide a reason for why these nihons are all kerrrazy about that jazz music, i.e. because its something new and different).

    I will say that I did find the repeated demands of one of the characters as to why the other band never bothered to play anything by the Beatles hilarious, though, as I’m sure the rights were much, much, much too expensive for the budget.

    Insofar as the Christianity aspect is concerned, it seems we’ll just have to hope that Asakusa 1641 one day gets adapted into an anime (HAHA YEAH RIGHT), or content ourselves with SPOILER ALERT Samurai Champloo (a show which, interestingly enough, handles Christianity in Japan with more nuance despite feeling no need to smack us repeatedly while jabbing a finger and saying, “SEE? CHRISTIANS!!!”

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