Kodama Yuki's KIDS ON THE SLOPE (Sakamichi no Apollon)
"Unlike love affairs, friendship is for life."[NOTE: This review encompasses the entire series]
I'm a twenty-five year old woman who just finished the ten volumes of the shoujo manga Strobe Edge last month and realized it just wasn't my cup of tea anymore at this point in my life. It was cute, sure, but I felt like I wasted a good five hours reading through it. I think that's mostly because I read this series a few weeks prior to that (and the more riveting shoujo piece Orange as well) and, ultimately, Sakamichi no Apollon resonated with me in all the right places. First of all, it's a josei manga so the maturity level of the storytelling is already guaranteed but I don’t really have any strong expectations once I started reading this which was why it managed to take me for a breathless ride out of nowhere, and gave me a frightfully emotional spin.
Much like the manga Nana, this is a story about friendship and music. While the former is about two women who share the same name and one of them is a rock musician then they started living together, this one is about two high school boys back in the late sixties who develop a deep connection when one of them introduced the other to jazz music. Kaoru Nishimi is a reclusive and intelligent boy who comes from a wealthy family with an absentee father. He is very skilled in classical piano but has moved around a lot growing up that he became rather cynical about meeting new people let alone establishing ties with them. This has all changed when he meets the class delinquent Sentarou Kawabuchi whose cheerful and aggressive dispostion undermines a comparably lonely childhood. He spends his days playing drums in his childhood friend's basement and his encounters with Kaoru later increased especially when Kaoru expressed interest in playing jazz and soon both boys began to bond in ways that also allowed them to explore tender spots in themselves they have previously never been privy of.
On the surface, this is a slice of life high school drama that has familiar genre elements of said narrative but Sakamichi no Apollon has a self-awareness and range of depth to its storytelling and characters that make it just as eagerly readable to an older and more experienced audience looking to re-live their own teen years plagued by crises, heartbreak and family conflicts. In addition, the set-up of Kaoru and Sentarou's story, and the development of their relationship, was highly romanticized much like in Nana with the two titular protagonists spending copious amounts of time seemingly in courtship. This same style of characterization applies to Kaoru ane Sentarou. In Western perspective, one can characterize this as a "bromance". It certainly has the right pieces for a more blatant 'boy love' story; shy and quiet nerd meets the bad boy of the class (only the situation is a same-gendered romance piece, like a formulaic yaoi story waiting to happen any moment. I'm not gonna lie--that's how it often feels while reading this series).
I bring this up because I believe this is the selling point for Sakamichi no Apollon; its lead men have an intensely emotional connection that can sometimes translate to some accidental (if not intentional) homoerotic subtext. The manga does not shy away from treating them like a young couple navigating the first-time highs and lows of their relationship and the writing for this is excellently conveyed and never cheapened. Their existing level of intimacy and tension was not created solely for underhanded yaoi fanservice. Theirs is a genuine budding friendship that just happens to be more romantic than people are used to when reading about men and their friendships with each other. In spite of the mixed signals readers might get from Kaoru and Sentarou's feelings and outright possessiveness for each other, the two are indeed heterosexual and Kaoru even has a female love interest (Ritsuko) who is an important character in her own right and helps enhance the relationship between the two boys since she both cares about them and believes they have something worth perserving. There are the standard love triangles in the mix but the series easily absolves these geometric complications in a mature way without needlessly drawing out the conflicts unlike in the typical fashion of most shoujo mangas.
Sakamichi no Apollon is primarily about Kaoru Nishimi's growth as an individual through his friendship with Sentarou and romantic pursuit of Ritsuko. Both of these things are equally explored although Kaoru's undeniable bond with his best friend is the front-and-center piece while the rest are often consequential of this. There's something to be said about the power and magnetic force that draw these boys together in spite of how different their personalities are. Their affinity for jazz music is joyous in a way it completes them and expresses the multitude of emotions they have that cannot be verbalized in any other way. When all is said and done, Kaoru and Sentarou's friendship is the best and most riveting aspect of Sakamichi no Apollon, and the symbolic "slope" in this series is a metaphor for how much they have climbed and overcome their insecurities and respective conflicts outside of each other in order to stay together, stronger than ever.
Theirs is a story of platonic relationship that is universal and timeless and will no doubt move readers in the best possible ways. In their alienation and regrets, Kaoru and Sentarou found each other and made each other feel unconditionally loved. It was never an easy climb but they always reach the top as long as they have each other. Basically, they are each other's "true love", just not in a queer, sexual way no matter I sometimes wish they just get together already. That's how strong their connection is and often frustratingly so. I just adore how refreshingly literate this manga series had been, able to tackle mature issues with earnest and well-informed insights that may even help readers deal with their own problems. Ultimately, Sakamichi no Apollon changed my life too.
Like most manga, this also has an anime adaptation that has twelve episodes that managed to summarize the highlights of the fifty chapters of the manga and I was able to watch that after reading this and I also highly recommend that if not only so you can listen and appreciate the popular jazz pieces incorporated within the expanse of the story. The wonderfully resolved ending of this series never fails to move me to tears. It's just fucking beautiful, okay? Everything about Sakamichi no Apollon is worth the heartache and pain and you should be reading this now. There are available online copies here so you don't have any excuses to procrastinate. Trust me on this and read the damn thing already! Heads-up: The best chapter of this manga will always be Chapter 12. That's when it starts to break your heart.