On the surface, Kenji Nakamura’s Tsuritama and Shinichiro Watanabe’s Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Apollon) couldn’t be more different. One series is a gently surreal, whimsical sci-fi fishing story with garish color choices and over-the-top acting. The other is a more realistic, musically inclined and historically rooted romantic drama. Yet, the structure of their stories and the way they use their central conceits are actually similar, and both are unique in that they spend more time than usual in developing the bonds and friendships between the male protagonists. They are quintessential teenage stories, but they don’t wallow in the adolescent mindset that a lot of lesser anime series inhabit.
Kids on the Slope (Apollon) is actually the more conventional of the two, in that it follows some fairly standard shoujo/josei romance dramatic tropes. The male characters can be slotted into well-known archetypes: studious-yet-sensitive bookworm (Kaoru), troubled-yet-kind outsider (Sentarou), rakish-yet-fascinating older man (Jun), even flamboyant boy (Seiji, though he is not presented in a positive light). Ri-chan fits the yearning schoolgirl caught between two loves, and Yurika the rich girl longing to break free from social expectations.
Of course, one could slot almost all the characters in Honey and Clover similarly, too. What counts, as always, is execution and character development, and in that Watanabe has excelled in giving the characters rich dialogue and subtext, amplifying the emotional conflicts with superb jazz performances—almost too superb to be believable, honestly, but as a dramatic device for expressing character feelings, it sure beats exposition.
The jazz performances, in fact, are the outward expression of the men’s inward bonds of friendship and family. Kaoru’s initial inability to swing and improvise reflect his cautious, timid nature, as Sentarou’s free drumming showcases his free spirit. They play well or badly together depending on the state of their relationship. Sentarou’s love of jazz was mentored by Jun, and whether Jun is there to play along on trumpet is a measure of how things are going in his life too. Not playing together is the ultimate sign of alienation. The “reunion” show between Sentarou and Kaoru is one of the most emotionally powerful concert scenes I’ve ever seen in anime, rivaling the Haruhi “God Knows” concert, in which the interplay between the piano and drums forms a kind of dialogue in itself.
Not only is it emotionally effective, but it gets the way jazz performance in particular really is a kind of dialogue in itself: the soloist is always playing off the rhythm section, the melody line, with plenty of call and response between instrumentalists. As unrealistically spectacular as these high school musicians are, I’m pleased to see that Watanabe and Kanno really understand deeply what the spirit of the music is. I won’t be surprised if this show leads many to start listening to the old masters and standards. It’s a lot more effective to show why the music is so emotionally compelling than simply give a technical or historical lesson.
I’d say actually that the male friendships depicted in the show are more interesting than the more conventional opposite-sex romances. Despite a few gestures here and there to get the BL fangirls excited, it’s actually a believable portrait of straight, close male friendship. There’s always this element of competition between Kaoru and Sentarou amid the musical rapport and sharing of their lives. Sentarou and Jun really are like brothers, in that they share similarities in personality and interests, one has closely mentored the other, and there is this contentiousness that constantly challenges them. Coming from a broken, mixed-race home, as well as being a religious minority as a Christian, Sentarou also has the burden of conflicted identity on top.
The real emotional heart of the series is how he and Kaoru deal with their upbringings and forge a bond despite their difficulties, with music as a catalyst. This is where the similarities with Tsuritama come in.
Tsuritama may use a completely different set of tropes and starting points than Apollon, but oddly enough ends up in a similar place in the character arcs of the main protagonists. In fact, with opposite sex romance virtually non-existent, it spends even more time on building up the male bonding than Apollon, and through a classic “man” activity to boot—fishing.
Look beyond the childlike, Prince Myshkin-esque Haru (who, oddly enough, actually plays a similar role that Sentarou does for Kaoru—he’s just a happy rather than troubled free spirit until recently) and you see another mentor-like relationship between Yuki and Natsuki. Natsuki and Yuki both have broken families in one way or another, and are both looking for brother and suitable father figures in their lives. Both Natsuki and Yuki end up expressing their developing selves through fishing: the training, equipment, and mastery of it, not unlike the way Kaoru’s learning of jazz and playing together with others signals his social growth. Tsuritama is, admittedly, much more a “fishing” show like Apollon is a “jazz” show, in that the equipment and technique is more lovingly detailed and explained—but this fades over time and the casting of lines, searching for the right bait, and the journeying out into the water become metaphors for what the characters need to do.
The sci-fi plot aspect of it, with Haru and his sister and Akira’s DUCK organization (a truly inspired comedic creation, I might add), almost seems incidental. The poignancy of it comes from seeing the recent episode’s troubles as an expression of Haru’s pain and desperation to hold on to friendship. Yuki’s grandmother, of course, sees it right away. Key to resolving the plot is resolving whatever is troubling Haru, and it won’t happen unless Yuki, Natsuki, and others who have become bonded through fishing work together to aid his quest. This is, of course, a classic quest plot in many ways, and it has emotional heft in the midst of the silliness because of the bonds that were built earlier through the fishing scenes.
It’s an interesting coincidence that Apollon and Tsuritama, which are possibly the two premiere series of this spring and helmed by great directors, would share that much in common. Perhaps this is a sign that anime is heading elsewhere after a few years of creative stagnation, and it’s going to be exciting to see where things are headed in this age of transition. Nevertheless, the virtues that both of them display—an understanding of how to work with theme, interesting and deep character interaction, and competent pacing and directing—are timeless. They both have, to borrow the slogan of one of my favorite burger joints, “quality you can taste.”