Jazz is an odd choice in Christmas music, don’t you think? Perhaps a carol or a classic piece that everybody in the family knows, one that speaks of childhood and adulthood, of ages past and future, of shepherds and angels, of holiness and joy—a song like this may be more appropriate for this time of the year.
“Hark, the herald angels sing”, or “Adeste Fideles”, or “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”, or “Jingle Bells” or even Mariah Carey would do the trick. The echoes of sleigh bells, the familiar sounds, and the ascending chords that evoke happy memories. Snow, sleighs, home fires, family reunions, traditions and presents.
But now, let’s imagine a picturesque bar somewhere in the Japan of 1966, where Christmas is not well-known or celebrated by the majority of the population. One where strangers and foreign soldiers, lost souls and people who are far from home for whatever reason all hang out together on December 25th.
But maybe this classy, adventurous, unpredictable music style is just what the customers of Jazz Bar Stella need to hear just then in order to see a little of the Christmas star.
This is where Sakamichi no Apollon (Kids on the Slope), a deep and unique work of anime realism, takes us during episode four. Mild spoilers ahead. Don’t expect a classic Christmas-themed, self-contained anime episode. Instead, you will get two or three very life-like Christmases, full of anxieties and moments of joy, errors and presents, revelations and unresolved issues. Just like ours.
Our protagonists (two of whom are Catholic and were singing at church yesterday night) have been rehearsing for a long time now for their first live performance on Christmas Day. Likewise, every year I wait and prepare all through Advent to celebrate the feast, first with God, then with others. But life is unpredictable, and sometimes, things start going awry.
You probably know how it goes. It may be a misplaced assumption, a misreading of the signs, or a hurtful rejection. It may be a burst of envy, or a family tragedy you never learned of. Someone that has just drunk too much, or you yourself losing your temper. Plans collapse. Memories get tainted. Where there should be harmony and joy, there’s painful ambiguity.
And yet, as long as your friend keeps playing, you get to respond. Time after time. That’s just how jazz is.
I think that’s why for Kaoru Nishimi, jazz means freedom. Freedom, friendship, connection.
When his father, a man of the sea, was far away in his travels, this young man played classical music on his piano, overwhelmed by emotion and loneliness. That fit his image as a model student, talented and guarded, in the midst of a refined and ruthless environment marked by the absence of both of his parents, since his mother too had gone away years ago.
One day, however, he found a strange and unpredictable type of music that is played by improvising—fencing and bantering with melodies and rhythms. Music like walking outside in the rain, like getting into a fight, like falling in love, like having a friend. Music that you cannot play alone.
As a dismissive classmate whom everyone is afraid of tells him, it doesn’t matter if you get the chords exactly right. But miss the “swing”, the mood, and all is lost.
Sakamichi no Apollon is a very odd kind of story. Its rhythm is almost perfect, and yet it’s full of unanswered questions, of sudden leaps in time, of things that, like in real life, just don’t play out as one would have expected or wished for so long. It’s frustrating, it’s messy. It’s not clear-cut. It’s real. And, in many ways, it is the story of something that went quite wrong.
In Sakamichi, as in life, a character flaw may come back again, and again, and again. After finding Sentaro, Ritsuko and jazz, Nishimi would continue to misinterpret his own story and the story of those around him, making incorrect assumptions, projecting his wounds, being blind to the changes, or failing at getting the timing right. Sometimes painfully so.
And yet, the unpredictability may not be so terrifying, because there would always be a reply from the other side. And after hearing it, he would get to play again. Trying to get into the “swing” again in his own way.
But, as you get more into it, you also feel your own vulnerability. What if it stops? What if you play, and there’s only silence in reply? Is there something worse than a question that never gets answered, and is it an unfinished melody?
This actually happens during our Christmas episode. Sentaro, the guy of the “swing”, has been grumpy and distracted, and Nishimi has been trying to make him respond with his music. It starts to work. And then, a drunkard makes a racist comment, and the young musician finally loses his temper. He almost starts a fight. When Junichi, the man he respects and loves as a brother, stops him, he just walks away in disgust.
The way Junichi responds to that chain of incidents threatening to spoil the Christmas concert is very telling. He responds. Drawing attention to himself, he sings a song of both bittersweet melancholy and elegant comedy, Chet Baker’s cover of But not for me (you can hear it here).
To ignore the change in the mood would be farcical. Instead, he reacts to it, channeling the waters along calmer courses, bringing the feast to a conclusion through his own personal contribution, his own improvisation suffused with kindness, courage, a bit of sadness, and a discreet but firm hope.
It’s no wonder that a certain person in the audience falls for him right then.
Ever since I heard it here, I’ve found this song very helpful in various occasions of my life, and I have used it since as a strange kind of jazz prayer whenever I needed to express this kind of feeling. This melancholic, perhaps comical acceptance and offering to the Lord. Here are the lyrics of the part that Junichi sings:
They’re writing songs of love,
But not for me:
A lucky star’s above,
But not for me.
With love to lead the way,
I’ve found more skies of grey
Than any Russian play
If you are attentive, you will find this same feeling, this same structure over and over again in the series. Bittersweet kindness. A loss, nobly turned into an offering. A true and complete reply on your own terms. Love and friendship may lead you to difficult and unlikely places, but silence has not won yet.
Christmas itself is a beautiful reply of this kind by God Himself. He responded to us wounding ourselves, betraying Him and walking away from the beautiful symphony of Creation. And He did it by expressing His unending love in a way that is personal and universal, joyful and sad, earthly and celestial, old and new. In His characteristically wild, humble and unpredictable way.
He responded to all the sounds of our messy world with His own Christmas song, one echoed by shepherds and angels, by wise men and by stars, by Joseph and by Mary. One to which we can respond, trusting that He will respond in turn, that He hears us and cares. More than that, that He will play in turn.
That is the great gift. That is the secret, the good news, the door to wonder. Jesus, God and man, will be in the midst of our lives in this long and strange journey. We have a friend, a truly personal bond, real freedom, and hope.
In the tale of Nativity, we see a lot of this. Questions and answers. The initiative of God, and the response of Mary. The dream of St. Joseph, and his obedience. The sign of the star, and the response of the Magi. The announcement to Herod, and his murderous response, and God’s response to that in turn.
And thus, the angel said to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests!” Let us respond with our own melodies, deeply intertwined with each other and with that of the angels as we play together the song of all songs.
In happy times, in sad times, in desperate times, in dry times, we may respond to Christ’s song with our own tune. We will become friends. We may complain, as did Jeremiah, or argue, as did Peter. We may joke or banter, be angry or be chastened. We may listen and talk. We may sing with others. As long as this channel is open, there will be another melody, another question, another song. And if we walk away, He will be responding with firm love, and will wait for us to pick up the drumsticks again.
The intimate life of God, of the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit, can also be understood thus. The same song, in the vibrant mood of love, perfectly received and answered, in perfect, creative obedience, perfect, loving correspondence, wild and adventurous, intimate and deep, moving everything that exists, every moment of the Gospel or the life of the Church, every movement of grace in our souls.
The Universe is moving like a big jazz song. In perfect, stable harmony, and dynamic, burning love.
Exiled in our picturesque worlds, far from home, living Christmases that are heartwarming and others that are confusing or downright disastrous, we keep on living. May we respond to the music that fills us these days, as did Mary, and Joseph, Ricchan, and Sentaro, and whatever may happen, may we keep responding to it in our own way, one that is personal and fruitful, one that is harmonious and helpful, one that is faithful and truthful.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Sakamichi no Apollon can be streamed on Crunchyroll.