Kids on the Slope
During the summer of 1966, Kaoru Nishimi moves to Kyushu in order to live with relatives, as his father's job no longer allows the two to live together and his mother has not been a part of his life for years. Intelligent but extremely reserved, he arrives at school with no expectation of making friends, but a chance encounter with Sentaro Kawabuchi, an infamous troublemaker, leads the two to slowly become close in spite of their outward incompatibility. When Kaoru, a classically-trained pianist, discovers Sentaro's largely unknown skill as a jazz drummer, the two begin to jam in the basement of Sentarou's friend Ritsuko's house, and very soon his rigid training gives way to the joy of playing jazz in all of its refreshing spontaneity.
With the exception of documentaries and academic analyses, movies and television that discuss music typically use it as a metaphor as much as they use it as a concrete subject. After all, learning to play an instrument is an invariably good analogy for personal growth: confidence is as essential to make full use of a piano or drum kit's range of sound as it is to be socially adept, while it's about as hard to change an ingrained aspect of one's personality as it is to change styles from classical to jazz. Kids on the Slope, directed by Cowboy Bebop's Shinichiro Watanabe and brimming with the musical references characteristic of his work, spends as much time discussing the connection between prowess as a musician and confidence as a person as it does showing the pure joy of music and exhibiting its exceptional soundtrack. While it suffers at times from overwrought drama and doesn't quite pull off the love story it attempts to tell, it is a very satisfying show to watch: one that doesn't make the mistake of treating youth as one's absolute best years and yet never downplays its importance to personal growth, and one whose solid script deftly turns a potentially cliche-ridden story of "geek meets punk" into a poignant series.
Kids on the Slope has a fairly large cast of main characters, almost all of whom are somehow connected to the record shop in whose basement Sentaro practices drums and most of whom become involved in his musical endeavors. Though I liked everybody by the end of the series, the first episode somewhat tested my patience with them: said episode presents them as the standard archetypes of high school anime, with Kaoru being not only unbelievably tense but also prone to sudden bouts of physical sickness (an awkward "gag" that the show never revisits), Ritsuko being almost too helpful to everybody in her class, and Sentaro being the show's resident resentment-filled punk. I can't help but wonder whether this was done intentionally, as the characters start to become engaging the instant that Kaoru first hears Sentaro play drums, but it makes for a bit of an uncomfortable opener, one that doesn't do a particularly good job of representing the much better-written dialogue of later episodes. Once it finds its stride, however, Kids on the Slope thrives as a character-driven drama, one in which the characters's efforts to become better musicians run right alongside the ups and downs of teenage friendship. I was surprised to find that I liked Kaoru, whom Sentaro amusingly dubs "Richie Rich", in spite of his prim and judgmental personality, and I was impressed that the show successfully made a weak-willed character into a compelling lead, using deft internal dialogue to careful outline the distinction between the timid and jealous person he is and the more relaxed person he wants to be. Sentarou and Ritsuko's presence certainly helps, and just as their practice sessions slowly teach Kaoru the musical stylings of jazz and the sheer joy of improvisation, their friendship, though very prone to ups and downs, is by and large one in which several entirely different people learn how to complement each other's personalities.
The rest of the main cast is rounded out by Yurika, a rebellious daughter of an aristocratic family with a talent for painting, Ritsuko's bass-playing father Tsutomu, an aspiring pop musician named Seiji, and Jun, a college-aged trumpeter whom Sentarou idolizes for his skill as an improviser and outspoken personality. The character development definitely benefits from the show's historical setting, as Seiji's poppy musical style and image as a clean-cut star is used to clash with Sentarou's personality before the show deftly touches on their mutual commitment to music, Yurika's old-fashioned upbringing clashes with her free-willed personality, and Jun's occupation as a radical journalist is used to highlight a disastrous series of protests in Tokyo that occurred at the same time as the widespread student uprising in America. Each is wise and somehow possible to warm up to in his or her own way, and I found myself clapping for the characters when their endeavors succeeded and empathizing with them as some fell into failed romances and periods of deep self-hatred. At times, however, Kids on the Slope tries to wrench the audience's emotions a bit too hard, and while some of this can perhaps be attributed to the emotional instability of teenage years, it becomes very overwrought at a few moments, essentially saying "here is the drama! look at it" and thus making ruining the atmosphere at a few key moments. Though very capable of humor and making full use of its cast in slice-of-life-type situations, it tends to lose its touch when the conversation gets heated. The love stories present in this show, meanwhile, are a bit unsatisfying (with one exception), and while Kids on the Slope doesn't make the mistake of treating its romances as the culmination of life and the most beautiful story ever told (as too many movies attempt to do), it ends up being a case of "lots of buildup and little payoff" that makes them a bit frustrating to watch. Nonetheless, Kids on the Slope is a well-told tale, and at the end, the overwrought moments are forgotten; the final sequence in particular is one of the most fitting I've seen in anime lately, and it's especially remarkable considering that it both picks up the mess of one of the series' largest meltdowns and establishes just how meaningful the story ultimately is in less than ten minutes.
But what of the music? The music, indeed, is the best part of the show, being both plain fun to watch and viscerally satisfying as the characters work to improve their skills as jazz musicians. The soundtrack, a mix of a piano-and-keyboard heavy Yoko Kanno score and numerous jazz tunes from the 50s and 60s, will be a treat for both Kanno fans and Jazz Aficionados, and it's clear to me that everyone involved did a good job of researching the music of that era, as many of the songs are little-known outside of the jazz world. At times, the performances are simply magical: the scenes of the characters performing are intense and well-animated, with the viewpoint carefully chosen to highlight certain technical peaks, and it certainly doesn't hurt that the characters' finger movements are perfectly synchronized to the music, a detail that few other shows bother to include. Just as the historical setting breathes life into the characters' motivations, it helps the show feel tangible and almost magical at times and yet it neither shies away from the problems of the time) nor mythologizes the era uneasily. Yoko Kanno's dreamy piano music plays over days spent on boating trips and days spent painting and playing jazz, and yet we see it continue to play over troubling moments such as one drunk American sailor's racist rant against Kaoru and Sentarou playing "coon" jazz in a club, the self-hatred that Jun goes through when a saxophonist friend of his has his fingers broken while participating in a protest, and such personal troubles as Ritsuko's struggle with her perceived plainness and Sentarou's struggle with an alcoholic stepfather and the stigma of being an illegitimate child. Just as drumming keeps Sentarou sane, the music of Kids on the Slope is what ultimately holds the show together through all of its ups and downs: though not every character will become a professional musician and each will have to make the tough choice between contending with a difficult reality or burning all bridges to start a new life (and it is ultimately interesting to see which characters pick which paths), the effect the music leaves behind on each is indelible, the memory of passionate melodies remaining behind even when a band has broken up.
Quite frankly, it's good to see Shinichiro Watanabe directing again, and while much of the credit to this show's success goes to Yuki Kodama and her original manga, I very much enjoyed seeing him tackle a story that directly focuses on music (compared to his other work, which typically treats musical culture as a sort of "artistic accent" to an unrelated story). Unlike the rest of Watanabe's repertoire, Kids on the Slope moves slowly and thus may not gain widespread appeal, but the placid pace gives it the space to breathe that action-intense scenes would likely eliminate and which is crucial for a story like this to work. Though it has some weaknesses that keep it from being among my favorites, its poignancy and its adept choice of viewpoint as a reflective rather than purely nostalgic show ultimately win out over its mistakes. Mutual fans of anime and jazz will enjoy seeing Art Blakey and Bill Evans be featured as the thematic center of a television series, while for those who have little experience with music, it's a great way to learn about the joy of ensemble playing and one of anime's best depictions of that experience so far.
I'm frustrated enough with the angsty moments, underwhelming first episode, and imperfectly-written romances to take a star away, but on the whole I quite enjoyed this series. I wouldn't really recommend this for those who have no tolerance for slow-paced anime, but the rest of you should give it a go. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: This probably wouldn't be a great thing to show to kids, as many of them would find the pace to be frustratingly slow. In addition to that, there are enough references to such topics as elopement, alcohol abuse, illegitimacy, and racism that the show would best be appreciated by older audiences.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of crunchyroll.com (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Kids on the Slope © 2012 Yuki Kodama / Shogakukan / Kids on the Slope Committee
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