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.
Based on the manga series by Yuki Kodama, Kids on the Slope has been on my ‘to watch’ list for a few years ever since I learned that it is directed by Shinichirō Watanabe and the music was composed by Yoko Kanno, two people who have worked together before on such huge successes as Macross Plus and Cowboy Bebop. The realistic character designs are a breath of fresh air after watching a glut of super-deformed and shoujo designs over the last few weeks. And I’m always on the lookout for anime that pay such detail to music – especially if they make that theme integral to the story such as Your Lie in April.
As I’ve mentioned before, the story of Kids on the Slope really starts rolling when the classical piano-trained Kaoru encounters Sentaro and falls head-over-heels in love with jazz. One thing that I always look forward to is the performance scene of an excellent jazz piece in every episode. Up-and-coming young jazz musicians are employed here, with Takashi Matsunaga (Kaoru) on piano and Shun Ishiwaka (Sentaro) on drums. Yoko Kanno’s production on these moments is truly incredible. You can just close your eyes and immerse yourself in the rhythm and melody. But if you do, you miss the beautifully fluid animation of the characters ‘jamming’ together, the powerful emotions on their faces and the perfectly synchronised close-ups of sticks hitting drums and fingers interacting with piano keys.
The characters are believable and, in the best case, wonderful. The burgeoning love triangle between Kaoru, Sentaro and Ritsuko is done so realistically. It has all the embarrassment, awkwardness and raw honesty that falling in love as a teenager has without becoming either boring or too sensational. The characters grow convincingly and the passage of time is done so well that it shows how quickly feelings and situations can change and what impact it can have on a person, and then how it affects the delicate balance of their relationships with others as a result. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Kids on the Slope thrives as a character-driven drama anime, one in which all characters’s efforts to become better musicians run right alongside the ups and downs of their everyday lives I was surprised to find that, after a few episodes, I really started to warm towards Kaoru, whom Sentaro amusingly dubs “Richie Rich”, in spite of his prim and judgmental personality. I was surprised at the anime’s subtle ability to make e a weak-willed character into a compelling lead, using deft internal dialogue to gently outline the distinction between the timid and jealous person he is and the more relaxed, outgoing person he wants to be.
It also shows us the bigger picture of what was going on in Japan in the 60s – the political aspects, the protests, the difficulties of being an outsider and the overpowering uniting force that music can be. These aspects stop the story from just being about music and teenagers and is the reason that it’s able to develop into a multi-levelled storyline that gives it more context and depth that makes you feel like you have to reflect on each episode before diving straight into another.
Generally, the pace is a slow one. It reflects the easy-going, idyllic surroundings and certainly complements the narrative, but some may find this dragging frustratingly in places, particularly when dealing with teenage romance and the complex relationships this inevitably includes. Some episodes also include difficult topics such as elopement, illegitimacy, racism and alcohol abuse that younger audiences might not completely appreciate. However, there is something to be said for the special way that everything is mapped out. Kids on the Slope may start out at a slow pace, but the meandering exterior belies a deeper, thoughtful layer that holds a magnifying glass to so many small aspects in order to blow them into magnificent, detailed focuses. Suffice to say I am completely hooked.