Kids On The Slope Complete Collection (Cert 12)
2 Discs (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 277 minutes approx.
It’s the summer of 1966 and Kaoru Nishimi is once again transferring to a new school because of his father’s job, this time in Kyushu. Initially Kaoru feels like the proverbial square peg and thinks even less of his new surroundings until two people enter his life to change this – pretty class rep Ritsuko Mukae and feared thug Sentarō Kawabuchi, the latter has a passion for playing the drums. His chosen music is Jazz, while the studious Kaoru is a classically trained pianist. Ristsuko’s father Tsutomu owns a Jazz record shop, in the basement of which Sentarō practices his drums with Tsutomu on double bass, and the charismatic Junichi Katsuragi on trumpet. To impress Ritsuko, Kaoru joins them on piano and thus new friendships begin.
There are many reasons to for anime fans to celebrate the release of this title. First it is one of the most vibrant, and heart warming coming-of-age dramas seen in a long time. Secondly, it may be a based on a Josei manga by Yuki Kodama but its appeal stretches to us blokes too. Finally it marks the reunion of the successful and influential duo director Shinichirō Watanabe and musical maestro Yoko Kanno, their previous combined efforts including the seminal Cowboy BeBop. With Kanno’s Jazz leanings, Kids On The Slope is practically tailored made for her and the end result is rewarding for all of us. But there is more to the show than this.
Teenage romances are ten a penny in anime but this show nicely subverts many of the clichés and bad habits others fall into, with only a few little recognisable contrivances for anyone suffering withdrawal symptoms – certainly not enough to spoil things. The late 60’s setting is inspired, allowing the innocence of post war Japan teenagers to resonate with believability while at the same time, the burgeoning uprising of the rock and roll rebel is far more convincing than the modern day anime bad boy. With Jazz being far more prevalent to the period among teens at that point (actually considered as rebellious as rock & roll believe it or not), this allows for both Kanno and Kodama to indulge in a clear passion of theirs to share with the rest of us. Plus, the absence of mobile phones and computers for the love struck teens is a welcome respite to help this series stand out from the rest.
Our main protagonists couldn’t be any different from each other. Years of moving from school to school have made Kaoru very aware that he stands out from everyone else, not least due to his being rich and his academic superiority. Yet he isn’t a snob about it, just naturally aloof as a result of always being the new curiosity for his ever changing classmates. Sentarō may be the fearsome giant of the class with his scarred cheek and propensity for cracking skulls but he is in fact a gentle soul, having to look after his younger brothers and sisters in the absence of a father. Being half American and abandoned by his mother, Sentarō had to fight prejudice all his life, hence his gruff exterior. Ritsuko is as cute as button, sweet as sugar and sensitive as a lamb. She is the glue that keeps the trio together while her tacit crush on Sentarō and her avoidance of Kaoru’s feelings towards her also threatens to tear them apart.
The romance doesn’t end there. Sentarō falls for older school beauty Yurika Fukahori, whom he saves from harassment on the beach. However she can’t reciprocate these feelings as she falls for Junichi, who Sentarō idolises and calls “Brother Jun”. The complications that arise aren’t as predictable as you may think and while Kodama has to appeal to those content with the status quo, her willingness to take the odd detour towards new directions will widen the appeal to beyond the target audience. Such welcome eliminations of romance conventions include the internal monologue whenever Ristuko has a magic or happy moment, as if her facial expression isn’t indication enough for the viewer.
As the catalyst that brings the characters together the music will be a significant attraction for the series. All songs and tunes played are genuine Jazz classics, which may mean nothing to you now but I guarantee you will be humming them by the time the final episode comes round. In one humorous development Kaoru and Sentarō fall out when Sentarō joins a Beatles inspired rock band, anathema of the Jazz fan! The 1958 classic Moanin’ by Art Blakey, a highly addictive piano lead piece, is the first track Kaoru learns and becomes the staple anthem for his and Sentarō’s friendship. All performances have been replicated from real life performances from young Jazz musicians for maximum authenticity and area treat to watch. A keen eye will have observed the accurate album cover representations of many classic titles to show that the research and attention to detail has been meticulous and respectful. Rather incongruously the opening and closing songs are standard pop ballads and not Jazz, a move that frankly beggars belief.
The romance genre might be a departure for Shinichirō Watanabe and his usual bombast is practically non-existent here, but he brings a maturity, humour and a touch of cool to the project that separates this from the usual soppy fare. The animation, artwork and character designs remain within the genre’s model but everyone has a distinct and well rounded personality to avoid being bland. And even when heartstrings are tugged on, it is with a restrained panache to keep it on the right side of emotional.
For what could have been an anodyne slice of romantic fluff, Kids On The Slope is in fact one of the classiest anime shows to hit the scene in a long time. The uplifting soundtrack, engaging characters and intelligent approach to a stale genre makes this a completely enriching experience. A modern classic without question.
Interview with Shinichiro Watanabe
Interview with Takashi Matsunaga & Shun Ishiwaka
Interview with Yoko Kanno
Rating – *****
Man In Black