Kids On The Slope (Sakamichi no Apollon)
Japan (2018) Dir. Takahiro Miki
Another live action adaptation of a successful and in this writer’s opinion top shelf anime series, meaning it has a LOT to live up to. But unlike other anime properties, being a slice of life show means it has less visual spectacle to replicate, only a compelling story not to mess up…
Summer 1966 and Kaoru Nishimi (Yuri Chinen) transfers into a new school, the latest of a long line of moves due to his father’s work. He soon makes friends with class rep Ritsuko Mukae (Nana Komatsu) and tough guy Sentaro Kawabuchi (Taishi Nakagawa). Learning Ritsuko’s family run a record store, Kaoru hopes to buy a classical music album for his piano studies but instead ends up jamming with drummer Sentaro who plays jazz.
Whilst the trio bond over their love of music, Kaoru starts to falls for Ritsuko though she has unrequited feelings for childhood friend Sentaro. He doesn’t notice Ritsuko for he has fallen for older girl Yurika Fukahori (Erina Mano), but nothing will come of it as Yurika has eyes for Sentaro’s mentor, jazz trumpeter Junichi Katsuragi (Dean Fujioka). These twisted love triangles threaten to ruin the relationships between everyone.
Kids On The Slope began life as a manga by Yuki Kodama in 2007 with the excellent anime adaptation arriving five years later, so director Takahiro Miki has his work cut out for him making this live action version maintain the high standards this story has already built up. Visually, he nails the late 60s vibe and immersive aesthetic that also drives the anime; story wise that is a different matter.
Miki is no stranger to live action anime adaptations or films involving music which ideally makes him eminently qualified to handle this project; however, there is one obstacle that blights every single translation from animation to live action – the story. Most anime run for 12 episodes which equates to around 300 minutes of TV airtime – films don’t that luxury thus the story needs to be redacted.
Pulling a Peter Jackson and making a trilogy of films from Kodama’s story is not an option, so it needs to be condensed to fit inside 114-mnutes which requires many sacrifices of the subplots and some reworking of the narrative to accommodate this. If you have seen the anime then this will become apparent soon enough; if you haven’t then chances are you wouldn’t notice.
That said I do need to give Miki and screenwriter Izumi Takahashi credit for doing their best to maintain the integrity of the source material through some of the changes. For instance, the film opens ten years after the events of the main story, with Kaoru now a doctor in Tokyo reminiscing about his past, to act as a wraparound that fits in with the timeline of the original ending.
In the name of expedience, we blitz through the introduction of the main cast, again with some minor changes, and the first meeting between Kaoru and Sentaro. The basic gist is the same but many of the events are conflated to save time; this becomes a regular motif of the film, likely to confuse anyone familiar with the anime, as this means some things occur out of sequence or context.
Yurika is an important part of the original story and the ultimate fracturing of the main group dynamic but here she is almost incidental, afforded barely more than 10 minutes of screen time. Not only is her arc reduced to practically nothing, Ritsuko’s jealousy of Yurika is subsequently vastly underplayed to the point of having little impact through the sparse amount of time Yurika had to cast her spell over Sentaro.
Junichi also suffers from being a fleeting presence despite again playing a valuable role in Sentaro’s life, and his own story adds to the central drama as well to the impetus behind Sentaro and Kaoru’s growth as a musical unit. I suppose we should be grateful Junichi and Yurika weren’t cut completely but even in these limited roles, I feel even the uninitiated might be wanting more from the to appreciate their inclusion in the story.
Not all the expurgated content was vital to the central plot, leaving the contention of the decision’s Miki made as to what was kept or jettisoned subjective for knowledgeable fans watching. Unfortunately, Ritsuko also becomes a victim of this culling, reducing her role to that of cheerleader, catalyst, and supplier of tears on cue to lead the audience into feeling the emotion of the scene. Luckily, she is not limited further by being shot as a soft focused heavenly vision, or blatant eye candy, but her weight as a character is less than it was in the anime.
Considering Nana Komatsu, one of Japan’s fastest rising actresses, is playing Ritsuko I’m sure this will have some fans aghast at this apparent waste of her talent, but she embodies the purity and honesty of Ritsuko perfectly, offsetting Sentaro’s testosterone and Kaoru’s staidness, and given some of the dark roles Komatsu has played, she might have found this a nice change of pace.
Having undergone stringent music lessons to master their respective instruments Taishi Nakagawa and Yuri Chinen prove perfect fits for Sentaro and Kaoru, creating a credible chemistry to carry the drama and levity, whilst also being convincing during the musical performances. Regarding the music, there are enough to keep the theme alive when the melodrama threatens to dominate, with Art Blakley’s Moanin’ again the track of choice for their jam sessions.
Kids On The Slope is a frustrating film – it is well made, well acted, and captures the spirit and essence of the anime to make any fan want to embrace it with the same fervour. However, the story was built on many emotional ups and downs which are vanquished due to time restraints. I can’t call it a bad film, or even a bad adaptation but certainly a lacking one, deserving a lament and not scorn.