ANIME REVIEW: KIDS ON THE SLOPE
Original year of release: 2012
Director: Shinichiro Watanabe
Writer: Yuki Kodama (manga) Yuuko Kakihara (series composition and script writing)
Number of episodes: 12
Runtime per episode: 22 mins
STORY AND CHARACTERS
I am a huge fan of anime. That in itself is not that surprising a reveal I would imagine. But as a huge fan of the medium, it’s often disheartening for me to see how many people, including other fans of the medium, are unaware of just how rich and diverse an artform anime really is. When people think of anime they think of super-powered teenagers fighting monsters or big-breasted girls or giant robots. Those shows definitely exist and some of them are really fun. However, there is so much more out there. There are absolute gems that surpass anything produced in the west and barely anybody knows about them, let alone seen them. So, it is with immense pleasure that I’m going to be discussing one of those hidden gems today. A show called…Kids on the Slope.
Let me start by saying that I am absolutely baffled by the fact that this is such a very little-known show. Given the hugely impressive staff list I would imagine that at least the more knowledge-able anime viewers would be somewhat aware of it. For starters, it was directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, the director of the much beloved classic space western Cowboy Bebop, as well as Samurai Champloo and more recently Terror in Resonance, all of which were smash hits. To add to that, the music for this series was done by longtime Watanabe collaborator Yoko Kanno who worked on tons of high profile anime such as the aforementioned Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain, Ghost in the Shell – Stand Alone Complex and much more. Lastly, Kids on the Slope was the debut anime of Studio Mappa, which is fast becoming one of the big powerhouses of anime, right up there with Production I.G and Bones. So why is it that barely anybody has heard of this show, let alone seen it?
Again, I think this is because it falls so far outside the mainstream. The series is set in Japan in the 1960s. The story follows Kaoru Nishimi, a high school student who’s forced to constantly move around due to his father’s job. This time he ends up in a small town on the island of Kyushu. Kaoru is a sensitive, not overly manly, boy who loves classical music and playing the piano. Obviously, this doesn’t make him very popular with other classmates and when the show starts, he’s just given up on social interaction and has become quite jaded in his view of humanity.
This all changes when he meets Sentaro, the delinquent punk kid of the school that everybody fears. Maybe it’s because of how jaded he’s become or how different he is, but Kaoru doesn’t fear Sentaro and interacts with him as he would with anyone else. Sentaro picks up on that and starts hanging around Kaoru, eventually introducing him to a whole new music style he’s never heard of before: Jazz.
Through Sentaro, Kaoru also meets Ritsuko, who’s been Sentaro’s friend since childhood. Her father owns a music store where Kaoru and Sentaro practice their jazz and hold jamming sessions in the basement. Eventually they form a close friendship and create a high school band.
Now I know what you’re thinking…”so this is just the jazz version of K-On?” The answer to that question is a resounding “not at all”. Jazz in this series is used as a leitmotif to illustrate the development of its characters and their complex relationships with one another. Like the jazz they play they are always in flux as they struggle with the hardships of adolescence and social issues plaguing Japan at the time. But like the music they play it is through experience and the obstacles they overcome that they learn to better themselves. Not just as musicians but as people, while slowly reaching maturity.
I’m not going to beat around the bush: Kids on the Slope is a phenomenal show. It’s similar in premise and execution to American coming of age films such as Dead Poets Society or Moonlight. But while those films are great they are limited by their relatively short runtime which prevents them to really delve into the characters and their internal struggles. Kids on the Slope has about double the amount of runtime as the average film and as such can achieve things that no Hollywood production could ever dream of doing. The average quality of writing in this series is leagues beyond what you will find in any mainstream anime and dare I say even most niche shows. Nowhere is this clearer than with its cast of diverse and incredibly multi-layered characters.
Take Sentaro for instance. When we first meet him, he appears to be your straight-up punk kid who always gets into fights and rarely shows up at school. It’s a trope we’ve seen in thousands of anime before and since. But before long it becomes obvious that more than anything Sentaro is mostly at war with himself and as the story progresses we learn of the deeply rooted racial issues that bely this delinquent persona that Sentaro has adopted. Issues that stem from a past that Japan would much rather like to forget and whose long-lasting influences continue to be an issue even now. Sentaro’s violent outbursts result not from a personal desire but an entire society demonizing him for something he never even had a choice in being. It’s these complex and subtle ways in which Kids on the Slope discusses deeply-rooted societal issues through the lens of its main characters that make the show as much of a standout as it is.
To a lesser extent, the same can be seen with Kaoru and his development. While his backstory and the underlying societal issues are less well explored, it’s undeniable that he struggles with his much more sensitive and less manly nature. Especially in a time where men were supposed to be tough and muscular. This kind of character we’ve seen in anime before as well though almost exclusively in boy love shows. Yet Kaoru is undeniably straight. Once again Kids on the Slope challenges our views of well-used tropes and forces us to look at its characters as individuals, not as common stereotypes, by extension challenging our views of how we see people in general. Not just in the media we consume but also in our everyday lives.
Society is a collection of people and people are part of a society. One is inextricably linked with the other. Kids on the Slope comments on both. As its main characters learn about themselves and their place in society so does society respond to these ostensibly social outcasts, carving a place for themselves in the world. But it goes beyond that as, while watching the show, we ourselves learn something both about the development of the individual as well as the ever-changing nature of society and how norms are dependent on the movement of certain individuals. For all the fun there is to be had by watching shows about teenagers fighting monsters or piloting giant robots, it’s shows like these that I believe make anime as remarkable and praiseworthy an art form as it is.
ANIMATION AND MUSIC
Since this series is directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, it should come as no surprise that the visual direction is terrific. He and his team of animators have maintained a consistent level of quality across all episode which is very rare for anime. I also really love the colour palette which paints the show in lots of sepia tones and the amount of detail that went into each frame is astonishing.
Another thing worthy of note is just how much animation there is. Oftentimes series with a lot of very high-quality animation are action-oriented with the bulk of the sakuga focused on the big battles. Kids on the Slope has no action but instead almost every scene has a lot of moving parts to it. From characters changing their entire facial expression when they talk instead of just animating the mouths, to little background animations such as cars driving by that really liven up the scene. At times even, entire scenes play out in the background while something completely different happens in the foreground.
If you watch the making-of that is included on the DVD and Blu-ray sets of the show it becomes very obvious that everyone involved had an amazing time working on the show and gave it their all and it really shows. No expense was spared in bringing this beautiful story to life with animation that’s as rich and evocative as the story it depicts.
As for the music…,I’m really not gonna go into that because I believe that is something you have to discover for yourself and let yourself be swept by it. Suffice to say…it’s something special.
If you associate drama with “soapy bullshit” then this is not for you. Otherwise, I would recommend this to more or less everyone. Even if you only just got into anime, this is a great show to discover just how vast and diverse this medium really is. If all the anime you watch consists of superpowered teenagers fighting monsters, that’s perfectly fine. I enjoy those shows from time to time as well. But I do strongly encourage you to occasionally check out a show like this. It’s not hard to understand and it’s absolutely riveting. I had to force myself not to watch all of it in one sitting. Of course, I can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy this as much as I did. Enjoyment is after all, dependent on a person’s tastes. But at the same time, as long as you don’t dislike drama, I cannot possibly see anyone not enjoying this at all. It’s incredibly well-written, beautifully animated and has phenomenal music. I hesitate to call it a masterpiece but it’s come closer than almost any show that I have watched to date. As such it deserves the highest of accolades, which I’m going to give right now:
Kids on the Slope can be streamed legally on Crunchyroll. It’s also been licensed for both DVD and Blu-ray in the US by Sentai Filmworks and in the UK by MVM Entertainment.
My first recommendation for those who’ve already seen this show and loved it, goes to a long time favourite of mine: Chihayafuru. Like Kids on the Slope, it’s a coming of age story about a bunch of outcast teenagers slowly learning about themselves and society. Though in this case it’s not framed through a story about Jazz, but rather, a competitive card game known as Karuta. Either way, this is an amazing show that really more people should check out.
The second recommendation is sort of a blind one since the show is only halfway done. I’m talking about the currently airing anime: Sagrada Reset. At first glance, this is a very different series being a supernatural mystery series set in a town where everyone has some sort of special ability they can use. However, what the series is really about is people trying to discover their own identity while struggling with a society that is unwilling or unable to accept them for who they are. So, if you liked the more philosophical and socio-critical aspects of Kids on the Slope, this should be right up your alley.
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Anime Review: Kids on the Slope
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