Kids on the Slope represents a radical departure from the rest of Shinichiro Watanabe’s oeuvre, in that it is not an anime-original creation but rather an adaptation of an existing work. And an adaptation of a slice-of-life josei manga at that; a strong contrast to the vibrant, action-packed settings Watanabe tends to go for. Legend has it that Watanabe himself was rather unwilling to take up this project that the newly-formed studio MAPPA was trying to get him to do. And it’s not too hard to see why. Stylistic departures like this typically end up in one of two categories. Either they end up flopping, sticking out like a sore thumb amidst the rest of the creator’s work. Or, they can end up becoming a very unique accomplishment, distinct from the rest, perhaps even your finest work.
Kids on the Slope is very firmly the latter.
Kids on the Slope opens with a bespectacled, dull-faced high schooler trudging up a steep incline on the way to school in Kyushu (an island province in Japan’s far south), in 1966. We learn that this boy is called Kaoru, that it is his first day at this school, and that he is new to Kyushu. We learn that, as the son of a sailor, he is accustomed to moving from town to town on account of the nature of his father’s job. As a result, he has never formed truly close bonds with anyone. No happy middle school memories, no childhood friends. With a bitter, almost snarky outlook on life, he curses his situation. He curses all the happy people around him, also on their way to school. Most of all, he curses the slope — that damn slope — that he now has to climb every morning for the next three years.
Unbeknownst to him, that slope, that constant companion of his, comes to represent his life in Kyushu in a nutshell, with its ups and downs.
Kaoru is introduced to his new classmates, to lukewarm reception. Just like how it’s been at every previous school of his. Well, at least the sweet, affable class rep Ritsuko is nice to him. But the rest just mutter things about the ‘stuck up city boy’ behind his back. As he starts to resign himself to this, everything turns upside down.
The rhythmic tap-tapping sound of a person drumming on the corridor railings announces the entry of Sentaro: a hulking, thuggish delinquent. He doesn’t think twice about throwing hands with a bunch of seniors, even when he’s outnumbered. He takes a ‘liking’ to new kid Kaoru, annoying him greatly; doesn’t help that he sits behind him in class. Now not only does he have to deal with unfriendly classmates, he has to deal with this bully as well. His first day couldn’t have been worse.
Well, barring Ritsuko that is. He feels quite comfortable around her. He casually brings up the topic of wanting to buy music records (Kaoru is a classical pianist, you see), which ends up in Ritsuko inviting him home (hilarious scene by the way). He winds up at the basement of her father’s record shop, where he sees a piano. Excited by the prospect of getting to play music, he turns and sees a drum kit. And sitting behind those drums is none other than Sentaro. Shock! Sentaro looks just as confused. What’s this stuck-up classical musician doing in our jazz hideout? Ritsuko! Get this intruder outta here!
Over time, with a little encouragement from the rambunctious Sentaro, Kaoru opens up to the idea of playing jazz, and to the idea of making friends. Kaoru starts to develop feelings for Ritsuko. Too bad then, that she is hopelessly in love with her childhood friend, Sentaro. But alas! Sentaro was struck by love-at-first-sight upon meeting his beautiful senpai, Yurika. But hold on, Yurika is actually in love with...yeah, it’s complicated.
I LOVE these characters. They are not the most unique, conforming to standard high school anime archetypes: the quiet & brooding honour student, the delinquent with a heart of gold, the supportive childhood friend. But damn it if they aren’t the most realistic examples of these archetypes ever. Yes, there is a touch of melodrama in places (as is to be expected when a love chain like this is involved). But their struggles, their conflicts, their insecurities: it’s all so tangible, so familiar. You probably had a weird school life if you can’t empathise with these characters at all.
A lot of these conflicts are shared between characters to bring them into sharper focus. Kaoru and Ritsuko are cowards. Afraid of pushing the people they love far away from them, they keep their true feelings hidden. No matter how much they want to tell someone how they truly feel, they keep their mouth shut. Playing it safe. But how long can you wait? How long can they wait? How do you know you’ve not permanently missed your chance to say anything? I’ve been there before; most of us have.
Meanwhile, Kaoru and Sentaro are outcasts. Especially at home. They don’t belong. All they have is Ritsuko, and each other. Their initial misunderstanding of each other gradually gives way to one of the most heartwarming male friendships I’ve seen in fiction. They are a very odd pair, but they find solace in each other’s company. They fight, but they can’t stay away from each other for long. I found myself smiling every time they were together.
These ‘shared conflicts’ are something of a theme. Junichi (Sentaro and Ritsuko’s longtime family friend) and Sentaro are convinced that they are no good, that they bring harm to anyone around them. Instead of talking it out, they tend to escape their problems, bottle it up. Kaoru and Yurika are afraid of being left behind by the ones they love. They deal with this in starkly different ways. And so on. The depth this brings to the main characters can’t be understated. Even side characters get ample characterisation.
And not all these conflicts are resolved in a happy manner; few are, in fact. Kids on the Slope is quite unforgiving with its characters, accurately depicting the tumultuous and emotionally challenging high school years. There are no happily-ever-afters in real life. Expect an overall bittersweet tone. Cherish the time you get to spend with these characters, taking in all the little moments.
Yes, the little moments. Kids on the Slope is all about the little moments. Kaoru’s first encounter with a sleeping Sentaro ends up in Sentaro mistaking Kaoru for someone from a dream. At the time it is just played as a lighthearted moment. However, a callback to this scene in the penultimate episode completely broke my heart. Sentaro’s camaraderie with his many younger siblings brought a smile to my face. I particularly liked his school-going sister with her ‘boy troubles’. So adorable. And it’s not just feels-heavy: the show has plenty of great situational humour that is woven in so well that it does not detract from the emotional drama. I was pleasantly surprised by how well executed the comedy was.
Of course, nothing surprised me more than the setting. You rarely see anime like Kids on the Slope. It shows you an oft-ignored side of Japan. Kyushu is very different from the ‘mainland’. It’s more ‘countryside’, far from the glitz of Tokyo and Osaka. In particular, it had a strong American naval presence after the war, even in the 60s when troops had largely withdrawn from the rest of Japan. So you have this strange blend of small town life and Western influences.
No aspect drives home this point better than the strong presence of Christianity on Kyushu. Both Ritsuko and Sentaro are devout Christians, and it plays a significant part in the narrative. Similarly, Sentaro is half-American, on his father’s side, which is what contributes to his outcast status. You often see anime characters of mixed Japanese-foreign ethnicity, but this is typically to make them ‘exotic’, or to justify their colourful hair. Here, though, it is explored meaningfully. We also see Junichi participate in the Zenkyoto student protests during his time in Tokyo. All in all, the author fully justifies the setting and period by exploring its many aspects.
But what would a review of Kids on the Slope be without discussing the music? What can I say, Yoko Kanno strikes again! It is absolutely foot-tappingly brilliant. Many classic jazz compositions are played and referenced. If you know nothing about jazz, let this be the next anime you watch. There’s a believable amateurishness to these performances (apparently Watanabe used YouTube jazz performers as reference) that makes them all the more charming. I found myself instinctively swaying from side to side during jam sessions, especially when it involved Junichi (he plays the trumpet, an instrument I adore). And not only is the music fantastic. The animation for the jam sessions is out of this world. Watanabe made the great decision of using motion capture of amateur jazz musicians as reference for their hand movements. It is a massive success. Sentaro’s furious drumming was all I needed to see to convince myself that I was watching something great.
Yuki Kodama’s character-driven manga revolving around jazz. The legendary Shinichiro Watanabe. The equally legendary Yoko Kanno. It may look like a match made in heaven. And yet a little research tells you otherwise. Watanabe didn’t want to direct this, because it wouldn’t give him the same creative freedom as an anime original. And Yoko Kanno? The Yoko Kanno, who composed Cowboy Bebop’s funky jazz soundtrack as well as this one? She apparently doesn’t even like jazz (I was rather shocked to learn of this). But they were all able to put aside their differences and improvise with what they had, just like Kaoru and Sentaro’s jazz sessions. And the result? Nothing short of transcendental.
Art: A. Very sharp art, with thick outlines. The attention to detail is great. My only issue is with the colouring and shading.
Animation: A+. The jazz sessions are truly something to behold. You can feel the speed, feel the vibration, feel the impact. Good frame rate elsewhere.
Music: A+. Could I really give any less to classical jazz??
Voice acting (Japanese): A. Good acting all round, especially Sentaro. Ritsuko can sound a bit airy, but that’s fine. The script delivers the emotional goods, and packs plenty of unexpected humour.
Voice acting (English): B+. Rebekah Stevens as Ritsuko is the big highlight here. Better than her Japanese counterpart. The rest are fine, but there's a tendency to use Japanese honorifics. These don't work in English. It just makes everyone sound like a bunch of weebs at an anime convention.
Story: A. A group of friends in Kyushu get together to play jazz, and maybe fall in love. Aside from a few melodramatic bits, and some moments that could've been handled better, Kids on the Slope delivers realistic human drama, with all the rough edges that come with it.
Characters: A+. Run-of-the-mill characters elevated by their bonds and strong writing. You will come to empathise with them before long. You will feel joy, and pain, whenever they do.
Watch it. Kids on the Slope delivers human drama like few other anime. It is the best Shinichiro Watanabe anime, and you can't convince me otherwise.