First Look at Kids on the Slope
Shinichiro Watanabe back in the director's chair
By Joseph Luster
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The year is 1966, and Kaoru Nishimi's move from Yokosuka to Kyushu is a bit of a culture shock. Suddenly this honor roll student is inserted into a world that he hardly understands. Seriously, that Kyushu dialect is tricky. It's clear from frame one that he doesn't fit in, and the last thing he needs is people picking on him on top of that. By a stroke of luck, however, resident tough guy Sentaro Kawabuchi seems to take a liking to him, thus kicking off an unusual friendship bolstered by a burgeoning appreciation for jazz, and Kaoru's fondness for Sentaro's amiable childhood friend, Ritsuko Mukae.
Did I mention this is the latest anime from director Shinichiro Watanabe? Yeah, some will inevitably find it disappointing that the man behind hits like Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo returned after so long to helm this, an adaptation of a josei manga by Yūki Kodama. It would be a shame to completely dismiss it, though. Sure, it's not Cowboy Bebop 2 or Samurai Champloo Remix, but Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Apollon) is off to a very good start, and looks to be one of the best series the spring 2012 season has to offer.
Accented by the music of the legendary Yoko Kanno (Macross Plus, Cowboy Bebop), Kids on the Slope is as jazzy as its subject matter would suggest. It has its fair share of languid moments, interspersed with kinetic beats that keep things moving at a reasonable pace. Kaoru is reluctant to call himself a friend of Sentaro, but Sentaro is almost immediately protective of this weakling newcomer. He'll stand up for him when classmates become threatening, and isn't afraid to throw down in the occasional fluidly animated brawl. One thing he won't do, however, is jam with Kaoru until he understands that there's more to playing jazz than learning the notes.
Kaoru knows his way around a piano, but he hasn't been exposed to jazz in the same way that both Sentaro and Ritsuko have. Ritsuko's father owns a record shop, so the two have grown up around music, with Sentaro able to wail away on drums like nobody's business. Kaoru takes this as a challenge, and begins studying songs like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' "Moanin'." He's quick to pick up the notes, but it takes a bit longer for him to grasp the freeform flow of jazz, and eventually escape his educated rigidity.
Jam sessions in Kids on the Slope are as lovingly crafted as any bombastic anime action scene. Ritsuko's father bobs his head, checking the strings as he plucks away on an upright bass. Sentaro rolls his drums with loose expertise, not unlike the way he weaves his way through a bareknuckle brawl. Gradually, Kentaro, too, stretches his collar on the piano, finding his own style. Only two episodes have aired thus far, but the first does such a good job of setting up these relationships that familiarity is already setting in by the second.
While the characters are solid for the most part, there are still some areas in which Kids on the Slope will hopefully improve. Kaoru is your typical shy Japanese student, and we've seen so many of those in anime that his rosy-cheeked "gosh I hope she likes me" bashfulness around Ritsuko isn't quite so endearing. As for Ritsuko, she's more of an object than a character at this point. She's surrounded by interesting men but is given almost nothing to work with herself. Why she doesn't also happen to play an instrument is beyond me, given her upbringing, but hopefully she'll come into her own over the course of the next few episodes. I'd love to see her as something more than a romantic goal for Kaoru.
Sentaro is by far the show's most dynamic character. He initially just seems big, oafish, and, well, dumb. In episode two we learn that he has quite a reputation; he has a history of being a bad boy and his peers treat him as such. He seems dangerous, but he attaches himself tightly to Kaoru, and most of all, he holds jazz in the highest esteem. I can take or leave the Kaoru/Ritsuko pairing, as well as Sentaro's own recently sparked love interest. I'm more looking forward to seeing how these friendships develop, and how they intertwine with the series' jazzy theme. Hopefully Watanabe won't climb back down into a hole after Kids on the Slope is a wrap, but don't let the more relaxed tone of his latest keep you from watching.
Kids on the Slope is currently streaming at Crunchyroll