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Kids on the Slope – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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The beginning of summer, 1966. Because of his father’s job situation, freshman high school student Kaoru Nishimi moves by himself from Yokosuka to Kyushu to live with relatives. Until then, Kaoru was an honor roll student who tended to keep to himself, but meeting notorious bad boy Sentaro Kawabuchi starts to change him. Through his devil-may-care classmate, Kaoru learns how much fun it is to play jazz and finds the first person he can call a “friend.”

Shinichirō Watanabe has been one of only a handful of individuals to be known both domestically and abroad for their work within Japanese animation, placing him as one of the most prolific anime directors to come about in the last twenty years. With him helming such renowned series as the jazzy, futuristic westerner Cowboy Bebop (1998), the hip-hop laden Edo period piece envisioned in Samurai Champloo (2004), to co-directing the illustrious sequel to Super Dimension Fortress Macross with Macross Plus (1994), Watanabe has solidified himself as a distinctly creative director unafraid to explore outside the boundaries of what some may consider a more traditionalistic anime formula.

Contesting the long-established conventional forms of storytelling and presentation within the field of Japanese animation, Watanabe has established an experimental outlook on the medium that has fortunately garnered him positive praise as a director able to successfully bring anime to a wider viewing audience. His crossover appeal has certainly made a mark on countless anime fans and non-fans alike, mainly stemming from his astute awareness towards incorporating many elements of Western pop-culture within his works. With Kids on the Slope, we see Watanabe returning to prominent composer Yoko Kanno to deliver a jazz-infused soundtrack similarly heard in Cowboy Bebop, with the setting this time exploring one of Japan’s most eccentric and politicized eras as a nation—the 1960’s. Working as an adaptation of Yuki Kodama’s manga series, and with all the elements in place to continue Watanabe’s longstanding tradition of crafting inventive works, the ultimate question remains—does he succeed once again with Kids on the Slope?

First and foremost, to answer this question, Kids on the Slope is a series that resides largely outside Watanabe’s more distinguishable approaches as a director, with the series remaining firmly grounded in reality more than any of his previous works thus far. There is no futuristic space travel, dangerous bounty hunters, combative samurai, or transforming mecha to be found in sight—in fact, Kids on the Slope relies more so on a traditional narrative that focuses on the emotional turmoil of its teenage characters than anything else. Whether this is expressing fondness towards a high school crush, to sharing one’s love for music, to even experiencing the bitter jealously over a friend’s girlfriend, the series never extends outside of being ordinary in terms of the situations these characters find themselves in. This may surprise longtime viewers of Watanabe’s works, as Kids on the Slope isn’t a series that exactly stands out as much as one may expect or even hope for. One could even suggest that Kids on the Slope sees Watanabe’s creative prowess somewhat restrained throughout series, which makes it a difficult show to place alongside his other series such as Samurai Champloo or Cowboy Bebop as distinct, artistic endeavors worthy through their defiance of the conventional tropes of anime.

This isn’t to say that Kids on the Slope is unworthy to be within the collective works of Watanabe, but it certainly doesn’t represent his craftiness as a director in bending the genre lines as seen in his previous works. He is seemingly playing it safe here, relying more on the strength of Kodama’s influential writing than his ability to direct, delivering a rather standard narrative regarding adolescence surrounded by the musical explosiveness of the 1960’s. It’s this somewhat restricted formula that presents the series as one that is oddly unlike Watanabe for the most part, offering a very stark contrast to his previous endeavors. He seems constrained by the source material here, unable to showcase the creative freedom that we all know and appreciate him for. In turn, this establishes Kids on the Slope as a show that doesn’t truly test the creative boundaries of its source material, instead relying on simply telling a story through the most generic of narrative structures. If this wasn’t a Watanabe work, then expectations would certainly be lowered, but one should expect more from such a talented director. In this regard, this is certainly a show where the technical element easily outshines it narrative, as Kids on the Slope is one of the most visually and musically impressive series of the year.

With joint animation being done by MAPPA and Tezuka Production, Kids on the Slope is an absolute pleasure to view as the visuals are incredibly unique for a contemporary anime series set in the past, eliciting an air of nostalgia that is very reminiscent to the work of legendary Osamu Tezuka himself. If art is to imitate life as the adage says, then Watanabe does a fantastic job of infusing the emotional ups-and-downs of the characters through the energetic combination of the fantastic visuals and Yoko Kanno’s superb compositions, having them communicate their fears, desires, and hopes through the jazziness of their musical talents. This is where the series truly shines as a fine parallel between how music represents the essence of the individual and their personal experiences, establishing a universal philosophy that practically everyone can relate to. One can actually view and hear the passionate nature of their musical performances within the series, which is perhaps Kids on the Slope’s greatest strength.

And as Kaoru and Sentaro express their entire state of being within these riveting animated performances—one wishes there was simply more of them. This is where we see the direction of Watanabe reach an ultimate high as his appreciation for music nicely coincides with his ability to direct scenes of fervent movement and sentiment. Whether it’s Kaoru’s fluidity as a piano player, to Sentaro’s rambunctious bouts of drumming, the musical performances make up for what is a rather wearisome narrative on teenage angst and rebellion. It’s unfortunate that as the series progresses, these self-reflective ties to the musical experience becomes increasingly burdened by a multitude of characters that simply overshadow the relationship shared between Kaoru and Sentaro. The two seemingly become lost amidst an emotional wave of distrust, betrayal, and forbidden love as other characters are constantly given the spotlight in order to provide a more reflective mood towards the narrative.

The narrative, as a whole, certainly encompasses the atmosphere of 1960’s Japan quite well, but it doesn’t necessarily provide much depth to the protagonists of the series. We wish to see more of the connection these characters share outside the role of simply having a similar taste in music and instrument playing ability, which the narrative almost completely dismisses towards the end. Also, Kaoru and Sentaro’s chemistry is awkward at best, as the series never really elaborates on why these two individuals would realistically remain friends. Perhaps that’s the point of the their friendship—two seemingly opposite people becoming friends through their mutual love of music—but at least they could’ve focused on aspects outside that love for music in which some normality could be inserted to make it appear as genuinely as possible. This suggested approach could’ve brought about a more realized statement on their relationship as friends, which would’ve also removed much of the middling affairs that transpired throughout the course of the series because of their lack of connectedness. In retrospect, perhaps more episodes were necessary in order to accommodate the depth of the manga to that of the television series.

Despite these negative aspects, one should give credit to Watanabe for at least attempting to revitalize the rather mediocre narrative that the series offers. Where the series falters is its insistence on bouncing back and forth between characters that really don’t supplement the narrative to any considerable degree. We do care about the others characters within the series, but Kaoru and Sentaro make for far more interesting individuals considering their interesting pasts—as they should be, being that they are the protagonists—than any of the other characters could ever be. While we only get to know them slightly over the course of the series, they provided the most intriguing dynamic to the overall narrative, bringing about a nice sense of mystery as to who they really are as distinct individuals. The technical element of the series is superb though, as the music and visuals play an integral part in elevating the series to an exceptional height. We see Watanabe returning to what he does best in this respect, as the combination of music and visuals is absolutely wonderful to behold. One could even postulate that the series in an ode to what Watanabe greatly enjoys—that of music. But while Kids on the Slope is certainly not Watanabe’s best work, he does an exceptional job with the material he has been dealt with—even if it doesn’t remain on par with his previous, better known creations.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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