Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 22nd 2012
Kids on the Slope
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Kaoru Nishimi has just transferred to a small-town school, and his city upbringing makes it hard for him to get along with anyone. Worse yet, he sits right in front of Sentaro Kawabuchi—a broad-shouldered bruiser who never turns down a fight. However, when Sentaro fends off several bullies ganging up on Kaoru, it seems the big guy might not be so bad after all. But the unlikely pair soon becomes a troubled love triangle when Kaoru falls for the lovely Ritsuko ... who is also Sentaro's closest childhood friend. The tension only increases when Ritsuko tries to pair up Kaoru (a classically trained pianist) and Sentaro (a freewheeling jazz drummer) as fellow musicians. Determined to impress Ritsuko, Kaoru takes up jazz piano and learns to jam with Sentaro and other local musicians. But will his new musical pursuit lead to romantic harmony?
Kids on the Slope may be billed as a jazz-centric coming-of-age drama, but the way the story takes off, it's more like a Baroque fugue. First comes a simple melody of unrequited love, which is soon overlapped by another pairing, and then another, and another, until we have a counterpoint of storylines where everyone is in love with everyone else. Yet there's more to it than just heart-heaving soap opera: the main characters must also confront personal problem and imperfect family lives, and the 1960's setting provides a glimpse of the big cultural changes going on in Japan. But for all the ground it covers, Kids on the Slope is held together by one defining idea: jazz-obsessed high school kids falling in love.
The series doesn't give off that impression right away, however. Episode 1 is an awkward first step that paints Kaoru as a sad-sack protagonist in the unending war of Geeks Vs. Normals. Thankfully, the introduction of gruff but big-hearted Sentaro balances things out a bit—although the mismatched duo still lacks depth until girls enter the picture. Kaoru falls for Ritsuko, while Sentaro goes head-over-heels for schoolmate Yurika, and that emotional vulnerability is what makes the boys truly likable (as opposed to just a comical pencilneck-and-strongman combo). Even then, many would agree that the romantic wheels don't really start to turn until Episode 3, where Kaoru admits his feelings for Ritsuko in a beautiful, classic display of sentiment. The merry-go-round doesn't stop there, either: instead of choosing Sentaro, Yurika turns her attention to Jun, a worldly college-aged jazz trumpeter, guaranteeing that everyone's arrow of romantic interest points at a different person on the character map. Sure, it's confusing, but in the best way possible—viewers will be on the edge of their seats waiting to see which relationships work out.
Where the series surpasses other romantic-polygon anime, however, is in the way it expands on the characters' personal lives. The early episodes offer glimpses into Kaoru's unhappy family life, with his aunts seeing him as a mere Chopin-playing, high-test-scoring robot to brag about. Episode 5, where Kaoru tracks down his mother after years of separation, is especially bittersweet. Even easygoing Sentaro has family issues—at first we see him with all his younger siblings, which plays right into the "big guy with a soft spot" stereotype, but his half-American blood also makes him an outcast among his elders. The race issue helps to add historical context to the story, reminding us of the friction between occupying American forces and the Japanese public. The series also brings up another major cultural shift of that era—the coming of rock 'n' roll, as exemplified by The Beatles. The looming specter of rock music in Episode 6 triggers a new rift between Kaoru and Sentaro that promises plenty more drama to come.
For all the detail that goes into the story and setting, the visuals aren't quite as rich—if anything, this is a somewhat plain-looking anime. Of course, that's probably the point: a laid-back, natural style meant to evoke the sepia-toned 60's. The character designs stick strongly to this naturalism: the most outrageous hair color to be found is Sentaro's light brown, while the school uniforms stay true to basic blacks, whites and grays. Yet distinctive features still make it easy to tell everyone apart, whether it be Kaoru's glasses, Sentaro's striped shirts, or Ritsuko's pigtails. Meanwhile, the animation is technically sound and not too flashy—everyday school life is hardly a place for artistic showboating, aside from the occasional fistfight. Musical life, on the other hand, is where the animators really pull out the stops: Kaoru's piano-playing and Sentaro's drumming are so carefully rendered that well-trained eyes will notice they match the music. (Even the classically-themed Nodame Cantabile never pulled that off.) If there's one area that could use work, though, it would be the gradients between light and shadow, which look too computer-generated—as if someone purposely ran a blur filter over the shadow's edge. It's a minor quirk, but one that can be distracting.
If the jazz scenes are a labor of love for the artists, just imagine how fantastic they are musically—especially with the legendary Yoko Kanno in charge. This is Kanno in her element, bringing life to Kaoru and his friends' performances with spot-on renditions of mid-20th-century jazz. (Never mind that a teenage classical pianist is somehow able to sound as good as Bill Evans in a matter of weeks; that's what suspension of disbelief is for.) But Kanno and her ensemble aren't limited to just straight-up jazz: scenes of everyday life are punctuated by melodies that are light enough to be unintrusive, but have enough originality—either in the harmonies or choice of instruments—to be works of legitimate musical substance. The one disappointment is in the opening and ending themes, which turn out to be typical department-store pop ballads. Did someone just completely miss the point of introducing a jazz anime with actual jazz music?
Then again, maybe that's just a reminder that this is a story about so much more than just kids in the 60's learning to play modern jazz. The music is just a jumping-off point for a whole kaleidoscope of ideas: the joy and pain of falling in love, the emotional whirlwind known as adolescence, the ups and downs of friends and family, and even big-picture issues like racial prejudice. It may not be the most visually striking anime (aside from masterful music performances), but the breadth and depth of what it has to say makes up for that. And for anything too profound to be expressed in words, Kids on the Slope expresses through music. The beautiful, unpredictable, ever-changing language of jazz music.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : A
+ Intertwined storylines, well-rounded characters, and vibrant music come together to form the perfect coming-of-age drama.
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