Reviewby Theron Martin, May 9th 2013
Kids on the Slope
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection (Blu-Ray)
In late '60s Japan, Kaoru Nishimi (later nicknamed “Richie”) is a pianist and ace student who has moved around a lot due to his father's work and mother's long-time abandonment. That has left him prone to introverted behavior and anxiety attacks in social situations, but two individuals that he meets at his newest school help him overcome that. The more expected one is Ritsuko Mukae, the amiable and modestly attractive class rep, whom Kaoru soon develops a serious crush on. To Kaoru's surprise, the other is Sentaro Kawabuchi, a hulking, half-Japanese delinquent who is Ritsuko's neighbor and childhood friend. Kaoru soon discovers that Sentaro, despite having a penchant for getting in “scraps,” is not the thug that everyone makes him out to be; in fact, he's actually a big-hearted guy who is a very talented drummer and has a passion for jazz. Kaoru's training is in classical music, but that doesn't keep the two from gradually bonding through musical improvs and practices in the basement studio of Ritsuko's father's record store, sometimes with Ritsuko's father playing stand-up bass and smooth-talking college student Junichi on trumpet. As high school days pass along, Kaoru, Sentaro, and Ritsuko experience the trials and tribulations of school, love, family, and music together.
The previous two collaborations between director Shinichiro Watanabe and music director Yoko Kanno (Macross Plus, Cowboy Bebop) have been magic for Western anime fans, so anticipation ran high for this manga-based 12-episode Spring 2012 series. For the most part the series does not disappoint, as it is every bit the musical delight one would expect and the story, while more pedestrian, does well enough to keep viewers involved.
Aside from the music, the strongest aspect of the series is its character and relationship development. Kaoru and Sentaro are both highly credible as individuals who have entirely different backgrounds and personalities and yet still find common ground: both were abandoned by their mothers and feel that they don't fit in at home, both can claim Ritsuko as a dear friend, and both have a love for music strong enough that they can overcome a lack of initial common ground on their musical tastes and quickly learn to play together. The bond of friendship that they form is of such enviable strength and depth that one has to wonder if they both were seeking the other: a male peer willing to understand and accept them, flaws and all. Compared to their relationship, Ritsuko is merely a complement; yes, there is somewhat of a love triangle involved, with Ritsuko silently being most interested in an oblivious Sentaro (who falls for another girl for a while) while Kaoru is sweet on her, but her presence and affections are never a point of conflict for the two. In fact, beyond bringing Kaoru and Sentaro together and tending injuries from fights, Ritsuko feels more like the girl character whose presence is necessary primarily to keep the series from taking on homoerotic undertones. Of course, one could argue that she hardly needs to be a source of conflict since the series gets that from two other characters: aspiring artist Yurika, who becomes a love interest for Sentaro but finds herself attracted to Junichi instead, and Seiji, a classmate who seeks to form a rock band and tries to recruit Sentaro for it, which upsets Kaoru more than he's willing to let on. Ritsuko does earn points, though, for being appealing in a “Girl Next Door” kind of way rather than being just another moeblob love interest. In fact, all of the characters feel like they are grounded in reality rather than just playing to the latest popular anime trope.
The story progression use a slice-of-life approach, one which includes only a handful of major dramatic events and instead favors lower-key, more ordinary developments, such as Kaoru occasionally getting into a tiff with Sentaro and not talking to him for a while or Ritsuko contemplating whether or not to knit mittens for a certain character. Anime which take this approach are typically either partly or completely comedies, so seeing a character drama do this is interesting – at first, anyway. A little too much of it is a little too ordinary, however, and as a results events rarely achieve the full dramatic and emotional impact that they aim for. Major events also sometimes seem at bit forced, especially one late plot development which may emulate real-life but is hardly satisfying, and the welcome “eight years later” time skip at the end is not quite sufficient to remedy that. The story also has a curious aversion to allowing musical set pieces; both times that a planned and practiced group musical performance comes up, something happens to interrupt it and an impromptu performance is provided to compensate. While this could be pure coincidence, the series seems to be sending the message that the most preferable kind of music is off-the-cuff jazz jam sessions. Of course, it also advocates the less controversial position that feelings can sometimes best be expressed through music.
The musical score is as much the star here as any of the characters, though, so some of the aforementioned flaws could be looked at sacrifices necessary to emphasis that element. Although the music used is not purely jazz – some rock and classical music comes up, as well as the song “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music – it is nonetheless the focal point, and viewers are treated to some wonderful renditions of classic jazz standards, free-swinging jam sessions, and even the occasional light jazz background tune. Even the more innocuous supporting music does its job well. Yoko Kanno had a hand in all of that, as well as arranging and doing some of the instrumentals for both the opener and closer, and nothing she produced here will harm her reputation. Opener “Sakamichi no Melody” is a mellow, classy winner, and more ordinary closer “Altair” is still a solid choice.
The artistic effort by studio MAPPA (whose only other lead animation effort is Fall 2012's Teekyū) is respectable but far less stellar. It does earn points for striking its own distinctive visual style, one not beholden to typical anime visual standards, and does a great job of creating characters which are visually appealing in a down-to-earth way: attractive, but not improbably so for the environments in which they dwell. (Fans of freckles will probably adore Ritsuko, though!) It also is awash in authentic period detail and clothing styles and puts considerable extra effort into the animation of its musical performances; this is particularly noticeable in the movements of Sentaro's drumsticks. The animation avoids concentrating too much on finger movements, however, so while these are definitely above-average renditions of musical performances, they are not on the visual level of, say, Haruhi's performance with ENOZ in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Some of the fight scenes also capture a dynamic sense of motion and shifting perspective. Other animation is more ordinary, with shortcuts taken in the form of occasional still-shot montages and some breakdowns in fine quality control of character rendering, especially in the opener. Objectionable content is kept to a minimum, with some harsh language present in both dubs probably being the primary reason that the series pulls a TV-14 rating.
For the most part this Steven Foster-directed Sentai Filmworks dub is an excellent all-around effort. Andrew Love is perfect as Sentaro, David Matranga gives Junichi a suitably hip groove, and Chris Patton reminds us why he is so good in anxiety-ridden roles by performing Kaoru. Some might quibble that Blake Shepard is over-the-top in making Seiji sound effeminate, but the voice fits Seiji's actions. Rebekah Stevens, who struggled in a supporting role as Mitsuru in Hiiro no Kakera, does better here as Ritsuko, except for one thing: for much of the series she absolutely slaughters the pronunciation of “Kaoru.” (She does improve quite a bit by the later episodes, though.) Maggie Flecknoe, who otherwise does a fine job as Yurika, also struggles some with pronouncing “Ritsuko” correctly. These are minor annoyances compared to what all the dub does right, however. The English script stays quite faithful but makes some interesting choices, such as adjusting slang usage to sound smoother in English and retaining some of the honorifics while translating the “nii-san” that some characters use to refer to Junichi as “Brother Jun.” This would sound corny in nearly any other context, but it fits quite well for a jazz-dominated setting. Songs that have performed vocals seem to consistently retain the original Japanese performances.
The biggest news about Sentai's release of the series is, unfortunately, about a production problem with the Blu-Rays. As detailed here, Sentai had to recall the initial printing because the Japanese language track for episode 11, which is supposed to be in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, instead came out in mono audio. (This was, indeed, a problem on the review copy, as the audio for that episode only plays through the front left speaker of a surround-sound system.) Beyond that the series sounds great on both language tracks and the video transfer looks good, too – but one would expect no less, given that this is a recent series originally made for HD broadcast. Sentai also put considerable extra effort into this release, as in addition to the typical clean opener and closer and some Japanese trailers (which are hardly ubiquitous on Sentai releases), this two-disk set also includes a trio of “Behind the Scenes” interviews totaling about 50 minutes: one for director Watanabe, one for Yoko Kanno, and one for Takashi Matsunaga and Shun Ishiwaka, the young men who were the instrumental performing models for Kaoru and Sentaro, respectively. Some of the most interesting details to come out of these interviews are that Matsunaga and Ishiwaka were recruited in part based on YouTube videos, that the approach to recording the performance numbers for the series was very atypical for the current era (they were recorded as a group instead of as individual instrumentals, the latter of which is apparently the standard these days), and that recorded performances of Matsunaga, Ishikawa, and other musicians playing effectively became the storyboards for the animation of scenes where characters play their instruments.
Even with its flaws, Kids on the Slope is still a quality series, one which does not quite achieve greatness but does not fall far short of it, either. Despite its plot ambling along in places, it might have actually worked better with an extra episode or two to give it room to smooth rough patches out and develop certain points in more detail. As is, it manages to take a fairly typical story about how relationships develop as characters come of age, add some great music to it, and hence turn it into something better than the norm.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Appealing characters, good relationship developments, great jazz music.
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