LAB Notes #2 – Kids on the Slope

Target: Kids on the Slope – Sakamichi no Apollon (lit. Apollo of the Slope)
Studio: MAPPA with Tezuka Production
Genre: Slice of Life, Drama
Notable Themes: High School, Musicians, Youth Politics
Episodes: 12
Fanservice Level: Low

Reasons to Watch:
Brilliant soundtrack and musical direction
A touching romance with strong historical ties

Reasons to Not:
Somewhat clichéd storytelling
Uneven and inexplicit time skips make viewing confusing

Similar to: BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad, Nodame Cantabile

Review:
If I were writing these reviews in the 90s or the early ‘Aughts, I would have started this one by lamenting the condition of real Slice of Life dramas in the U.S. anime market.  The problem was that Slice of Life shows aren’t easily monetized and didn’t have a huge appeal to the original baseline Otaku.  The genre is still rarely brought overseas, but most anime fans can identify it when they see it now, and have one or two examples of the genre to call up if asked.  Another, separate issue is that Slice of Life concepts are frequently combined with other genres, such as comedy, supernatural horror or harem scenarios.

Kids on the Slope is none of these.  It is a drama in the purest sense, and one that is firmly rooted in the reality of 1960s Japan.  It is a skillful examination of the social politics of the era, while still being, at its core, a touching story of friendship and young love.  The show is bound together by the jazz music that helped define the youth culture of the era.  It is the heart and soul of the series and, ultimately, is what really makes the show worth watching.

Kids on the Slope is primarily the story of Nishimi Kaoru, a high school student who moves to Sasebo in the far southwest of Japan because of his father’s job situation.  This is just the latest in a long series of moves, and Kaoru has become a deeply introverted kid because he’s rarely in a place long enough to make friends.  He’s prone to anxiety attacks in school, and while he is devastatingly smart, he never seems to be able to connect to those around him, be they family or schoolmates.  On his first day in his new school, he attempts to deal with an anxiety attack by escaping to the roof, only to find it locked and the key in the hands of some seniors.  Surprisingly a tall, pugilistic young man takes on the seniors and retrieves the key.  The fighter is Kawabuchi Sentaro, a delinquent brawler and jazz drummer who happens to be in Kaoru’s class.

We are also introduced to Mukae Ritsuko, the student council representative from Karou’s class, and daughter of a local music shop owner.  Kaoru, a classically trained pianist, stops by her shop to find some classical records, but Ritsuko drags him into the basement to find Sentaro practicing.  Intrigued by the jazz drums, Karou grabs a copy of ‘”Moanin” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, determined to prove to Sentaro that he can master it in short order.

The plot, which tracks Karou’s experiences with his new and unexpected friends, is interwoven with social commentary on 1960s Japan.  Sasebo, in Nagasaki Prefecture, has a strong history of Western influence.  The region was a hub of Dutch trade in the Edo period, and Sasebo in particular is known for its high percentage of Christians both before and after the Sakoku Ban.  A significant naval base was established there, and after World War II, the area became a hub for U.S. Naval occupation forces.  Some of the interactions between the main characters are colored by the fact that many of the Sasebo locals are Christian, including Sentaro and Ritsuko.  Sentaro is also a ‘half-blooded’ son of a Sasebo woman and a U.S. Naval officer.  His status as a mongrel bastard forced him to become a fighter simply to survive the torments of his classmates.  Another character, Katsuragi Junichi, brings the growing communist sentiment of the Japanese youth to the mix.  The historical notes serve to enhance both the setting and the story, tying one to the other.  It isn’t just a drama set in 1960s Japan, but one informed by the social and political realities of the era.

Where Kids on the Slope doesn’t succeed as well is in its exploration of the romantic aspect of high school life.  The main characters fall into a rather predictable love triangle which is further complicated by the supporting cast.  The protagonists are all guilty of some truly awful relationship choices and typical teenage idiocy, but the overall tone of the series doesn’t support the somewhat melodramatic romances.  Karou and Sentaro’s relationship is, for contrast, written beautifully if perhaps a little too conveniently.  It grows out of a place of mutual respect, falls apart when the two misunderstand one another, and is mended with communication and understanding.  It succeeds in being both realistic and moving, without ever feeling overplayed.

Another minor problem is the show’s unpredictable time scale.  The twelve episode series starts in the summer of 1966 and skitters unevenly forward almost a full three years, with little in the way of explanation or exposition, before the epilogue jerks us another eight years into the future.  Japanese viewers have it a little easier, because of their familiarity with the Japanese school year, but untrained American viewers will probably be confused without a second viewing or outside help.  Of particular confusion is Junichi’s sudden and unexpected decent into poverty and alcoholism in episodes seven and eight.  While this event does start to make sense when you take the timeline into account, the storyline jumps disjoint the viewer from the flow of the narrative.

The single biggest draw that Kids on the Slope has to offer is the music.  The series was directed by the internationally acclaimed Watanabe Shinichiro, director of Cowboy Bebop, and the music was composed by the somewhat legendary Kanno Yoko.  Of particular note are the jazz sessions performed by the main characters.  All of the sessions were recorded live by members of The Seatbelts, and animated with an unprecedented level of detail.  The background music is just as impressive, and it never gets upstaged by the flashier jazz sessions.  The music really serves to drive the emotion of the series forward through the less active and more dramatic moments.  That being said, the single greatest moment in the series is probably the impromptu jazz medley during the school festival in episode seven.   Even watching it totally without context can give you chills.

Kids on the Slope is an excellent example of a Josei (comics for women or teenagers) series and as such, makes for a wildly different introduction to the medium than most series.  The relative rarity of Josei anime has left mainstream anime fans unexposed to the majority of these interesting and touching stories.  This is doubly unfortunate because these are the kind of shows that really have the potential to reverse the negative stereotype surrounding the U.S. anime subculture.  If Kids were localized with a real budget and a high quality cast (like what Disney puts together for Miyazaki releases) it could really be successful in a way we haven’t seen since Trigun and Cowboy Bebop.  Pipedreams notwithstanding, Kids on the Slope is an excellent series and well worth viewing no matter what kind of fan you are.

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Posted on October 22, 2012, in LAB Notes and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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