ANIME & MANGA - Review
09:00 - 11th August 2013, by David West

Kids On The Slope - The Complete Collection

Kaoru Nishimi has always been the outsider. Raised by his father ever since his mother left when he was just a child, Kaoru has bounced around from school to school, and, suffering from intense social anxiety, he struggles to make friends. Now in his teens, Kaoru moves to Kyushu to live with his aunt's family and once again finds himself the new kid in class. However, he discovers a kindred spirit in the unlikely form of the class hooligan Sentaro Kawabuchi. When he's not skipping lessons or getting into fights, Sentaro has one burning passion in life - jazz. He plays the drums in the basement under the record shop belonging to the family of their classmate Ritsuko, whose jazz-loving dad plays the upright bass. Kaoru plays piano and has studied classical for years. Determined to prove that he can swing - mostly because he wants to impress the pretty Ritsuko - he starts jamming with Sentaro after school, and the bookworm and the brawler slowly become friends.

Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, Kids On The Slope is a coming of age story set in 1960s Japan accompanied by a jazz soundtrack. The series is based on the manga by Yuki Kodama and the adaptation reveals its origins on the printed page with the frequent use of interior monologues to convey what the characters are thinking and feeling. This device is used most often with Kaoru, but is employed with both Ritsuko and Sentato too. It is not always necessary - when Kaoru is smiling and laughing, a voiceover is not needed to explain that he is happy, but the narration works best for his personality as he is so analytical and introspective.

Kaoru is a prickly protagonist, someone used to keeping everyone at arm's length, but his icy demeanour defrosts as he builds relationships with Ritsuko and Sentaro - who nicknames him Richie in the belief that Kaoru's family is loaded. Obviously, they are set up as an odd couple - the uptight smart kid and the tough guy with a heart of gold - but they evolve beyond those archetypes to become well rounded and believable as people.

The backdrop of the 1960s is used to great effect, with the selection of music in the soundtrack and the references to the unrest surrounding university student protests of the period. The script is hazy on the issues driving the students to take to the streets, but that is not a major plot point. As the last period of mass protest in Japan prior to the recent public outcry about nuclear power, most Japanese viewers will probably be well aware of the students' grievances. The character who brings this element to the plot is Jun, a college student who sometimes plays trumpet with Kaoru, Sentaro and Pops (as Ritsuko's dad is known to everyone). Jun has a fully developed character arc that runs parallel to events in the lives of the leads, demonstrating the depth of the screenplay.

The show is very much built around the friendship between Sentaro and Kaoru, but there are important female characters. Ritsuko is not as developed as the two boys, but has enough personality to be more than just a featureless 'love interest'. More dramatic than Ritsuko is the character of Yurika Fukahori, a schoolmate of the trio who joins their circle after Sentaro rescues her from a group of thugs on the beach. Yurika is from a well-to-do family who do not approve when she falls in love with a jazz musician (it may be hard to believe in the age of gangster rap, but jazz was once decried as the corrupter of youthful innocence). Yurika's storyline adds another layer to the script; the emancipation of women in Japan during the 1960s as they rebelled against arranged marriages and the limits imposed on them by society and their families.

The artwork is clean, with strong, uncluttered lines and a naturalistic style that suits the down-to-earth story. The attention to detail in the jazz performances is top notch and reveals the amount of energy devoted to making sure those scenes look authentic. On the musical front, there is one small anachronism in the design of Sentaro's drum kit, which features an isolation mount on the tom-tom 20-odd years before they were invented (but only drum nerds are likely to spot this! Guilty as charged, your honour). That minor nitpick aside, the soundtrack is a triumph. Shinichiro Watanabe and music supervisor Yoko Kanno deliberately sought out young musicians to play the parts for Kaoru and Sentaro, and they perfectly capture the impetuosity and intensity of the young jazz fans searching for their creative voices. On the piano, Takashi Matsunaga expresses Kaoru's journey from the hesitant, formal style of his classical beginnings to becoming a confident, relaxed and expressive pianist, while on the kit, Shun Ishikawa has the frantic, unbridled energy of a young drummer who can't wait to cut loose. Watanabe and Kanno used several tricks, like not letting the musicians rehearse or not telling them what music they'd be playing beforehand, to encourage them to be as spontaneous as possible. It works beautifully. The soundtrack includes impressive versions of jazz standards, including the hard bop favourite 'Moanin' and a terrific arrangement of 'My Favourite Things'. All of which begs the question of why the opening and closing theme songs are not jazz! The fairly unremarkable ballads that bookend each episode are an odd choice given all the wonderful music in the show itself.

It may be a far cry from the bounty hunting exploits of Cowboy Bebop, but Watanabe has struck gold with Kids On The Slope. With a brilliant soundtrack and a story that masterfully conveys the bittersweet experience of falling in love for the first time and the complexities of friendship, this is a contender for anime of the year.
SCORE: 5/5
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