This post contains spoilers for Kids On The Slope
A new show by Watanabe Shinichirou?! Music by Kanno Youko?! An anime about jazz in the 1960s?! Upon hearing the news about Sakamichi no Apollon from my friend in Akihabara’s GAME BAR A-Button several months ago, my interest in a new anime shot up to levels higher than they’ve ever been before. That said, immediately upon researching the title and watching the trailer, I was taken aback by the shoujo character designs and the ever-so-subtle fujoshi fanservice. That said, despite my strong aversion to all things shoujo, I was going to give Kids On The Slope a chance. I believed in Watanabe. I believed in the 1960s. I believed in jazz.
And hey, that first episode is pretty good! Amazing cinematic shooting, great atmosphere, and the character introductions aren’t so bad, either! The Yuki Nobuteru designs are still impossible to not see as eye-poison, but I suppose that just can’t be helped.
The rest of it isn’t so bad either. The thing is, it’s just far too compressed. This show blasts through all three years of high school school in just twelve episodes, and as one would expect, it cuts out all the fat an just focuses on the juicy bits. Those bits being: drama, drama, drama.
I’m sure most fine connoisseurs of entertainment love this: “The story is really moving along!”, they laud! “This show ain’t wastin’ any time!”, they praise! But me? I like it when things move slowly. I don’t know about you, but my youth was a less a roller-coaster ride of emotions and more a slow burn of depression that continues to this day. But I do remember my youth being a little jokey, and while Sakamichi no Apollon has some jokes, its main focus is drama.
I don’t particularly hate drama, but I think it needs to be balanced out with humor or something else. There needs to be peaks and valleys. People get on Evangelion’s case because its first half is more comedy and action centric, but Evangelion needs that early half so viewers can become endeared to the characters. We’d have no reason to care about all the disturbing things that happen to them later on if we weren’t acquainted to them at first in the earlier half.
Basically, what I’m saying is, your story can’t just be a barrage of drama at all times, or else it’ll just get old. When your characters are nothing but vessels for been-done drama, instead of making us understand them more, they just feel like shallow husks who exist for the sole reason of pressing some soap opera enthusiast’s buttons. Which is sad, since Kids on the Slope has some good characters. If only they had more time to be regular people, instead of characters in a TV show who have to meet some kind of required Drama Quotient so as not to bore the viewers with no attention spans.
I quite like the Felix Unger and Oscar Madison couple in Kaoru and Sentarou. As someone who was once a socially withdrawn teen (not a very talented one, however), Kaoru’s holier-than-thou attitude is very convincing, and seeing his uptight personality clash with Sentarou’s free spirit is satisfying to watch, making for a lot of the show’s better scenes, both funny and dramatic. Ritsuko doesn’t do much, but she’s appropriately cute and feminine in a kind of backwards sexist 1960s way, and acts as a good foil for the two boys. From episode one until the end, their dynamic is more or less quite real, convincing, and satisfying to watch. Even that little love triangle between them works!
That said, the best parts of the show are when Kaoru and Sentarou are by themselves being bros. Given the sort of imagery in the show’s trailer, I had honestly feared that this show would be some kind of parade of fujoshi fanservice, but the friendship between Kaoru and Sentarou really is well crafted, and not just meant to be viewed through yaoi goggles. Specifically, Kaoru’s transition towards opening up to people with the help is Sentarou is quite realistic. It’s a two steps forward, one step back kind of thing that’s not perfect, but real. I love any scene that involves them jamming in order to either have a good time, or to settle an argument. It’s clear to see that despite their big differences, they really do have something special between them. The best part of the show is when they go to Tokyo and hang out.
On the other hand, two characters that are more or less worthless are Junichi and Yurika. They both shoehorn their way into the show, don’t display much in the way of personality beyond simple archetypes, have a bit of extraneous drama between themselves, then just leave. While Junichi has some tie to the main group, his utterly random descension into depression seems as if it was thrown in simply for the sake of creating drama. Yurika’s inclusion into the cast doesn’t add anything to the group dynamic, and nothing about her love for Junichi is compelling. If the show had more episodes to let this arch breathe, it could probably come off as more natural, but as it is, it merely feels tacked on and rushed.
And while I enjoy some of the drama between the two main boys, some of their conflicts feel too forced. Kaoru losing his temper over Sentarou performing in Seiji’s band is unnecessary and petty. I understand that these are teenagers and that pettiness is the order of the day, but that doesn’t necessarily make for compelling television. Sentarou’s past is also needlessly melodramatic and unrealistic. The show could have easily offered up something more realistic and subtle that had a similar result.
Despite being pretty up and down in the middle, Kids on the Slope ends quite well and conclusively. It has a somewhat romantic message about the friends you make during your youth, and how it’s important to keep those friendships strong. That said, the reunion between the three main players would have been even more satisfying if the show was longer. It’s a great ending, but considering the amount of time one spends with these characters, it comes off as a bit weak.
As far as animation goes, the show opts to use a soft-shading coloring style as opposed to anime’s traditional flatter cel-shaded look. This sort of style looks fine when lots of things in the show are moving, but seeing as that soft-shading style is used primarily on static artwork, it makes parts of the show that are less kinetic or somewhat stiff seem even stiffer. Like a lot of shows, the first and last episodes shine the brightest animation wise. Perhaps a lot of the middle part of the show suffers due to them focusing too much on that soft shaded look, and not focusing enough on making the animation smooth.
Another slightly special part about the show’s animation is its use of rotoscoping for the music performances. While rotoscoping is probably the best way to do musical performances in anime, it gets very uncanny valley a lot of the time. That said, the fact that the characters move realistically and hit the right parts of the instruments when they play is by far and away better than the static musical performances in shows like Beck and Nodame Cantabile. By episode twelve, they really nail it with the final performance in the church, which is completely on fire.
With that all said, the big question weighing heavily on my mind is this: Did this show really need Watanabe? Sure, without him the show would probably not lovingly portray the musical performances as well as it does, but aside from those few scenes, the show is a Typical Drama. There’s nothing terribly special about its execution. Direction-wise, the first and last episodes are quite cinematic, but aside from them, the show just feels like normal anime. The thing is, Watanabe is being held down by the original. Because he can’t have his own original show to work with, he’s not allowed to take the weird excursions into many different genres that shows like Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo do. His personality in this show doesn’t really stand out aside from in the use of jazzy background music, and that’s a shame. I realize that Watanabe Shinichirou really isn’t a big name in Japan, but seeing him attached to a work like this and not really be able to do exactly what he wants is disappointing. I’m sure he’s fine with it–he enjoys drama–but I’d rather see his name attached to something that lets his interests shine brightly, and not a teen melodrama.