Kaoru Nishimi is a loner who’s spent most of his life being shuffled from town to town, relative to relative, and school to school. Now he’s landed at a little high school atop a steep hill in Sasebo, on the island of Kyushu, and he’s sitting at a desk in front of Sentaro Kawabuchi, the school’s most notorious delinquent. It’s looking like Kaoru has a worse-than-average year coming on.
With a little help from Ritsuko Mukae, the class leader and Sentaro’s childhood friend, Kaoru discovers that he and Sen have a lot more in common than anybody would expect. They both have shattered families, but the glue that’s going to stick them together is music. Sen’s a drummer obsessed with American jazz who practices every day in the basement of a little record shop owned by Ritsuko’s father. Kaoru is a talented pianist, but he’s classically trained—jazz is enigmatic at best, an interesting curiosity. With Sen’s help, he discovers the joy of improvisation on-the-fly, and Sen finds an unlikely soulmate who brings out his best as both a musician and a human being.
Of course, life, like jazz, is full of breathtaking twists and turns. Kaoru, Sen, and Ritsuko are about to learn that, first-hand.
Kids on the Slope is an anime based on a manga by Yuki Kodama. It’s a slice-of-life story centered on a trio of teenagers, so you can expect botched romances, soaring ambitions, shattered dreams, and plenty of awkwardness along the way. Though it might not sound very exciting on the surface, the beauty of the tale emerges in its execution.
It’s set in 1960’s Japan, and the classic jazz of that era, interpreted by composer Yoko Kanno (of Cowboy Bebop and Macross Plus fame), provides both the story’s soundtrack and framing, as well as an ongoing metaphor for the characters’ relationships. Conflict, romance, and delirious joy find expression in the jam sessions that pepper the 12 episodes and several years in the lives of Kaoru and his companions. They fight, make up, and fight again. We see them learning how to merge themselves into the rhythm of life, interpreting each other’s unspoken signals—sometimes taking the lead boldly but then subsiding into a quiet support that’s just as powerful, ultimately finding a harmony greater than the sum of its component parts.
Though there’s a strong romantic thread, it was refreshing to discover that the centerpiece of this story was friendship, not romance. We’re watching three young people learn how to be lifelong friends despite inner turmoil and the confusing obstacles life hurls at them.
The character designs are appealing, perhaps in part because of their ordinariness. There’s no attempt to prettify or caricature either the people or their environment. These are real people in a real place doing real things and experiencing real emotions. And that’s enough. I found myself wanting to know more about these kids, and I could identify with their problems. I cheered their successes and felt the pain of their failures. Their little town had a quiet beauty that fit the mood and enhanced the story. Sen and Ritsuko are Catholic Christians, and though their faith doesn’t come into the story much, it’s a significant factor that connects and shapes them.
The animators paid careful attention to details of the musical performances, and conveyed their intensity and energy in a manner I found very convincing. There’s a lot of unspoken communication going back and forth between Kaoru and Sen in these numbers, and the music often serves as a proxy for arguments they can’t express in words.
It would have been easy to pair everybody up at the end, form a killer jazz combo, and swing off into a conventional happy finale, but Kids on the Slope took a less-traveled path to its conclusion, though with only 12 episodes to work with, it seemed a bit rushed toward the end. It tied everything up with a sweet and sentimental epilogue that made sense and felt satisfying without being too tidy or maudlin.
I’d rate this at a PG-13 for some intense moments, schoolyard bullying, mild swearing, some brief and non-explicit nudity in a bath setting, and a couple of scenes of alcohol abuse. One of the characters wrestles with drug addiction off-screen. Costuming is modest and period-appropriate, even at the beach. Some ugly, jarring racism is depicted when Kaoru and Sen play in a bar frequented by Americans, and it’s unfortunately reflective of the era, but our heroes do a fine job defusing a potentially explosive situation.
Though the version I watched was in Japanese with English subtitles, American characters on-screen spoke English. It was interesting to watch Kaoru and his friends struggle to interpret what the boorish American in the bar was saying, and I felt both embarrassed and relieved when they got it only partly right.