Kaoru Nishimi moves to a rural town with his aunt and to start his first year of high school. At school he is targeted by the class trouble maker, Sentarou Kawabuchi, as a potential friend. Sentarou brings Kaoru into the world of jazz. The two of them get involved in each others’ home life and jockey for position in relationships with girls and inside their own partnership artists and friends.
Kaoru Nishimi is one of the most self destructive characters I have ever seen. He enters our story with a lot of baggage. He was left out of social groups at previous schools because his fathers work required him to move around. Naturally, he developed some sort of self isolation complex. But he doesn’t stop here. He actively destroys relationships by saying the exact opposite of what he means or by saying literally anything when he needs to just not talk. Not talking is an option that often goes overlooked. Kaoru is a fantastic piano player though. He is able to learn songs simply by listening to them, pick up new ways to play them in days, and composes his own versions of songs on the fly. Most of the show is about his relationship with Sentarou. I could never quite place their relationship. It was some kind of combination between people who have known each other for twenty years, young lovers, and rock band members who are either jamming out or throwing chairs at each other. The frustrating part about Kaoru is that he brought a determination not to care about anyone in his life into the relationship with Sentarou. He did not want to create any kind of connection, in case he got hurt. He seemed to think that if he allowed no one in, no one could hurt him. And while I certainly have people like that in my life, they annoy me as much in real life as they do inside of a show.
Sentarou Kawabuchi has been dubbed as the class trouble maker. It makes sense too. I cannot remember an episode where he did not fight someone, almost fight someone, or got hurt in some form. He was disowned by his grandmother after his mother got pregnant by an American soldier. That same mother ended up abandoning him at the church and disappeared, only for Sentarou to be taken up by his Aunt and Uncle. Despite the connections he made with the kids of the household, he never felt accepted as a son by his Uncle, creating a feeling of being an outsider inside of his own home. So he created a home in the basement of the record store, playing jazz. Our drummer is easily the most enthusiastic about jazz out of the entire group. He is always asking the cast to jam, working on new songs, and looking for ways to play in front of crowds. Sentarou was not one for many words. He kept most of his feelings bottled up, converting all his emotional energy to power up his fists. He comes across as a little thick headed in social situations but his heart is pure and his intentions are never malicious. The show implies that he is not a fantastic student, but is fantastic with children. If you decide to watch the show, it becomes very predictable what that means for his future.
Ritsuko Mukae hardly feels like a character. We almost never see her doing anything other than thinking about or interacting with our two main dudes. She seems like the most dry version of a high school girl possible where her function in the show is largely to be the record store secretary where the guys of the show crush on her like it’s a 90’s office soap opera. The most we learn of her as a person is that she has ambitions to go to university, but we do not know what she wants to study, what her goals are, or really anything about how she interacts with her family or friends outside of these two. The young girls in this show felt more like a prize than characters actively changing the story, let alone interacting with the world with their own unique desires.
Junichi Katsuragi is a man without a cause. Junichi graduated from university after being caught up in the student protests in Tokyo around 1966. He became involved in the leadership of the student organizations after the upperclassman that he played jazz with had to step down, asking him to take over. His friend was beaten in a protest and lost his ability to play jazz due to the permanent damage. Terrified, Junichi runs back to his hometown, where he finds comfort in the jam room under the record shop that Ritsuko’s family runs. Lacking the purpose that the protests brought, he feels like a wanderer who pops in and out of the show, blessing us with his trumpet when he feels like it. He looks complete when he is playing, but the pain quickly comes back once the music stops. Junichi’s relationships made me very uneasy. He fills this awkward role of older brother, love interest for people much younger than him, and a two faced role model who suffers from depression and addiction. I feel confident saying that he is the most interesting character, taking the spotlight from other characters pretty easily, but it was clear that he was not the focus, so the attention that he gets feels misplaced and awkward.
I split the show up into three emotional stories. There is Kaoru and Sentarou’s friendship, Junichi’s fall and his search for love, and Kaoru and Ritsuko’s romance. I’ll start with the third because I have the most succinct thoughts. I got nothing from this. I didn’t like how he acted, I didn’t understand their relationship, and I felt nothing surrounding those two. I didn’t particularly root for him at any point of the show because of his self-destructive habits, which carried over into their interactions. At times their relationship was abusive, but most of the time it just felt toxic. No thank you, on the minors in toxic relationships. I will pass.
Kaoru and Sentarou’s friendship just made me feel angry. Their issues were so simple and childish that it felt pathetic for a high school student to not express how they felt. Your friend playing music with other people makes you jealous? Just…I don’t know…tell him? You know that someone likes your friend…just…just tell him. It didn’t even feel like it was particularly Sentarou’s fault, I just disliked Kaoru and everything he did so much. He is like the opposite of King Midas, everything he touches turns to crap and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Let’s get some distance from the boy who shall not be named. Junichi’s story was the most impactful emotional part for me. The brother-to-rival dynamic between Junichi and Sentarou was great, only beaten by the rise from self pity into taking control. Junichi’s story felt like it crossed the lives of many people, integrated into the world, and had meaning. I wanted Junichi to be part of the story where I wanted basically no other character (other than Ritsuko’s dad because he was cool) to be part of it. His character had development, loss, and triumphs that brought you along with him in the limited amount of time that he got on the show. You could feel that Junichi was so close to breaking out of the rut he was in. He pushed people away while giving them a way to stay in his life if they cared. You wanted someone to take a hammer to the weak barrier that he put up around him. He was basically begging for it and in a way that made him feel vulnerable and open. Unfortunately I never really got this feeling from any of the other characters except for when the two boys were at the hospital, that scene was nice. But shortly after they threw that moment to the wind. So there is that.
I struggled to find many ideas coming out of this twelve episode show. I had to look up the allusions to greek mythology and I still think there is something there, but I was not able to figure it out so clearly if I am too dumb to understand it then it is a bad idea, right?
Everyone wants a space where they feel like they belong but not everyone has that place. In my short period of life I have seen adopted people struggle to feel part of a family, students struggle to feel part of their school, and immigrants feel no connection to their city at all. Lacking belonging seems to be the biggest theme in Kids on the Slope. Junichi feels disconnected from his community. Sentarou feels like he is a visitor inside his own home. Kaoru feels no connection to anything really. But all these people just want to belong. I think a lot of the relationships we find are us trying to seek belonging. So rarely do people actually feel part of something simply for what it is. There are the random hobbits that connect to the land itself, but by and large, we connect to the people. We want to be accepted by the people around us, especially the people we care about. Watching the characters choose who they want to want to be accepted by and vye for that approval was…well sometimes it was exhausting. But that is the reality of it. When we determine our acceptance in a place through the people we care about, you get it all, the frustrating, the sadness, the rejection, the acceptance, and the love. It is the most tragic and most beautiful thing, sometimes at the same time.
Something that really was not given much breath in the show was the transfer of culture by occupation. Japan was occupied by the United States from 1945 to 1952. Among all the elements of culture that transferred between Americans and Japanese was our music. Europe experienced the same injection of American music culture that Japan did. Our jazz, rock, and pop all found its way into the ears of millions of people. We see the remnants of the US occupation all over the show. We see the girls dating US sailors, something that Sentarou’s family rejected, we see the student protests that were products of a generation that grew up in occupation, we see the Japanese communist party, and more. I loved the scene that these events set and how they impacted the lives of our characters, even if they were not a primary focus of the show.
Imagine a world where I write a review for you, but remove the section scores and the final score. The review would lose all sense of direction. There would be no reason to read it because we would not be working towards anything together. I really had no idea where Kids on the Slope was going. Glimpses of direction appeared when the culture festival came around but I realized that the episode pacing didn’t line up to end there. So clearly they must be shooting to resolve the issues between our characters. Nope, it didn’t feel like we got that either. In fact, we got no solid ending for any character before the epilogue. After the epilogue, we got one resolution (and one implied resolution) and just as many questions leaving the episode as we had when we came in. On top of not making progress towards any event or resolution, the times where it felt like we might be making any kind of progress, it was thrown away by the characters five times faster than any progress was made. I am a huge believer that when you are telling a story that you need to work towards and finish an event, a relationship, or an idea. I never really got the impression that Kids on the Slope was working towards finishing any of those things and this really turned me off to the show.
Anime, as a medium, feels unique in its ability to convey emotion. If a girl in a live action production was to squeal, throw something at the male lead, scream that he is an idiot, and run out of a room I would think, “What kind of elementary school reaction is that?” An anime girl does that? I sip wine as I stroke my imaginary beard at the nuance of the tsundere reaction. There does seem to be something magical in the mannerisms and dialog that conveys the feelings of the characters so well. The issue is that Kids on the Slope never really felt like that. The magic that animation usually brings to my life felt lost. The faces felt stiff and lifeless. The colors felt muted. The emotions were mostly expressed with very basic blushes. It left a lot to be desired. Where jazz is something so dynamic, something that the players breathe life into, it feels so wrong to have such simple movements to highlight it. I think this shows in the performances. Sentarou criticises Kaoru’s classical style because it is so rigid and lacks swing, but the animation over all needed swing. Simple things like more camera angles, more saturation, and more facial movements would have gone a long way to get the characters anywhere near as full of expression as their music was.
Where our main character’s life seems uninteresting, the world around him is full of change. All around our high school characters we see the 1966 Japanese Student Protests, the death of Jazz legend John Coltrane, the release of The Sound of Music, and the rise of the Beatles. The post World War Two boom is perhaps one of the most interesting, or over glamorized, eras in modern human history. Seeing this side of that time from the standpoint of a culture still hurt by US occupation, creating a generational rift in music and culture, was probably the most interesting part of a show that was supposed to be about three friends making jazz and being young people navigating romance and youth. The little service that they gave the events swirling around the characters made it seem like the authors had a reason to set the show when they did, but not enough that they couldn’t have made the show pretty much any other time and had the same effect over all.
The Bee Movie is known for the iconic line, “So you like Jazz?” and Kids on the Slope uses that same line, ironically or not, I cannot tell. I laughed so hard when I read that line and then got immediately annoyed at Crunchyroll for not allowing me to take a screenshot of the frame so I could throw it in the Discord. So while I could not make an impression with an awful Bee Movie joke, Kids on the Slope makes a solid impression with it’s music. Kaoru reacted just like I did in my university jazz class, when Sentarou said he had no swing, “What does that mean?” Jazz is not always easy to approach and there is often a lot going on. I think the show approaches it the right way with jazz largely being a way that our characters express things that they won’t just say. They compete with each other for the spotlight, get mad at each other through keystrokes and drum hits, and fight like they are a hair band. Almost all of the music in the show is the keyboard, drum, bass, and trumpet combo. The classic group of jazz instruments that people think of then they think of jazz. It is pretty fun to watch Kaoru grow into not only himself, but his music. He starts as a stiff classical player, aloof to all the other influences around him and he develops into someone who puts his heart into his playing. It not only is nice to listen to musically, but is a cute little metaphor for everyone watching. On top of some classic jazz tracks, we also get some jazz versions of songs from The Sound of Music, which was something my mother used to sing to me when I was younger. That extra touch of nostalgia was enough for me to take it over the top.
|Category||Points Given||Points Possible|
|I am interested in the characters in the story||2||6|
|I liked the emotion the story made me feel||3||6|
|The story brings up interesting ideas||2||6|
|I felt the pacing of the show was appropriate||1||4|
|The animation in the show is beautiful||1||4|
|I am interested in the world that the story takes place in||2||3|
|I felt that the music added to the story in a meaningful way||3||3|