Kids on the Slope – Episode 1

High schooler Kaoru Nishima moves to Kyushu in summer 1966 to live with relatives. He was top of the class at his old school, and whiles away the time playing piano. One of Kaoru’s classmates, notorious trouble-maker Sentarou Kawabuchi, takes an interest in him, but the boys’ conflicting tastes in music ensure a rocky start to their friendship. Kaoru exclusively plays classical music, while drummer Sentarou only cares for jazz. Pushed together by class president (and childhood friend of Sentarou) Ritsuko Mukae at her father’s record store, the two resist – there’s no way Sentarou will jam with Kaoru, because Kaoru doesn’t feel the soul in the music he plays. Kaoru storms off, but not before buying a jazz record.

Oh gosh, Japan, stop spoiling us! What with Space Bros and Lupin III and Mysterious Girlfriend X I thought spring might have run out of good shows. Nuh uh. Kids on the Slope’s first episode is excellent, establishing most of the main players and setting the plot in motion. Since the beginning of last year, the shows noitaminA has served up have mostly ranged from middling to terribad, with Un-Go and perhaps Wandering Son the only real exceptions. The Guilty Crown/Black★Rock Shooter double bill was undoubtedly the timeslot’s nadir, but this season it seems normal service has been resumed.

A quick glance at the people involved with Kids on the Slope and all becomes clear. This show marks the return of Shinichiro Watanabe to anime direction, eight years after his last work, Samurai Champloo, debuted. Joining him is long time collaborator Yoko Kanno, famed for her compositions in Cowboy Bebop and various iterations of the Macross franchise. Handling production in its very first TV work is independent studio Mappa, formed by Madhouse founder Masao Maruyama – it is essentially Madhouse in all but name. So in a way, Kids on the Slope sees three juggernauts of anime come together in a formerly revered timeslot looking to return to the heights of its heyday.

And whaddayaknow, it all comes together. Main character Kaoru is a typical teenager with social anxiety issues (albeit with that aspect turned up to 11 – overwhelming nausea that can only be overcome by heading to the roof, how odd), but manages to be far more than a personality-devoid Yuji Everylead. Sentarou and Ritsuko seem far more complex than they let on. Sentarou’s classmates may think of him as a bully, but what we see is a young man with a passion for music so great that his everyday life seems utterly banal and uninteresting in comparison. Ritsuko is outwardly charming and cheerful, but one suspects she may be hiding feelings for Sentarou. And what with Kaoru seeming to show some attraction towards her, Kids on the Slope would appear to be going down the love triangle route.

Kanno’s music is excellent, if used rather more sporadically than one might expect from a Watanabe/Kanno collaboration, but I’m sure that will be rectified in episodes to come. I also rather enjoyed the use of real life music. Kaoru plays Debussy’s Clair de Lune on his uncle’s grand piano, while the only music Sentarou knows for piano is the opening to Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – this is the record Kaoru buys at the end of the episode. They are incredibly different pieces of music, reflecting the differences between Kaoru and Sentarou perfectly. Clair de Lune is a solitary piece, desperately sad, while Moanin’ is a lively piece designed for performance by a band – trumpet, sax, piano, bass and drums. Just as Sentarou believes jazz to be inherently soulful and spiritual, he believes the classical music snob Kaoru to be soulless – a melancholy individual who is merely going through the motions of life.

I adore music. I’ve no particular skill with any instrument, and musical theory was never my thing, but music is a passion. As such when music and anime intersect I couldn’t be happier; it’s part of the reason I love Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo so much. I know it’s early days, and I know how much hype can ruin a series (oh look, an aniblogger is talking about Guilty Crown again, it must be a day ending in ‘y’), but Kids on the Slope is gearing up to be another classic from Watanabe. I had some concerns before airing that the very conventional setting of a Japanese high school (albeit in 1966 rather than the modern day) might somewhat shackle Watanabe’s creativity, but that fear is entirely unfounded. Coming of age is not a genre Watanabe has particular experience in, but the tiny hints of a plot that we got in this episode were far more engaging than anything we got from the likes of Sankarea or Accel World this season. I can’t wait to see where this goes.