Kids on the Slope/ Sakamichi no Aporon
Manga: 9 volumes (plus 1 extra edition)
Anime series: 12 episodes
Genre: Drama, Romance, Coming of age, Josei
Way back when, when Adult Swim was still young and Cowboy Bebop came on regularly, I remembered how jazz music was a signature of the series. From the opening theme to the ending theme, jazz was laced throughout each episode and controlled your emotions as you became attached to each character and their struggles. That is what jazz music is. Jazz is the kind of music that holds raw human emotion, from being at your highest of high to your lowest of days. Cowboy Bebop had that down packed thanks to director Shinichiro Watanabe and composer Yoko Kanno. Cowboy Bebop was and is iconic for many reasons and I always wondered if the magic that it held could be replicated. That energy was born again in Kids on the Slope.
Kids on the Slope is a product of the dynamic partnership between director Watanabe and composer Kanno that hold elements of Cowboy Bebop but sets itself apart as is its own wonder. Instead of being about bounties and settling scores, it’s centered around the lives of 3 teenagers and how their lives collide with jazz music.
The story starts with an introverted kid named Kaoru Nishimi who finds himself in a new town and new school due to his father’s job situation. He lives with relatives, an aunt who expects him to behave and be quiet, and a cousin who meddles in his life. Kaoru has never made any friends because of his introversion, his constant moving and possible lack of self-confidence. So he keeps to himself. It all changes when he meets class president Ritsuko Mukae and class ruffian Sentaro Kawabuchi.
Ritsuko, who is the face and worker at her family’s record store, invites Kaoru over to hear a live jazz session being played in the basement after learning he can play piano. There he sees Sentaro on the drums. One intense jazz drum session and argument about how jazz should be played, Kaoru buys Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and the rest is history. Jazz ignites a passion in the quiet Kaoru who learns to open up and express himself in ways he never knew he could. He discovers that the piano isn’t just for classic music, elegant parties, or a way to play a role in his family, but a way to express emotion and define his own personality and not one expected of him.
But just like jazz this series isn’t only full of ups…there are some heavy downs. As the series goes on, you learn that falling in love and being in love isn’t the easiest thing in the world through the eyes of someone young and new to it. Families aren’t always warm and inviting; they can be scary and heartbreaking. Those who smile the brightest could be hurting the most on the inside, but somehow they can keep it together for the sake of others. Despite all of the hurt and pain, what kept everyone together and brought them back together was the music that was played in the basement of that old record store; that was the life force behind a powerful and intense friendship.
Each of the main three, Kaoru, Sentaro, and Ritsuko, all had to learn a serious lesson of growing up and the pains that comes with learning. Sentaro had to deal with his own personal turmoil stemming from a heartbreaking childhood and issues he faced as someone who is the product of an American soldier and a Japanese woman; at a time where that was heavily frowned upon. Despite having an easy upbringing, Ritsuko does all for others but forgets to do what is best for her. She holds her feelings inside and never expresses them until she has moved past them. This may sound small, but as the series goes on it shows that she regrets her choices until 1 or 2 crucial moments. One of the biggest lessons that was made all too obvious was about the struggles of love and love lost. The series covered a lot of love paths and the most obvious one was not a part of the equation. The most obvious assumption would be to think that Sentaro and Kaoru would be competing for Ritsuko’s affection, but as the series goes on you learn very quickly that there is more going on than just a simple love triangle.
Our main three never seem to catch a break and the person who, in my opinion, struggled the most was Kaoru.
From the jump, it was very obvious that Kaoru was in love with Ritsuko but their love story isn’t smooth because this isn’t a shoujo anime. The status of their relationship isn’t the focus of my point; it is how Kaoru is around Ritsuko and how he expresses his feelings. As I’ve said earlier, Kaoru never had friends who stuck around while he moved. His home life wasn’t exactly perfect because he didn’t have many figures in his life who showed him friendship and love, so it’s only natural for him to cling to his new friends. Sentaro gave him the best friend he never had and Ritsuko gave him his first love. It pulled at my heart strings to watch him struggle with new emotions he’s never experienced before; feelings such as jealousy, over-protectiveness, and heartbreak. I was rooting for him throughout the series, but some of his awkwardness did make me cringe. When Ritsuko is concerned, he would focus in on her and whatever felt right (speech or action) he would do it. Sometimes it was cute and silly, and others it was really awkward and somewhat aggressive. But, at the heart of it all were genuine feelings a sheltered kid didn’t know how to deal with and no one to ask for help; so he did the best he could and that was good enough.
The adventures these three had, the tears shed, the laughs shared between them embody the essence of jazz and what this coming-of-age series is about. The turmoil these kids went through and how they expressed themselves was raw and powerful. That is exactly what youth is about really. You do what feels right or what makes sense because you’re nothing but emotions with some logic. As you grow, you learn that what you did yesterday wasn’t the best choice and you grow from your past mistake. Everything isn’t perfect now or the road you’re supposed to take isn’t clear at the moment but it will be. Sometimes you have to find your own path and that could be done in the pleasant company of friends or taking a big solo leap. All you have to remember is, just like jazz, all you need is a beat and whatever you improvise will be the honest you; it may sound off or too chaotic to others, but it’s the beat that is alive in your soul. Never turn it down.
4.8 Ella Fitzgerald records out of 5