Shinichiro Watanabe already enjoyed a distinguished reputation in animation in Japan when he wowed audiences on both sides of the Pacific with Cowboy Bebop (1998), a sophisticated, jazz-inflected sci-fi adventure that proved it was possible to introduce elements of film noir into animation--something American artists had wanted to do for years. His next series, Samurai Champloo (2004), was an outrageous cultural mash-up that featured Tokugawa break dancers, Hiroshima homeboys, Edo-era hip-hop and a pre-Admiral Perry baseball game with a pitcher in getta.
Watanabe's latest series, Kids on the Slope (2012, Sentai: $69.98, Blu-ray), adapted from the award-winning manga by Yuki Kodama, showcases his versatility as a director and his ability to create characters with depth and believability.
Kaoru Nishimi is an honor student and classically trained pianist who's been dragged to schools all over Japan by his divorced father. In 1966, he arrives at East High on the southern island of Kyushu at the top his class intellectually--and at the bottom socially. Alienated and withdrawn, he regards his rural classmates with disdain.
His attitude attracts the attention of school bad boy, Sentaro Kawabuchi, who good-naturedly ribs Kaoru, dubbing him "Richie" (as in Richie Rich), and defends him from some petty toughs. Although he enjoys a brawl, Sentaro’s passion is jazz, and his rough-hewn exterior conceals a talent as a percussionist. He practices constantly in the basement of the record store run by next door neighbor "Pops" Mukae and his pretty daughter Ritsuko. Eager to impress Ritsuko, Kaoru begins playing music with Sentaro. Simultaneous applying his classical training and breaking with it, he learns to jam.
Through their music, Kaoru and Sentaro acquire something neither one has ever had: a real friend. Kaoru also wins Ritsuko's heart, albeit clumsily. No high school romance or friendship goes smoothly, including the ones in Kids on the Slope. Misunderstandings, faux pas, arguments and fights follow reconciliations and triumphs in and out of class. Voice actors Chris Patton (Karou), Andrew Love (Sentaro) and Rebekah Stevens (Ritsuko) make their characters’ up and downs warmly believable.
As his father is seldom around, Kaoru has to make the best of life with his snobbish cousins; the illegitimate product of a scandalous relationship between his mother and an American GI, Sentaro feels out of place in his own home. The viewer shares the delight these emotionally needy boys feel at finding someone who can share good times and bad. When Sentaro's little sister is injured in a traffic accident, Kaoru holds his friend's head against his chest and looks straight ahead, "so we don’t have to see each other cry." What characters in American animation share that kind of bond?
But what really holds the mismatched trio together is their music. Art Blakely, Bill Evans, Elvin Jones, Tommy Flanagan and John Coltrane are their heroes. Sentaro and Ritsuko grew up listening to jazz; it’s all new to Kaoru, but he quickly learns to revel in the freedom it offers. When Sentaro agrees to sit in with a classmate's band whose members worship the Beatles, Kaoru feels betrayed.
Composer and jazz performer Yoko Kanno, who did the score for Cowboy Bebop, deftly weaves "Moanin'," "Lullaby of Birdland" and other standards into her atmospheric score. Watanabe clearly devoted a large chunk of the budget to the animation of the kids performing, rather than lavish backgrounds or special effects. The movements are well-executed and perfectly timed to the music.
Watanabe's works always end definitively, but leave the audience wanting more, and Kids on the Slope is no exception. Instead of sitting through another unnecessary sequel, it's nice to have to imagine what a winning group of characters might be up to.