Watching Watanabe Shinichiro's Kids on the Slope having already seen his previous works Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo feels very much like watching Hosoda Mamoru's Wolf Children after seeing The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars. It feels less exhilarating, but is equally as enjoyable and more emotionally powerful.
Watanabe is well known in both Japan and the rest of the world as the man who created the space bounty hunter anime series Cowboy Bebop. He has built the reputation of having the skills to work outside some well-established boundaries and conventions of anime and the ability to bend genres in ways that most directors would find hard to pull off. Kids on the Slope, however, is different. Neither revolutionary nor groundbreaking, it is instead rather traditional. So if you watch it expecting something like Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo, you will be very disappointed.
Adapted from Kodama Yuki's hugely acclaimed manga, the story is set in summer, 1966, a time of change in Japan. The characters are a bunch of high school students who love jazz, and at the core of the anime is the friendship between Nishimi Kaoru, a newly arrived student and Kawabuchi Sentaro, a well-known troublemaker at his school. The focus is on these and other teenage characters' friendship, romance, dreams and heartbreaks.
Kids on the Slope is superb in its visuals and music. The characters are naturally drawn and the backgrounds are animated to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia. The character movement is fluid and believable, with the attention to details being most impressive during the series' jamming sessions, as every note is matched by finger movements that are in sync with the music. Watanabe has reunited with composer Kanno Yoko (Cowboy Bebop) to create the show's amazing soundtrack, and the music is definitely the best thing about the show. In fact, music is its central element because it is a passion shared by many of the characters and Watanabe has also used it as a means to communicate the characters' feelings.
My only criticism of the anime is that towards the end of the series, things start to feel a little rushed, and it would have benefited from having a few more episodes to complete and conclude the various storylines surrounding the large cast of characters. Apart from that, it is a truly special anime in Watanabe's filmography because it is clear the subject matters are things that are dear to his heart. Kids on the Slope has beautifully captured the joys and struggles of growing up, and is bittersweet without being melodramatic, which is in itself an achievement.
Kids on the Slope is released in Australia by Hanabee Entertainment. It is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
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