December 9, 2023
By Andrew Osmond.
Kids on the Slope was the first collaboration between director Shinichiro Watanabe and composer Yoko Kanno following the iconic Cowboy Bebop. The new anime proved to be an enormously entertaining teen love-triangle drama, with a great central trio and some of the best music set-pieces ever created in anime.
It’s the 1960s, and unhappy teenage boy Nishimi moves to live with his relatives on Japan’s south island, Kyushu. He’s determined to hate his new school, though his resolve softens when he meets Ritsuko, a very pretty freckle-faced girl in his class. More dramatically, Nishimi meets the boy Sentaro, a formidable masculine specimen. Both a bruiser and a physical Adonis, Sentaro picks punch-ups for fun and relishes pushing Nishimi out of his comfort zone – though at the same time, he seems to be a friend. Sentaro has known Ritsuko since childhood, and has a surprise talent – he’s a brilliant jazz drummer. And as it happens, Nishimi plays the piano…
The music they all make is great. At first, it expresses the men’s communication, their rivalry and camaraderie. Later, as Nishimi is provoked by Sentaro to man himself up, so music becomes his present to the girl he loves. Many of their sessions are in an intimate basement room, but there are two bravura public set-pieces before awed crowds. They’d leave any audience smiling, particularly when they bring in such world standards as “My Favourite Things” (from The Sound of Music), “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and Art Blakey’s “Moanin.’”
Despite its down-to-earth setting, Kids opens with cinematic glamour. The splendid character designs are from Nobuteru Yuki, whose other credits include Record of Lodoss War, Vison of Escaflowne and Star Blazers 2199. If the show feels wobbly in the middle, that’s less to do with cost-cutting than the story seemingly slacking, after rapid-fire relationship crises which other shows would hold back for the last act. There’s a queasy moment where an effeminate boy is seemingly introduced as a cheap joke, while two other love-interests (a girl and boy) feel like thin-sketched distractions from Nishimi, Sentaro and Ritsuko. Yet the shadow players have increasingly important roles; they’re understudies with greater story destinies than the main players. Their stories also bring in anti-establishment politics; this isn’t 1960s for nothing.
Kids on the Slope was broadcast in 2012, eight years after Watanabe’s previous series, Samurai Champloo. According to Masao Maruyama, whose MAPPA studio made Kids, the reason for the gap between Watanabe’s projects was because he’d wanted to work on his own original project, but hadn’t found funding. “For various reasons, he hadn’t been able to make what he wanted,” Maruyama said. “Then the source material for Kids on the Slope came along” – a manga by the artist Yuki Kodama. (Kids is unusual among Watanabe projects in that it was adapted from an existing source – the manga would later become a live-action film in 2018.)
Maruyama: “I approached Watanabe and said he couldn’t just keep waiting, he needed to direct something even if he didn’t like it. And the fact is Watanabe loves music as much as he loves anime, and Kids on the Slope is a story about music. So I said it was a really good chance for him to show off what he could do. So we made it together.” Indeed Watanabe, who has worked as a music producer as well as a director, is a self-styled “music freak,” hurling himself into one style after another, as you’ll know if you’ve seen Cowboy Bebop.
Interviewed by Anime News Network, Watanabe indicated how he found his way into the material. “Kids on the Slope is about a good boy and a bad boy coming together… In my case, I was the good boy, and I found friendship with the baddest boy in my school.” Rather than jazz, Watanabe and his delinquent friend bonded over the group KISS.
When I originally reviewed Kids, I wrote, “There’s a smouldering homoeroticism between Nishimi and Sentaro, hardly concealed by their hetero love stories. The boys may be smitten with girls, but they’re very happy with each other’s company and physicality, while Ritsuko rejoices to see them jamming together.”
Years later, I interviewed Watanabe for this blog and asked him directly if the anime was a “Boys Love” series. He answered, “First of all, because Kids on the Slope is based on a manga, I didn’t create the characters. But I have spoken to the manga artist, Yuki Kodama. Kodama said she didn’t really see it as BL. However, she was very particular about those two male characters having a very close relationship. In the first episode, there is a scene with them linking their hands [probably referring to their very first meeting, when Kaoru finds Sentaro napping under a sheet]. I actually cut that scene initially but Kodama specifically asked, ‘No, this scene is important, so you have to keep it in.’
“So I think as the original creator, she was probably aware on the subconscious level of two men having a very close relationship together, caring for each other. But as a point of view on sexuality, I personally feel that whether it’s between two men or two women, or a man and a woman, it really doesn’t matter so much in terms of what category they see themselves in. What’s more important is the love itself, the contents of love that they have within the relationship. So it really doesn’t matter whether they’re homosexual or heterosexual, that’s less important.”
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Kids on the Slope is released by Anime Limited.