Adolescence is a truly weird stage of life: we don’t recognise ourselves as children anymore, but we haven’t found whatever our future self will crave for in life yet. For some people, it’s the urge to know more about the world, while for others, it’s the will to take care of the people who sorrounds us. We break away from the shell to start embracing the person we are going to be, but it’s not an easy process. There have been many works that have touched on this subject, but a select few manage to pull it off as well as Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi No Apollon in original japanese), an anime adaptation spanning twelve episodes of the manga of the same name, directed by the one and only Shinichiro Watanabe (the mind behind modern classics like ‘Samurai Champloo’, ‘Space Dandy’ and, of course, ‘Cowboy Bebop’). It’s the first adaptation he has ever worked on, but seeing how it blends elements from different cultures (a signature trademark of his) and how it’s about boys expressing themselves through jazz music, his involvement with the project isn’t hard to justify. So, let’s dive in to know why this series works so well.
The story takes place in the summer of 1966, in Kyushu, Japan: a country that still struggled after the loss of World War II, the post-nuclear trauma, and the cultural invasion of american sailors (who themselves ported overseas new cultural influences, like jazz music). Kaoru Nishimi, a boy with a very sad family situation and an intense love for performing classical music on his piano, gets to know Sentarô Kawabuchi, a social outcast who happens to be an amazing jazz drummer, and Ritsuko Mukae, a very friendly girl whose father owns a music records store. And so, they meet up in the store’s basement to form a small jazz band while their friendship grows. Of course, this being a story about adolescents going to high scool, Kids on the Slope has its fair share of melodramatic romance, but it never feels forced nor patrionizing. The great scriptwriting makes you really feel like these could be real people because of the way situations and conversations are handeled. The pacing is superb, every scene feels meaningful and there’s the sense that it adds something to the story, making it very addictive to the point that I marathoned it all in one night. Very few works have grabbed my attention like this.
The artwork and animation are also fantastic. It was one of the first works of Studio MAPPA, and they sell the setting very well. Every little detail, from the clothing to the structure of japanese cities of that era is painstakingly believable. And here is where having an incredibly talented director makes a difference: every shot feels polished and exposition is subtle, like in previous Watanabe works. The animation is specially impressive on the performance scenes, where musicians move and play their instruments just as they are played in the soundtrack; take a look.
Yeah, this is ‘Four’, by Miles Davis, at a very high tempo. The soundtrack for Kids on the Slope is an absolute blast from start to finish. This isn’t surprising at all, considering it’s composed by Yoko Kanno (yes, the one from Bebop), who is considered by many one of the finest composers on Earth. The album hold several covers from jazz authorities like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, or Chet Baker (exploding in an incredible medley right in the middle of the series), plus some breath taking original tunes. Once again, this woman demonstrates that she is a musical genius able to touch your soul like few can. Some of this arrangements are arguably better than the original pieces, in fact.
Kids on the Slope is a fantastic series that will make you feel, think, and of course, appreciate jazz music much more. It’s a simple yet engrosing stories about kids learning to be both better persons and better musicians, and unlike Whiplash -where music is seen as a painful process-, music in Sakamichi is seen as a form of liberation and personal growth, on this slope to adulthood.