I was a band kid in high school. (This is probably not a surprise to readers of Kotaku Melodic.) I tried on a lot of hats in middle school—I tried being an athlete, tried being a brain, tried being involved in student government. But it was in the jazz band that I found a home.
Kids on the Slope, a new anime from the people behind the cult hit Cowboy Bebop, feels custom-made for ex-band kids like me, and yet it excludes no one. This show has been crafted with such a warm love of life and music that musicians and non-musicians alike will fall under its spell.
Kids on the Slope is an animated television adaptation of Yuki Kodama's manga series of the same name. It tells the story of Kaoru Nishimi, a smart and introverted high school freshman who has been on the move his entire life. It's the summer of 1966, and he's just landed in Kyushu, where he's living with his uncle (the slope in the title refers to the steep slope he must walk every day to get to school). Kaoru has grown up anxiety ridden and friendless, and feels very alone.
Soon, he meets the tall, trouble-making Sentaro Kawabuchi. Sentaro is the terror of Higashi High School, always getting into fights and causing a ruckus. But he takes a shine to Kaoru, as does his longtime friend, a girl named Ritsuko Mukae, upon who Kaoru is quick to develop a secret crush.
Soon, Kaoru discovers that Sentaro is something of a jazz-head; he's a drummer, and carries sticks around with him so that he can practice figures on whatever happens to be lying around. It's 1966 and jazz, while popular in Japan, is still cool and somewhat underground—it's far from the academic pursuit that it has become today. Ritsuko's father Tsutomu owns a record shop in Kyushu, where Sentaro goes to play drums; Tsutomu plays the bass, and an older friend, a Chet Baker-alike named Brother Jun, comes by to play trumpet.
The rigid, timid Kaoru is a classical pianist, but he immediately takes to jazz and, under Sentaro's tutelage, begins to buy records and learn to understand jazz music. His musical growth is mirrored by his personal growth—as he learns to swing, he learns to let go of his anxiety and feel happy. The music becomes a metaphor for Kaoru's growing confidence, romantic entanglements, and the trials and tribulations of youth. Before long, the four players have come together into a pretty smokin' (unrealistically smokin', to be honest, but who cares) jazz quartet.
Those are the nuts and bolts of the story of the first season, which is up to its 9th episode. (You can watch the episodes for free on a slight delay at the website crunchyroll, and it has yet to air on American TV.) It's very much a high school coming-of-age story, and it deliberately lacks the wicked cool vibe and action of Cowboy Bebop. The dreamy, romantic vibe won't be for everyone, and I could imagine some hardcore Bebop fans being turned off by the show.
But to dismiss Kids on the Slope would be a huge mistake. Like Cowboy Bebop, Kids is a thing of visual and aural beauty, a celebration of art that lives in its smallest details. This isn't just the story of a young man finding himself; it's a tribute to the power of jazz, to that feeling you get when you discover that there's this whole world of music, of players and sessions and records and alternate takes, a rich history that you never knew.
It's the little things that they get so right—the first tune that Sentaro shows Kaoru is Bobby Timmons' "Moanin" a simple shuffle made famous by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, with whom Timmons played piano. It was, coincidentally, also the first jazz tune my father taught me when I was first learning piano, so the scenes of Sentaro plunking out the iconic 8-note theme really hit home. Kaoru mimics Sentaro's playing, but is berated for "not feelin' it," despite having the notes down. "There's no swing!"
Each episode is named for a jazz standard—"Someday my Prince will Come," "But Not for Me," "Summertime"—that encapsulates the theme of the episode. When characters are fighting, they come back together around jazz, and it heals them; when they're lost they find solace in classic tunes and old records. As Kaoru learns "Moanin," he travels back and forth from the record player to the piano, wearing down the grooves in the vinyl while mimicking Timmons' swing. Everything about it rings so true, and hits so close to home… as I devoured the show, one episode after another, there were times when I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing.
Series director Shinichiro Watanabe is no stranger to jazz; his now-famous show Cowboy Bebop was one of the hippest, most jazz-drenched television programs ever to air. In addition to his raucous musical sensibilities, Watanabe has a knack for creating still images that are loaded with life—two characters will finish a momentous conversation and the camera will linger on the place where they just stood. He's a master of implying the potential of an empty room, or the stories hidden in everyday things—whether it's a bunk on a spaceship or a desolate storefront.
Watanabe's musical co-conspirator Yoko Kanno returns to provide the show's groovy musical score, as well as, I don't doubt, to advise on the smaller details of the jazz world that few others could have gotten so right.
Just last week, I wrote an editorial about about the apparent impossibility of "growing the jazz audience." But despite that fact, jazz music itself isn't going anywhere, and Kids on the Slope demonstrates why. Not only is jazz timeless, endlessly inventive music, it's the perfect vessel for metaphor —jazz is love, jazz is friendship; it's death, separation, reunion, and uncertainty.