No one can deny that Kids on the Slope had fantastic pedigree. It's the adaptation of Yuki Kodama's award-winning josei manga, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe and with music by Yoko Kanno. Based on the pairing of Cowboy Bebop vets Watanabe and Kanno, I expected another anime heavily influenced by jazz, as I imagine many viewers did. This couldn't have been farther from the truth.
The core of Kids on the Slope is really just a love triangle with a few further romantic interests attached to it. While the jaded critic in me is ecstatic that there was no harem angle mixed in, I was surprisingly disappointed that jazz wasn't as big an influence on the plot and tone. The various jazz sessions provided reasons for the characters to interact, but based on Watanabe's work on Bebop and Samurai Champloo, it's not wrong to expect the music to harmonize with the style of the anime. Here, there's nothing disharmonious, but the jazz element was never integrated into the show's heart because Kids on the Slope isn't about jazz. It's about romance.
I feel like once a few episodes had aired, the buzz for Kids on the Slope died down, and I won't deny that I was disappointed. It's a shame, because the audience's initial hype about what the anime could have been prevented the enjoyment of what was actually there. The relationship between Kaoru and Ritsuko may be formulaic at times, but unlike so many other generic romances, it feels real. Maybe that's because Kaoru is kind of a creepy guy and Ritsuko is rather plain, in contrast to the male underdog cipher and unattainable feminine ideal so often present in anime romances and romantic comedies. It doesn't feel like the producers are trying to take advantage of the fact that the male viewers generally like cute girls.
But as refreshing as it is to see the drama of a boy and girl trying to discover their true feelings, the bromance of Kaoru and Sentaro was far more interesting. It would have been really easy to preach the story of a bookworm learning to chill out while also helping the delinquent smarten up. They even could have put a bow on it with an ending scene where the delinquent is overjoyed to graduate, while the bookworm says something like "I'll never forget the time I spent with Sentaro." Thankfully, Kids on the Slope avoids such sappy cliches.
Watching Kaoru's feelings toward Sentaro change from annoyance to begrudging acceptance to fond companionship is extremely rewarding. Sure, when they have an argument, Kaoru can be a little whiney -- in fact, he acts just like a jealous girl! But it's still interesting to see them learn and grow from each other without completely changing who they are. Though none of my friendships have followed the same story beats, it was easy to relate to their heartfelt friendship.
The last episode was set up to easily make or break the series, either excusing the whirling romantic merry-go-round or hardening the emotional center of the story. Thankfully, it capped off the series quite nicely. After a weird forced make-out session, Kaoru and Ritsuko graduate with their romance seemingly dead. Kaoru takes a train to Tokyo to attend college, with Ritsuko suddenly running after the train. Eight years later, Kaoru is a resident at a hospital and happens to meet Yurika, pregnant with Jun's child. She shows him a picture of a church's clergy and Kaoru notices a familiar face.
Upon finding the church, he discovers a drumset and begins playing jazz on the organ nearby. This attracts the attention of Sentaro, a priest-in-training who cares for the orphans, and the two have a happy reunion, with even Ritsuko showing up to see her two best friends. I applaud this mature ending, because it recognizes that their high school problems that seemed so important didn't matter. No one "gets the girl," because their friendship was more important, even years down the road. It was surprisingly cathartic, considering all the drama in the series.
Kids on the Slope wasn't what I wanted, and I'm not even sure it ended up being my anime of the season. But as expected from Watanabe, it was a wonderfully told story with believable characters that I grew attached to. I just hope we don't have to wait another eight years for his next work.
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