The highly anticipated “Kids on the Slope,” the new anime series by Shinichiro Watanabe, is now available online through Crunchyroll. I caught the first episode last night, and I highly recommend it for just about all audiences, whether they’re into animation or not.
The show takes place in 1966 in rural Kyushu and centers on Kaoru, a high school boy with social anxiety who has had to transfer schools every year because of his father’s job. He strikes up an unexpected friendship with Sentaro, a local delinquent, and his best friend, the class president and daughter of the owner of a local music store. They connect primarily over music, though Kaoru is trained in classical and Sentaro listens exclusively to jazz.
Given the subject matter, it may seem like quite a departure for the guy who did the action anime classics “Cowboy Bebop,” an outer space, martial arts gangster epic, and “Samurai Champloo,” a hip-hop chambara story. However, “Slope” has a surprising amount in common with those two. The character archetypes are somewhat similar — all of these series have two male protagonists, one of them serious-minded and uptight and the other carefree and reckless, and a female companion (who, at least in the previous two series), never gets quite the same level of character development as the guys. In the other two series, there was definite romantic tension between the male leads, and it’s quite noticeable in “Slope” as well.
Music is a huge part of all three series. “Cowboy Bebop” featured a heavily jazz-oriented soundtrack, with some rock and blues thrown in for good measure. “Champloo” was largely hip-hop; it was scored by the late great Nujabes and the theme song was by the Bay Area’s own Shing02. “Slope” returns Watanabe to jazz and reunites him with Yoko Kanno, who did the soundtrack for “Bebop.”
The series also appears to show a content trajectory for Watanabe, from the fantastic to the personal. “Bebop” is outer-space sci-fi, while “Samurai Champloo” moves closer to home, since it takes place in Japan, (albeit a highly stylized version of Edo-era Japan). “Slope,” on the other hand, takes place in Japan in the approximate era in which Watanabe grew up.
That said, there is plenty about “Slope” that is quite different from Watanabe’s other series, beyond the fact that the characters in “Slope” are not samurai or space bounty hunters. “Bebop” and “Champloo,” particularly the latter, were both very meta, commenting on and referencing historical and social events, international pop culture, and the medium of animation itself. The series was both gleefully unbound from its settings, pulling in fragments of different pop culture from across time and around the globe and throwing them together in clever, unexpected ways, (staging John Woo-style gunfights on Mars, for instance, or putting Andy Warhol in Edo Japan).
“Kids on the Slope,” so far, is grounded in its time and place. It’s almost claustrophobic, particularly when compared to his earlier sprawling epics. And the plot is not particularly novel or innovative. There are no clever cultural references to watch for, no fast-paced action set-pieces, and no surprising narrative tricks. In other words, it’s Watanabe separated completely from his signature artistic traits, leaving him with only his storytelling ability to rely on to entertain his audience. And he certainly is a capable storyteller; the first episode pulled me in thoroughly. Also, I like the pilot episode as much as the first episodes of “Champloo” and “Bebop.” However, the quality of the first episode doesn’t say much about the quality of the series as a whole. For instance, I liked the pilot for “Bebop” better than “Champloo” but (and I know I’m in the minority on this one) I think “Champloo” is the better series.
The only real criticism I have doesn’t have anything to do with the show itself, but rather, it’s distribution model — Crunchyroll makes you sign up for an account to watch the show. It seems like they should at least release an episode or so for free, Hulu-style, to build an audience. Still, the basic idea of officially releasing subbed shows online shortly after their Japanese debut is fantastic (and long-overdue). Fansubbers (God bless them) are going to have it subbed and online within days anyways. This model gets a quality version to the fans in about as much time, and gets some of the proceeds to the artists who produced the work. Definitely a welcome sign of things to come.
Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s been published in the Oakland Tribune and has written for New American Media’s YO! Youth Outlook and the Nichi Bei Times. He is a research manager for the Health Horizons Program at the Institute for the Future. He also edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine and contributes to Nichi Bei News.