Former Whiskey Media intern and current freelance writer Nick Robinson will be checking in from time to time to offer lucid musings on recent anime in a semi-regular column, Behind Anime Lines.
COWBOY BEBOP was a really, really big deal to me. It was the first anime I remember watching that was explicitly not for kids. Before discovering BEBOP on Adult Swim, the only Japanese exports I’d been exposed to were ones marketed specifically to young people - - POKEMON, DIGIMON, SAILOR MOON... that stuff.
The concept of cartoons for adults shook my fragile American mind, and I was fascinated. I found myself immediately hooked - - hooked by the show’s universe, hooked by its phenomenal cast of characters, and more than anything else, hooked by its timelessly jazzy music. As an actual show, COWBOY BEBOP remains important to me, but the music has had more staying power than maybe any media I’ve ever consumed. In one form or another, Yoko Kanno’s vast and stylistically schizophrenic soundtrack has followed me since middle school and, in the decade I’ve spent listening and relistening to it, I’ve only grown to love it more.
KIDS ON THE SLOPE marks the first collaboration between Kanno and director Shinichirō Watanabe since BEBOP premiered in 1998. Unequivocally a "slice of life" show, it focuses on the lives of a handful of Japanese high schoolers in the late 1960's. A romantic drama projected onto the backdrop of jazz, it’s just as much about their relationships with music as it is their relationships with each other. And, so far, it's great (thanks in no small part to Kanno’s musical contributions.)
It wouldn’t be unfair to call COWBOY BEBOP “an anime with a jazz soundtrack,” but that's only half-accurate. The OST was at once a J-pop soundtrack, a country soundtrack, a classical soundtrack, an electronic soundtrack, an opera soundtrack... and roughly a dozen other genres.
The KIDS ON THE SLOPE soundtrack is something else - - something much more grounded. An album largely comprised of covers and arrangements of classic jazz songs with a few original compositions thrown in for good measure, it’s a lot more traditional and cohesive than the BEBOP soundtrack, but they have one major thing in common: they both feel inexorably and specifically created for their respective shows, and it’s hard to overstate how much that adds.
What has me hooked on the show is this: each episode features at least one musical performance of some kind. These are, without a doubt, the highlight of what is already a visually stunning show. They’re kinetic and precise and extremely realistic: every single piano chord and drum hit is accurately depicted on-screen. You get the feeling that the cash in an animation budget normally reserved for huge, explosive, CGI-addled action scenes was instead used on these moments.
The effect is dazzling, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. So far, every jazz session in this show has managed to put a huge smile on my face, and as someone with very little knowledge of or vested interest in jazz, that’s a major accomplishment.
At first, it’s hard see how a fairly run-of-the-mill teenage anime love triangle (or love square or whatever) could have anything to do with jazz, but it turns out that they complement each other incredibly well. As Japanese teenagers in love, the characters in this show are rarely bold enough to come out and just say what they’re feeling. Instead, the music is often the medium through which they communicate, and it’s an aspect of the show that Watanable and Kanno absolutely nail. The titular kids use jazz to make friends, end fights, and confess love - -all in the first handful of episodes.
In essence, that is the meat of this show: it’s a melodrama with an important and essential musical twist that makes it more than worth your time. Yeah, the teen romances themselves are, of course, fraught with melodrama and misunderstandings, and occasionally things get pretty corny. But even if the love triangles are (so far) pretty conventional, everything surrounding them is so damn good that it’s easy to recommend.
A quick disclaimer to those looking to watch this - - don’t be fooled by the theme song! Unlike with COWBOY BEBOP, whose iconic theme song “Tank!” has to be among the most recognizable anime intros in existence, KIDS ON THE SLOPE’s theme is kind of just another anime opening track. Performed by long-time J-pop artist YUKI but produced by Kanno herself, it’s a catchy but entirely typical anime theme that doesn’t do a great job of conveying the tone of the show. Again, the song’s good, and it grew on me - - it just couldn’t have less to do with the show’s jazzy roots.
KIDS ON THE SLOPE is quieter than BEBOP - - quieter than nearly all anime I've watched, actually - - but it’s almost never boring. If you’re in the mood for a calmer show with characters worth hanging out with and a real sense of time and place, you owe it to yourself to check out KIDS ON THE SLOPE.
It’s available in its entirety for free streaming on Crunchyroll, so no excuses!
Nick Robinson is a writer and journalist (sort of) who has very strong opinions on things he knows almost nothing about. Like jazz, for example. He'd love it if you followed him on Twitter at @Babylonian!