Kids on the Slope: You know what this feels like. It feels good.

April 17th, 2012 by | Tags: , ,

I moved to Madrid, Spain in the middle of spring in 2000. I was sixteen, I’d recently broken my thumb (playing video games, of all things), and I was suddenly transported from Georgia, where I’d lived off and on forever, to another continent where I didn’t speak the language and knew no one.

It was strange. I made friends, thanks to meeting people in the embassy. I went to a school with Americans and Spaniards, too, so adjusting was a daily process. I ended up picking up conversational Spanish pretty quickly — I found Frank Miller’s 300, of all things, in a grocery store and learned Spanish alongside it — so my social life wasn’t too bad. One thing that brought my group of friends together, and kept us together, was music.

We all had slightly different tastes in music. I was hard on my backpacker tip at the time, while secretly making way for music from Georgia. We all liked rap, though, from OutKast to the Kottonmouth Kings. We learned to breakdance together, some of us having better luck than others (read: not me) and went out to rap clubs on weekends. The jam was Kingston, because they played mostly rap and R&B stuff. It wasn’t upscale enough for the girls, I guess, so we’d also go to Capital (Capi), which played different music depending on what floor you were on. (There was another club we’d go to regularly, but I don’t remember the name of it. It played techno, though, and one night I fell asleep on a couch there.)

I met one of my best friends from high school, James, because he wanted to borrow my Jurassic 5 CD and wouldn’t give up when I put him off. Later, when the homey Nick was being honored for something (I forget what–I think we were all acting in a play?) we pulled our shirts off, twisted ’em round our hands, spun them like helicopters, and yelled “Raise up!” Why? ’cause he was from North Carolina. And we all loved this:

It was like that, man. Music was something we listened to, absorbed, and expressed ourselves through, whether via awkward, halting freestyles or turning songs into personal anthems. It felt good. It felt right.

There’s something amazing about music. I went to Spain and one of the first things I heard on the radio was an uncensored Tupac song. I think it was “Letter to the President,” but I’m not 100%. I heard a bunch of Spanish rap. Friends put me onto cats like Frank T and 7 Notas, 7 Colores. I branched out into French and German rap like DJ Tomekk (that one via his GZA collab, “Ich Lebe Fur Hip-Hop”). Today, in 2012, I’ve own a few hundred songs and maybe a dozen albums in languages I don’t speak. Graeme McMillan put me onto Camille, a french singer, and I think Sean Witzke was the guy who showed me Charlotte Gainsbourg first, who sometimes sings in French. But past that, I’ve got Yoko Kanno, Yuji Ohno, The +2s, that one Miho Hatori album she did with a Brazilian guy, a different Miho Hatori album… I’ve got a lot.

I don’t understand a lot of it. But that doesn’t matter. The music just turns me on. It doesn’t matter where it came from or who did it. The only thing that matters is if it knocks. If it’s hot, it’s hot. And if it’s hot — and this is the important bit so pay attention — there’s somebody else out there who likes it, and you can talk to them.

That’s the part that kills me every time. When you meet somebody who is into what you’re into, or knows what you’re into, and you just chop it up for a while. They reveal crazy connections between songs, like how I’m pretty sure that there’s a way you can crossfade from David Bowie’s “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” directly into Saul Williams’s “Black History Month” and have a transcendental moment as you bridge Ziggy Stardust to Niggy Tardust. You trade trivia and lists and you bond. You talk about how the piano (pianoing? piano playing? piano riff?) that opens Kanye West’s “Runaway” is the loneliest thing ever. You can bond over a lot of things, but music seems to be that one thing that works better than anything else. And it’s amazing.

Crunchyroll is streaming Kids on the Slope. Here’s a trailer. Don’t worry about the Japanese text. Just let the visuals and sound wash over you.

I didn’t know a lot about Kids on the Slope before I watched the first episode. I did know that it is based on a josei manga I’ve never read by Yuki Kodama. I knew that Shinichiro Watanabe directed it, and that the show features music production by Yoko Kanno. I know that it takes place in the ’60s in Japan, and features jazz as a major aspect of the setting. I like the director and music producer a lot, mainly due to Cowboy Bebop, so I was already on the hook.

It turns out this show is really good, and uses music in a really familiar and comforting way. Kaoru Nishimi arrives in small town Japan friendless, nervous and depressed. Sentaro Kawabuchi is feared by the other students because he’s a big brawling jerk. Ritsuko Mukae is Sentaro’s childhood friend, and is really the only one who likes him. Kaoru plays classical piano. Sentaro plays jazz and is a killer drummer.

There’s a scene in the first episode where Kaoru watches Sentaro play drums. He covers one ear at first, trying to shut out the noise. Then he pulls his hand down. Then he loosens up. And then he listens. It’s this hugely powerful moment, and you watch this epiphany we’ve all had happen behind his eyes. He tries to play some jazz on piano, almost immediately, and Sentaro is like “Nah son. That’s not jazz. That’s got no swing.” The two characters are set at odds immediately. Kaoru plays classical music and is pretty strait-laced. Sentaro is a big bruiser and plays jazz, so he understands the importance of improvisation. You have to feel the music, rather than replicating it.

Kaoru has to descend into darkness in order to hear the jazz. There’s this tiny room below Ritsuko’s record shop. I like this, because it presents jazz, and the relationships that will undoubtedly follow, as something special. It’s top shelf, rather than just being a regular old thing you trip over.

I think that’s how we all feel about our favorite type of music. Our favorite music is revelatory, whether about the world or ourselves, in addition to being something that you can bounce to. In the case of Kids on the Slope, jazz represents freedom. Freedom from constraints, from conformity, from depression, from anxiety. Freedom to enjoy life. There’s something raw in jazz that Kaoru doesn’t get out of classical music.

I liked this cartoon a lot. The animation has this strange 3D quality to it that makes regular people look a little more exciting than they normally would in such a simple coming of age story. It’s very pretty, but in a very natural way. There’s no glamour in the characters, but the music scenes have this swing to them that I find really attractive. Sentaro is introduced not by face or cool pose, but by how he drums with two sticks on his way to school. His drumming is great, and there’s a palpable difference between his piano playing, which came across as earnest but inexpert, and Kaoru’s, which is talented, but stiff.

I also love the added texture that jazz brings to the series. Jazz is a black art form, or at least it started that way. But Japan is several thousand miles away from the birthplace of jazz. Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue gets a visual shout-out in one scene, lurking behind Kaoru’s head like the most obvious and menacing foreshadowing ever. That’s 1959. Kids on the Slope takes place in summer, 1966. In the US, 1966 was President Johnson sending more American boys off to die for no good reason, The Beatles playing their last live performance, and the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense by Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale.

I don’t expect Kids on the Slope to reflect any of that, but there’s such a cross-cultural thing going on (black and American to Japan and Japanese) that it makes considering the context really interesting. I keep a set of black anti-war songs on my iPod, I think the bulk of which were recorded between ’66 and ’72, so that period is one that I’m extremely curious about. I’ve never seen it from this point of view before, and that has an attraction in and of itself.

I don’t know jazz like I know other types of music, and this is going to be an education for me, too. I know the greats or whatever, I guess, but that’s not knowing jazz. That’s just knowing somebody else’s top ten list. The centerpiece for the first episode is Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ “Moanin’.” I wasn’t familiar with it before I watched the show, and they don’t really play the entire thing, but I like it a lot.

I really like the idea of watching Kaoru open up as he dives into jazz. It’s clearly not going to be finished by episode two, and I think the ongoing transformation is going to be fascinating. I’m hooked, basically. It’s intensely relatable, well-written, and the music stuff is, as expected, fantastic. There’s something so nice about discovering something new and finding that it’s not only extremely emotionally resonant, but well done and educational, too. And yeah, it worked: I’m going to start listening to a lot more jazz.

You can see the official site here, or stream it on Crunchyroll.

Let “Moanin'” play while you go about your biz online. It’s nine minutes long, but so good. It sounds like sunshine feels. You can’t help but bop to it.

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12 comments to “Kids on the Slope: You know what this feels like. It feels good.”

  1. Yessss! Loved the first episode. The jazz, man. It was a thing of beauty in the music. And just seeing the animation of hands playing the music… thats what struck a chord with me.

  2. @Erik Shalat: Yeah, I’m 100% in love with the drumming. That’s probably my favorite instrument to see played, too, so the extended drum sequence was really nice. But even then… those sticks, man. They killed me. So much style, so much personality. I don’t want to overhype myself, but I feel really, really good about this show, like it might be a library-worthy toon.

  3. Hello there… first time posting on your blog, long time reader. I really agree with your opinions on this show. I wanted to know your opinion about the fact that, being a shojo manga adaptation, its depiction of male friendship doesn’t shy away from addressing some homoerotic subtext in the male characters relationship, at least in these early stages. It’s something I’m not really used in my anime viewing experience, and something that didn’t expect in series directed by the guy who made Cowboy Bebop. It adds a whole “girl’s comics” flavor that’s usually missing from the usual shows I watch. I’m aware that this is tame by the genre standards, but it added a completely different vibe to the show compared to other music anime series, like BECK for example.
    Finally, major props for mentioning some spanish hip-hop artists in your post.

  4. David, have you heard Lute? Charlotte emcee…his West 1996 mixtape dropped last year with a cover that, yes, bites Illmatic hard. none the less, it’s chock-full of goodness, especially his interpolation of the Petey Pablo hook on “Carolina Folks”. just a heads-up, fyi.

  5. great post but sort of off topic, i apologize, but how the HELL did you break your thumb PLAYING VIDEO GAMES??????? XD

  6. @AKAbosch: Thanks for the tip, I’ll youtube it up later today.

    @ross campbell: I just wrote up a reply and realized it could be a post all its own. I’ll throw it up Friday, I think? It’s such a dumb and embarrassing story, though. Probably pretty funny.

    @Antonio: Yeah, I don’t mind the homoeroticism at all. It’s played for laughs, but knowing laughs, I feel like. It’s sort of baiting the BL fans out there a little bit. I dunno if they hook up in the comic or whatever (I feel like no? Ritsuko is definitely going to be a conflict between them, if I had to guess), but I’ve got no problem at all. Real life same sex friendship is super homoerotic, sometimes, anyway. You’re right in that it gives Kids on the Slope a different feel from most stuff I watch (I tend toward dumb shonen, personally), and I like that foreign (to me) texture. It makes the show feel even fresher, even though I’m not a BL/yaoi fan. Tiger & Bunny had a lot of that too, I think, though much more in the “Fanfic writers, start your engines…” sort of way.

  7. I clicked on “the music just turns me on” hoping it was JSR, and you didn’t disappoint. This is probably weird, but when I saw the trailer for the HD port coming to XBLA soon, I thought, “ya know, David Brothers would probably love this crazy ass game”

  8. @Jeremy: I missed JGR on Dreamcast, even though I had one and piracy was embarrassingly easy for that system. But when I bought an Xbox, it came with that JSRF/Sega GT two-pack, remember that? I was hooked. It’s probably one of my top 5 games.

  9. Thanks for the reminder about Kids n the Slope, David. I look forward to the day when I can give these folks my money to own a copy of the series.

  10. I really did enjoy that moment when Kaoru removes his hand from his ear. There’s so much implicit meaning for me there, just in terms of that eureka moment when you realize that “hey, this isn’t what I assumed it was… maybe it’s kinda good, too?” I feel like it applies to so many new experiences that one might be averse to before taking the plunge. Nice to see a scene that I can point to describe how it might look. It’s so much a feeling than some mark to check off.

  11. […] mentioned breaking my thumb playing video games in passing when I was talking about Kids on the Slope, and Ross Campbell rightly called me out on it. I started this post as a comment, but I realized it […]

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