Kaoru is constantly shifting from town to town to accommodate his father’s career working on ships, and a childhood spent with relatives indifferent to everything about him except his musical talent has left him with a reserved, standoffish personality, serious trust issues, and an anxiety problem.
Things look set to be different at his new school as he collides with the tall and tough Sentaro -a kid who has a reputation for being able to beat up anyone who crosses him. Kaoru soon discovers that Sentaro is actually a softy with a passion for drumming – jazz music in particular. Once Sentaro learns of Kaoru’s piano playing talents, the two begin to form a friendship. Kaoru challenges himself to step outside of his musical comfort zone so he can impress Sentaro and prove his worth, and gradually emerges from his introverted shell.
This anime features music, but the core of show is really about family, friendship and love. The anime opens with a classic unrequited love line. Sentaro has a childhood friend called Ritsuko who instantly captures Kaoru’s heart. But unfortunately Ritsuko only has eyes for Sentaro…who only has eyes for Yurika, and so it goes on. Yes, there’s plenty of love angsting going on, but melodrama is mostly avoided. This anime often serves up gentle humour alongside any angsting, such as one scene in which Sentaro starts venting all his frustration about his unrequited feelings on his drumming, and Kaoru doesn’t know what to do so he starts playing the piano noisily alongside him. The elements of friendship, music and family life help this anime feel like a much more balanced portrayal of adolescence, keeping it from slipping into romance melodrama territory (no glistening tears falling into the wind here).
Although the music doesn’t always take centre stage (pardon the pun), even when Kaoru and Sentaro aren’t playing, the anime often has a stylish jazzy piano soundtrack playing in the background. During the scenes in which Kaoru and Sentaro are practising or performing, their playing is often accurately animated right down to Sentaro’s speedy drumming and Kaoru’s hand and finger movements across the piano keys. This really adds realism to each musical scene and I felt like I could have been watching someone playing in real time because the replication was so accurate. This touch makes it feel as though the animators really cared about capturing the musical details, and the music doesn’t feel showy or gimmicky at any point, but an important part of each character’s lives.
The blossoming friendship and partnership between Kaoru and Sentaro is the real highlight of Kids on the Slope. Although both are quite different personalities, their love of music and difficult family backgrounds really bring them together and create a bond that can’t be broken. In one stand out scene, Kaoru plays a jazzy version of “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music, and when Sentaro begins to accompany him it turns into an all out jam session. Ritsuko observes emotionally that it is “like two princes arguing good-naturedly as they come back home”.
While Kaoru and Sentaro are engaging both individually and as a pair, Ritsuko seems to exist only to further the unrequited love line and create romantic tension, and is only brought in as a singer for a performance in the penultimate episode of the show. She’s likeable, but fits very much into the archetype of the homely and demure Japanese woman, with not a lot else to her character. This prevents a good anime from becoming a truly great one, as she gets a lot of screentime so some fleshing out of her character would have made the romantic moments more interesting too.
If you’re looking for a more realistically styled anime this is a good choice. I have mixed feelings about the static simplistic nature of the animation, on the one hand it matches the realistic setting and story of the show, but some of the more emotional moments don’t have quite as much power as they could and feel a little flatter than they could be. Your Lie in April was a music anime that really utilised visuals to evoke the emotional power of both music and love. Whilst this anime was clearly aiming for a more practical approach, it could have occasionally done to have used some similar visual pizzazz now and then for that extra “wow” factor. Even so, this is a brilliant anime, and Kaoru and Sentaro are up there with the most well realised anime characters, their dynamic really makes the show, right up to the perfect, poignant ending.