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Kids on the Slope

Kids on the Slope: How It Changed Shinichiro Watanabe Forever

Shinichiro Watanabe month is wrapping up over here at OTAQUEST. Watanabe has been one of my favorite directors and all-around creatives ever since I was a teenager when I fell in love with Cowboy Bebop for the first time. But despite creating several masterpieces of the medium, Watanabe has never been one to rest on his laurels, always changing and trying his hands at new stories. And while there have been many milestones in his long career, perhaps none are as distinctive as 2012’s Kids on the Slope.

Kids on the Slope: Structure, Schedule, and Adaptation

Just on an intrinsic level, 2012’s Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Apollon) represented a massive departure from the type of productions that Shinichiro Watanabe had participated in before. Even if this ended up having a negligible effect on his overall career so far, it still went to show that you can’t pin the creator down in any one type of show – his creativity knows no bounds.

Kids on the Slope was, believe it or not, the first one-cour show that Shinichiro Watanabe had ever directed. Watanabe started his career as an episode director and supervisor over at Studio Sunrise on such OVA and movie series as Armor Hunter Mellowlink, Capricorn, and Macross Plus (where he formed a lifelong friendship with Dai Sato) but the majority of the TV projects he had been involved with up until that point, such as Eureka Seven (where he served as a unit director), Ergo Proxy and Michiko & Hatchin, were all longer than one-cour. That’s to say nothing, of course, of the fact that all of his projects as director – the legendary Cowboy Bebop, the fan-favorite Samurai Champloo – were all two-cour.

Samurai Champloo Graffiti

Watanabe came close to ending up as the director of a one-cour project many times, most notably during the production of Cowboy Bebop, when the project was threatened with cancellation following episode 13 before being shifted to a later, more adult-oriented broadcasting timeslot. Still, Kids on the Slope ended up in 2012 being the first time that Watanabe ever served as a director on a one-cour project – handing him on a silver platter the myriad of problems that many of his peers were forced to reckon with.

Chief of this was the problem of pacing. Trying to cram a story into one cour 12 episodes is a tough task for even the most accomplished of anime directors (just ask Masaomi Ando), let alone one who has been used to the luxury of two if not three or four cours across his career.

Of course, that problem was also compounded by the fact that Kids on the Slope was, and still is, the very first anime adaptation Watanabe had ever directed in his entire career.

Kids on the Slope

The original Kids on the Slope manga was created by Yuki Kodama and published in Monthly Flowers from 2007, providing a set story that Watanabe had no choice but to make work in the shorter runtime. There could be no rewrites or reshuffles this time around – respecting Kodama, as well as publisher Shogakukan’s vision, was the order of the day.

Speaking in an interview with anime programming block Noitamina (during which Kids on the Slope was aired), Watanabe said the following with regards to the adaptation process:

‘The original Kids on the Slope manga in itself would have been about 15 to 16 episodes in length, so trying to fit it into 12 episodes necessitated a bit of rushing. But 12 episodes really was the absolute limit, in terms of the production. We wanted to respect the wishes of [Fuji TV] producer Yamamoto Kouji and put a performance scene in each episode, but creating those scenes every episode was so tough that everyone involved in the production felt like they were going to die (laughs). Still, we managed to catch a break and made two episodes without one. If there had been even one such episode more, we wouldn’t have made it on time with the schedule.’

Perhaps it was the stress of having to respect the wishes of various third parties that ensured that Watanabe would never again attempt an anime adaptation. I certainly wouldn’t him if this was the case. But still, Kids on the Slopes’ one-cour programming schedule would stick around – with 2013’s Space Dandy airing as a split two-cour and 2014’s Zankyou no Terror (Terror in Resonance) airing as a complete one-cour story.

Something About Music

Given how unusual Kids on the Slope was on a very base level in comparison with the rest of Shinichiro Watanabe’s career up until that point, you’d be forgiven for wondering how on earth Watanabe ended up agreeing to helm the project in the first place.

I always assumed that the answer to that question was always simply the fact that Yuki Kodama’s original manga had a reverence for the power of the music that Watanabe has always demonstrated throughout his career. Whether through sneaking an Aphex Twin logo into one part of Macross Plus or making an entire two-cour series on how music can save the world, Watanabe surely saw pieces of himself in the pair of Kaoru and Sentarou.

Kids on the Slope

But, that’s not quite the reason. That’s part of the answer, but the full reason as to why Watanabe took on the project was laid bare in during the same interview with Noitamina:

‘When I read the original manga, one of the reasons why I thought I could do this was the story’s approach to characters and drama, the kind of way that it portrays emotional distance, and, in that sense, I thought to myself that (Yuki) Kodama and I were quite similar. […] Jazz music is certainly the story’s basis, but if its approach was any different then I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it.’

Here Watanabe is saying that it was more the story’s distinct approach to characters and the drama that is created between them that lead him to take on the project, or at least feel more confident in taking it on. It would, therefore, seem that the series’ distinct musical identity was more of a coincidental factor.

Coincidental be as it may, it’s hard to view Kids on the Slope as anything but the final evolution in Watanabe’s lifelong obsession with music. He had begun his career by wearing his influences on his sleeve, made a name for himself with works known for their musical identity (Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo chief among them), and even served as a musical director multiple times. But never had Watanabe made a show that was ostensibly about music until Kids on the Slope.

Kids on the Slope

It would be an understatement to say that music forms a core part of Yuki Kodama’s story. Jazz brings the two mismatched characters of Kaoru and Sentarou together in the first place, and it is through their musical cooperation that their relationship as a whole is represented. We see the turning points of their relationship, from strangers to friends, from friends to rivals, from rivals to old friends at the very end all through the very visceral performance scenes that the series has become somewhat famous for.

Helping Watanabe on these scenes was his longtime musical collaborator Yoko Kanno, frontman for ‘The Seatbelts,’ who produced the soundtrack for the iconic Cowboy Bebop. Kanno and Watanabe had actually been separated for a good decade before coming back together to work on Kids on the Slope, as the gap between TV anime projects widened over the years since Samurai Champloo, for which Watanabe recruited the help of lo-fi legend Nujabes.

Certainly, it was a wise move to bring Kanno back into the fold after such a lengthy absence. In the Noitamina interview, Watanabe spoke of her indispensable contributions to one of the show’s most iconic scenes:

‘Most of Kids on the Slope’s performance scenes were largely ad-libbed by Shun Ishikawa on drums and Takashi Matsunaga on piano, taking standards as their basis, but episode 7 and episode 7 only was different. The performance for that scene where Kaoru and Sentarou go back and forth between ad-libs while raising the roof needed to be convincing, given that the audience wasn’t necessarily into jazz. Even if the performers Kaoru and Sentarou were enjoying themselves while performing, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that the audience themselves would enjoy it. But, in that instance, we reckoned that we’d be able to pull it off because Yoko Kanno was there. Just for that scene, she wrote a live scene that wasn’t a real ad-lib but sounded enough like one for the audience to go wild. Then, she got the musicians to play that perfectly for us. If Kanno-san wasn’t available, then we might have had to change the performance altogether.’

In this sense, if Kanno hadn’t been involved with the production of Kids on the Slope then I have no doubt in saying that the show as a whole would be much worse off. That improvisation scene in episode 7 is honestly the highlight of the entire show and why it ranks so highly in my estimation, even among all of the other masterpieces in Watanabe’s career. It so skillfully represents reconciliation between the two characters by combining so many elements of the story presented in the past (My Favorite Things, Moanin’, etc.) – something that would have, clearly, been impossible without Yoko Kanno.

Whatever Watanabe’s intentions were in taking on the Kids on the Slope project (he also mentions the fact that Fuji TV was willing to give him the green light for Zankyou no Terror in return), the parallels between the work and his own career are clear. For all intents and purposes, it seems like Yuki Kodama’s original music-focused story was meant for him – something which no doubt figured into Watanabe’s mind when coming up with the similarly music-themed original TV anime, Carole & Tuesday.

A Touch of the Queer

However coincidental the importance of music was in Shinichiro Watanabe’s decision to adapt Kids on the Slope, at least fit in somewhat with the rest of the creator’s career and previous works. But if you’d have told me before 2012 that Watanabe would be adapting a story with the same type of subtext as Kids on the Slope, then I would have laughed you out of the room.

This is because simply put, Yuki Kodama’s original story is pretty gay. There’s a definite sexual tension that underpins the ‘bromance’ of Kaoru and Sentarou, only reinforced by their traditional character profiles; one a definite twin, lithe and lanky, the other a fearsome bear, stocky and well-built. Even though they end up chasing after the same girl, this can easily be dismissed as self-denial – plus, it’s the same tactic that almost all more mainstream BL (boys’ love) stories tend to employ.

Obviously, Kaoru and Sentarou don’t end up getting together in Kids on the Slope. They don’t even share any intimate moments, relegating everything instead to subtext. But it is exactly this kind of queer subtext that so many BL fans enjoy, which is why it was popular enough in Kodansha’s Monthly Flowers – a magazine intended for older women (josei) – to get an anime adaptation.

Kids on the Slope

It’s surprising to see someone like Shinichiro Watanabe tackle a story that’s as loaded with queer subtext as Kids on the Slope. Sure, Watanabe had included queer characters in his stories before – I still remember being very intrigued by the intersex character of Gren in Cowboy Bebop episode 12 as a kid, and there are queer elements to many of his narratives and settings – but never had he engaged so keenly with such a queer subtext in his stories before.

The impact of this is clear. Watanabe’s next series, Zankyou no Terror, would utilize distinctively bishonen-style character designs for its male leads of Nine and Twelve. Carole & Tuesday, although coming several years after, would also feature a yuri subtext in much the same way – both Carole and Tuesday chasing after men despite their implied closeness – as well as out-and-out queer characters.

I have no idea if this is intentional or not. I don’t know much about Watanabe’s personal life, including his sexuality, but, clearly, there’s been some kind of shift in attitude towards queer issues and stories. But only when circumstances allow – Space Dandy wasn’t very gay, after all.

Space Dandy Retrospective: Shinichiro Watanabe's Successful Failure

Even so, the net product of all of this is to add yet another string to Watanabe’s already compelling bow; cementing him further as one of the best storytellers of his generation. After all, some of us are just like that.

Kids on the Slope: A Watershed Moment

In this sense, Kids on the Slope was a watershed moment for Shinichiro Watanabe. On a base level, it challenged the type of stories that we could expect from the legendary career, now including adaptations of popular manga and one-cour series. The series also represented the final evolution of the director’s lifelong obsession with music, even if this was mostly coincidental. A shift in attitude towards queer stories and characters can also be perceived after this.

All of this is why I think that Kids on the Slope deserves a little more attention. Throughout this month, we’ve seen pieces from the OTAQUEST team on all aspects of Watanabe’s multi-faceted career, but I’d like to make the case that this series is perhaps the most important in terms of his evolution as a creator.

Kids on the Slope isn’t necessarily my favorite Shinichiro Watanabe series – that accolade still has to go to Cowboy Bebop, which I still can’t get enough of after all these years – but it is certainly one of the most interesting.

You can watch Kids on the Slope via Crunchyroll.

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