19 January 2020 | Shostakovich343
Kids on the Slope - Narrative Commentary
(Note: though spoiler-free, this piece is as much a technical essay as it is a straightforward review. If looking solely for the latter, please direct your dislike elsewhere.)
Shinichiro Watanabe is a notorious rule breaker. With his genre-bending "Cowboy Bebop" he aguably did for anime what Quentin Tarantino did for cinema with "Pulp Fiction". But to paraphrase Robert McKee: 'Inexperienced writers obey rules; rebellious writers break rules; an artist masters the form.' "Kids on the Slope" is a more conventional effort than Watanabe's earlier work, and a good example of why technique and tradition matter.
The rules I'd like to use as illustration are dusty and strict: the three classical unities of theatre. Best embodied by the French Classicist movement, they demand:
Unity of place: events take place in one single location;
Unity of action: events revolve around one single action;
Unity of time: events take place within a span of 24 hours.
I am the first to admit that the relevance of these rules in a discussion on contemporary art is limited. They were devised for Greek one-man tragedy, a medium marred by many limitations absent from film, let alone serialised animation.
This anachronism is most notable in regard to the unity of place. It is awkward to change sets during the performance of a play (it certainly was in the seventeenth century), but a film director can cut without making a fuss.
That isn't to say that unity of place shouldn't be considered at all anymore. Continually jumping from location to location threatens to lacerate a narrative, making it feel episodical and jumbled ("Rogue One" is a recent victim of this mishap). But "Kids on the Slope" is not plagued by such problems. If anything, it is quite sparse with locations. The series largely takes place within its three protagonists' houses and their school, connected by the eponymous slope.
Note the pivotal role the slope plays in the series' opening shot, visually enhancing the aversion with which transfer pupil Kaoru walks to his new school. His first day is a bit of a disaster (did you expect otherwise?); most of his classmates shun his top-of-the-class-city-boy looks, and the delinquent Sentaro takes a peculiar interest in him. When it turns out Kaoru can play the piano, however, Sentaro introduces him to the marvels of jazz music. The two form a strong bond and meet every day at the local record shop-cum-practice room, accompanied by the lovely Ritsuko.
So far, so standard. Self-discovery through music and an inevitable love triangle are solid (if standard) building blocks for a story. But "Kids on the Slope" has trouble retaining focus over the course of its events. When two more characters enter our protagonists' circle of friends, the love triangle evolves into a love pentagon, which really is too much -- especially when these two simply drop out again later after a lukewarm resolve. Oh, and there is a school festival that is terribly important, until it isn't anymore.
This is where the three unities re-enter the frame. Having your plot revolve around but one major action is very parsimonious considering the many tales that successfully combine romantic and extra-personal conflict. But that is exactly where "Kids on the Slope" fails. Whenever the focus is on either jazz or the amorous geometry, the other disappears from focus almost completely. Taking a critical view at their core material, the writers should have cut the complications to an acceptable degree, and striven for a more balanced distribution of screen time.
This is not to say that the two stories taken by themselves are handled badly. The music performances are vigorous, a triumph. Occasional use of digital animation allows you to see characters actually play the music that you hear (even if the switch between styles can be jarring). And the romantic elements, cluttered and clumsy as they may be, at least feature likable characters.
But then "Kids on the Slope" utterly shatters the final unity, when it jarringly jumps six months ahead in time. This results in precisely what the classicists were trying to prevent: confusion. We are violently jerked away from the events while they were nearing their dramatic conclusion and have to reorient when we should be engrossed.
At the same time the series takes a sudden, and wholly unforeshadowed, turn, after which Kaoru makes a stupid decision so far beyond his established character that it gravely injures his developmental arc. If before one could have argued that the tangled and inconsistent narrative reflects the psychological rollercoaster that is puberty, by now inconsistency has become incompetence and excuses dissipate.
I wonder to what degree this can be blamed on director Watanabe -- never a master of the long arc. The penultimate two episodes of "Kids on the Slope" recall the ending of "Samurai Champloo", when he realised that two of his three main characters had no conflict demanding resolve and arbitrarily came up with a last-minute nemesis that had all the impact of a passing seagull.
It is nearly a deal-breaker here. Very nearly. But another similarity between series is that I cannot bring myself to dislike either. "Kids on the Slope" stumbles many times and has to limp towards the finish line, but I would be lying if I said its final episode didn't leave me feeling happy and fulfilled.
No, "Kids on the Slope" isn't bad. The point I'm trying to bring across is that it could have been so much better had it been tighter and more consistent. The three classical unities in their strictest form have since long been discarded, but they embody a discipline in storytelling that "Kids on the Slope" lacks. Watanabe has never been reluctant to take inspiration from other artists' work. Now for him to see that convention can enrich his art too.