We’ve talked about the eternal triangle – two characters vying for the affection of a third – before. I think the trope is pretty worn, but it gets the job done.
I also think Kids on the Slope is pretty damned cool. It’s about a group of characters drawn together, like a whirlpool, by their love of jazz, or their love for people who play jazz, and is set in Japan in the 1960’s, which was a turbulent time in Japan.
It was directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, who you might know from Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, and the music was by Yoko Kanno, who you might know from Cowboy Bebop and Wolf’s Rain.
There’s a lot to like about the series – the animation is close to perfect, for one thing, and a lot of it suggests rotoscoping* – but from my standpoint as a writer I have to love the way Watanabe handled the interrelationships between the five key characters. I won’t call them main characters; at its heart Kids is a story about a bromance between Kaoru, a lonely kid who has moved from school to school, and Sentaro, an outcast quicker with his fists than his intellect. But it’s also a coming of age story. Kaoru and Sentaro are trying to get through school, express themselves with music, and understand what it means to be adult all at once, and Watanabe handles the balance between the three masterfully.
But part of growing up is searching for The One, and that’s where the relationships between characters matter here.
In terms of the romances, there are five characters who matter:
Jun, a member of their combo who is older, a college student
Ritsuko, a childhood friend of Sentaro who is also the daughter of the man (Tsutomu) who owns the record store the combo rehearses in (and plays the stand-up bass like an angel)
Yurika, who kind of sneaks into the story
Upper left, Sentaro. Upper right, Jun. Lower left, Kaoru. Lower right, Yurika. That’s Tsutomu with the bass and Ritsuko with the daisy. Yes, their relationships are as confused as this image.
Now, watch this (rolls up sleeves):
Kaoru is in love with Ritsuko. Because of his upbringing, though, he cannot believe that she could possibly love him back, and in fact he believes she loves her childhood friend (and co-religionist: they are both Catholic) Sentaro, who Kaoru regards as his BFF.
Boom. Look at that. An Eternal Triangle, all in Kaoru’s head.
Risuko actually loves Kaoru, but she is shy and it’s only the sixties, so she has no idea how to express it. (Eventually she clues him in by knitting him a pair of mittens. Must be a Japanese thing.)
Sentaro is infatuated with Yurika, and there’s some reason for it. She is an artist, for instance, and asks him to pose for her. Shirtless, since he’s a hunk.
Yurika, alas, crushes on Jun.
Notice how this works. Kaoru, Sentaro, and Jun are all in the same combo (with Tsutomu, who gets overlooked in this. I wonder what he thinks of Kaoru panting after his little girl.) They literally make beautiful music together (Kaoru: piano; Sentaro: drums; Jun: trumpet). They are pals; they are interdependent.
The three of them are after two girls. Um. oops. Oh, and no menages here!
So, Kaoru’s attracted to Ritsuko, but for two-thirds of the series thinks she’s interested in Senturo. So he’s stuck between his loyalty to Senturo and his attraction to Ritsuko. Oh, and he’s completely insecure. Mondo conflicto.
Oblivious, Senturo is crushing on Yurika, and she likes him, but, you know…Jun is older and a Bad Boy. Man, she likes Senturo but she WANTS Jun. Mondo conflicto.
Now, five characters imply the possibility of 5X4/2 interrelationships. That’s ten, and that’s a lot to manage in a short (thirteen episode) series. So let’s see what Watanabe has done to make things manageable:
There’s nothing going on between Kaoru and Yurika. That takes one off the board immediately. There’s also nothing special between Ritsuko and Yurika. I mentioned it was the sixties, right? Two out of ten down.
Then, he sets up two eternal triangles: Kaoru-Risuko-Sentaro and Sentaro-Yurika-Jun.
This could be simple to solve – letting the guys fight it out is obvious – but despite their conflicts Kaoru, Sentaro, and Jun can’t really just cut the other guy out, because they need each other to play jazz. So we have thirteen episode to set these up and resolve them. Oh, and they’re kids. They have to figure it out the hard way, with broken hearts and hurt feelings and fights all over. BOOM. Conflict. It’s beautiful.
If you come to Kids expecting Cowboy Bebop, forget it. If you can’t stand the sound of jazz, forget it. But it’s an object lesson in how to look at what goes on in a group of kids, and it rings completely true.
It’s brilliant. Watch it.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.
* Rotoscoping is using live action as reference for animation. I’ll talk more about it later on.