Okay, so let’s throw this on the floor right off the bat: Shinichiro Watanabe is like unto a god. The guy who conceived and directed Cowboy Bebop? I mean, seriously.
Fortunately, Buddhism isn’t monotheistic, so we can have lots of gods.
To me, Watanabe is literally a visionary director: he has a great eye for motion, for composition, for detail. Every show he directs looks great, and not just great as in, “Oh, yeah, now that you mention it,” great, but GREAT as in, “HOLY MOLEY DID YOU SEE THAT?” great.
Trust me. I’m a trained animator and I know great when I see it.
Now, I know this is heresy to say, but as a writer he’s a little sloppy. He has a tendency to leave loose ends lying around without cleaning them up, and I’m not sure he’s made anything that you can’t look at and say, “Oh, yeah, well that episode was filler.” It’s really high quality filler – think about that baseball episode of Samurai Champloo, right? Or the mushroom episode of Bebop? – but it’s filler.
Except Kids on the Slope. He got the timing on that one just right.
I suspect part of that is that it’s the only anime he’s made from an existing manga. When you do that, of course, you know how and where the story is going to go; you can figure it out before you start because you have the text right in front of you.
Now, Kids is a relative shorty, only twelve episodes, so I suspect that contributes as well. The shorter the series, the tighter it needs to be, although even relative shorties like Erased managed to get it wrong by a little bit.
But the real key is that he juggles three main stories, and by pushing one or another of them to the fore at any given moment he makes sure every episode propels the series forward.
Okay, main story one is the bromance between Kaoru and Sentaro, the two main characters, both going to the same high school. Kaoru is one of those kids who’s been moved around a lot and has difficulty making friends, while Sentaro has set himself up as the school’s “bad boy” and so is also something of an odd duck. So these two kids who aren’t very good at making friends have to figure out how to do that.
People have suggested that there’s an undertone of homoeroticism in there. Maybe. It’s certainly not key to the story. After all, two guys can come to love each other as friends (philos) or even as family after a fashion (storge) without romantic love (eros) coming into play. I happen to think this one is storge. Either way, that’s main story one: Kaoru and Sentaro.
Then you have the actual romantic plots, and that’s a really tricky one because those plots are two overlapping Eternal Triangles. Y’see, you got Kaoru, who loves Sentaro’s friend Ritsuko but thinks she loves Sentaro, and Sentaro, who loves Yurika, one of their schoolmates, but ultimately loses her to Junichi, a college student.
That combination of factors drives a number of plot arcs: Kaoru tries to help Sentaro in his pursuit of love, whether it’s Ritsuko or Yurika; we have Ritsuko sorting out her feelings for Kaoru; we have Sentaro pursuing Yurika pursuing Junichi.
All that chasing and rejection would threaten to drive the group of them apart, so they needs something to glue it all together, and that’s plot three: their musical group.
Y’see, what the Kids (and one adult) on the Slope have in common is a love for jazz music. Ritsuko’s dad, Tsutomu, owns a record shop, and he (he plays the stand-up bass) and Sentaro (drums) jam down in the basement of the shop. Sentaro drags Kaoru (piano) along to one of them, and then Junichi (trumpet) comes back from college and WHAM! They are a unit.
See it? Kaoru and Sentaro may fight but they need each other to make music. Sentaro and Junichi actually DO fight, but they also need each other. The music keeps them together under conditions that would ordinarily cause them to fly apart.
And more than that: it acts as a tertiary plot. When Sentaro goes to play in a rock combo, he threatens the unit (and causes Kaoru to have a hissy fit), inserting more tension into the story (and filling an episode of the story line). When, at the end, the love plots are resolved with Kaoru and Ritsuko a couple, and Junichi and Yurika paired up and moved away, Ritsuko joins the combo as a singer, meaning that everyone left is in the group.
And that’s the end of the series, with just one episode left to wrap up the loose ends: eight years later Kaoru’s a doctor. He meets Yurika: she and Junichi are married and she’s having their baby. And he finds Sentaro, now a priest but totally happy teaching the children of the orphanage he’s been assigned to. They jam one more time on the first song they played together, bringing the story full circle. Show ends.
No filler and all three plot lines resolved at the end: the very definition of a series that is just the right length.
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.
PS Of course, there has to be a loose end. I’m not sure you can have a Watanabe series without one. Did you see it there, flapping in the breeze? In the last episode all we see of Ritsuko is a note Kaoru writes her saying he’s looking for Sentaro. Fear not, gentle reader: the manga (which is not available in English for some reason and God help me I’m not going to try and read it in French) assures us that she and Kaoru are married, too.