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Kids on the Slope was always going to be a series that would attract attention. It marked Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe’s return to directing after an eight year absence. It reunited him with Yoko Kanno, the musician who composed Bebop’s soundtrack and its now iconic opening theme. And KOTS would be Watanabe’s first time directing an adaptation, as his previous two series (Bebop and 2004’s Samurai Champloo) were anime originals. What was paid little attention to at the time was that KOTS would be the first series to come from a new studio: The Maruyama Animation Produce Project Association, otherwise known as MAPPA.
Today, everyone from hardcore to casual anime fans pay acute attention to what MAPPA does. Founded in June 2011 by former Madhouse CEO Masao Maruyama, MAPPA is known for delivering exceptionally executed anime series and films, and being one of the industry’s most consistent hitmakers. Starting in 2016 with Yuri!!! on Ice, the studio has delivered a new smash hit series on an almost yearly basis. In 2017 there was Kakeguri, 2018 Zombieland Saga, 2020 Jujutsu Kaisen, and since early 2021, Attack on Titan: The Final Season, the most popular anime in the world not named Demon Slayer.
As its reputation grew, MAPPA also became synonymous with the industry’s archaic and reprehensible work conditions. Animators have criticized the studio for taking on too many projects, overworking their animators, and not offering proper compensation for the amount of work needed to deliver these high quality series on time. These problems are not unique to MAPPA, who have denied these claims. The modern day business model for producing anime is not talent-friendly and it discourages potential animators from wanting to make a career in anime. However, because of its increasing profile, MAPPA bears the brunt of workers (and activists) anger.
This is not what Maruyama envisioned for MAPPA. He started the company because he felt that Madhouse was becoming too dedicated to commercial interests rather than artistic ones. His goal for MAPPA was to have a studio that would put creativity over commercialization, a place where visionary talent could work on unique anime series, a place that would produce something like Kids on the Slope.
Co-produced by Tekzuka Productions and based on the Yuji Kodama manga of the same name, KOTS follows a pair of young men growing up in mid-1960s Japan: the reserved, highly intelligent, and classically trained pianist Karou Nishimi and the brutish, delinquent, yet kind hearted jazz drummer Sentar? Kawabuchi. After being set up by Ritsuko Mukae—Sentar?’s childhood friend, next door neighbor, and Nishimi’s first major crush (whose father’s record store is where the two boys will spend countless afternoons together)—the two musicians navigate life, love, family, friendship, and music while helping one another become better people as well as musicians.
On its surface, this straight-forward and mature slice-of-life character study came off as a dramatic shift for Watanabe. His first two series were heavily stylized, idiosyncratic works that mashed, twisted, and toyed with the familiar tropes and themes featured in their respective genres (science-fiction, historical epics). So even though a series where jazz would feature prominently seemed like a perfect fit for a melomaniac like Watanabe, when Maruyama literally handed him the script, he resisted accepting the job. By working on an adaptation rather than an original story, Watanabe felt that he would be limiting himself creatively; especially when he was told KOTS would be a one-cour (12 episodes) series rather than two (24), which had been the case in his previous two anime. His change of heart came once he read through the source material: “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,” Watanabe said in an interview with Noitamina, “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.”
While being a more minimalist and muted story than he was accustomed to, Watanabe was still able to give KOTS a ton of style thanks to the series’ many dynamic and wonderfully smooth musical performances. Using a combination of 2D animation along with motion capture instead of CG—which would have sped up production and cut costs, but dated the series—the performances provide the series with jolt of energy in between the more dramatic and emotional moments. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the joy the two boys are experiencing every time they let loose on their respective instruments, whether when they’re jamming in the shop basement, performing in a jazz club, or expressing their feelings through music rather than words.
This is no more apparent than in “Now’s the Time,” the series’ seventh episode. After a power surge causes a delayed school festival, Nishimi and Sentar? go back and forth in a melody combining Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” Frank Churchill’s ”Someday My Prince will Come,” and Art Blakey and the Messengers’, ”Moanin.’” Their performance (composed by Kanno), serves as both a diversion and so that the two friends could reconcile after a short separation. It mesmerizes the crowd in attendance and leads to seemingly the entire student body assembling to witness this impromptu event. A decade later, I still find myself preparing for Nishimi’s transition from “Prince,” to “Moanin’,” still getting hit with emotion once he lands the first few notes of Art Blakey’s classic before the boys start shaping it into their own rendition. It’s my favorite moment in the series and one of the best in Watanabe’s accomplished career.
As accomplished as the performances are, they are only half of what makes KOTS such a remarkable series. Anime built around male friendships are extremely rare, especially one as well executed as KOTS. For 12 episodes we watch these boys bond, fight, make up, fight again, and so on; all while learning that even though they seem to come from different worlds, they really are not so different. They both know the feeling of being abandoned, judged, and misunderstood by their peers, as well as the joy of being around someone who you can always be yourself around. In the series fifth episode, “Lullaby of Birdland,” the boys travel to Tokyo and accidentally get drunk around some college kids, one of them telling Nishimi to appreciate what he has with Sentaro: “unlike love affairs, friendship is for life.” For some, the story of these two emotionally vulnerable boys may be simple, but for me it’s always come across as timeless.
Watanabe would only stick to original anime after KOTS and Maruyama would leave MAPPA in 2016, sensing that the company he formed was becoming much like the one he left behind. The studio’s upcoming series, Attack on Titan: The Final Season Part 3 and its 10th anniversary project, the highly anticipated Chainsaw Man, make it appear that MAPPA’s second decade will be more fruitful than its first. As its place in anime grows and they work on solving the problems that not only affect them but their entire industry , I hope that this series, the company’s first, made by one of anime’s most accomplished and respected directors, gets the attention it deserves.
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Christopher L. Inoa is a freelance writer living in the Bronx, NYC. His work has appeared on Polygon, Observer, Hyperallergic, and more. He killed all his social media accounts last year, with the exception of Letterboxd so you can follow him there
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