Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Aporon)

Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Aporon) 2012

No preamble here, just two (and a half) reasons on why this short series joined my top ten the other month.

Kids on the Slope is a great romance with very few instances of manufactured drama, which is really nice in a genre that sometimes suffers from such contrivances. In a way, the series is almost about the cruelty of youth, where the sweeter, coming-of-age elements are contrasted with the mistakes that are all too easy to make when you’re trying to figure things out.

I found myself quickly invested in the lives of Kaoru, Sentaro and Ritsuko, and I wanted them all to end up happy. (I was even able to almost remember how it felt to be that young and unsure).

The second reason will probably be no surprise: the music – both literally, and the way it forms part of the storyline and a bond between characters. If you enjoy jazz, especially (but not only) Hard Bop or the Cool sub-genres, along with the piano of Bill Evans, this will definitely appeal. And yep, Kids on the Slope is another collaboration between Shinchiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno, but the OST isn’t as eclectic as say, their work on Cowboy Bebop.

Instead, I think Yoko Kanno looks after most of the incidental music and motifs, whereas a pair of young (certainly back in 2012) musicians perform the jams and standards. And the rotoscoping really shows fantastic fluidity in the performances – I’ll share one of the highlights at the end, but maybe if you want to see this series skip the youtube clip because it’s far better in context. (Elsewhere, the story really captures what it’s like to play in a group, another memory the anime managed to activate for me.)

And finally the ‘half’ reason!

Most of what I’ve talked about seems to be nostalgia, but it’s not just my own I guess – Kids on the Slope takes in a historical setting: sea-side Japan in the 1960s, and is fairly dripping with a nostalgia that I obviously cannot truly experience, but which seems to be captured so well in the settings.

5 Stars

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo 2004

It must be daunting to take on such a classic – often adapted and widely revered, the Alexander Dumas novel is perhaps the ultimate story of betrayal and revenge.

How’s that for a quick introduction for a change?

So, if you’re familiar with the specifics of the novel then you’re up to speed with the plot in the anime… for the most part.

There’s a few significant changes overall – for one, Gonzo set this version well into the future with space travel and war-suits, though aesthetically it remains very lavishly European in terms of costuming and character. Teens take centre stage here too, which is perfect in terms of keeping the viewer one step ahead of the main character but still one step behind the antagonist/hero. Elsewhere there are hints of vampirism and alien or demonic forces at play, but with or without any of those things The Count of Monte Cristo is still a gripping drama that will feel a lot like the original story.

Most people discuss the visuals of this series and it’s clear why – they are astounding as well as, at times, utterly exhausting. It’s such a forceful and impressive blend of Gustav Klimt, typical anime aesthetics and Ukiyo-e that you’ll be both dazzled and confused at times, I reckon. For me, I couldn’t look away but the first few episodes were truly difficult adjustment periods. (Here, I tried not to share too much but also failed to capture what it’s really like – especially when all those clothing patterns move :D).

Beyond the art there’s a lot of angst and bitterness, but also perhaps a lot of nobility. At times it’s easy to get frustrated with young Albert’s naivety but he’s not the only character with something at stake here, so you’ll get to know other folks. For instance, I think most people would accept that Franz is just as important as Albert and the Count, along with the romances. In a way, it’s a large cast and you do get a bit of time with everyone.

While it’s mostly a story about the way Albert is manipulated into a role within the Count’s long revenge, the other plots are woven through the story neatly and toward the end, in impactful ways. [Spoiler here] In fact, for me the duel between ‘Albert’ and the Count is actually the high point in terms of drama, probably because you’re meant to be well-aware of what’s really happening. After that, the ending didn’t quite pack the same punch – and related, I would have loved something different or possibly more visceral for some of the revenges Edmund took.

I know there’s some discussion out there re: the ending of the anime vs the novel and each viewer will have their preferred approach but I wasn’t aghast by it or anything. Throughout, Gankutsuou will push you toward sympathising with the antagonist – and again, I’m reserving the word ‘villain’ for other characters here in some ways, but it takes a while before you’re given much of the Count’s back-story for context around his actions. From a storytelling point of view I think that makes a lot of sense, considering how well-known the source material is.

I know earlier I mentioned a large cast and I’ve touched upon a few of the bad seeds but there are bright moments (such and the purity of Valentine and Maximilien) but switching back to a more morally grey character, there’s one of my favs: Peppo who has an important role even if the screen time might not suggest it, precisely.

In terms of audience, note that themes of revenge, betrayal, incest and abuse are front and centre, and so despite the pretty exterior the series does a great job of revealing the depths of human villainy and weakness. In fact, when the visuals lean into the gaudiness I think it becomes at least partially a comment on the excesses of the nobility; that glittering veneer of honour that is so easily tarnished.

5 Stars

The CGI could be out of place but it often seems to fit the plastic/superficial world of the nobles in some ways.
I remember getting some Baz Luhrmann ‘Romeo + Juliet’ vibes from this scene.

Ocean Waves (Umi ga Kikoeru)

Ocean Waves (Umi ga Kikoeru) 1993

Ocean Waves is a teen romance with a love triangle, which is where much of the drama comes from, though there are a few comedic moments too (like the bathtub-as-bed offer).

Compared to other Ghibli films it’s perhaps a little slight, being a bit shorter (as most TV movies are) and having a fairly narrow focus in terms of its story, but it’s still quite lovely visually.

Usually that’s enough for me to really enjoy an animated work on at least some levels but I can’t help but think of Rikako as a villain in most ways, which marred my enjoyment. Sure, it’s a story about teens and the things that hold them back from being honest… but still, I didn’t end up seeing her as someone Taku or Yutaka should have fallen for.

Having said all that, Ocean Waves is by no means a poor film and many folks regard it as an underappreciated part of the Ghibli catalogue. I guess it is in a way, since fewer people tend to mention it and I don’t believe it’s had a dub just yet. The ‘fathers’ of Ghibli were looking to develop successors in the early and mid 1990s and they had Tomomi Mochizuki in to direct Ocean Waves, and I recently learnt that other studios were involved in the actual production too.

Definitely worth a look for completionists perhaps, or maybe folks interested in 1990s Japan as there’s a bit of slice of life detail too.

3 stars

The Girl who Leapt Through Time (Toki o Kakeru Shōjo)

The Girl who Leapt Through Time (Toki o Kakeru Shōjo) 2006

Before moving to Madhouse, Mamoru Hosoda worked a lot in franchises like Dragonball Z, One Piece and Digimon but for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time he created a loose sequel to the novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui (who is also the author of one of my favs, Paprika).

In many ways The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is tonally quite different however, being far less surreal for one. Instead, this film mixes time-travel, romance, comedy and school drama really well – using its science-fiction elements to serve the character development.

I think most folks recognise this as the ‘breakout’ film for Mamoru and fans will certainly know he went on to direct a whole lot of other top notch movies but what I find most interesting from a reviewing standpoint is that it’s also the beginning of a three-film partnership between Mamoru and Satoko Okudera, who wrote this adaption.

To me, her work seems to be a really important factor in this mid-late 2000s period of his filmography and the progression of personal stakes and great dialogue seemed key to how I always respond to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Together, Okudera and Mamoru really put Makoto through the emotional wringer as she tries to ‘time-leap’ her way out of trouble, most of which she brings upon herself during the course of battling through the ups and downs of young love.

As a minor note, something I noticed that The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (and many anime film and series) does so well is romanticise the Japanese summer, especially with the giant cloud/blue-sky/cicada scenes that I seem to enjoy. And I know I’ve added mostly production context here instead of discussing the meat of the film itself, so I apologise but basically to finish, I really enjoy this movie and I think most folks would find the characters compelling and the storyline engaging, and of course, it’s full of beautiful visuals too.

5 Stars

Revisions (Rivijonzu)

Revisions (Rivijonzu) 2019

Sometimes I find myself being a little harder on recent shows if they don’t break a whole lot of new ground. It’s something I don’t like doing actually, I feel like I have to fight that impulse both as a viewer and when reviewing a series, because I don’t think that Originality is the most important metric available.

Instead, I’m more interested in whether I was drawn into the world, whether I responded to the characters and whether existing tropes and conventions are refreshed or handled in an interesting manner, whether the art style, design or settings chosen make me stop and recognise just how beautiful or impressive they really are.

And so having said all that, I still found myself in two minds about Revisions.

It definitely echoes Neon Genesis and other classics specifically in some ways but on a smaller scale. Elsewhere it’s more ‘generally familiar’, from character design (that Voltron-esque colour scheme of the body suits) to other common mecha tropes, but the time travel aspect added a nice complication to the plot. Having the main character Daisuke both suffer a hero complex and be ridiculed for it allowed extra conflict between the young heroes, though that aspect of the storyline kinda swung a little violently from polar opposites in the short span. Maybe the manga spreads that aspect out more smoothly?

Still, the pacing was brisk and the animation itself kept me watching; especially the designs of the Civilians and the suits/the String Puppets themselves all felt both ‘on brand’ for the genre but also distinctive enough. I did find the occasional close up here and there to reveal that cel-shaded look to the CGI that I’m not a huge fan of, but it was nothing glaring.

Great music throughout, especially the ending theme and with a few satisfying twists in the story, not too many instances of ‘out of place’ fan service (I guess) and overall I did enjoy it. The writing was pretty effective at showing the unsurprising cowardice contrasted with the welcome heroism of humanity in a largely dystopian setting. It also pulled back away from the kids and their struggles to spend a bit of time on managing a city on limited resources, which I found interesting, though would hardly be everyone’s key memory of the series 😀

3.5 Stars