Reviewing Kids on the Slope and discovering anime on Crunchyroll

kidsontheslopeMy last venture into streaming anime didn’t go so well, when the underwhelming Un-Go left me questioning how much anime was out there for someone like me. By that I mean: a picky anime fan who needs a certain degree of ambition or poignancy for a show to hook me. Several I’ve seen over the last year or two have had the right ingredients but never cohered. They felt lazy. While I was initially thrilled by the numerous legal streaming options available locally through Madman and Siren, the reality was that very little of it appealed to me.

But watching the first episode of Kids on the Slope on Crunchyroll has invigorated my optimism about the medium, particularly because I had no idea that the site could make so many major shows available outside of the US. It’s quite the goldmine.

Crunchyroll has been an institution for anime fans since it was founded in 2006 by a bunch of undergraduate students, initially using illegally fansubbed content. Now 100% legal, it streams subtitled episodes of a variety of shows within hours of their Japanese broadcast, either freely with advertisements or ad-free and in HD for paying subscribers. For US fans frustrated by the months or years that can elapse between broadcast and DVD release who can handle subtitles, Crunchyroll has been a godsend.

But for much of that time licensing restrictions required it to geolock its streaming shows to the US. I knew that a select few were available overseas, but I’d been focused on Madman and Siren’s local streaming and never looked into it. Not much from those companies grabs me at the moment, so after checking out the latest installment of Anime News Network’s terrific review column, The Stream, I investigated whether the shows garnering rave reviews that piqued my interest might actually be available to me.

My top priority was Kids on the Slope, which reunites director Shinichiro Watanabe with composer and music supervisor Yoko Kanno following their collaboration on the terribly cool Cowboy Bebop. Kanno is perhaps the leading anime composer. Her scores are incredibly versatile and engaging; she’s as adept with jazz and blues as with classical composition. Watanabe blends genres too: Cowboy Bebop mixed SF and noir with jazz and Samurai Champloo enlivened an anime fixture with hip-hop. Together, the two do amazing work. (Also check out their beautiful collaboration on Macross Plus, which has a soundtrack I can’t listen to often enough.)

So after getting psyched to learn about this show, whose existence I was unaware of, I was chuffed to discover that it and many other shows can be watched in Australia! Yeeaaaah!!

And what a delightful first episode it was. I was so struck by its quality that I had to write about it straight away, even though I probably should have watched more first in order to write a proper review.

After the action and bombast of his previous shows, Watanabe has done a 180 and now applies a musical spin to a vastly different genre: the slice-of-life period drama. Kids on the Slope only resembles his previous work in its sheer skill and attention to detail. There’s can be a unique and ineffable charm to real-world anime drama, and Watanabe nails it.

Set in 1966, it follows Kaoru, a teenager who moves from the city to the country and promptly becomes an outcast at school. A piano player, he stumbles into a friendship with Sentaro, an underachiever who loves jazz, and Ritsuko, an old friend of Sentaro’s who becomes convinced the pair should jam together.

The premise is pleasantly simple, which doesn’t matter because Kids on the Slope is more concerned with the texture of these characters and their world. It’s beautifully observed, and I laughed out loud at several sweet moments, which is rare for me since anime humour typically tries too damn hard. The characters are already endearing, particularly the oafish but passionate Sentaro. The serenity the show generates is intoxicating and reminiscent of the slice-of-life Ghibli films, and I cannot wait to see more.

And that’s just the tip of the Crunchyroll iceberg. Several of the well-reviewed shows in The Stream– which sound far more compelling than the latest superpowered teenaged girl bollocks–are also available outside of the US. The quality of even the free standard-definition stream is solid, so you could be entertained for days wading through all of this. Kudos to Crunchyroll for negotiating such excellent licensing deals that benefit anime fans around the world. I’ll be sure to review Kids on the Slope more substantially after a few more episodes.

Here are direct links to some of the intriguing new shows available in Australia through Crunchyroll:

Kids on the Slope

Space Brothers – comedy-drama about two brothers trying to become astronauts.

Tsuritama – slice-of-life drama about a lonely kid who bonds with another (who claims to be an alien) over fishing. I don’t know why, but this sounds delightful.

Chihayafuru – sweet drama about a high school karuta (Japanese card game) team. That premise normally wouldn’t grab me, but it’s had adoring reviews.

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