坂道のアポロン (Kids on the Slope) is a story about jazz-loving high school students in Kyushu in the 1960s. I’ve been watching it on Crunchyroll. The series is directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, who you may remember from the fabulous Cowboy Bebop, and the music is by Yoko Kanno, whose amazing music is everywhere–Bebop, Macross Plus and Frontier, and Escaflowne, just to name a few. (There’s even an iPhone alarm clock app from UNIQLO featuring original Yoko Kanno music now.) The art is nice and the animation flows well, and of course the voice acting is top-notch.
The show’s got plenty of the pieces I look for: an interesting setting, believable characters with pasts that are revealed as the story unfolds, a purpose bringing the characters together. I love that it’s not set in Tokyo. I love that it’s the past, and that it feels so well-researched. I love that everything is infused with jazz music. I love all the “love” relationships that at first seem so simple and then get more and more complex, just as real relationships do.
And I love that this is a show that is unafraid to go there. In the fourth episode, our heroes are playing their first live concert, and they’re really getting into it, when all of a sudden a surly drunk American soldier starts yelling at them to “stop playing that [expletive] music and play white jazz”.
Of course that would happen. It was completely realistic. And the characters’ reactions are just as realistic. Sentaro, the drummer, who is half white, half Japanese, is extremely sensitive to this sort of issue. He yells something like “Fuck that segregationist shit!” and storms off the stage. Another character, Jun, calmly rallies the piano player, Kaoru, and the two of them perform a soft jazz tune, which placates the drunkard.
I feel sort of bad for being so surprised at the scene. I’m just not used to seeing racism so blatantly portrayed in anime–especially with Japan as the setting. In an imagined setting, you can more safely explore this sort of theme without implicitly accusing a culture of bigotry. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Japan is by and large a homogenous country, and racism does exist there, as you can see in the story of what happened to a guy today on a train in Nagoya. Having racism as a story element is an extremely brave thing to do because it’s going to make people uncomfortable (as it should). You could argue that having the racist be a white American absolves the Japanese characters, but he’s just the loudest example of racism. You see plenty of quiet, cruel racism towards Sentaro from his own family members in flashbacks. I think putting in the soldier, having him be blatantly racist, makes the other racism more obvious, and makes Sentaro even more relatable.
It’s rare for me to have such a strong reaction to a show after only having seen four episodes. It took me a long time to process how I felt about that last episode in particular. I love that this is a show that takes the time to do character development well, but doesn’t actually waste any story time. Plenty of stuff happens; time seems to pass quickly. But at the same time I feel like I’m slowly untangling a glorious mess of thread and seeing how it all ties together. This is not shut-my-brain-off entertainment; this is the kind of engagement that comes from true storytelling. And I love it.