Kids on the Slope and Soundtrack Integration

Kids on the Slope is available to stream on Crunchyroll and Hulu.

It’s so satisfying when a score or soundtrack is so integral to the material it’s created to accompany that the two can become inseparably associated in your mind.

Musicals tend to have an easier time with this, with their accompanying music being the starring element of their show and frequently used to carry the dialogue and emotion of major story moments. Old standards like Guys and Dolls and Singing in the Rain turn their titular tracks into core character monologues, and more recently, Hamilton’s painfully distinctive soundtrack contains on its own  what must be the lion’s share of the narrative.

But then there are some shows where the music is made part of the story in a much more streamlined way, becoming a natural part of the fiction and the world in which it’s contained without breaking that disbelief for a Broadway-style musical number. Many of my personal favorites do this – Tari Tari contains a few insert songs that the characters perform as part of the plot, and Whisper of the Heart uses John Denver’s “Country Roads” as a recurring theme within the story that grounds the characters’ emotional journey.

Kids on the Slope is on the top of its game with regards to this.

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A major emotional climax of the show: the protagonists play selections off the soundtrack.

As another team-up between director Shinichiro Watanabe and composer Yoko Kanno – the two had previously worked on the knock-your-socks-off jazz-heavy music behind Cowboy Bebop – the score to Kids on the Slope was bound to be brilliant. It’s fully steeped in American jazz standards with a particular focus on the piano, which is square in the wheelhouse of a pair that we already know to work.

On its own, yeah, it’s great. It sure evokes the feel of what I know of the 1960s (which, to be fair, I didn’t live through in the U.S., let alone Japan), and there are a wide range of different pieces with varied pace to fill the need of different moments in the show without ever breaking theme.

But it’s even better for being an in-line part of the fiction.

The soundtrack to Kids on the Slope divides itself notably between background music played behind dialogue scenes and music as it happens within the story itself. The driving character arcs of the show are driven by said characters’ relationships with jazz music as a hobby and an art every bit as much as their interpersonal relationships.

“Moanin'” comes up early as devil-may-care Sentaro’s way of introducing Kaoru to a more playful approach to music – a record shared between not-quite-friends – and the show will revisit those two and their respective outlooks often using “Moanin'” as a point of reference in different contexts and covered in differently-expressive arrangements.

Similarly, “But Not for Me”, “Someday My Prince Will Come”, and “My Favorite Things” are borrowed by main characters as performance pieces used to both draw the show’s primary romantic subplot and pull characters’ viewpoints together. The former doubles as a counterpoint played against “Blowin’ the Blues Away” during an early conflict in the series. Still more recognizable music from artists like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington will be referenced through dialogue, and you can bet that every one of them will come up in a performance by one of the show’s lead protagonist.

All well-worn jazz standards, and all important to the trajectory and emotional core of the show both as entries on the series’ soundtrack album and in-universe elements that the main players regularly engage with – to more results than even made the cut on that album.

The soundtrack album’s cover art even credits the feature pianist and percussionist as in-character performers, for Pete’s sake. If that doesn’t serve to underscore how closely the music reflects the show itself, I don’t know what does.

Heck, just by listening to that soundtrack album while writing this, I got sidetracked and went back to re-watch certain very specific moments in the show. The emotional connection between some of these pieces, how they’re recorded on the album, and how they’re used within the story is so strong that I was pulled back into a series I hadn’t watched in years now.

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This still might tell a thousand words. Listening to “Kaoru & Sentaro Duo in BUKNSAI” tells you the rest with just as little spoken or sung.

The central composition of the show, “Moanin'”, has been around for about sixty years now. We owe it specifically to Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers, and by and large they rightfully ought to be the ones associated with that gift of a song.

But for me, it lives firmly in the same space in my mind where Kids on the Slope goes.

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