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Anime is by no means a diverse art form. I sometimes remind myself of this, because when I watch anime, I see diversity. I see characters that share cultural similarities with me in stories taking place near the country where my mother was born. But I also recognize that anime characters are predominantly Japanese; it takes animators who are willing to challenge the norm, like Shinichiro Watanabe, the genius behind Cowboy Bebop, to explore race in media that typically shies away from it. Perhaps that’s why Kids on the Slope, Watanabe’s tale of jazz-loving teenagers in 1960’s Japan, is so easily able to demonstrate diversity sometimes comes with discomfort, a theme that resonates strongly with me.
Kids on the Slope features the story of Kaoru, an honours student and gifted pianist, and his budding friendship with Sentaro, a known delinquent and skilled drummer. The two bond over Sentaro’s love of jazz music, and as Kaoru invests in his new friend’s life, he discovers that Sentaro is an incredibly kind and compassionate young man whose troubled life is rooted in mistreatment from his grandmother and adoptive father. The reason for his abuse? Sentaro is biracial, the son of a Japanese mother and a white American sailor.
I don’t carve the same big, muscular figure that Sentaro does, nor was I a delinquent, but I am the son of a white military man and an Asian mother. I, too, had to navigate both worlds growing up. It was sometimes confusing. When I looked in the mirror, I saw my Asian features, which are more dominant than my Caucasian ones, and even though I adopted many practices of Korean culture, I saw myself as white. It was on the rare occasion when I faced outright racism that I was made aware of the two ethnicities I shared.
Later, I realized I identified with one half more than another because it was easier, because it was safer. I spoke the same language as most of my friends, ate the same food, watched the same shows, and listened to the same music. In my mind, I didn’t stand out. And I didn’t want to. When all eyes were on me, all I wanted to do was scoot out of the limelight. Being taunted as “slanty eyes” or asked if I understood gibberish intended to sound like Chinese drew attention to me. I would then retreat as fast as I could into the background, a safe place where no one would notice, where I didn’t have to deal with the reality of my mixed heritage.
Sentaro is much the same. He is degraded by those who should treasure him the most, and the hurt wears on him. But he has his safe places, too, where he can run to and avoid the pain that comes with being the object of racism. Sometimes Sentaro embodies the fighting, school-skipping lifestyle that everyone assumes of him. Sometimes he dives into becoming a caretaker for his siblings. But most of all, the safe place he runs to is jazz, through a music shop, band practice, and performance.
The heckling, then, of an old man who derides Sentaro’s band, demanding that they start playing “white music” instead of jazz, is an intrusion. It’s an assault not just on their music, but on Sentaro’s safe place, which the offender pries into using the very weapon that Sentaro is running from, exposing his deepest wound on a literal stage which typically provides him most happiness.
As sincere productions about complex issues are wont to do, Kids on the Slope doesn’t end with a tidy bow. It confronts a difficult issue, shows that our safe places are not always so safe, and explains that resolutions are not so easily obtained. Sentaro does confront some of his demons and receives some of the grace he longs for, but is never fully able to navigate the situation he was born into. The end of the series, in fact, could be seen as him exchanging one safe place for another, still trying to find peace in the world.
Sentaro would literally be my dad’s age now. Despite some similarities in background, my life hasn’t been so heavy. I went to college, attended a predominantly Korean-American church (which I still go to), and accepted and embraced the other half of my culture more fully. But like the drummer, I’m never quite comfortable with who I am, stuck between two worlds.
I’m thankful to have grown up in a generation more progressive than Sentaro’s, where I can test new worlds that would have been out of reach for him and even risk leaving my safe places for the possible reward that situations I perceive as dangerous can afford. And I’m able to embrace the idea of diversity, promote it, and live it, even as I’m not entirely comfortable with it within myself. I’m stepping little by little out of the shadows and into a world thrust upon me, and saying to it, “You do not define me,” even if it’s just calling through whispers rather than by the loud rat-a-tat-tat of the drums. But sliding along with subtle notes has taken me a long way from where I was, and that’s more than enough for me.
He can also be found, however, feeding his other nerd habits, including A Song of Ice and Fire. Charles also remains hopelessly stuck in the 90's, maybe best demonstrated by his unexplainable passion for The Phantom Menace.
A historian and director at a government agency by day, Charles joins in the work of college and digital ministry is his off-time, while growing each day in the round-the-clock charge of being a husband and father.
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