Nostalgia for the carefree days of school is a staple of anime, the future was brighter when one didn't have to worry about careers or significant others or the multitude other thralls of adulthood. If this spring season of anime is anything to go by, it's also full of banal whinging.
Hyouka and Kids on the Slope kick this off with the protagonist of the former trapped in chronic apathy ("energy conservation" in his parlance, like a self-conscious battery) while the latter's Kaoru bemoans climbing a gnarly looking hill to get to school. Such hardships. The two series share a similar affection for oversaturated amber sunsets and a slow, measured pace; the polar opposite of A Summer Coloured Miracle which is all cerulean skies and the constant background cry of cicadas.
Ignoring exactly what colour summer is (a kind of greenish-purple?) the shows couldn't be more different. Hyouka is full of flabby dialogue and long drawn out mediations on the most mundane of "mysteries", eking by thanks only to the attention to detail studio KyoAni is known for. At three episodes in there is the smallest hint of a more involving plot but all except the peppy Chitanda lack a critical spark that characterised so many of the studio's previous greatest hits.
A similar affliction befalls Acchi Kocchi which has a strong affinity with Lucky Star with the pint-sized, fighting-game savant of a protagonist. What it lacks in fan pandering and in-jokes (a reference to Daigo's legendary Evo 2004 match not withstanding) it makes up for with a keen sense of style that smartly contrasts its wintery opening episodes. As with its other light-humour contemporaries though (Working!! before it and Polar Bear Café now) the dead space that camps around the jokes and puns murders the pace, and the soul of humour - brevity and timing - is lost. Couple that with the lack of character development endemic to the four-panel light humour source and the result is entertaining but flat.
Thankfully soul is something that Kids on the Slope has in spades, in no small part due to its superstar director Shinichirou Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop) and auteur music composer Yoko Kanno (again, Cowboy Bebop). Three episodes is enough to prove this is no standard high-school romance: transfer student Kaoru both befriends the class pugilist Sentarou and confesses his affections to the charming Ritsuko in short order. So far so typical, but it's the refreshing lack of cruft that so far makes the series so enjoyable; characters are without pretence and combined with musical sojourns into jazz history it's proof that a school setting, given the right tweaks, can be more than just animated nostalgia.
A Summer Coloured Miracle then is a step backwards into familiar territory, most recently covered with Waiting in the Summer and Hanasaku Iroha and just as heart warming and free wheeling but dreadfully lacking in imagination. A treasured school friend is moving away and didn't tell her friends? Scandalous! You'd be forgiven for raising a cautious eyebrow at the end of the first episode though, asking yourself where exactly is this series going with flying middle-school girls? Short version: the same adolescent melodrama that any other of its ilk can offer but with more personality than on display here.
Of the four series then, the first three episode of Kids on the Slope are by far the strongest. Hyouka certainly has the leg up when it comes to aesthetics - few could argue the detail lavished on Chitanda's eyes or the gratuitous hair growing scene aren't hugely impressive - but Acchi Kocchi manages to do a lot with a little and put its own stamp on a twee but otherwise stilted opening. The runt of the litter then is A Summer Coloured Miracle which apart from a few sigh-worthy attempts at fan-service is inoffensive and entertaining enough but errs too far into the arrested-development zone of wish fulfilment, trapped eternally longing for a rose-tinted school life. Ironic really that the one which cuts closest to the ideal of a happy-go-lucky school life is the one that comes across as the most soulless.