Is this the era of the sports anime? Without doing the research, it really feels like it, more so than at any other point in recent history, and what’s more, most of it’s really quite good! I’ve already written about Ping Pong the Animation, but in short, I love(d) it. Then again, I always knew I would, but Haikyuu!! was a different case. In the past year alone, I’ve watched Ping Pong the Animation, Hajime no Ippo: Rising, Yowamushi Pedal and Kuroko’s Basketball (both seasons,) so you could say that I’m primed for a sports anime burn out. I keep waiting for a show to push me into that abyss and thought that Haikyuu!! would be the one, but spoiler: it wasn’t. Haikyuu!! is really flipping good.
Her hand bloodied and blistered, she bandages it up, ties it to her racket and keeps going. Giving up isn’t an option. This is her moment! Her chance! Her dream! This is Aim for the Ace!.
Hiromi Oka has spent her youth idolising Reika Ryūzaki, known otherwise as the beautiful Madame Butterfly (Ochōfujin,) a formidable, undefeated tennis player. But Hiromi has trained hard for this match, sacrificed her love, even, to reach this point, and now she’s here, a little bit of blood and pain isn’t like to stop her.
This is a show about football (out of respect to Bateszi I’ll avoid using the word soccer…). The featured team, East Tokyo United (ETU), is dysfunctional. ETU’s fans are running away, the team keeps losing managers and players and worst of all, they just can’t win. At this point in the summary, anyone who has watched a feel-good sports movie knows the premise: a team of misfits need to come together and miraculously win the J-League!
When writing about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, I noted that I think it’s great because it has moments of exciting, fluid animation. I realise that’s a fairly superficial thing to say, but I think it’s true, too, and now, as if to immediately contradict myself, I’m going to write about Cross Game.
This doesn’t have great animation, but it’s probably going to be one of my favourite series of 2009, because a delightful story is always delightful, regardless of medium, and because I’m really into these characters. This has nothing to do with being swept up by some soapy drama or romance or whatever, rather, I like it because it’s understated.
Cross Game is a quiet series, so quiet you can hear the wind breezing through fallen leaves and hear the snow crunching underfoot. At its centre is Kou and Aoba; there is no blurting out of their feelings or forced confessions of love, everything remains unsaid, unrealised, with just a moment of hesitation here and a shy glance there.
Their feelings are protected, hidden even from themselves. They have a determination about them, yet seem introspective; they remember things, tiny, stupid, important, vital things, like we all do, before clamming up again. It’s sweet to watch them blunder through uncomfortable situations, but reassuring, too. I think we’ve all been there, spent a lot of time observing people and watched as the days draw into night. Life can be so understated, and such is Cross Game, it’s so quiet.
I wasn’t aware Mitsuru Adachi (mangaka) even existed until the spring season of this very year, but all that changed after I’d seen the first two episodes of Cross Game. I realised I’d missed out on a lot of great anime of his and, to fill the gap in-between episodes of Cross Game, I started watching Touch too.
It’s a bit weird following both these series at the same time. At first, I was having trouble telling them apart. Despite the near 25 years separating their broadcasts, they are so similar. Both revolve around high school baseball, both place a stronger emphasis on emotion than action and both are noted for the tragedies that change the lives of their main characters.
Also, both are great.
Last weekend, I caught a screening of The Wrestler and it was as great as everyone has been saying, particularly Mickey Rourke, who, in the words of my friend, contributes a “massively gutted” performance. However, I’ve always enjoyed sports drama.
And the keyword here is drama; skill, relationships, tragedy, emotion and glory. The sports element may as well be random; just pick any one from wrestling, table-tennis, baseball or boxing, it’s not as though I know anything about these sports in the first place, and it’s not as though I have to, either.
Because sports drama is all about people – watching them rise to glory or, as in Rourke‘s case, sink in to obscurity. These hardy souls are battling with themselves as much as against their opponents; they are infatuated with pipe-dreams, always striving for success and clinging to every last shred of hope.
This brings me to Hajime no Ippo (also known as ‘Fighting Spirit‘). The new season is finally underway in Japan, resurrected after 7 years in anime purgatory. It is the story of Ippo Makunouchi; a young, hopeful boxer working his way up through the ranks of Japan’s obscure boxing scene. On his road to glory, Ippo meets friends and enemies alike, with his nervous smile and kind nature in-tow. Friends like Ichiro Miyata; the person Ippo admires the most.
Miyata is an elegant fighter, the golden boy of Japanese boxing, but forever haunted by the indignity of seeing his champion father destroyed in the ring many years before. He fights as if to prove his father’s doubters wrong, to regain the pride that his family lost all those years ago.
Another of Ippo’s fiercest rivals is Takeshi Sendo, also known as the “Naniwa Tiger.” His never-say-die attitude was influenced by his father’s own, a brave firefighter who died in a blaze trying to rescue others. Sendo’s two matches with Ippo could be described as the best of the first series, both are traumatic and brutal encounters between two men with so much at sake. As much as boxing is a physical sport, these are duels of emotion, with every punch being felt ten-fold by the viewer, if only because we understand just how much victory means to both men.
So, you may scoff at the formulaic concept of sports drama, may think that you can ignore anime like this because you’re not into boxing, but I’ll retort by suggesting that that is a lazy way of thinking. Like every great sports anime, Hajime no Ippo is fuelled by great characters. It is overflowing with feeling. Please don’t ignore it.
Living in ol’ Blightly, we aren’t taught the delights of baseball. For us, it’s either cricket or rounders, and the latter’s enjoyed mostly by girls anyway. So I sat down to watch Ookiku Furikabutte knowing basically zip all about the game, except that the Americans (especially Bobby De Niro) are mad about it. Why bother then? I love sports anime; the genre might be cliche, but for me, you can’t beat seeing an underdog battling against all the odds, trying their hardest to compete and eventually winning the respect of others through sheer guts and determination. For me, then, sports anime is a reaffirming and inspirational journey. A constant, heart-warming reminder that success and talent is always a curve-ball within our range; we just need practice and strength enough to know when its time to swing away.
Our journey, then, kicks-off when we meet high school new fish Ren Mihashi; though he’s unconfident and shy, Ren’s blood flows with an unlimited passion for baseball, and baseball alone. All he’s ever wanted to do is stand on that mound in the middle of the pitch and throw strike after strike to success. So, belying his timid nature, Ren dreams of being his team’s ace, their number one most important player, but he’s often struggling with his own (lack of) self belief as much as his opposition’s swing.
That’s really the basic outline of Ookiku Furikabutte, Ren starts the series by transferring schools and joining a newly formed team just in time for the summer competitions; we follow them, all strangers at first, from their early morning training sessions right through to the marathon matches themselves. Ren might be the main character, but several other strong personalities on his team shine through too; catcher Abe is a down-to-earth and tactically astute friend, Tajima is your typical hot-blooded shonen hero with immense natural talent and finally, their coach, Maria, is a no-nonsense, big breasted 23 year old woman with an absolutely wicked swing.
Seeing it all come together in Ookiku Furikabutte is a joy to behold. With everyone fighting for a common goal, they bond together and battle as one. They believe in each other. If it ever looks like someone’s feeling down and out, a team-mate is there, almost instantly, to shoulder that pain. Writing this now, I know it must be sounding cliche, but when you’re seeing it on screen, and you’re so invested in these characters, it’s heart-warming to sense this comradery between friends. That, for example, Ren can smile when he’s pitching, considering he’s basically a broken-heart in the beginning is really quite moving. Just like its great when Ren’s female cousin calls him “Ren-Ren” in front of his team-mates and they all burst out laughing at him for having such a “cute” rapport with her.
If Ookiku Furikabutte ever does come close to losing my attention, it’s probably because there’s been a sudden burst of complex baseball tactics that went way over my head, but this sense of confusion is often tempered by some amusing scenes involving the shrieking mothers of the players, all of whom are huddled together at the back of the stands, positively beaming with pride watching their children on the field.
At this point, I should note that despite this being a 25 episode TV series, it contains only two actual baseball matches, both of which are multi-episode, tense epics of inner-strife, clever tactics and brinksmanship. Because things progress at such a slow pace, I’m left wishing for an as-yet-unannounced second season (I could quite happily watch another 100 episodes just like this) or will have to resort to reading the original manga instead, but regardless, I’ve loved watching this.
It might be formulaic, but this is a story bubbling with positive energy and emotive characters. If you feel sad, in need of inspiration or just lacking a bit of self-confidence, don’t be afraid to have a swing at Ookiku Furikabutte. It’s ostensibly centred on Baseball, yes, but for all its sports-talk, it’s a true champion of friendship, team-work and fun.
Table tennis, ping pong, whatever you want to call it, is a specialist sport played mostly by an enthusiastic collection of hardcores, eccentrics and oddballs. Examining the game with unloving eyes, all you may uncover is a baffling blur of squeaking shoes and pumped up grunts. So, amidst this boring confusion of pings and pongs, we miss the compelling battle of wits taking place; that moment the winning player realises he can fly, while his losing opponent watches his cherished dreams come crashing down around him.
Ping Pong (2002, YouTube trailer) is a Japanese live action movie penned by the legendary manga-ka Taiyou Matsumoto, and there’s no beating around the bush here, it is one of my favourite films of all time; a charming and philosophical portrait of human nature painted by an eccentric quartet of characters in love with ping pong. Here’s why.
At the centre of the story are two teenaged best friends; Peco (Yosuke Kubozuka) and Smile (Arata). They are both preciously talented table tennis players who seem to struggle when under pressure. Goof-ball Peco dreams of becoming the best in the world, but blows off practice to gorge on junk food, while Smile doesn’t care about the game at all; he only plays to hang out with his best mate. They’ve shared a strong bond of friendship since childhood because Peco saved Smile (so named because he never does) from bullies, thus Smile idolises Peco as his hero; some one who, when the world’s about to end, saves the day.
The two other most notable characters are intense, aggressive skin-heads; nicknamed Akuma (Demon) and Dragon. Akuma is a hack player with no talent, but so desperately wants to be good, while Dragon is the local champion but works so hard at training and practise that he’s lost all love for the game; despite winning it all, he never smiles.
Ping Pong is punctuated with colourful humour, a fist-pumping soundtrack (with a lot of music from SUPERCAR) and a lot of exciting (CG-assisted) action, but its true brilliance lies within its characters, who in distinctive Japanese style, grow to embody their own particular philosophical flavours.
Peco is running from Smile’s admiration, afraid of not living up to the expectations of his friend, while Akuma, try as he might, can’t accept that his talents lay elsewhere. Even Dragon, the champion, locks himself in a cubicle through out tournaments because he gets so envious of players with real ability.
It feels so heart-filled and compelling because these are issues that transcend the sport in question and impact on us all; some of us want to be the best at what we do yet hopelessly fail, others may be talented but flit it all away, we can even try so hard that we lose sight of whatever made it fun in the first place. Ping Pong is about learning to fly, or in other words, growing up and realising your place in the world; it’s a moving, eccentric and funny film that I hope you run out and pick up right now.