Part of me wants to call Giant Killing a sports anime for those who don’t like sports anime – but I think “Cross Game” really fits that title better. That’s a sports anime that isn’t (in a good way) while GK is a sports anime that really is a sports anime. It’s about the sport of soccer (football to non-Americans) in every facet starting with the most obvious – the on-field action. It’s excellent – well-paced, smartly drawn, exciting. But this is a sports anime about everything sports means to people – to the players, the coaches, the front office, and most especially the fans. No aspect of the game is ignored, and none treated less than brilliantly.
It’s certainly different to see a sports anime about professional athletes, for starters. I love coming-of-age stories, but we haven’t seen many sports series focusing on adults. That opens so much fertile ground – the young rookie struggling with nerves, the aloof and cocky cover boy, the overachiever, the fading veteran hanging on to his leadership role… All are here, and all portrayed in lively, layered roles. We had ample time to live with the three strikers, Sera, Sakai and Natsuki – all struggling with their own demons. The proud Captain Murakoshi, the prima donna Gino, the pugnacious defender Kuro – all real people. But I think my favorite among the players was Tsubaki. His wide-eyed nervousness was something anyone who has stepped onto the field can empathize with, but he also grew more than anyone over the course of the series. He got most of what he got with hard, tireless work – but his talent was undeniable. He’s the future superstar of the new ETU era.
And then there were the coaches – Dulfer and Blanc were especially memorable. In Dulfer, Tatsumi found the perfect foil – the brilliant and proud Dutch coach and believer in “beautiful football” trying to prove his own brilliance at Tatsumi’s expense. He was one of the great supporting characters of the last two seasons.But fundamentally this ensemble series was about Tatsumi. It was his unbreakable spirit that Goto noticed in England, and that sustained him as he took over a derelict club. Tatsumi was lazy, irreverent, and often maddening – but it was his genius that made the series go. His genius in on-field tactics, but also his genius at analyzing and motivating people. He has the ruthless ability all great coaches have, to look at a player and see him in terms of whatever value he can provide to the team. It can be a bit cold-hearted, but in a sense Tsubaki had to get blood from a stone – to turn a last-place team without much money into a contender overnight. And so he did – using the same Giant Killing techniques he mastered at East Ham. He spotted Tsubaki’s ability to disrupt the opponent’s shape immediately, even though all his timidity and mistakes. He saw what Murakoshi needed to re-motivate himself, what Kuro and Sugie needed to believe in themselves again. He even saw what ETU needed to do to win the fans over again.
And oh, those fans. We got effectively three generations of them – the three little lads from the junior team, their dads, the “old-school” Edomae fans, and young toughs The Skulls. The fans were the heart of the show, in many ways. It’s rare to see their travails portrayed like this, but any lifelong sports fan can tell you what it means to love a team with all your heart only to have them break it over and over again.
It says something about this show that the overall best episode was probably an “between” ep – #19. This was the one that focused on the buildup to the Osaka match – the stretching, the strategizing, the tension in the locker room, the excitement and trepidation among the fans. I can’t think too many series would have bothered giving a full ep to this material – but it was a beautiful thing. I can never remember an episode of a sports anime doing such a great job of building up anticipation. It did all the little things right – and that sums up Giant Killing pretty well. This is a show that just gets it. It gets soccer, it gets being a sports fan, and it gets the demons that trouble us and the joys we feel when we overcome them. This is something of a golden age for sports anime, but if you’re one of those anime viewers who avoids them on principal, maybe you should re-think that stance. GK is an outstanding series on every level, with complex and sympathetic characters, real wit and exciting action. I can’t imagine we’re likely to get another season, which is a real shame – but if we had to end in the midst of ETU’s rise, the show did a fantastic job wrapping things up with style and feeling.