I realize now that I’ve been comparing this series to the wrong Adachi story – it’s Touch that Area no Kishi resembles, not Cross Game. Since I consider both of them to be absolute classics – Touch more of a youthfully idealistic melodramatic fairy tale and Cross Game more of a bittersweet middle-aged reflection – any comparison is both high praise and a high bar either way. Touch was so popular that for a time, the two most popular boys’ names and most popular girls’ name in Japan were those of its three main characters. Area no Kishi deserves to be judged on its own merits, but the heart wants what it wants and I’ve been hungering for an anime that captured some of the magic and emotional depth of Adachi’s work. And while AnK is nowhere near as subtle as Touch, the similarities in tone and premise are certainly there – and so far, I’ve found the first two eps to be emotionally involving and quite rewarding.
To reiterate, I haven’t read the manga and won’t compare the anime to it, and I’ve insulated myself from spoilers as best I can, though being as I don’t live in a cave I knew something major was coming up. This episode was all about completing the buildup to that, though, giving us a taste of both Kakeru’s strength and weakness as a player and of the depth of his conflicted feelings towards his brother and the game they both love. It also gave us a longer introduction to a few teammates I suspect will be major supporting characters very soon based on the OP – mainly 2nd-year striker Nishijima Shigeo (Mizushima Takahiro) – the arrogant hothead being set up as Kakeru’s rival – and third-year defender Kunimatsu Hiromi (Shirashi Minoru) – the calm stalwart who I suspect will emerge as the team leader in Suguru’s absence.
It also gave us a lot more of Nana, who at this point looks like something of a cross between Asakura Minami’s supportive kindness and Tsukishima Aoba’s frustrated athletic brilliance. Nana is a kind of platonic ideal childhood friend, beautiful and caring and interested in the same stuff Kakeru is interested in – it’s no wonder he “stared at sunsets and cried” after she moved to LA, at least according to good-hearted but nosy imouto Mito (Shindou Kei). I’m not sure yet why Nana is playing at being the manager for the boys team rather than starring on the girls team – if the sublime triumph of the Nadeshiko at the Women’s World Cup didn’t prove Japan cares about girls football, nothing will – but I’m more convinced than ever than the “grey alien” is her. She has the skills, she’s the right height (and I’m pretty sure I saw curvature) and the “heart” gesture makes perfect sense after her talk with Suguru. That talk was sadly overheard by Kakeru, and once again plays up both how (ironically) heartless Suguru can be and how deeply Kakeru cares about making Suguru proud.
In the wake of the events of the day prior, when “Mr. No Goal” Kakeru failed to convert any of Suguru’s technically brilliant but impossible passes and Kakeru revealed the reason he can’t use his left foot effectively (he inadvertently seriously injured a senpai) to the alien, Suguru has a dream that Kakeru will become the “Knight in the Area” – the one who will take his place at his side on the national team and convert all his brilliant orchestration into goals. But Kakeru has decided that enough is enough, and he’s ready to make a clean break from soccer. That’s when the “moment” happens – the world-changing event that happens in the first episode of CG and quite a bit later in Touch, and the one we all knew was coming. I knew the basic idea when I saw the walk signal close-up, and while I know the details were different in the manga I don’t much care, because it was plenty effective for my tastes.
That leaves us non-manga readers, of course, to wonder what happens next. I think there’s a good chance this will be a long-running anime and I know it’s a long-running manga, so as in those Adachi works the real story will surely come from the way the others react to the absence of the false main character taken from them. I’m assuming Suguru won’t make it of course, though that seems a safe bet. I also assume Kakeru will carry a lot of survivor’s guilt over what happened, though in reality he shouldn’t because he was totally blameless. I don’t know if Suguru’s charge that he didn’t have the heart to be a good striker was true, but surely this will provide Kakeru the motivation to finish what his brother started for the national team – though whether that means taking his place as #10, the playmaker, or (presumably, based on the title) remaining a striker I can’t say. We don’t seem to have any indication that Nana had feelings for Suguru and there’s seemingly no antagonism between she and Kakeru, so with no obvious obstacles to their romantic development I’ll be interested to see how that side of the story develops.
These two eps certainly weren’t perfect, but I can honestly say there was no bait-and-switch here – I feel as if I got exactly what I was expecting, a human drama with sports as the vehicle rather than a sports shounen that happens to include some character development. The execution was pretty solid, and I like both Kakeru and Nana a lot – I see the potential there for one of the more endearing present-day examples of that dying anime breed, the heterosexual couple. In a season that seems to be offering more throwback-type shows than any for quite a while, Area no Kishi is another timeless series that recalls themes that were once common in anime, but had mostly gone out of fashion.