I’ve been pretty damn happy with my last two sleeper picks, Kamisama Dolls and Chihayafuru. So how does Winter’s candidate fare?
OP: “Higher Ground” (ハイヤーグラウンド) by SRS
There are an awful lot of reasons to hope Area no Kishi might be something special. The manga is extremely well-regarded, penned by much-honored screenwriter, novelist and mangaka Kibayashi Shin (writing as Igano Hiroaki). The manga is oft-compared to Adachi Mitsuru and, more specifically, to Adachi’s Cross Game. If you know me at all, you know that I consider that hallowed ground indeed. While there’s always the danger of a manga being a pale imitation, in the realm of emotionally-charged sports shounen it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by Adachi-sensei – in much the same way any modern epic fantasy can rightly be said to have elements of Tolkien. In short, Adachi is the mark they all shoot for, with varying success.
At first glance, it’s impossible not to see the ghost of Cross Game in Area no Kishi. It shares the same plain but realistic character designs, the same muted pastel color scheme. The animation is solid and unspectacular, and there are echoes of extremely close childhood bonds torn asunder by the time of adolescence and a traumatic event that shaped the lives of all the main characters. To that point no, I don’t know what the big reveal is here – CG got it out of the way in the first episode but AnK only teased it. Frankly, I’d rather not know – I’m happy to find out when I find out.
What we have for certain is a second-year middle schooler, Aizawa Kakeru (Sanpei Yuuko, always an interesting choice for boy roles) who loves the game of soccer but has stopped playing it despite having once been a superb youth player. His older brother Suguru (Fukuyama Jun) is a legend of the Japanese U-15 squad and the star of the middle school team, for which Kakeru is now a manager. Suguru is clearly seething about his otouto’s refusal to play, and considers him a quitter for doing so. As to the reasons for Kakeru’s decision we see only hints – he’s unable to use his left leg while playing, he has flashbacks of a traumatic event on the field. Kakeru’s only on-field action is practicing by himself in a park at night. It’s during one of these sessions that a mysterious “alien” in a mask shows up, and flashes some mad skills. Might this be Mishima Nana (Itou Shizuka) – the childhood friend of Kakeru, a soccer buddy he called “Seven” who moved away to America when they were in fifth grade?
Yes, that could easily be an Adachi premise – there’s no doubting it. But I sense some real potential in this love-hate relationship between brothers. Kakeru clearly idolizes his brother, but also resents his good fortune, while Suguru appears to view Kakeru only with contempt but constantly tries to push him into what he sees as the right path. It seems pretty likely that Nana is going to be a point of contention between them as well – Kakeru certainly sees more than cleats and shin guards when he looks at her now, and I get the feeling that Suguru might be the sort of boy to take something his brother wants merely because he can. As I said, there’s some serious dramatic potential there.
On the whole I thought the first episode did a very nice job of setting the scene. It was nicely paced, and hinted at the complexity of the fraternal relationship well. Of Nana we don’t have as clear a picture, but she made a good first impression and I think it’s a fair bet that romance is going to play a major role in the story sooner or later. My sense is that this is a sports shounen that’s going to be about the people more than the sport, and I see the potential of a very deep and slow-developing character study. The manga is already on 27 volumes or so, but at this point we have no idea about the anime. Will it get 50 episodes to tell its story as Cross Game did? Area no Kishi, like that masterpiece, really seems like a story that will unwind slowly, and need lots of time to craft its magic. I had high expectations going into the premiere and they were largely met – I’m not expecting a rival to Cross Game here, but if the series is half as good as that one it’ll be twice as good as most anime.