I don’t keep calling Ginga e Kickoff the best sports anime about kids since the first season of Major just for the heck of it – that’s high praise given how much I revere that show, and it fits. There are many similarities between the two series (some of which are admittedly common to many in the genre) prominent among which is an unerring emotional honesty. There are certain shows that simply get things like family dynamics, friendship and passion for something you love – and sometimes because they’re about kids or “frivolous” things like sports, they’re dismissed as incapable of emotional depth. The loss goes to those who can’t see past their own prejudices and deprive themselves of a great viewing experience.
While many similarities exist, there’s one huge difference that jumps out: Major was a show about a boy who was phenomenally gifted at the sport he loves, and GeK is a show about a boy who struggles every day just to be good enough to get on the field. There’s a fundamental truth at play in Ginga – maybe one of the most important of the series – and it’s the fact that it’s much easier to enjoy something you’re naturally good at than something you’re not. What makes Shou a great MC for a series such as this is not that he’s exceptionally gifted, but that he’s not – and refuses to give up anyway. The story is about believing in yourself and having fun despite not being the best, and working harder than anyone else to try and make up the difference. There’s nothing trivial or juvenile about that – just optimistic and positive.
If I were to quibble with anything in GeK, it’s that the show hasn’t focused so much on that personal journey of Shou’s lately. It’s the luxury of a long series to be able to take its time introducing all the characters and GeK is doing it well, but while the fujoshi swoon over the Furuya triplets and the show focuses on Reika’s crisis of confidence, Shou’s own struggle has taken a bit of a back seat. Well, that turns in a big way in episode 17, set just on the eve of the City Tournament. After a visit to Misaki-san and a Tokyo Rosa practice, Shou, Erika and Reika get together for a little post-match conference (he may struggle on the field, but never let it be said that Outa Shou isn’t a player – two girls in his room before he reaches middle school) and Shou spins the tale of how he came to love the game.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare this episode to Major’s first arc, because GeK had to establish in half an episode which Major took six to do – the relationship of a boy and his father, and the role sport plays in it. But it’s astonishing just how much of an impression was made in a few short minutes here, and again it’s because the emotional radar is spot-on. Turns out the tireless terrier was a bashful puppy, quiet of voice and a bookworm (hard as that is for Erika-chan to believe), despite his father’s constant admonishments to speak up for himself. It was a late-night viewing of Japan’s World Cup match that sparked Shou’s interest in the sport – specifically, rooting for the team captain and his father’s favorite player, Tanaka Satoru. Sadly it turned out to be Tanaka’s final match – but inspired Shou to try and become the greatest soccer player in the world.
Obviously, he has a long way to go (though he showed real improvement in the mini-game with the Rosa youth team) but that’s the point. It’s easy to see where Shou gets his personality from, because his father was also a tirelessly optimistic fellow who never stopped encouraging his son to try and do better. He was terrible at soccer too, but that didn’t stop him from loving it – and his response when Shou’s own struggles threaten to do that is to stake out the player’s entrance at Murayama Stadium during a visit by the national team, with Tanaka-san, using his pop-up yakiniku stand to grab Tanaka’s attention and get him to sign a ball for his son. I don’t know whether the show will ever tell us what happened to Outa-san or not, but what really made this story effective was that it wasn’t maudlin or depressing – there were no tears from Shou over losing his father, just promises about the future.
With Shou following Tanaka-san’s advice (which happened to be the same as his father’s) and outworking everyone else to try and make up the difference in their skills, I have no doubt that his on-field reward is going to come eventually, and maybe quite soon. And soon enough his body is going to start catching up with some of his classmates (his father certainly seemed to be a normal-sized man) and he’ll suddenly be more than a loud voice with good soccer sense. For now, though, he’ll continue to be a tireless terrier among the fox-hounds and retrievers, nipping at their heels and triumphing through sheer persistence (and volume). And that, for me, makes Shou an exceptionally likable protagonist.