I’ve been so busy I’ve fallen way behind on just about everything, and these two episodes of Ginga e Kickoff have been sitting on my hard drive, calling out to me. I’ve been waiting for that special moment to watch them as a reward to myself, when my schedule isn’t so backed up and I have time to savor them – but I realized that’s not coming anytime soon, so I finally caved and watched them. And what a pair of barnburners they were, though some of the heaviest ground GeK has covered (in more ways than one).
As a template for series about sports and series about kids, it would be hard to top Ginga e Kickoff. There was advancement for just about every character in the series over these two eps, the first of which covered the second half of the match with Heavenly and the tiny terror, Aoto. This was an interesting match in that it was really the first time the Predators had been pushed hard over the course of a full match, and the tension was amped up to an entirely different level than it had been in earlier matches. Further complicating matters was the injury to Kota, which would prove the decisive event of these episodes, and offer his character perhaps the greatest growth of any of the Furuyas so far in the series.
Then there’s Erika, who clearly has it bad for Aoto and in a big way. Not only did she obsess over every play as an opportunity to get him to notice her, but she actually asked for his autograph after the match (I suppose she could have offered to swap jerseys in the grand soccer tradition, but maybe that would have been too forward for sixth-graders). Given what we know about Aoto’s future role in the series, that will clearly be something to keep an eye on. What strikes me about Aoto is that he doesn’t ever seem especially happy – for a little boy who’s preternaturally gifted at soccer he seems to take no joy in it. His coach has assigned his teammates to be “pawns” and licensed Aoto to bypass defending entirely. You get the feeling that Aoto would actually like to be part of a team (hint, hint) but for now the only one he seems close to is Tagi, and there’s a strong sense that both sides are pained because of a perceived abandonment by the latter for the former.
This lesson has clearly been learned by Kota, who throws himself into the “just win, baby” camp with complete abandon. Even when it comes to triplet-teaming Aoto Kota is on-board as long as it helps the team win, and the match is plugging along in a much tighter style than the first half. Masaru-san-chan continues to urge his players forward, and Shou just misses a goal on a rebound. But when Kouta is hurt after helping secure the tying goal with a header, everything changes – not only are the Preds down to 10 players, but the remaining triplets are ineffective without the third leg of the tripod.
Seeing one of his players hurt, of course, brings back some dark memories for Masaru – the ones that drove him out of coaching. Kota proves he has an iron will and a huge heart by pleading to re-enter the game and pledging he’s in no pain, but Masaru knows the truth – and against his better judgment lets Kota play anyway. I sympathize – it’s easy to see how hard it is to say no to a kid who really, really wants to help the team in its biggest game ever. Kota even manages to score the tying goal with his wrong (right) foot, and that’s after Aoto actually starts playing defense and accidentally re-injures Kota’s ankle. The team concept reigns supreme. The climax of the Heavenly match comes when Reika of all people scores the winning goal in extra time, urged forward by Masaru and Shou and forgotten by the defense. Her facial expressions during this scene alone are worth the price of admission.
If Ginga e Kickoff does a great job portraying the thrills of childhood athletic success, it’s equally good at the heartbreak (which is every bit as powerful in RL). The writing is on the wall for Kota, his ankle swollen like a balloon, and while Masaru finally puts his foot down he blames himself for waiting too long. With Amarillo and Kageura as the finals opponent and the rain pelting down, the Predators never really stand a chance playing a man down. But the real sadness comes not from losing the match and a trip to the national tournament, but in the knowledge that the Predators as we know them are no more – the 3-U are leaving as promised. Losing a treasured team of friends is even more painful for kids than losing the big game, and the scene where Shou and 3-U break down and hug their final goodbyes is one of the most realistically sad in anime for a long while.
We know – and have since the first ED, really – that the Predators will emerge in a new form like a butterfly from the chrysalis, but that doesn’t take away the sting. Masaru-san-chan has apparently decided he’s incapable of coaching without putting kids in danger, and is handing in his resignation letter – now that sounds like a job for the Tireless Terrier. Shou leading by force of will is his natural state, and it’s time for him to take over off the field again.