I’m going to ask the LiA readers to bear with me for a bit, because I’ve been thinking for a while of using the bully pulpit of RC for a little preaching about Ginga e Kickoff. So, this post is going to be as much about the series itself as it is about this episode – and yet another excellent one it was – in an attempt to give new viewers some understanding of just why this is such an excellent show. I’m under no illusions that this will ever become as popular among Western anime fans as it is Japanese, but I know that at least a few viewers have found GeK because of my posts at LiA. I won’t speak for everyone but I’ve had quite a few tell me just how glad they are they did, and so far I haven’t had any complaints.
With very few exceptions – most of them exceptions because they’ve scored hugely with fujoshi, like Oofuri, Prince of Tennis and Kuroko no Basuke (Ginga has had some success with this market as well) – sports anime tend to fly under the radar even in Japan, and certainly the West. The manga are often extremely popular, but the anime don’t get a lot of attention. And if you add the element of being a series about kids younger than high-school age, and you’ve pretty much used up all your strikes with most fans. Despite the lesson of shows like Dennou Coil and Noein, shows about preteens are a poison pill for many Western viewers irrespective of their individual merits. Since Ginga is squarely outside the target zone both in terms of genre and cast, it’s never going to have much of an impact outside Japan.
But here’s the thing – and to me, it’s the only thing that really matters – this show is good. Not just good, but damn good, and it deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting. It’s broken through the barricades and become something of a surprise hit in Japan, topping fan polls and spawning a fairly large crop of doujins. Of course Japan is generally less resistant to sports anime and shows about kids, and it doesn’t hurt that as a nation they’re crazy about soccer. But the main reason GeK has done well in Japan is because it’s a show of very high quality across the board, a show that entertains and doesn’t pander, and it stands out from the crowd for that reason alone.
So why should someone who hasn’t been watching start watching Ginga now, 27 episodes into what’s at least a three-cour (hopefully more) run? For me, the gold standard of sports anime about kids is the first season of Major – which is also the best sports anime of the last decade in my view, and certainly the best season in that series (I really don’t consider Cross Game a sports series, for the record). And Ginga e Kickoff is the best since then. It combines brisk pacing, excellent animation and art, a very strong cast and superb writing. It gets the sports part right – the Hippocratic Oath of sports anime just as “be funny” is that for comedy – but it gets the people part right, too. The kids in this show are flawed but lovable, totally believable creations whose development over the course of 27 episodes has been natural and a delight to watch. I said a couple of weeks ago that when one of the kids (especially the everyman main character, Tireless Terrier Outa Shou) achieves a real breakthrough in their personal growth, it feels as if I’m watching my own kid celebrate that achievement.
That, I think, is key. If you’re going to make a show about kids that’s more than just good entertainment for kids but one that really has something to offer teens and adults, you need to do two things. First, you need to make those viewers feel a sense of affection for the kids. Second, you have to have an adult perspective in the series to balance that of the kids, and you have to have humor and drama that appeals to adults on a different level than it does to kids. Ginga succeeds in spectacular fashion on both scores. The kids are a cross-section of personalities and talent levels, none of them perfect but all of them fundamentally good kids, precocious without being obnoxiously so. And in addition to the snappy wit we get to see adult problems presented alongside kid problems, and watch the adults – primarily the coach, Masaru Haneshima – deal with things the kids can’t really understand. And as for the sports, the on-field action is exciting and realistic, appealing to anyone in the audience irrespective of their demographic.
So that, in very brief terms, is why you should marathon all 27 eps of GeK and catch up to the current ep. The fansubs are finally almost caught up and fairly timely, and there’s no time like the present. Either way if you aren’t already a viewer feel free to skip the next bit where I talk about the episode, which continues in the vein of the last one – the building of the new Momayama Predators in preparation for the Golden Future Cup, an 8-on-8 tournament that offers the Japanese champion a chance to compete in the world final in Spain. Aoto finding his place on the team is still very much a focus, but the main thread this week involves Erika-chan – and not so much for her Tiger Beat crush on the blonde, blue-eyed Mini-Messi Aoto.
I’ve loved how GeK has dealt with the problems of Tagi in the last few eps – a kid who lost faith in his ability because his body grew too fast to keep up with itself, something many boys face at his age. Now Erika is facing a very different problem, and one that almost all girls her age who are into team sports deal with – all of a sudden she’s not taller and faster and stronger than most of the boys anymore. The cast of GeK are sixth-graders, which means this is the last year Erika can compete officially in co-ed soccer. To make things worse, she’s seeing the two players who were easily a few steps below her – Shou and Reika – take massive strides on their own.
The reality, of course, is that if you’re a hard-worker it’s easiest to improve when you have the most to improve at. Add to that Shou is a late bloomer, and he’s at the age where a boy is naturally going to grow into a stronger athlete – benefiting from the same thing that derailed Tagi, who was already tall and strong for his age – and Reika was able to give herself a huge jump-start by losing a lot of weight. I think there’s a lot of insecurity and jealousy for Erika here. To be blunt I think she liked the fact that she could look down on Shou and Reika dismissively – though she would only verbally demean Shou, never Reika. Now though, Shou is a better dribbler and passer than she is thanks to the blind soccer experiment, and if Reika-chan isn’t exactly Carlos Puyol she’s certainly no longer a laughingstock on the pitch. And some of those boys Erika used to be able to outrun can now keep up with her – or worse. It’s a tough situation for her, no doubt, and the fact that she’s simultaneously dealing with her first real crush doesn’t help.
But Ginga always give you the positive with the pain, and things are looking up in other respects. Tagi really steps into his own as a character here (young seiyuu Ikeda Kousuke is doing a terrific job) proving he’s both insightful and patient, offering Erika good advice (take a cue from the diminutive Aoto, who dominates with skill and change-of-pace) but not forcing it on her. And Aoto is slowly letting his defenses down around the others (up to now, only Tagi has been allowed to be his friend) – picking up the nickname “Gon” (perhaps Nen is the reason he’s such a soccer genius despite his size) from Ouzou and subtly being integrated into the teams camaraderie as the training camp at the Saionji villa continues. He even gets a surprise birthday party thanks to Tagi, though Erika’s cake (250 degrees Celsius, girl – seriously?) proves a bit of a debacle.
All in all, what this ep – the last, seemingly, before the soccer kicks in hard again – accomplished was a perfect balance between Erika’s slightly self-pitying angst (she’s 12 – she’s allowed) and the spot-on carefree vibe of the boys (and Coach Haneshima) having fun and being slightly goofy, which is what 12 year-old boys (and overgrown ones that coach them) do best. As with many great shows the quality extends deep into the cast list, as even characters like Kyoko are given full, nuanced personalities that make them stand out as individuals. The Triplets continue to become more and more caught up in the spirit of the team as they exhibit their individual quirks (an octopus as a birthday present?), and fittingly it’s the ever-overachieving Shou-kun who thinks up the perfect last-minute gift for Aoto – a “ticket” promising that the team will get him to Spain, where he hopes to see his father – and makes sure to include Erika (who actually thanks him, which may be a first) and the rest of the team though the entire idea was his.
Getting the balance right is very difficult to do, and making it look as easy as Ginga e Kickoff does is even harder. It’s one of the best shows of 2012, and that would be true whether one person or a million were watching it. I hope the series gets a few more fans as a result of this post but in the end, we watch anime for ourselves – and I’m very happy to have this outstanding series as a part of the anime landscape.