If I had to pick a favorite part of the three-episode match with Amarillo, it would be incredibly difficult. This is pretty much as good a depiction of youth sports as anime has ever done as far as I’m concerned – S1 of Major is emotional and thrilling, but very much a shounen fantasy at times, and certainly no other youth soccer series has come close to Ginga e Kickoff in terms of authenticity and narrative style. There’s a lot I could talk about from these three eps, but for brevity’s sake let me just highlight a few things that really stand out:
- Tagi’s presence as the backstop of the team, both as a keeper and as a leader. He defines the “I have your back” mindset perfectly. What a great addition to the cast.
- Tagi’s friendship with Aoto, and his unending emotional support for Shou – who was the one Predator staying home to help him defend for most of the match.
- Misaki’s role. Don’t forget, Amarillo have a training partnership with her professional club – but she clearly lost her heart to Shou and Erika. Yet it was she who comforted Kageura at the end, and pointed out that a loss was the best thing for him. He was still by far the best player on the pitch.
So many keystone moments being recalled when the match was on the line, including:
- The blind soccer training, put to use by both Shou and especially Ouzou, when he was blinded by sweat.
- Aoto setting up the winning goal by clanking the ball off the crossbar – which we’ve seen him do as a practice obsession many times.
- And finally, Shou scoring on a header – which was the very first thing Hanashima-san taught him about soccer.
Generally speaking, there’s a lot more that stands as praiseworthy. GeK has, like few sports series before, managed to make all of the players into complete characters, and likable ones at that. Everyone got their chance to shine here, both with their play and with their personality. 8-player soccer is great for spectators, but it’s great for anime too – it was good to see the 3-U back and watching from the stands, but the smaller squad means everyone gets a chance to stand out. I loved, for example, the moment when Erika smiled in the middle of the match when thinking about Shou, and Kouta’s easy deference to Aoto after Reika earned a PK. And Reika certainly has come a long way, blossoming in her role as Libero – cleverly set up as the one element that the ultra-thorough Amarillo coach didn’t catch in his scouting reports.
No question, it was Ouzou’s turn in the spotlight as far as the Furuya were concerned. I’ve always found his character the most interesting of the three, and he was definitely playing against type here – fueling himself on raw emotion and anger even as his body started to give out. Taking on the man-child Kageura isn’t an easy task for anybody, and while Ouzou didn’t score, he did prove instrumental in finally breaking down the great wall of Amarillo with sheer blood and guts. It was almost frightening watching Kageura go up against the likes of Shou and Reika – a reminder than the world of 6th-grade athletics is filled with examples of nature’s cruel sense of humor. Kageura is definitely an arrogant SOB, but credit where its due – he backed it up with his brilliance on the pitch, and as the tide of the match slowly turned in Momayama’s favor it was only his heroics that kept the match close. And what a thrilling match it was, with the crowd chanting at halftime and the former Japanese National Squad players from the GeK special in the booth.
There are two elements that stand out far above all for me, though. First, watching Hanashima-san during the match – and listening to the wonderful Koyama Rikiya turn in one of his best and warmest performances. Masaru-san-chan has been a great coach character – and coach – from day one, but seeing his passion and intensity grow as he watched from the bench was almost heartbreaking. That phantom “Lightning” kick he showed us was quite unlike anything I’ve seen in sports anime – a moment where he was just a kid himself, a boy who loves soccer before anything else – expressing the feeling of every ex-player who coaches, surely, as he exclaimed “I want to play!” Even that supremely honest and genuine moment was topped, though, by his reaction after Shou scored the winning goal in extra time. That was pure, unadulterated happiness – one of the best coaching moments in sports anime history.
Of course, I have to wrap with “Shou scored the winning goal.” That, surely, is the moment Ginga e Kickoff has been building up to since the beginning. Just as Koyama Rikiya is delivering perhaps his most endearing performance, Kobayashi Yuu – who I don’t always care for playing males – has never been better. Her usual manic energy is utilized perfectly here, and Shou is the heart and soul of GeK just as he is the Predators. There have been no miracles for Shou – he hasn’t grown six inches or gained thirty pounds or miraculously acquired Aoto’s ball skills. No, he’s just ground it out – slowly getting better by working hard, staying home on defense while even Reika got a chance to bask in the glory of attack. No one ever deserved to net the winning goal more than Shou did, and that moment was a reward for the audience as well as the character. The Tireless Terrier is finally the hero, though in his quiet way he’s been the hero all along. There would be no Momoyama Predators at all without his relentless efforts, and every one of his teammates (and his coach) knows it.
We’re now left with six episodes to go, and a trip to Spain looming on the horizon. It seems as if that isn’t much time to do justice to the World Championships – never mind the “Ginga World Cup” that Furuya-san finally mentioned aloud in episode 33 – but GeK has accomplished so much already that anything it does from here is pure gravy. This episode would have been a fine one to end the series on if need be (though I’m thrilled it wasn’t, don’t get me wrong) and I’m happy just to spend a few more hours with this cast. Ginga is the little show that could – as under the radar as it gets, but with sheer quality and irresistible charm it’s won fans in Japan and even a few outside, too. It’s an example of just how great and inspiring sports anime can be when it’s made with intelligence, talent and respect for the audience.