I suppose watching this episode of GeK is good practice for later tonight, when I expect to become an emotional wreck after watching the finale of Shirokuma Cafe. There are some series for which my emotional attachment exceeds my overall esteem, even when the latter is very strong – and that’s certainly the case with Ginga. I think it’s a truly wonderful anime in pretty much every respect, but even that doesn’t do justice to the amount of simple affection I hold for it. It’s a show with preposterous heart, and I feel as though I’m watching my own kids out there every time I see an episode. Even the OP theme music is enough to send me to the edge now, knowing that there’s only two eps left.
Having seen this episode raw around a month or so ago, of course I knew full well what was going to happen in the match with Barcelona. That doesn’t stop it from being heartbreaking yet again though. To their credit, the Predators went down sticking to their style – attacking soccer – despite going up against yet another bigger and stronger opponent (this one with multiple players on Spain’s U-16 team apparently). They played the only way they could – relying on ball movement and avoiding one-on-one matchups against a physically superior team.
It would be tempting to say that the moment got to the Predators, given that this was the legendary Camp Nou, the Mecca of football players worldwide – but if anything, I think they finally just ran up against an opponent that was too good. Not only was Barca bigger and faster, they were also smart enough (especially their captain) not to fooled by Momayama’s trickery. This in turn forced the Preds to resort to an untested tactic – a “figure eight” that’s an offshoot of their reverse uzemaki. This is the luxury of teams with greater physical ability – they can wait and force the other team to try more and more dangerous tactics to try and even the scales. The result is predictable – never having practiced the figure eight a miscommunication leads to a turnover, which leads to the game’s only goal and a silver-medal finish for the kids from Japan.
This being GeK, neither the kids nor the show wallows in self-pity. There are some tears on the field, and glum faces afterwards, but it’s soon clear enough that Masaru-san-chan is taking this harder than the kids. He’s the other half of the magic of Ginga e Kickoff – the perfect counterpoint to the loveable and realistic children he coaches. Haneshima is old enough to understand the stakes of what’s happened – his career coaching the kids he’s come to love (how could he not?) is over, and with it the taste of greatness he never quite achieved as a player. Or is it? We know something he doesn’t of course – those kids have been keeping a secret from him, and in their minds this tournament wasn’t the end of the road, but a preparation for something even bigger.
It seems clear that GeK is going to take a considerably more fanciful turn in the last two episodes, as it turns its attention to the “Ginga no World Cup” that gave the source novel its title. This starts with a truly beautiful scene in which the Predators – still flush with passion for the game despite their loss – head to the Plaza de Cataluña to try out their newest tactic, a 5-man figure-eight. This showcases another element of the series that stands out – a pure and idealistic love for the game, and who better to share it with than the football-adoring people of Barcelona? Ryuuji shrewdly uses adorable ragamuffin Aoto to gather attention with his considerable showmanship, and soon enough a crowd of locals has gathered (even a local TV news crew) and a pickup game on the cobbles is underway. Haneshima-san puts a stop to it – for understandable reasons, he’s pretty sensitive to the notion of his kids getting injured – but it’s the catalyst for the team to finally spill the beans about their next big dream.
Of course the notion of 12 year-olds taking on the very best in the world is fanciful to put it charitably, but it’s a beautiful dream anyway. As Ryuuji says, soccer is a sport where size and strength differences can be overcome by pure skill, a sport where every goal is more precious than in any other game. Judging by the preview it looks as if the next episode is going to feature cameos from the likes of Wayne Rooney and Mario Balotelli, and it seems as if the OP images of Shou rising for a scoring header against a professional opponent might not have been a fantasy, but foreshadowing. And really, Ginga e Kickoff is a show about the pure joy of children playing a game, and of the rewards to be gained by shepherding them wisely. My favorite part of the episode is a perfect Ginga moment: Haneshima and Kyouka watching, rapt, as the kids carefully plan their strategies for their match against Barcelona. It’s about those kids after all – this is their story and their dream, and it seems only right that it should end with their biggest dream of all.