I was looking forward very much to this finale, long-delayed from the original airing as it is – and yet, dreading it too. To be honest I wasn’t planning to watch these two episodes until next week, partly because this weekend we’re in the middle of a mad rush of premieres and my three returning series, and partly because, well – I just didn’t want it to be over. But we’re a sort of eye of the hurricane for a few hours, and they were sitting in my inbox, staring at me. I just couldn’t bring myself to put if off any longer.
Before I talk about how much I loved the final two episodes, I want to do two things. First, express my sincere gratitude to Doremi-Oyatsu for subbing Ginga e Kickoff. This show is living proof that subbers still matter – not every series has a simulcast or a fleet of sub groups fighting over who did the best translation. Without their hard work non-Japanese speakers would never have been able to fully appreciate just how fantastic this show is, and I for one am very grateful for the fine work they did.
The second thing is that, for what reason I can’t say, it feels right to me that I should look back on my post on the first episode of GeK as I write the last one. Turns out that was part of a digest post exactly one year ago next Saturday, and I closed with this:
I haven’t seen a sports series featuring grade-schools on this level since S1 of Major. Shou states the nature of his ambition in the very first scene, imagining his Predators team at no less than Camp Nou, challenging F.C. Barcelona and Lionel Messi. I don’t expectations that lofty for Ginga e Kickoff, but I do expect it to be a lot of fun to watch.
Little did I know then just how right I was – not just about how much fun GeK would turn out to be, but about Shou and his friends quite literally challenging Messi and his friends on the pitch at Camp Nou.
My impact as a blogger is surely miniscule, and when it comes to widely popular series, probably non-existent. But if there’s anything that makes me glad I do this it’s a show like Ginga e Kickoff. It’s incredibly rewarding to share the love of a small series like this one with people who feel the same way, bur even more, with a series like this I might actually have made a difference – convinced a few people to share the experience who might otherwise have missed this quietly wonderful anime.
There are series that we admire, and series that we love, and – rarely – both. This is one, for me, and it’s also one of those rare series for whom my emotional attachment exceeds even my conventional enjoyment – I had some near-breakdowns watching this finale, I don’t mind admitting. That’s what those rare anime that connect with the heart will do to you – the last time you hear the OP, the last eyecatch, the last time you see each of the cast members – all those moments hit like a ton of bricks. And because Ginga so fundamentally gets it, I knew the final two episodes would hit all the grace notes in terms of giving the series the send-off it earned with 39 beautiful episodes.
It’s not every series that could have pulled off this ending, that’s for sure. In going for something of a fantasy route the show took quite a risk, but GeK understands its own appeal and its own strengths better than any anime of recent vintage. In closing the show harkened back to the novels that started the franchise, titling its final episode “Ginga no World Cup”. It’s that beautiful fantasy of the first OP sequence come to life – taking on the very best in the world on the most famous pitch in the world – and as much as anything it’s a celebration of what its supporters call “the beautiful game”. I don’t think you have to love soccer to love Ginga e Kickoff but there’s no denying this ending was crafted for the soccer lover inside everyone in the audience. It was all about having big dreams and never giving up on them, and what it means to chase a dream together with people you love.
It was Shou-kun who – as usual – put the best spin on things when he rallied the team at halftime of their mini-game at Camp Nou: “This will be the last time we can play together.” it was Ryuji who pulled everyone along in his wake when it came to goading the best in the world into a practice match, but it was also Ryuji who took it hardest when hit with grim reality – when those guys get serious, 12 year-olds don’t really have a chance. It was up to Shou to bring everyone back when that truth hit, with a little help from an Ouzou slap (Shou knows something about those himself) and as usual, brought everyone into the moment, and right where they needed to be.
“Fanciful” is the word I used to describe this scenario, and it definitely fits, but as it played out you could almost believe it was really happening. The first key was using little Aoto, the Mini-Messi, to grab the pros’ attention with his patented practice routine of clanking endless balls off the goal posts – something the pros find isn’t so easy as they thought. It’s the great German midfielder Mesut Ozil who actually manages the feat (Ozil comes off looking about as good as any of the pros as depicted here) but even he takes a back-seat to the Micro-Maradona when it comes to the baby-faced assassin’s challenge.
There are lots of fun moments with the pros and the way they’re portrayed. Mario Balotelli is just as much of a hotheaded douche in GeK as in real life. Wayne Rooney is a fun-loving kid who’s a bit spoiled and sulky. Andrea Pirlo is kind and sporting, though he gets a little testy when the kids don’t prove to be the pushovers he figured they’d be. Christiano Ronaldo is a gentleman when it comes to the girls, and a bit soft when it comes to defending. Iker Casillas gets caught up in the moment when the Predators notch a couple of goals with Pirlo as keeper, and steps in himself – quite seriously. And then there’s Lionel Messi himself, who shows up late in the match as a kind of white knight to set things right (I suspect Ronaldo would have gotten pretty pissy if he’d heard Ouzou call Messi “the best player in the world”, though of course he is).
While things start out pretty low-key – the pros let the kids play 8-on-5 with Hanashima as the ref until they notch two quick goals – it doesn’t take long for the pros to get irritated at being ruffled by the pint-sized Preds. They switch to 8-on-8, Rooney peevishly forces Masaru-san-chan to step aside as ref, and adopt a couple of simple rules – no hard charges on the kids, no high crosses to take advantage of the height difference. And with that, it’s just a bunch of people who love soccer playing soccer – which is sort of the egalitarian message that runs through much of the series. Anyone can play, and skill and heart matter more than size (though that doesn’t hurt either).
It got pretty intense watching the second half of that mini-game, with the Predators finally playing their own football and showing the pros all their tricks – the uzemaki, the reverse, the figure-eight, the precise passing. The highlight of this fanciful encounter (that word again) is the way the kids earn the superstars respect: Ozil nothing that Shou “has great vision”, and then the rash of fouls – the ultimate form of respect, in a way (though it would have been fun seeing the pros and the Preds try and swap jerseys after the game – maybe Ronaldo and Erika?).
I don’t know who won the game – it depends on when you started keeping score, and we never saw it end – and it doesn’t really matter anyway. The point was that they were playing at all, and the best part of all of it was that Hanashima-san finally got to step onto the pitch and stand side-by-side with his kids against the best players in the world (thanks to a hard foul on Reika, of course). That was a moment the series had been building towards all along – that, and one more beautiful, heartbreaking chance for the Tireless Terrier to have his moment of glory. Fittingly it was on a header – a flying header, as always, into the back of the net, just like in the OP.
After a year as passed, we find the Predators having gone their own ways, as we get a perfectly executed montage to the original ED theme “Ame Tokodoki Hare Nochi Niji”. Shou and Erika are now with New Tokyo FC’s junior clubs, while Aoto and Kouta have stayed on in Spain to pursue the game there (and where Aoto finally gets a long-awaited visitor). Tagi is playing keeper for the Thunderbolts (Hanashima’s old club) juniors, and Reika has started a girls’ soccer club in middle school. As for Ouzou and Ryuji, they’ve stopped playing league soccer for the moment, but they haven’t given up the game – and as we close, we find them joining Shou, Erika and Masaru-san for a mini-game in the park with Reika and her new teammates.
Because Ginga e Kickoff isn’t like any other kids sports series, you wouldn’t expect it to end like one. The epilogue is thoughtful and reflective, a beautiful thought from Shou – “People tell me this a lot. That summer was a miracle. It was a dream. But I think anyone can make a dream like that come true.” It seems almost impossible to believe Ginga could be coming to an end, but it’s done so on a perfect note – finding a place to exit the story that feels as natural as falling into bed at the end of a long day. But damn – I sure will miss it.
There really isn’t a whole lot else to say: you’ve heard it all from me already. I love Ginga e Kickoff – I love it unreservedly. I love it for the thoughtful and realistic view it takes of kids soccer and kids sports in general. I love it for the way it presents the perspective of both the kids and the adults so believably. I love it for not being afraid to be smart and for never assuming its audience isn’t. I love it for the way it loves football, and makes it so obvious that it does. I love the comedy, and the riveting game action (the second Amarillo match was as good as you’ll ever see in anime) and the way it respects all its characters and gives them a chance to shine as themselves. I love it for being a great show that never takes shortcuts or uses cheap tricks to shortcut or bypass character development. I love it for giving me so many enjoyable moments over the last year.
Most of all, I love it for the characters – the little wizard Aoto, stalwart and mature Tagi, gutsy Reika, the Furuyas who grew so much over the course of the series, big dreamer Erika, and above all Masaru and Shou. Thanks in part to two terrific seiyuu performances but even more to the way they were written, they were the best coach and player combination in a kids sports anime ever, in my view. Hanashima-san should be held up as an example for every abusive and controlling youth coach out there for his innate decency and determination to let his kids have fun by playing the game their way. And Shou was a triumph of sheer will and goodness over raw physical ability – he made it all happen through his absolute refusal ever to give up on the Predators. Watching him grow up as a player was a joy, and though he mostly toiled in obscurity seeing his rare moments of glory was Ginga e Kickoff at its uplifting best. No character ever did more to earn them.
“Never judge a book by its cover” is an old and probably outdated saying, but when it comes to anime one we could all take a lesson from. Greatness exists in places where you don’t expect to see it, and limiting ourselves to only genres we feel comfortable with or to shows featuring characters only of a certain age means we’re certain to miss out on series that would enrich our experience in every way. I’m guilty of it and I’d bet very few of us aren’t, but when we allow for the possibility of being surprised truly wonderful things can happen – and Ginga e Kickoff is a truly wonderful thing.