It hadn’t really occurred to me, but I wonder why the production committee behind Daiya no A decided to premiere it in the Fall 2013 season, just as the actual baseball season was coming to an end. It feels like a show that should be airing as the new baseball season starts, not just because it depicts the start of Eijun’s baseball life, but because this is really the first time in years that it really feels like a rebirth for sports anime. You have an old-school gritty baseball anime here, a true shounen chestnut in Hajime no Ippo, quirky, funny and contemporary Yowamushi Pedal, and mainstream commercial giant KuroBas. If you like the genre at all, it shouldn’t be hard to find something you like.
I like Ace of Diamond, that’s for sure, in part because it just feels like sports anime to me in the same way that Eureka Seven feels like anime, period. Continuing the theme that this is more the story of the team than the individual, the story her isn’t so much Eijun himself as his integration – predictably rough – with the rest of the team at Seidou High. It’s important to remember that Eijun is almost completely ignorant of what he’s about to experience – the city, living away from home, and playing baseball with people who are actually good at it. And who know what they’re doing, which for all his natural ability Eijun clearly does not.
The first encounter (apart from a rather ostentatious train disembarkation) is with his new roommates – second-year gadfly Kuramochi Youichi (Asanuma Shintarou) and the silent third-year Masuko Tohru (Wataru Hatano – not that you’d know it yet). These two seem friendly enough – apart from a harmless prank when Kuramochi opens the door, after which they invite Eijun to a late-night gaming blowout. Masuko is on a vow of silence because he’s committed an error in his last game but his scribbled notes are friendly enough. The reality of course is that hazing the new guy is very much a part of both school life and sports – and a rube like Eijun may as well have had a target painted on his forehead. The first blow is landed when they don’t wake Eijun up the next morning and he’s late for practice, which is being run by the tough-as nails coach, Kataoka Tesshin (Touchi Hiroki).
This first practice and what follows isn’t exactly fresh ground for sports anime, but as always it’s the execution that makes the difference for better or worse. There’s more hazing – this time by Eijun’s practice catcher of last week, Takuya-kun, who’s likewise late and uses Eijun as cover to (unsuccessfully) sneak back into line himself. Predictably Eijun does pretty much everything wrong that he possibly could, and gets himself running laps for the entire practice. But the key moment of the episode comes when he declares his intention to become the team’s ace – which Kataoka dismisses as empty words – and offers Eijun a challenge. If he can throw a ball from home plate to the outfield fence, a distance of about 300 feet (no problem for the coach, a former pro prospect as a pitcher) he can pitch in practice. Otherwise, he’s out as a pitcher.
What do we learn from this exchange? Something critical about both parties involved. In Eijun’s case, it’s reiteration of the key element of his talent – he simply can’t throw a ball straight. To him this is a defect, but as a baseball novice what he doesn’t realize is that this is what gives him potential as a pitcher – it’s that loose shoulder join and whippy arm motion imparting spin on the ball, which causes even his 90-meter long-toss to turn into a curve. What we learn about Kataoka-sensei is that while he might be a hard-ass, he’s no fool – he can see the potential in that throw, and he’s not so stubborn that he’s going to see Eijun’s potential wasted in order to prove a point. Once the kid has learned his lesson (whenever that might be) he’ll end up where he’s supposed to be, on the mound.
The thing about Diamond no Ace is that while Eijun getting on that mound is the centerpiece, it’s not the whole story. This is in many ways a “factory school”, not commonly the setting where the good guys in baseball series hang out. It’s a place where 100 specifically-recruited athletes vie for 9 spots on the field, a school where baseball is the main raison d’etre and the players have access to professional-caliber coaching and the best equipment. Usually Seidou would be the villain, but here it’s where the heroes hang out, and the story shows us what it’s like to try and compete in an environment where winning is everything and the weight of expectations is crushing. Ultimately every player’s journey is a personal one, no matter the school, but this is a series that shows us a side of that journey we don’t often see in sports manga.