So far, Fall 2013 has a distinctly old school flavor to it – at least the tiny corner of the schedule that overlaps with my tastes, anyway.
OP: “Go EXCEED!!” by Tom-H@ck featuring Masayoshi Ōnishi
I love sports manga, and the anime that come from them. Not all of them, not by a long stretch, but as a genre it’s one of my favorites and one that gets almost no attention in the West. So naturally I was pleased to see a relative cornucopia of sports manga adaptations this Fall (much like the Spring featured mecha), especially given that this is a genre that’s become less prominent in anime even in Japan, while it’s maintained its powerhouse standing in manga. Among this season’s batch there are two that especially interest me as a fan of the manga – Yowamushi Pedal and this series, Diamond no Ace.
I’ve been asked many times “What series is Ace of Diamond Like?” People want to know if it’s like Cross Game, or Major, or Touch, or Oofuri. I suppose it’s natural to compare baseball titles, but the best answer I can give is that Daiya no A is like Daiya no A. If you will, this is a sports series for fans of sports anime. Adachi’s works (which I love) tend to focus on the personal stories, using sports as a mirror to hold up and reveal character. Major (which I love) is about the heroic exploits of one boy and man, Honda Goro. Oofuri (which I like a lot) is an idealized view of teenage ballplayers that accents the sensitive side of their nature. Diamond no Ace has elements of all of them, but the star of the show here is the team. This is a story of what it means to want to succeed with the friends you’ve fought and bled and cried with, and what it means to trust a teammate as much as you trust yourself.
What Ace of Diamond definitely is not is a Shounen Jump-style sports manga – or at least what that’s come to mean in recent years, with their straight-to-Comiket pairings and superhuman special moves. This is a pretty gritty story, though it certainly does contain exceptional talents. The series has been running in Japan since 2006, 37 volumes strong, and as a co-production of legendary studios Madhouse and Production I.G. it figures to be a high-profile show with solid production values. How long it will run is still anybody’s guess – five or ten years ago this is the sort of show that could go for a year or more, but given the realities of today’s Blu-ray and DVD-driven marketplace and the way non-fujoshi sports titles tend to perform in it, it seems more likely to me we’ll get two cours, maybe three – though boosting already strong manga sales are surely a big part of the equation.
I can say with some confidence that how you reacted to the first episode is likely to be a good measure of how you like the series as a whole. The premiere is very much in-line with Ace of Diamond both in tone and substance, a rough-around-the-edges story with a rough-around-the-edges hero, Sawamura Eijun (Ohsaka Ryouta, playing against type a bit). His middle school, Akagi, is about to be torn down and he’s just lost his last game as the captain and ace of the baseball club – just as he’s lost every other game he’s played for the no-name school. When the victorious opponent mocks his tearful lament about not making it to Koshien during the post-game bow (a pretty grievous faux pas in Japanese schoolboy baseball) Eijun loses it and goes off on the opposing team (and the umpire). In the process he severely dents his chances to get into a decent high school, especially a problem as he’s not exactly an elite student.
Eijun’s Akagi teammates don’t get much focus in the premiere, but they are a major driver of its story. Eijun’s plan is to go to the same high school as his teammates and do what they couldn’t do in middle school, so when a recruiter for an elite Tokyo school, Takashima Rei (Uchimiya Yumi) comes-a-calling, Eijun isn’t especially interested – much to the horror of his parents and Grandfather. This is a pretty classic sports manga scenario – the plucky kid from the sticks disdains the elite Tokyo school with their hired-gun recruiting and top shelf equipment – but it’s pulled off in very entertaining fashion here. Eijun’s trip to Tokyo to see the school leads to a confrontation with heavyweight slugger Azuma (what is it with sluggers named Azuma in baseball manga?) Kyokuni (Hiyama Nobuyuki). This encounter says a lot about Eijun – what bothers him more than anything at the school is Azuma mocking the young teammate throwing batting practice, because he believes in supporting teammates all the time, no matter what.
Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous to hear Hiyama-san playing a high schooler – though no more so than Sakurai Takahiro playing the snarky catcher Miyuki Kazuya who takes an interest in Eijun – but these guys are clearly having a lot of fun with their roles, and frankly I could listen to Hiyama and his trademark rising inflections all day long. There’s a lot of yelling in Daiya no A but there’s a lot of yelling in baseball too, and that’s the sort of series it is. Eijun gives the series its personality – blunt, direct, spirited and honest. There are elements of contradiction that will become apparent in his character (starting as soon as next week) – he, like several cast members, is subtly quite complex. But basically, this is who Eijun is – the kid who’ll take on the feared third-year slugger aiming for the pros despite still never having thrown a hardball in anger, simply to defend the honor of a kid he’s never met. Not his teammate, but someone’s teammate – and it’s the honor of being a teammate that Eijun feels compelled to defend.
Certainly, this is not going to be a series for everyone. There are other less traditional sports series on the schedule this season (and one equally traditional chestnut in Hajime no Ippo Rising), and my other top sports pick for Fall, Yawamushi Pedal, is a quirkier and more edgy show in many ways. But if you’re a fan of baseball, baseball series, or sports anime in general I don’t think this is a show you’ll want to miss. It’s a classic of the type we don’t often see make it to the screen anymore, full of plain-spoken feeling and GAR spirit, and with the studio and staff behind it (Director Masuhara Mitsuyuki is a good one, just having finished Shirokukma Cafe) I expect the excellent first episode to be a sign of good things to come.
ED: “Seek Diamonds” by Yōko Hikasa