Really good sports anime have a quality of building anticipation such that as soon as one episode ends, the first thought in your head is “I can’t wait for the next one to start”. It’s early yet, but given how good I know the manga is and how masterfully the first couple of episodes of Yowamuchi Pedal captured its charms, this is about as close to a sure thing as you get in anime. The source material has the legs, and the anime staff have the chops – and the time (three cours) – to do it some measure of justice. This is going to be a great ride.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, Yowamushi Pedal is a more contemporary, eccentric sports anime than the rock-solid Daiya no A. We’re lucky to have two good sports series that are so different airing this season, and what YP brings to the table – among other things – is an irreplaceable sense of fun. I’m hard-pressed to imagine how anyone with an open mind could have watched this ep without having a smile on their face much of the time, because this is a show that strikes a perfect balance between irreverence, heart and a serious message that it never beats you over the head with.
The direction this series is headed in contrasting Onoda and Imaizumi may not be entirely subtle – the omake makes it pretty clear – but you’ll rarely see it presented as well as Yowamushi is going to. Otaku do indeed come in many flavors – Miki’s own brother Touji (Suwabe Junichi, nicely cast here) refers to her as a “bicycle otaku” and the same certainly applies to Imaizumi. In truth of course these boys are far less different than either realizes, but at this stage each of them quite naturally thinks the other as strange and exotic as a jabberwocky.
With Onoda, what’s plain to see is that he’s quite beaten-down and timid – clearly having spent a lifetime of being a social outcast. In his own words, he “can’t stand to have people look at him” and he has no one to share his passion with. Yet he has the courage to at least try and make his situation better by re-forming the Anime Club, the carrot Imaizumi uses as bait to get Onoda to agree to a race up the back slope of the school. In truth Imaizumi knows there’s no chance he can lose, even with a 15-minute handicap – a novice on a mamachari can’t realistically hope to compete with a seasoned rider on a featherlite carbon fiber racer. In case it wasn’t made clear enough, it’s almost impossible to overstate the difference between riding a 20kg vs. an 8kg bicycle for speed, never mind up a steep hill – that alone is a greater handicap for Onoda that all the difference in experience between he and Imaizumi.
Yet while Onoda gets credit for trying to improve his school life, Imaizumi deserves some for being genuinely curious about him. Onoda is a challenge to everything Imaizumi believes – he’s the much-loathed otaku, a novice cyclist who can’t possibly do the things he says (without an ounce of pride) he does on a shopping bike. The wild-card here is Kanzaki, who despite being Imaizumi’s friend quite blatantly stands up for the underdog. What I really like about her role in the first two episodes is the very profound impact she makes on Onoda through nothing more complicated than simply being nice – and it’s a bit heartbreaking just how bizarre he finds it that a smart, good-looking girl (in an athletic club, yet!) shows him kindness and actually means it. Again, there’s a nice message here that Yowamushi doesn’t beat to death but rather allows to speak for itself – a little kindness can disproportionately impact the recipient.
Of course Kanzaki does something a little more concrete to help Onoda-kun out – she raises the saddle on his bike, for the first time since he was in 4th-grade. As she says herself 60% of pedaling power can come from the saddle position, and Onoda quickly realizes what a difference it can make. Though Imaizumi has already caught and passed him on the slope despite the head-start, this change (and the gesture behind it) gives him the spark he needs to keep up the hopeless fight. It seems pretty obvious that Onoda is unused to having anyone in his corner, and certainly this race is no exception, with Kanzaki’s self-styled Tour/Giro cheering squad solidly in the corner of Imaizumi, who clearly “wins in looks, too”.
There are a lot of nice touches in this series, some of which carry over from the manga and some a function of the anime treatment. Aya breezes through the narrative at Miki’s side like a snarky one-girl Greek chorus, an expression of bemused irritation perpetually on her face. While this isn’t a lavishly budgeted series, like Ginga e Kickoff it manages to be visually interesting and pleasing to the eye through a number of stylish touches and good cinematography. Most of the charm comes in the wry tone and the likeable characters, so that when Onoda notes the he “feels like he’s in a mobile suit” when Imaizumi gives him a cyclometer for the race up the slope it plays as an endearing quirk rather than a throwaway gag. The balance between silly and serious and between earnest and sarcastic is just right with this series, and I’m pleased at the way that’s survived the transition to anime. Yowamushi Pedal is a show with a whole lot going for it, and I sincerely hope it finds an audience above and beyond the core sports anime demographic and fujoshi (though I certainly hope the latter buy discs like they’ve been buying doujins). This is a series that really deserves to succeed.