This was a pretty simple episode of Yowamushi Pedal structurally, but it was pretty effective (as usual) in getting the job done. And it fits, because as clever and sneaky-subtle as this show is it really is a very simple formula: friendship and sports. I won’t say one of them is more important than the other, but the fact that Yowapeda knows exactly what kind of series it is and focuses on that without a lot of wasted energy makes those elements pop in a way they rarely do in shows with less conservation of momentum.
Meet Naruko Shoukichi, the last of the true main characters in Yowamushi Pedal and certainly the most flashy. He says there’s no point unless you stand out, and he backs it up – dyed-red hair, bright red Italian bike (brand name creatively misspelled for the lawyers), and unabashed Osaka-ben. In a way Naruko fits the Osaka-ben stereotype anime fans are familiar with, but the fact is that it isn’t just in anime that it exists – Japanese everywhere seem to pretty much hold it as a given that Osaka-jin are brash, friendly, ultra-casual and afraid of nothing. And Naruko definitely fits that description, making it easy to see why he’s a highly popular character among readers of the manga.
At first glance it might seem as if Naruko-kun is the complete opposite of Onoda-kun, but Onoda is fundamentally different from many characters he superficially resembles in a few important ways. Most obviously he has a real athletic talent (which he’s very slowly starting to understand), but more subtly and importantly, he’s quite assertive about trying to change the things he’s unhappy about. Yes, Onoda is a lonely otaku with no friends but he’s actually taking the initiative to try and re-launch the Anime Club at school, and after his chance meeting with Naruko in Akihabara, he’s not content to simply let Naruko ride off into the sunset – he actually stops Naruko before he disappears and asks him to ride home together. It’s easy to laugh such small steps off as trivial, but for a shy adolescent they’re anything but, and his proactive fortitude makes Onada a refreshing change from the cliche.
For me, the heart of Yowamushi Pedal is this story of Onoda trying to change his life and actually become happy, and the remarkable ability of small kindnesses to change the lives of others for the better. The degree to which Onoda exults in whatever human contact he can manage is pretty heartbreaking, but the fact that he’s rewarded for reaching out to others is what makes the series ultimately uplifting. Mind you, Naruko doesn’t require much prodding – he’s friendly out of the gate and fearless (to a fault). He’s just moved from Osaka to Chiba (where Onoda lives) and gone to Akiba to gawk and buy models for his younger brothers – which is the initial point of contact between the boys after Naruko praises the state of Onoda’s mamachari. He doesn’t pay the slightest attention to Onoda’s advice but the thought is there.
Things take a strange turn when a flashy yellow sports car (again Italian) with a massive rear-spoiler shows up, initially drawing Naruko’s admiration. But that turns to rage when the yakuza-like driver tosses his cigarette butt on Onoda’s bike, leading to one of the strangest chase scenes you’ll see when Naruko decides to have Onoda personally return to sender. There’s a pretty big infodump on cycling here, all of which is important for the sports side of the show but which may test the patience of some viewers. I love the fact that Yowapeda cares enough to get this right (the mangaka is a serious cyclist, and there’s going to be a Yowapeda booth at this years international cycling expo – in Chiba) but cycling buffs will already know about things like drafting and front derailleurs – and will a lot of the rest of the viewers care?
The most story-relevant cycling lesson has its source in another act of kindness done for Onoda – Miki has installed that derailleur, effectively circumventing his parents and giving him a precious second gear on his mommy bike. Of course Onoda didn’t even know what it was or how to use it until Naruko told him, but it’s all part of his cycling education – the most important element of which is that he’s finding out that he’s really good at it. This episode might have been called “The Joys of Cycling” – or “Speed” – because that’s what it amounts to for Onoda, in the midst of discovering joys like cutting through the wind, cycling on the street and passing cars and actually having his high cadence get him somewhere fast. Of course ultimately one of the greatest joys of youth is to be able to find people passionate about the same things you are, and that’s the real story of Yowapeda distilled down to its very essence – the sports and the friendship both.