A multiple-award winning 37-volume (and counting) manga, Madhouse, Production I.G., a rock-solid veteran director – sometimes things just turn out like they should, and this adaptation is one of those times. It’t not as though Daiya no A is going to cross over and reach legions of mainstream anime fans, but this is pure candy for a devotee of sports manga like me. One of the signature qualities I look for in a good sports series is that it always ends way too soon, and the countdown in my head until the next episode starts the second the ED credits start rolling – and this series has it.
In a sense Eijun is lucky he got the coach he did, funnily enough. This is a kid that has basically no ability to fake it, so his chances of snowing a coach are nil – and he got a coach who doesn’t want his ass kissed to begin with. Honesty is either going to work or it isn’t (it works in sports manga more often than real life, in my experience), you’ll know right away – and it’s honesty that finally digs Eijun out of the hole his honesty (and tardiness) trapped him in. The scene in the bath was comedically effective, but also a good demonstration of why Eijun and Kataoka have at least a chance of being on the same wavelength.
This notion of “greed is good” is one we’ve seen in the world of sports manga – and sports – before. I most often here it applied to strikers in soccer, where the quality of desperately wanting to score at any cost seems to be a vital requirement for success. Good strikers are usually selfish, and so are aces in Japanese high school baseball – you have to want the ball so badly that it kills you to see anyone else on the mound. That’s the “heart of an ace” that Kataoka speaks of, and love it or hate it that’s the reality of Japanese schoolboy baseball, where only person can ever wear the #1 jersey.
Eijun’s naked truth about why he hasn’t been to watch any games gets him a pass into the scrimmage between the first-years and the varsity (though not the starters). The director is against it, worried that the confidence of the rookies will be shot, but Takashima-san counters that if they can’t survive this drubbing in a meaningless game, they’re “no use to us anyway”. The reality is what would happen 99% of the time when these groups face off – two years is like a lifetime for high school athletes – and the results are predictable. By using only the second-string upperclassmen Kataoka ensures that the older players are desperate, pissed and highly motivated. For the peach-fuzz brigade the battle is not to win or lose, but not to have their spirit crushed – and this is what the coach really wants to see, who can keep fighting with their will intact (and who might actually have a freakish skill he can use with the big team).
It’s worth noting that Kataoka quite pointedly has Tanba pitch in this game – a humiliating reminder that he’s no longer first-string. As for the freshmen it’s pretty much a washout, the speed and ferocity of the game far too much for them – and that doesn’t change until Furuya finally gets his chance in the 4th inning. He throws exactly one pitch and his audition is over, but not before it almost takes the coach’s head off. No, a baseball pitch can’t actually rise – but one thrown hard and straight enough can appear to, an optical illusion caused by the brain’s assumption that a normal pitch is going to have a downward arc. This is the “rising fastball” of legend, the exclusive territory of true flame-throwers – and Furuya truly stamps himself as one with that pitch. The veterans are disappointed not to get to face him, but he and the coach both have gotten what they wanted.
As for Eijun, he’s finally gotten his chance – but exiled to right-field, where he promptly muffs his first chance. He also strikes out against Kawakami Norifumi (Hiro Shimono), the kid we met in the premiere pitching to the giant Azuma. But we’ve known Eijun long enough to know he’s too GAR to have his spirit broken, and he fights on even as the rest of the team has given up – even becoming the first baserunner by beating out a dropped-third strike. This meets with the approval of a diminutive ginger-haired boy on the first-years’ bench, Kominato Horiuchi (the very busy Hanae Natsuki), who likewise still has his head in the game. All this is preamble, of course, to the moment when Kataoka finally lets Eijun take the mound – but will that happen in this game? Don’t watch the preview if you don’t want to know the answer…