I’m not too surprised Yowamushi Pedal chose to fill in the backstory of Manami Sangaku. He has a crucial role to play in the story – with Onoda’s two co-leads effectively paired off from a sports standpoint (at least) and the other major characters two years older, Manami is the obvious dance partner for Onoda – the respected rival who inspires him to keep bettering himself (the existence of such a character really isn’t optional in a sports manga).
If anything, I was a bit surprised to see almost an entire episode given over to Manami – when we’ve left the Souhoku Six previously it’s been for shorter cut-aways. I think this is the proof that Manami is the most important of the non-Souhoku cast (Midosouji is clearly important in a rather different way, but more for his influence than his presence). Fortunately it seems that Manami is a strong enough character to fill the required shoes. He’s certainly strong enough as a cyclist, and he brings a somewhat off-kilter personality to the table as well that makes him rather interesting.
The new information here is that Manami-kun was a sickly kid – bedridden at times and often absent from school. It’s his classmate, the class rep Miyahara-chan (Kitahara China) who takes him cycling for the first time, sometime during grade school – the idea being that as he can sit down while exerting himself, Manami might be able to cope with the task. It certainly isn’t smooth sailing at first – he can barely keep the bike upright – but Manami is in tune with the zen of cycling from the first moment, and we’ve seen him carry that over to the present day. Of all the cyclists we’ve seen in Yowapeda, Minami is by far the most philosophical (I might even say spiritual) in his approach to the art.
Cut to the present, and Miyahara – who by now has developed a crush (more accurately, continued to develop) on Manami, not knowing his heart belongs to another (I mean the mountain, get your mind out of the gutter) – is trying to get him caught up academically from his missed time at the training camp. But this is the day of Hakone’s last qualification race for the inter-highs, and Manami-kun has a promise to keep. With all the focus on Sakamichi holding up his end of the bargain Manami’s was rather taken for granted, but it was no foregone conclusion – Hakone is the strongest school in the nation, with a 50-strong team full of aces and potential aces. They can afford to leave their selection up to traditional racing on unaltered bikes, and it seems to be broken up be specialty – a perfect team by necessity having strong all-arounders, climbers and sprinters. There’s a strong second-year, Koyama (ironically named) in Manami’s way, as like TeshimAoyagi he’s been plotting his strategy for a year – but Manami bests him easily, timing his attack with a wind shift only he anticipates. Zen, indeed – this boy is an unusual cyclist to say the least.
Meanwhile, the gang back at Souhoku hasn’t been forgotten, and they make their first appearance in the final third of the episode. The tonal shift is unmistakable, as the almost reverent tone in Manami’s story gives way to the more usual quirky Yowapeda humor. The first-years and Old Man Tadokoro are paying a visit to Makishima who, it turns out, is loaded. As usual the chemistry among this group is great – these scenes are funny without really needing to even try. The reason for the visit is to watch a tape (yes, a VHS tape – “I prefer analog”) Tadokoro has recorded of the Hakone Road Relay race – a distance-running event which covers the same course as the inter-high cycling races.
Look at this last part as continuing education both for Onoda and the audience. We learn that the inter-highs are a three-day event, the course climbing from flats at sea level to 834 meters above. As well, Makishima reminds Onoda that there will 120 cyclists in the event – “120 opponents” in his words – the best in Japan, all dealing with weather, equipment failures, supply shortages and (most frighteningly) accidents. If you’ve ever seen a major crash at an event like the Tour or Giro you know they’re truly terrifying to watch (never mind be a part of), and that road cycling can indeed be a very dangerous sport. This is yet another mental hurdle Sakamichi must overcome – racing in this kind of large group will be a completely new experience. Even racing against opponents from another school will be new for Sakamichi, a true reminder of just how unprepared he is for this kind of challenge. Manami will be the only first-year ever to ride for Hakone at the inter-high, but half of Souhoku’s team is first-years – all the more reason why their metaphorical hill is just as formidable as the physical hill they must climb (as if the rules of shounen weren’t enough).