Fall 2013’s twin titans of sports anime continue to be in lock-step, as Yowamushi Pedal begins its Inter-High arc on the same week Diamond no Ace starts its Koushien Arc. The similarities end there, for the most part – these two series are taking very different approaches to telling their story. As much as I like Daiya no A on the whole I find Yowapeda to be the more entertaining show week-in and week-out – though it’s damn close – but there’s one element of this series that I’m struggling with, and have been from the first time it (he) was introduced.
As hinted at last week, the starting point of this year’s race is indeed in lovely Enoshima (I have a couple of posts detailing visits there, for those so inclined). Enoshima being an island is, of course, at sea level – at least the causeway where the race begins is – which means that the racers will have to climb roughly 1400 meters to reach the summit of Mt. Hakone. That’s a solid climb even by grand tour standards, and in the devastating summer heat and humidity of Kanagawa (I can vouch for it first-hand) many a racer surely won’t make it to the top. Japan’s appetite for gleefully torturing its high-school athletes seems to know no bounds.
There are really two main storylines as the day of the race dawns, the first being – as expected – Onoda’s extreme nervousness. There’s a festival atmosphere before the race, but Sakamichi is in his own zone – and it’s a hot electrical cable of a zone at that. For a race of this magnitude to be anyone’s first-ever competition is a highly unusual occurrence, so you certainly can’t blame him for being nervous – I was nervous for him, just watching. I’m impressed by Makashima’s continuing development as a mentor for Onoda – he’s growing increasingly comfortable interacting with the first-years, and he seems to have learned how to push Onoda’s buttons when he needs calming down. But it’s falling off his bike that really seems to snap Onoda back to life (the alarmed faces of the spectators watching him are worth the price of admission).
There’s the formalities to be addressed – the dispersal of supplies, the assigning of numbers – and the latter is a big deal for Onoda, understandably. Makashima gives him a lesson in what they represent, and makes it clear that HakoGaku is like no one else – as defending champions the only teams in single digits, they stand above the crowd in every way. Including literally, as they’re called up on stage for the opening ceremony. Sakamichi is momentarily alarmed when he doesn’t see his fated… rival Manami-kun, but he’s just late as always – he shows up in the nick of time to take the stage in street pants, and even commandeers the microphone in order to personally greet Sakamichi-kun.
It’s here that the other major theme of the episode asserts itself – and boy, does he ever. Midousuji has stood out like a sore thumb in this cast from the first moment we met him, but even as weird as I knew he was I was in no way prepared for just what a creepy freakshow he is. Seriously, it’s like the guy walked off the set of Fullmetal Alchemist, got on a bike and showed up in Kanagawa. He pulls impossibly grotesque contortions with sound effects to match, he threatens and abuses his own team, and most of all he mocks Imaizumi – for whom revenge against Midousuji is a primary driver. As if what we knew about Midousuji weren’t bad enough, Imaizumi reveals that he played a rather shocking trick on him in order to ensure the notorious five-minute victory – he told Imaizumi his mother had been killed, and Imaizumi believed him. That makes Fukutomi’s inadvertent jersey-tug seem like a shining example of sportsmanship.
I’ll be honest – so far at least, I’m not crazy about Midousji. I love just about everything else about Yowapeda and I loved this episode, which was wonderfully tense and exciting – and yes, the very creepy Midousuji was a part of creating that tension. But is he a necessary part? We’ll see, but I’ve always preferred opponents in sports series to be at least modestly relatable, and Midousuji so far plays like an outrageous and unabashed evil mastermind. On the flipside, though, he does create a real air of unpredictability. For one of the very rare times with sports anime, I have no idea how this “big game” is going to turn out. Sohoku can’t win when the heroes are first-years without violating the sacred laws of sports manga. But Kinjou really needs to settle his score with Fukutomi by beating him on the square. Midousuji and Kyoto Fushimi winning could work on both those fronts, but for an unvarnished scumbag like him to win the whole shebang (as a freshman, too) would also be a highly unorthodox development.
With all that in mind, I guess I can see Midousuji’s good points in narrative terms – I like unpredictability, and he’s certainly easy to root against. But I do seem to like Yowapeda better when it’s focused on the Sohoku gang (one of the most likeable collections of athletes I’ve ever seen in sports anime) and their legitimate rivals from HakoGaku. This episode does a magnificent job of setting the stage and stoking excitement for the big race, and it finishes that off with a very winning appearance by Miki-chan, acting as the audience stand-in. Her reaction to Sakamichi’s “ritual” was perfect, and I love the fact that she chose exactly the right thing to say to him as the race was about to start: – “Have fun!”. It sets the tone for next week perfectly, and sums up much of the appeal of this wonderful series.
Author’s Note: As further evidence of Yowameda’s growing popularity, it was chosen as the first series to be featured in Bandai’s new “Bousou Note” (“Imagination Notebook”) series – a “clothes changing series for adults” where fans can mix and match outfits via stickers for the Sohoku Six and HakoGaku too. When it comes to determining which franchises have traction, this sort of thing is actually an important indicator of success.