There’s a lot of flashy and substantial sports series out there demanding our attention at the moment, and at no time has Diamond no Ace ever been the flashiest or most-discussed among them. But as if rising to the challenge, it delivers what may very well be its best episode as its 30th. It’s oh so easy to take a show like this for granted – an old-school show about an old-school manga sport, but it just keeps delivering the goods. And occasionally, as with this ep, it hits a grand-slam.
It says something about how well the tale of Shunshin Yeung and Akikawa High School was brought off that the event Ace of Diamond has been teasing since the beginning finally arrived in glorious fashion, and still played second fiddle to it. At least for me. I’ve been counting the days until Eijun finally got the ball handed to him when it mattered, and it didn’t disappoint. But watching Yeung and Akikawa has been even more engrossing, and i really found myself rooting hard for them even though I knew it would be hopeless.
This is a very special skill that not all sports series have, even the great ones – making the opponents fully fleshed-out and interesting people that we truly care about. As traditional as Daiya no A is, one element that’s relatively unusual is that it chronicles a high school superpower – a “baseball factory” where the school basically exists in order to host a team that makes it to Koushien. These schools are much easier to depict as villains, and I really like the fact that this series humanizes those who attend them. But I like even more the irony that the series that does that can also do such a stupendous job at chronicling the experience of an unheralded public school as it tries to do the impossible and beat such a powerhouse in the Koushien.
There so much happening here with both teams, and there’s really not a narrative misstep for the entire episode. In the Seidou storyline, the first moment of consequence is when Kataoka and Chris finally give Eijun the timeless “Nice pitching” as he returns to the dugout (though not Miyuki, who’s more worried about the ego getting too big). This kind of acknowledgement for a first-year can’t be overstated – in this culture it really is a big deal. And there’s no question Eijun is earning it, and then some – he’s not just skating by, but making an emphatic statement. If a single Akikawa hitter reaches base against him before he gives way to Kawakami for the 9th, we don’t see it – for certain, he shuts the opponent out for his 4-1/3 innings.
The last first-year to make his imprint on the team finally gets his chance, as Haruichi pinch-hits (with his wooden bat) for the #8 hitter. Just as Ryousuke says, the coach (much to his credit) uses the boys who show in practice that they deserve it. We’re seeing the brothers conflict cast in a slightly different light here – Ryousuke’s coldness towards Haru-chin clearly stems from the fact that he realizes his little brother has more talent than he does, which is never an easy thing. Not only that, for all his meek manner Haruichi is fearless, as he shows by challenging Yeung by standing right on top of the plate, daring him to throw inside. I think the big question here is whether Kataoka can keep Otouoto-kun strictly as a pinch-hitter, given how impressive he looks in every rare opportunity to prove himself. My favorite Haru-chin moment, for certain, was the adorably sheepish fist-pump from first base.
The course of the game is pretty clear, but then it has been since the beginning. Eijun lays down another picture-perfect bunt, the pressure starts to get to the Akikawa defense and Ryousuke dives across the plate to lay down the suicide squeeze (with the blazing Kuramochi scoring all the way from second when Yeung – of all people – falls asleep and throws to first without checking the runner). From there the rout is on, though Yeung manages to keep things respectable. It was really only a matter of time – the gap in talent was simply too great, and this is usually what happens with overwhelming underdogs sooner or later.
It really doesn’t matter, though, because the drama of the episode isn’t in the pre-ordained result, but in watching Akikawa confront reality. It’s an emotional knockout blow, and I don’t mind admitting I teared up a few times watching it play out (the second time DnA has made that happen). What a fascinating, compelling story about a bunch of really likeable kids and a coach who isn’t a baseball lifer – just a guy who cares about his players. Everyone wants so badly to win for the boy who’s done so much for all of them, knowing (even if the opponent doesn’t) that it’s his last game – and it hurts so much as they feel it slipping away. It’s always a positive when a high-school sports series reminds us that these are still children playing a game, and that in sports only one team gets to hoist the trophy – for everyone else, heartbreak is their reward in one form or another.
It must be the week for incredibly interesting Mandarin-speaking anime characters to exit stage right. As with Kong Wenge it seems that Yeung’s role in the story is over, at least as a major player (maybe one or both shows will surprise me) but what an impression he’s made in a short period of time. The moment that really hit me the hardest was when the Akikawa players left the field after the bow and a smattering of spectators shout out their appreciation, and Yeung finally allows the tears he’s been holding back for his teammates’ sake to flow. “I was secretly rooting for you!” says one new fan, and guess what, so was I. There are no bands and cheer sections for Akikawa – just a few admirers they made on the way for the way they played the game and their amazing unity. They’re a footnote in the story and in the Koushien, but what an impact they made.
The show must go on, as badly missed as Akikawa and Yeung will be, and it’s quite an interesting setup. Ichidai awaits in the semis (though both schools have to get through one more opponent first). Tanba, in theory, should be back for the quarter-final game – but what of the first-years? After having made such a powerful impression I can hardly believe Eijun could be filed away in an afterthought role again, though it can hardly be denied that Akikawa was a perfect matchup for him. A powerhouse team without seven lefty regulars will certainly be tougher – but those kinds of teams will likely pose even bigger problems for the one-dimensional Furuya. What role do the diaper dandies have to play in the matches to come?