In the eternal war between soccer and baseball – two spring sports that vie for the hearts of schoolboy athletes and couch potatoes both in Japan and America – the beautiful game scored a blow over the national pastime last week when the World Cup pre-empted Diamond no Ace. But baseball’s current representative on the anime landscape is back in the mix this week with one of its best episodes, reminding us of why baseball is such an arresting subject for manga and anime.
This is the sort of episode that Daiya no A really excels at. It’s entirely focused on the drama between the lines and between the ears, taking place virtually in real-time. This is a sports series with the focus on the sports, and it has a great understanding of what it is in sports – especially youth sports – that we find so dramatic. As shounen as it is I actually find some similarities with a seinen manga, and a soccer one at that – Giant Killing. That series was more ambitious in terms of looking at the entire experience of sports, from the fans to the owners, but they’re both very sure-footed when it comes to depicting the mental side of the game itself.
The one-week break was all the more irksome because, of course, it came on the heels of a cliffhanger – that cleat on the dugout step. Turned out it wasn’t Kataoka, though, but Haruichi creeping out to the mound on little cat’s feet to bring a message to Eijun – and while we don’t hear it immediately it’s clear enough that it’s something like “Go get ’em” (in specific – “I’m staying with Sawamura this inning”). Truthfully, this was the decision I expected – it made sense both from the strategic and dramatic perspective. And it amounts to a real show of faith by the Boss in Eijun – though as usual Eijun completely misreads the situation and embarrasses the bench in the process.
Not much really needs to be said about the showdown between Eijun and Raichi – it’s extremely tense, exciting and ultimately a bit of a shock. Just good, rock-solid sports anime here, hard to do it better – the bread and butter of Ace of Diamond. Eijun does everything right here – he gets ahead in the count 0-2 without throwing a strike, and when Miyuki calls for a straight-o waste pitch high out of the zone Eijun throws right to the glove, his fastest pitch of the entire series. But with great players, sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t matter – they can defy the bounds of normal logic and turn a good pitch into a mistake. And Raichi is definitely a freak – he muscles the pitch out for an opposite-field home run, a ball that just keeps carrying a carrying the ways balls seem to do when a really elite power hitter swings the bat.
As good as this confrontation is, the aftermath is equally spot-on. Raizou watches Eijun on the mound and says “So young… I can see right through your heart.” It’s satisfied, a little smug – but not unkind, the words of a man who was that boy himself once. Everyone is kind and encouraging to Eijun (even Furuya says “Domai”), Miyuki blames himself – and that makes it worse. The wheels start to come off – a one-hop single to left, a 4-pitch walk – and Kataoka has no choice but to give the ball to Kawakami.
This is the first time we’ve seen Eijun fail in a situation where it really matters, and it’s pretty brutal. Boss has finally expressed outright confidence in him, and he’s failed. That hits Eijun really hard, and after all he’s just a first-year – and it’s at times like this when the youth of freshmen really shows itself. Kataoka handles it perfectly – he tells Eijun that the home run was the best pitch he’s thrown all day, and that he never expected only perfection from a first-year player. “You’ve gained valuable experience – now make something of it.” Chris’ words are simple – “What’s important is how you responded to it. You tried so hard to stay calm that you lost yourself.” It’s a sort of left-handed compliment, I suppose – fittingly enough – but perspective is a tough thing when you’re 15 years-old and feel as if you’ve just let everyone in the world down.
This kind of stuff is what sports anime is all about really – it’s as primordial as it gets. Eijun’s recovery from this is going to be the stuff of future episodes, of course, but for now the focus is on Yakushi. The crowd is now wildly backing the underdog (if it weren’t for Eijun I’d probably be rooting for them, to be honest) and only great defense and a lot of luck prevents Kawakami from giving up the lead altogether. I suspect we’re going to see Tanba before this game is over and done with – and there’s one more interesting moment, which is when Raizou asks Sanada “Can you still go?” after the inning. We may be on the verge of finding out the mysterious reason why Yakushi’s ace doesn’t take the ball from the beginning.
One last note – interestingly enough, Diamond no Ace’s second volume sold almost 5000 DVDs (it’s DVD-only), which is an increase of over 300% from the first. That kind of jump almost suggests Oricon screwed up the numbers on one or the other volume, but it’s certainly notable – and seeing that, I wondered if Daiya no A might be more of a hit than I realized with the same crowd that tends to buy certain other sports anime on disc. Testing my own theory on the relationship between doujinshi and disc sales, I checked a couple of doujin aggregator sites and sure enough, the series has a surprising number of doujinshi – so perhaps I was wrong in dismissing DnA as an anime that can achieve commercial success in its own right, and not just as a manga booster. And if so, it’s not entirely impossible that we could see it extend beyond the 51 episodes already announced.