Unless you’re Hunter X Hunter, following up a blockbuster crowd-pleaser like last week’s episode of Yowamushi Pedal is going to be a tall order. And for me least this follow-up was considerably less compelling, both in terms of weightiness and entertainment value. The focus was on an established recurring character who’s not among my favorites in the cast and on the one member of Hakogaku we haven’t spent much time with, and going from an entirely Onoda-centric ep to one where he and most of the Sohoku team don’t make a single appearance is obviously going to be a bit of a come-down.
No bones about it, Midousuji is a bit of a perplexing element in Yowapeda. There are fans that love him, I know, and of course that’s perfectly legit. I struggle with him because he seems so out of place with just about everything else in the series. I’m torn about his impact, because I don’t think there’s any denying that he’s a crutch, an easy villain to hate because Watanabe-sensei (and yes, the manga is like this too) makes him a complete grotesquerie (and Yusa Kouji sells this admirably). On the other hand he is sort of effective as a dramatic device – there’s something primal and yes, Chimera Ant-like in his menacing persona. It’s going to be very interesting to see if Yowapeda goes the route of humanizing Midousuji over time, because that would be a very hard sell but it would be fascinating to see if they pull it off.
As for that Hakogaku holdout, of course it’s Shinkai Hayato, the ace (at Hakogaku, every rider is an ace) that Fukutomi held in reserve on the first day. HakoGaku’s great advantage is in their group strength rather than their individual prowess (though they have that too) – they basically have six all-rounders who could be the #1 jersey on most clubs. The strategy seems simple here, and it should be – gather all six riders together and push the pace hard, with everyone (except Fukutomi, presumably) rotating on point. Grind the challengers down, put a time gap on them if they can’t keep up and wear them down for the third day either way.
Midousuji’s incessant gamesmanship seems to tweak the plans just slightly. His first target is of course Imaizumi, who he seems to love tormenting above all others. And as easily as Imaizumi allows himself to be played it’s no wonder – he’s literally in tears by the time the now regrouped Kyoto Fushimi team leaves the two lonely Sohoku riders behind (not even Makishima and Naruko have caught up yet) in their pursuit of the Hakogaku squad that had broken away moments earlier. Once they’re caught up he turns his snark on them, and not surprisingly it’s Izumida who rises to the bait. This leads to a challenge to take the second day’s sprint checkpoint, and while I can’t be sure it seemed to me that neither Fukutomi or Midousuji had originally intended to contest it hard (though the latter seems to have considered every possibility – he’s clever as well as gifted). But seeing how discomfited Izumida is (Frank and Andy pop like a pair of overfilled balloons) the serene Shinkai steps in, energy bar in hand, to slap his glove across Midousuji’s cheek. And Midoushiji leaves his lieutenant, Mizuta Nobuyuki (Suzuki Chihiro) in charge of the team and accepts the duel.
Shinkai, it seems, is Hakogaku’s real ace sprinter (the #4 signifies this). And he proves it, too, answering every attack Midousji throws at him with ease and pulling away from the first-year. This leads Midousuji into a state of panic we’ve never seen from him, and it’ll be interesting to see how he responds. As for Shinkai’s backstory, I’m not sure how it will play with the audience. Certainly it was more low-key than many we’ve seen so far, but I felt strangely empathetic to his tale of having quit riding because he ran over a mother usagi during a race, leaving its baby orphaned – a baby he ended up taking in and raising himself. I’ve never knowingly hit an animal in a car, never mind a bike, but I was in the passenger seat when the driver his a bird and even that far less personal experience shook me up pretty badly at the time.
None of this is really vintage Yowamushi Pedal as far as I’m concerned – it’s definitely a second-tier episode in every respect. But second tier Yowapeda is still pretty good, and there were some nice moments. The question that really mosts interests me is how Sohoku can dig themselves out of the hole they’re currently in. Once Maki-chan and Redhead have caught up to Kinjou group, they might be able to make a run at catching the two lead teams (if Imaizumi can pull it together), but I just don’t see any way they can regroup the entire squad unless it’s at a considerable time gap behind the leaders. At some point (hopefully next week) we’re going to see Onoda continue to heroically lead Tadokoro back through the peloton, and that should be where the best drama – and humor – is likely to be.