I’m not going to go so far as to say “a sports series is only as good as the main character”, because of course it’s not so simple. Great sports manga and anime have a lot to offer besides the lead, and some of them (like OoFuri and Diamond no Ace) are really ensemble pieces. But there’s no denying that in this genre, a great main character means an awful lot. Mains in sports series aren’t bland audience avatars like they are in too many romcoms and harem shows – they have to have a real presence and charisma of their own, or there’s a crucial ingredient missing from the recipe. These kinds of series are a journey – and that character has to be someone whose journey is worth being a part of.
No question Yowamushi Pedal is as character-driven as any sports series, and it’s blessed with a terrific cast. But as I’ve said many times, Yowapeda is simply better when Onoda Sakamichi is at its center. It’s really just like Tadokoro said – “You’re having fun, Onoda? So am I – your smile makes me smile, too.” This show is simply more fun when Onoda is in it – he’s infectious and irresistible. Take Tadokoro himself – he hasn’t exactly been the most engaging cast member, but his likability has increased by an order of magnitude during this odyssey with Onoda. The little guy’s moxie just rubs off on everyone around him, and while I appreciate that Yowapeda spreads the wealth around, I really wish Sakamichi wouldn’t disappear for episodes at a time.
There is business to attend to before the camera returns to the star, and of course that’s the conclusion of the duel between Midousuji and Shinkai. And while Midousuji remains my among my least favorite cast members, I like him better when he tosses aside the head games and just throws himself into the fires of hell trying to beat a strong opponent. This is what I want to see from Midousuji – the talent and the competitive fire that made him a threat to dominate this inter-high in the first place. And if he can beat the “straight-line demon” in a sprint fair and square as a freshman, surely he’s got ridiculous talent.
That result has exactly the impact Midousuji expected it to, which I suppose justifies his strategy in going for it. HakoGaku are decent fellows, but there’s an undeniable arrogance to them – and they’ve now seen their two sprinters be beaten on two straight days. They more or less expect to dominate as if it’s their God-given right, and we’ve seen evidence from last year’s race that when things don’t go their way, they don’t always respond well. KyoFushi naturally pushes the pace as soon as the teams have caught up to the sprinters, and it seems that HakoGaku is having trouble keeping in-line – in particular Shinkai and Arakita (or Arakita is staying with the clearly rattled Shinkai to keep him from slipping further back). In the showdown with Kyoto Fushimi, Hakone Gakuen is the first to blink.
The real story, though, is of course Sohoku, because sooner or later the focus has to shift back to them. Kinjou continues to pull as the team approaches the feed zone, but he’s not planning on making a serious move until the entire team is together. That of course means waiting for Onoda and Tadokoro to catch up, and Kinjou knows Onoda has a secret weapon to help him do so – the last part of the long stage is a gradual climb up the skirts of Mount Fuji. Tadokoro is no climber, of course, but he doesn’t have to be – he just has to stay in Onoda’s jet-stream and follow him up the hill until the other Sohoku members hove into view.
During this chase we’re treated to another round of “Koi no Hime Hime Pettanko”, this time because Tadokoro suggests it (another member of Sakamichi’s harem is confirmed) – though he realizes he may have bitten off more than he can chew when Sakamichi suggests they try the ED. It’s a joy to watch these two mismatched figures with mismatched voices singing their way up the mountain, but the best part of this is Tadokoro’s internal monologue – because it quite rightly acknowledges what Onoda has meant to the team (and, by extension, the story). Make no mistake, what Onoda has done here is borderline miraculous (he even gets Imaizumi to smile), and at the very least truly heroic – he’s fought his way back through the peloton two days in a row, once after a bad crash and once with a sprinter in tow. And Tadokoro recognizes this, and recognizes the debt he owes to Onoda – who has, in effect, single-handedly given his dream back to him (his tears prove that). Is there a fantasy element here? Of course – but what a fantastic example of the team concept is behind it.
When Onoda and Tadokoro finally catch up to the team, the copious good-natured praise (led by Naruko, of course) is a measure of reward both for Sakamichi and the audience. It’s wonderful to see him recognized for the amazingly charismatic and infectious kid he is, and this scene is there for both him and us – it’s our proof that Yowapeda gets what’s really going on here, and understands why it’s the appealing story it is. The buy-in this series has in these six guys as a team after 36 episodes is truly remarkable. Their quest really means something and it feels as if we’ve shared every step of Onoda’s journey – and every turn of the pedal.