I’ve been sort of rooting for Midousuji since this race for the second-day finish line began, but this episode really made it a lot easier to do so. Midsousuji has a lot of flaws as a character (both in the narrative and ethical sense) but ultimately the greatest flaw a character can have is to be boring, and both Kinjou and Fukutomi are basically uninteresting as compared to most of the cast. Whatever one might say against Midousuji, boring is one charge that just won’t stick.
There was an awful lot of challenges facing “Akira”. When an episode has been built up to for as long as this one has it’s awfully hard to meet expectations. And when a character has done as many scumbag things as Midousuji has, it’s awfully hard to try and make him sympathetic without seeming contrived. But for a number of reasons I think this episode succeeded brilliantly – I’d rank it as among the five best (and most heartbreaking) episodes of Yowamushi Pedal’s entire run.
One of the reasons “Akira” worked as well as it did is that Wataru had actually started the heavy lifting already. As I mentioned last week I think he’s been subtly building Midousuji up as an almost Richard III-like character – a disreputable and grotesque guy, to be sure, but one who points out the hypocrisies of those around him. And what’s more, one whose sheer desire to succeed at all costs eventually seems almost admirable. Can it possibly be denied that Midousuji wants to win more than anyone else? Or that he’s worked harder and done more (much of which he shouldn’t have, admittedly) to do it?
There wasn’t anything especially original in Midousuji Akira’s back-story, or even much that was all that surprising. But it was all played with such honestly and commitment that it totally worked – it made him into a real and complete person rather than a caricature. Simply put this is Wataru’s bread-and-butter – no one in sports manga right now can do sincerity and unapologetic sentimentality better than he can. Faced with the challenge of showing us what could make someone into the bizarre entity that the 16 year-old Midousuji became, Wataru (and Nabeshima-sensei) showed us a completely believable scenario.
Without a doubt this is the most gut-wrenching moment of the episode for me, and maybe the series. You knew what was coming of course, but that didn’t lessen the impact. It makes perfect sense that Midousuji-kun would have been shy, awkward and socially inept – he never makes eye contact with anyone, and the way he flinches when even his mother touches him is telling. He’s someone who doesn’t fit in the world, plain and simple, and the only person who understands him is dying and he’s powerless to prevent it. Cycling gives him hope, but hope is a double-edged sword.
All of this doesn’t justify what Midousuji has done, of course. It puts the vile trick he played on Imaizumi in an even more tragic context, it’s true, but it was still vile – no matter our past, we become someone who’s responsible for our own choices. But one doesn’t have to condone Midousuji to understand him, and that’s what this episode is all about I think – to make this bizarre and grotesque character into someone we can understand. And for me at least it succeeds brilliantly on that score.
That makes the end of the episode all the more sad – not only does Midousuji come up short, but in doing so he seems to shatter what his mother said was beautiful about him, one of his teeth (believing anything about himself was beautiful was surely the most ridiculous notion for Midousuji). How he responds to this defeat is now one of the most fascinating questions facing Yowapeda – this is only the second day, after all, and the real prize awaits at the end of the third. It’s Fukutomi who takes the stage, for what it’s worth – but all three teams will effectively start out tied on the final day. At this point Midousuji’s story is definitely a headline, but I’m ready for Onoda to become part of the drama (and comedy) again – we’re three episodes in, and thus far he’s been non-existent in Grande Road. Surely that has to change soon.
One quick note – it was confirmed this week that Grande Road will be two cours. That’s a mild disappointment, but I think this is likely a matter of a logical stopping point in the manga – the franchise seems to be gaining popularity if anything, so I can’t imagine we won’t see a third season at some point.