I have a few thoughts percolating in my head after this episode of “Grande Road”, the first and most obvious being that it was awesome. We had pretty much everything you’d want here – feels, GAR, a sentimental look back and a tantalizing look forward. It certainly helps that the focus was squarely on an excellent subset of characters – Onoda of course, but also the 3M boys. Makishima, Manami and Midousuji (and I confess, I’ve pretty much done a 180 on Chimera-kun as a character).
In addition to the past and future of course, the present was pretty awesome in this episode too – excellent in-race action. The second thought percolating in my head is a recurring one – this this series (and life generally, to be honest) is so much better when Onoda is in the spotlight. He’s forever the heart, soul and spirit of Yowapeda. The show can be excellent when focusing on the supporting cast, but the emotional connection is always strongest when Sakamichi is involved. It’s his sheer force of will and decency that give Yowamushi Pedal its identity, which is fitting as he seems to be the alter-ego of its author.
That brings me to the third thing that struck me while watching this episode, again not for the first time but certainly in the strongest manner yet. Watanabe-sensei has set up not just an exciting finish for a race, but a fascinating philosophical and even spiritual showdown. In Midousuji (and Manami) and Sakamichi, we have complete contrasts – not just in terms of racing style, but in terms of worldview. Chimera-kun and Red Bull-boy are focused on winning at any cost (though their motivations and thought processes are different) while Onoda-kun is the ultimate team player – the boy who rides for the love of the camaraderie. And meanwhile the two all-arounders, Fuku-chan and Imaizumi, lurk up ahead, surely about to be caught. Something has to give here.
At one point in this ep Midousuji – who’s just paid Manami the ultimate Midou-compliment, “Kimokunai, Omae wa!” – rages that Onoda has “no drive for victory whatsoever”. Manami keeping up he can understand, because he understands what drives Manami so hard. But what drives Onoda to such superhuman feats is still a mystery to Akira-kun. It would be easy to assume Watanabe intended that observation about Onoda to be damning about Midousuji, but I’m not so sure. I’ve noted before that the author seemed to have a certain sympathy for Midousuji – even an admiration for the purity of his drive to win. If indeed that’s the case, doesn’t it imply that there’s something missing in Onoda’s perspective – something Watanabe doesn’t wholly admire?
Therein, I think, lies the key question facing the final six episodes of “Grande Road”. Has Watanabe written this as a straight-up protagonist vs. antagonist struggle, the purity of selflessness and team spirit over selfishness and greed for victory? Or does this story cut both ways – just as Midousuji surely needs to learn some lessons about the myopic nature of his own perspective, does Sakamichi-kun too need to grow beyond the rather simplistic nature of his? I don’t know the answer, but I know what I hope – that it’s the latter. I hope so for obvious story-related reasons, but also because I believe Watanabe doesn’t just love bikes, but sports – and that he recognizes that the drive to win isn’t something to be ashamed of, but something to be proud of.
Here’s what I do know – Onoda is GAR. And because of his innate kindness and utterly honest character, the series is never more inspiring then when Onoda shatters expectations and does the seemingly impossible. I loved Makishima’s internal monologue as he talked about Onoda with Toudou, not just because it highlighted some of the best moments in Yowapeda but because it shows how much Maki-chan himself has grown. Being a mentor to Onoda has allowed him to become a much more open and supportive person, and his trust in Onoda was almost as inspiring as Onoda’s performance itself.
That said, the performance was pretty damn inspiring. Sakamichi’s sheer willpower driving him up that mountain in the only way he can, pumping out more RPM from those little legs which never seem to tire. As anyone who knows tour cycling will tell you, riding alone is the hardest task there is – especially on a grueling ascent. Even a rival’s presence makes it easier, because being solo means not just no drafting help, but also that you’re psychologically alone too, with only your own thoughts for company. That Onoda can do all this while being motivated entirely by the urge to reunite with his friend (and Midousuji, though I’d bet Onoda thinks of him as a friend already) and protecting Imaizumi rather than winning himself is all the more remarkable, but I really want Onoda to respect his own talent more. I want him to understand just how exceptional what he’s doing is, and to want to cross the line first himself. It’s the right of any great athlete to want to be the best, and if when the moment comes Onoda has the freshest legs, he should be the one to race for the line.
Whatever happens, this is for sure – Onoda provided us yet more signature Yowapeda moments here. The first was when he’d finally caught sight of the pair he’d been chasing, and reacted as only he could – utterly glad just to be back riding in company. And the second was when he caught himself and terrier-growled at Midousuji “I’ll stop you!” (which utterly flummoxed Akira of course). So much GAR in such a small package… And while I certainly want Onoda to grow beyond the simple desire to help his teammates, I won’t deny it was pretty amazing to see that fierce desire to do so despite his own exhausting efforts – efforts which didn’t stop him from reeling in Midousuji without Manami’s help after Chimera-kun made a break for it to try and crush this little fly he can’t understand. Now that we’ve reached this point, with all the major players seemingly in-place, I sincerely hope that Onoda is involved in every episode from here out – it will feel very strange if he isn’t.