I’ll say up-front that I expected this finale to be an emotional one. Expectations can be a pretty big burden to carry, but I had faith that Watanabe-sensei and TMS could pull this off because honestly, the foundation for a great anime ending had been laid by the buildup. Whatever issues one might have had with pacing, there’s just so much buy-in with the overall premise and the cast that Yowamushi Pedal always soars when it focuses on the core of the story. And you can’t get much more core than this.
What’s interesting about this finale is that Watanabe had already guaranteed it was going to be a rule-breaker, no matter what happened. By shounen tradition neither Onoda or Manami were supposed to win this race – it’s too soon for either of them, and it removes the theoretical premise for the rest of the series. Of course that’s an arbitrary construct, a trope – and while manga and anime can be reluctant to do so, tropes are made to be broken. That lent the proceedings both a pleasing unpredictability and a sense of freshness that set it apart from other sports series in a very meaningful way. That Yowapeda isn’t a “mass-produced model” should be obvious, but this is a pretty stark demonstration of that fact.
In what was also a break with recent anime protocol, this final episode included the OP – with no preamble. And then we launched right into the race, which was just finishing up as the last ep concluded. You knew things were tight because even Onoda – normally of the Ullrich-like posture and cadence – was out of his saddle and dancing. There was the briefest moment when I feared Watanabe was going to give us a tie (he did that once already, if you recall) that’s how close this was – but no, thankfully he did give us a winner. And thankfully it was the one I think most of us were hoping it was going to be.
Make no mistake about it – Onoda Sakamichi is the beating heart of Yowamushi Pedal. I really think there’s a lot of Watanabe Wataru in him, and it’s not just the physical resemblance. Onoda’s qualities are the same qualities that make this a great series – it’s completely straightforward and earnest. Onoda has been utterly selfless through his entire arc, yet equally indomitable and tireless. He’s done whatever he was asked to do without complaint, and far more besides. He never sought glory for himself, and only reluctantly accepted the chance for it when all other avenues were exhausted. But when he knew everything came down to him, he turned from a tireless terrier into a snarling pit bull, determined to rip glory out of the jaws of the opponent on behalf of his team.
So, in short, Sakamichi really fucking deserved to win. And we, as an audience, deserved to see it happen. And (how big a rarity in sports series is this?) Yowapeda made it happen. We got the moment the entire series has been building towards, and it was glorious. When Sakamichi finally allowed himself to exult, striking the classic cyclist’s victory pose (exhausted, arms in the air, head back) I exulted right along with him. This sort of thing just isn’t supposed to happen with sports manga, not in the middle of the story – but it did. Yowamushi Pedal just isn’t like other sports manga.
The aftermath was just as important as the moment of victory, and we weren’t let down there either. I might perhaps have liked to see Onoda on the podium accepting the individual medal, and his mother’s reaction (and his to finding out she was there) but I’m not surprised it didn’t happen – the focus of Yowapeda from the beginning has been on Onoda’s desire to bond with friends, and on the team. This was his moment, and theirs. Makishima hugging Onoda, Imaizumi (where did he find the strength??) lifting him into the air, Naruko and Kinjou dragging themselves out of the medical tent and rushing to the summit for the ceremony – it was all an extended celebration and a reward to the audience. And it was glorious, every second of it.
For all that, one of the biggest emotional impacts for me came with Manami’s meeting with his team in the tent after the race. Because Manami has been such an unfailingly glib and upbeat presence, seeing him smiling through the devastation he was feeling hit pretty hard. I really feel for him – being a first-year whose captain trusted him with finishing the job, the feeling of having let Fukutomi and his teammates down has to be overwhelming. Manami is right, of course – Fukutomi did build the best team, but the best team doesn’t always win. In the end Onoda simply wanted it more for the right reasons than Manami did, and that was the difference – and if Manami takes any lesson away from this, I hope that’s it. And it’s hard to feel too devastated for the third-years on HakoGaku, because one could easily argue they’ve already won one inter-high they probably didn’t deserve.
The epilogue here was absolutely perfect – a spot-on way to bring the anime to a close. Of course you knew what Sakamichi would do when Kinjou gave him the right to choose the destination for their final practice as a squad, but the trip to Akihabara was just… superb. It was hilarious watching Onoda back in otaku mode, choosing swag for all the highly-discomfited third-years, but the best part was when he announced that all of them were his presents to them – an expression of his gratitude to them for giving him the chance to reach his potential. It’s absolutely classic Onoda right to the end – not giving himself enough credit, kind and honest and heartfelt.
Best of all, I think, was giving 10 “Kumotaros” to Makishima – an accurate assessment from Sakamichi that while all of the others had done their share, it was the Peak Spider who’s really made the biggest impact on his life. Of all the relationships in Yowamushi Pedal, I think Onoda and Makishima might just be my favorite because of the way it’s demonstrated an amazing amount of growth for both of them. They’re a seemingly mismatched pair in every sense, but there are qualities they have in common that are more important than the superficial differences. The sempai in Yowapeda are generally head and shoulders above most sports series, but Makishima is definitely the best of the lot.
I think it’s fair to say that as a series finale, this episode works splendidly. It absolutely feels like an ending, and a totally satisfying one too. That’s a function of the aforementioned rule-breaking that Watanabe-sensei has done here – he’s giving us a real conclusion that isn’t the actual end of the series, and one that finds the hero achieving a monumental goal against long odds. If one didn’t know better, they could watch this episode and file Yowamushi Pedal away as a wonderful experience, and move on to the next show on their list. And an anime ending should always try to do that, even if it’s rarely accomplished.
But this isn’t the ending – not for Yowapeda, and not for the anime. The series is more popular than ever – it sells a ton of manga and discs, has a thriving merchandise business and has literally sparked a cycling boom in Japan unlike any seen in years. There’s a big-screen original film (written by Watanabe) planned for summer, and an “Episode 22.5” OAD on the way. And there’s enough manga right now for something like 3-4 more cours of episodes, even if the TV anime weren’t taking a break (which it is). There’s no continuation of the anime announced at this point, but it would break pretty much every rule in the book if there wasn’t one coming – there’s material, popularity and financial motive, so it’s hard to imagine a rationale for not continuing the series. I suspect we’re going to see a break of six months or a year to give the manga time to build a larger stockpile of material, then the TV will return – part of a new generation of sports anime that have found commercial success by reaching far beyond the original demographic scope of the genre.
I said way back before the first episode of Yowapeda aired in October of 2013 that it was one to watch – that it had everything necessary to appeal to a broad audience. It was obvious from reading some of the manga that this series was special – really funny, tense, pretty realistic with the sports, and incredibly genuine. I think Yowamushi Pedal has succeeded by reaching some of the same audience as series like Haikyuu!! and KuroBas, and also retaining some of the traditional sports manga crowd. But I think it’s also reached into a general audience that’s not usually interested in sports anime, and it’s done so because it deals with a sport everyone can relate to and most especially because of its characters. This is a cast-driven series, make no mistake about it – the canvas is sports and the sports is excellent, but Yowapeda is exceptional because of Onoda Sakamichi and because of the relationships among the cast. Like its main character, it deserves every bit of the success and glory its achieved – and in both cases, I’m ecstatic to see it happen.