It’s tempting to dismiss Days as a pretty boilerplate sports shounen, and indeed that wouldn’t be the harshest judgment in the world. A good boilerplate soccer series is a welcome addition to any schedule, and Days is clearly well-executed. But while the skeletal structure of Days is very traditional, if one looks closely they can see the off notes that Yasuda Tsuyoshi plugs into his story, like instants of discordance in a symphony. They aren’t as obvious as they were at this point in Over Drive (at least I don’t think so – it’s been a long time since I saw that show) but they’re definitely present.
Hazing by sempai is a commonality to high school sports everywhere, it seems – I know it’s just as bad in the States as it is in Japan. You’ll notice it’s the second-years who’re doing all the damage here, taking out their frustrations from a year of having it done to them and still having to take orders from the seniors. I’ve always felt this kind of stuff is one of those idiotic things that people accept because “it’s always been that way”. But it’s especially idiotic – and cruel – to make the entire team run additional laps because one boy is too slow to beat the clock. That’s asking to get someone hurt really badly – by his angry teammates, if not by overexertion. It’s stupid, but it’s not remotely unrealistic.
In Days, though, it does serve multiple purposes. One of them is that it shows us the defining characteristic of Tsukushi that matters most at this stage of the story: namely, that he’s effectively impossible to insult (this is made even more clear in a very brutal deleted scene from the manga). No matter what cruel or vicious things you say to him, he’ll bow and thank you and try that much harder. I suppose one could make an argument that this isn’t entirely healthy, but he is who he is – and it means Tsukushi never gives up. It’s what prompts Captain Mizuki to tell the coach that Tsukushi will be the captain in two years.
The other way all that running factors in is when the Seiseki team arrives at their group training camp in the mountains. They have quite the national reputation, it seems, and have a definite aura of intimidation about them when they arrive. There’s more humiliation for Tsukushi here – he gets mistaken for the team manager, then laughed at as a joke when he reveals he’s actually a player. But again, he refuses to acknowledge the slight – and when it comes time for the welcome run up the mountainside, he proves that all those extra laps didn’t go to waste (either for him or the other first-years). I think my favorite part of this sequence, though, is that Kazama runs up the mountain Killua-style, hands in pockets.
Kazama is an interesting one. His interaction with Tsukushi reveals that he’s a nice guy in some respects at least, but despite being a first-year, he’s never seen running laps with the others. He doesn’t seem to be taking part in any of the other hazing rituals, either, and when the team arrives at the camp he’s the only one not wearing a team tracksuit because he “forgot to wash it”. If hazing is an accepted part of scholastic sports, special treatment for the elites is another – and it really does seem as if the phenom Kazama is being treated quite differently than any of the other rookies. I’ve read and watched enough sports manga to know this is an angle that’s worth keeping an eye on as the story moves forward. Again, if you know Yasuda’s work, you know things are often not as straightforward as they seem.