Never before has an anime season needed a character like Onoda Sakamichi like this season needs Onoda Sakamichi.
I’ve been mulling over the first couple of weeks of this season, trying to dig deeper than the obvious fact that it sucks and look for underlying trends. One thing that’s striking is the lack of a classic anime sweet/tart comedy – something in the mold of Tanaka-kun or Konobi or Dagashi Kashi. That betrays what I think is a larger feature of this season, which is that on the whole it’s a quite dark and cynical one. There’s one great show that’s very serious, and the most interesting next-tier candidates are either unsettling and nasty (which is what makes them interesting) or violent and generally cool in demeanor. And then there’s a pile of stuff that seems especially calculated and market-driven, even by current anime standards.
There are several directions I could go from there – one of them being my worry that almost all of those classic warm comedies I listed failed miserably from a commercial standpoint. But my main point for the nonce is this: in a season like this one, what good shows there are have to fill multiple niches. When you’re dealing from strength, specialization is easy. But if you’re undermanned versatility is the key. It’s great to have good comedies and heartwarming shows and compelling sports series. But in Winter 2017, Yowamushi Pedal has to carry all those banners and more, because there’s just no one else to do it.
Thank goodness, then, that Yowapeda is up to the task. Wataru-sensei’s writing is tighter than ever, and the series has never looked so good – it’s hugely profitable, and we’re seeing the benefit of that on-screen. Sure I’m pleased because I predicted the Yowapeda phenomenon before the anime ever aired, but much more than that I’m just relieved to have it around when we need it. There’s not an ounce of cynicism in this story, it can be in turns hilarious and heartbreaking, the sports itself is among the best in any recent sports series, and in Onoda it has one of the easiest protagonists around to root for.
Onoda-kun is still the living, breathing heart of Yowamushi Pedal without a doubt. But TeshimAoyagi are clearly stepping up to fill far larger roles than they have in the first two seasons. Part of that is practical – Sohoku needed a captain and his second, and Teshima and Aoyagi are growing into the roles of climber and sprinter, respectively. But it’s just as true narratively. They’re a very different sort of sempai than the third-years were, and different sorts of leaders. These are not elite athletes, and they aren’t in this to take over the ace roles on the team. They have to lead knowing that their kouhai will always be the team leaders and they’ll always be the domestiques, and that’s an unusual dynamic for a sports anime.
In the present, though, Teshima has to first and foremost be a leader. Onoda is broken, plain and simple – heartbroken that is. In typical Yowapeda fashion this is honest and transparent – he just misses Makishima terribly. This was his teacher, his mentor, his friend, his big brother – and to lose someone like that is a major blow. Onoda is still a “chef’s egg” as a climber and cyclist anyway – he understands how raw he is, and he feels totally uncomfortable being the center of attention and adulation he doesn’t think he deserves. It’s Teshima who has to step in and be the steadying hand on Onoda’s back, and in doing so he reveals that his leadership style is quite different than Kinjou’s. Teshima is a textbook “servant leader” – empathy is what he builds around, and no one understands what it feels like to struggle to keep up like he does.
There are lots of interesting tactical unknowns about this Sohoku team. Aoyagi is emerging as more of a threat as a pure cyclist than Teshima – which may prove even more of an existential challenge for the Karaoke King. What’s more Sohoku is going to need to be the “Sohoku Six” again by the next inter-high, and while I didn’t major in mathematics even I can count to five. Who will fill that sixth saddle – will “experienced cyclist” Sugimoto-kun get his moment in the sun (and some goddam dialogue) at last, or is there a mystery man who’s yet to make his appearance?
It’s not only Sohoku that’s in transition, of course. We finally get a look at Hakone here, and Izumida (Abu!) has been named captain. Assisting him is Kuroda, the second-year climber who was beaten out by Manami for a spot at the Inter-High. Of perhaps even greater import is the introduction of Ashikiba Takuto (unmistakably Miyano Mamoru), the very tall (202 cm) former classmate of Aoyagi who’s joined HakoGaku as a climber. But what of the boy with the silver wings, Manami? Of him there’s no sign bar an empty chair, and it’s clear he has work to do to repair his relationship with a few members of the team. He’s fated to have at least one more dance with Onoda, of that we can be certain, so it’s a safe bet than Manami will return from whatever mountain he’s retreated to renewed and refreshed, and perhaps with a chip on his shoulder to boot.