I have to hand it to Watanabe Wataru. What he’s doing with Yowamushi Pedal is so unusual it makes you wonder why sports manga don’t do it more often, but in fact it’s so rare as to be almost unique. We’re forever complaining about romance series that spend their entire run dealing with the courtship and as a result never show us the actual relationship (with good reason, because that’s most of them). But in effect, that’s really the trap Watanabe is avoiding with Yowamushi Pedal. Again, the surprising bit is that writers don’t do it more often.
Just like a relationship can be better dramatic (and comedic) fodder than the buildup, perhaps defending Mt. Everest can be more interesting that summiting it (in sports terms). Think about it – we’ve seen countless sports series where the protagonist and his teammates (if it’s a team sport) work hard and fail repeatedly, before finally achieving their goal (if indeed they ever do) in the end, and while some of them are excellent, the premise is definitely familiar. But sports series where the hero achieves the big goal on his first try, as a freshman, then has to defend it – dealing with all the stresses and demands that implies? Unicorn. And that’s what Yowapeda had morphed into.
Part of making that setup work is taking the time to establish the conflict to come – and that means giving adequate fleshing out to the rivals. Yowapeda has the luxury of being a very popular franchise which knows certainly the manga and probably the anime will be allowed to finish on whatever schedule the creator decides, true – but you still have to fill that space with more than filler. And while in a vacuum HakoGaku isn’t as charismatic as Sohoku and two eps away from the heroes is a long time, I think this mini-arc works – both as a down payment on the future and as entertainment in its own right.
As it’s done more often than in prior incarnations this season, Yowamushi Pedal splits rather neatly into A and B-parts this week. The first focuses on the climbers (save one, who’s saving himself), Manami and Toudou. Manami is struggling still with his defeat at Onoda’s wheels (I know he blames himself for Inter-high, but throwing out the water bottle – how cruel!), but of course, the real role of this “fun race” is for the sempai to have one more chance to help the kouhai grow.
Toudou understands Manami pretty well – he knows he can’t succeed by being conventional and deferential. He has to be a free spirit, an individual riding as part of a team. Toudou also understands the value of having a respected fated rival, and how lucky Manami is to have one. Manami will come around – I don’t know if he’ll call Onoda every day like T0udou did with Makishima (always found that kinda creepy) but they’ll repair their bond and drive each other forward (and upward) as only they can. This is anime, after all.
Then we have Kuroda, who’s clearly slated for a larger role this season. His foil – and the man whose role he’s destined to fill. the lieutenant – is Arakita. He tortured Kuroda when the latter came to Hakone as a hotshot freshman, an ace in several sports. And it was he who told Kuroda his quickest path to success was to steal someone’s style – at which Kuroda promptly decides to steal his. Kuroda is a climber but seems destined to be the ace’s sideman – and that ace will be Ashikiba, who literally has the #1 slapped on his back by Fuku-chan after the former defeats the latter at the line to win the “G.C.” part of the race.
I think these first eight episodes have pretty much seen the official passing of the baton from the third-years – their time really is done now. And it was an interesting mix of results, with some of the vets like Tadokoro and Toudou winning, while others like Shinkai and Fukutomi lost to the kids. This torch-passing having been done, the focus turns squarely now to the future (in fact the next ep is titled “The New Sohoku”), and the first big question is what happens to Red Bean. Will Naruko really swap out the sprinter’s wheels and become an all-arounder like Imaizumi? I think he will, at least for a while – Naruko Shoukichi seems like a man of his word. And whatever happens I think struggling through it will make him a better rider.