You know, I think this was kind of a crucial episode for Yowamushi Pedal. The series had kind of lost its way over the last several episodes – not dramatically, but probably for the first time over an extended period in the entire run. Several developments (Kaburagi making the team, Koga’s mini-arc) didn’t seem to entirely make sense, and the pacing has felt off (too fast, broadly speaking). We’re right on the cusp of the big event of the season (much earlier than I expected) and this episode had a lot riding on it (pun intended).
Thankfully, it passed with flying colors, delivering probably the best episode of the season apart from the Sugimoto arc. I’m still not sold on Kaburagi and Koga still doesn’t have a reason to exist, and if this Inter-high is indeed to finish this season the pacing may remain quicker than it was in the first two seasons. But as a setup episode, this one was splendid, hitting all the right notes and checking all the right boxes. These “night before” (or in this case hour before) episodes are a critical part of sports anime, in some ways more critical than the events themselves. They can certainly tell us even more about the characters.
There are (as per the formula) brief touch-ins with all the major players here, starting with the gang at Kyoto Fushimi. And boy, Midousuji really plumbs a new low here, having told some poor kid he was sixth member of the team in order to obtain a minuscule advantage by misleading anyone scouting Kyoto Fushimi. Every time I sort of come to like Chimera-kun he does something to prove he’s a psycho – but he’s a paragon of normalcy compared to the guy who gets that sixth spot, the masseuse Komari. And damn, he remains a humongous freak – he actually sticks his hand up Imaizumi’s shorts during a warm-up ride (credit to him for not flipping out) to cop a feel. Someone really needs to pound some sense into this idiot and show him what’s acceptable and what isn’t, but as a rider he’s presumably elite otherwise Midousuji wouldn’t be wasting time with him.
Ah, that warm-up lap – a rare moment of love for Sugimoto-kun. This kid is such a heartbreaking character – he’s a real sweetheart, and that smile is as transparent as glass. Thank goodness Imaizumi, at least, has some appreciation for Sugimoto’s dedication and loyalty. Meanwhile Ashikiba has come to pay his respects to Teshima, who’s reminiscing with one of their middle-school teammates (now on the Sohoku High volleyball team). This scene is surprisingly touching and very sad – the promises we make as children feel like they’ll be forever, but life seems to have other plans. Ashikiba is genuinely heartbroken to be racing against Teshima, who he clearly reveres and holds in great affection, but he’s been conditioned by his seniors that he’s now a soldier, and soldiers can’t make nice with the enemy.
One might point out, if so inclined, that Hakone had a climber who regularly made nice with the enemy – an enemy who was his best friend. But that hypocrisy aside it’s another HakoGaku climber we’re worried about, and not Manami – no, it’s the mysterious man in the mask, Shinkai Yuuto (Uchida Yuuma). If that name looks familiar it’a because he’s the younger brother of Hakone’s former ace sprinter, and he has the same easy smile and attachment to energy bars. That means HakoGaku in fact has more new members than Sohoku, four of six – and one of their veterans is the uber-flighty (hell, he got wings) Manami-kun. Can they really be the favorite, no matter their reputation?
In the end, though, it all comes back to Onoda as it always does with Yowapeda – though it hasn’t as frequently this season as I’d like. The tiny climber with the big #1 tag is dealing with the most pressure of anyone in the field – after having skated through as an unknown freshman on an unheralded team at the last Inter-high, Onoda is now the defending champion and the full-on man in the spotlight. That would be a hell of a weight for anyone to carry, much less a kid who’s terribly uncomfortable being the center of attention.
We’ve seen plenty of neurotic Onoda but this is an order of magnitude different, almost nervous breakdown territory. Sakamichi-kun shakes uncontrollably and even thinks he’s forgotten how to ride. I thought it might be a surprise appearance by Makishima (which I’m still expecting) to buck up Onoda’s spirits, but it’s actually a pep talk from Aoyagi (though he does invoke Maki-chan’s name). It’s a fitting time for the quiet man to finally assert himself, and his approach is a good one – he gives Onoda a very simple task, look after the new guy and teach him. You know, the way Maki looked after him at the last Inter-high, and many other times too. This is Yowamushi Pedal at its most authentic, eloquently communicating what the extreme tension and pressure of a moment like this is like. I don’t know if the rest of the season can maintain this level, but this ep certainly sets it off to a good start.