“The Return of the King”
It’s pretty clear that neither the mangaka or the director of this adaptation was too worried about unrealistically building up Araki Ryuuichi, but the shaft of light from the heavens as he walked (floated?) onto the pitch may just have been a bit much…
I suppose I’m just going to have to get over the whole thing about Araki losing 100 pounds in 10 days, but just for the record – short of death, that’s pretty much impossible and even then I’m not so sure. But that’s exactly what happened here, it seems, as it was indeed clever Coach Iwaki’s plan to have him lose the weight in secret and be a surprise entrant in the match late. This serves several purposes, not least of which maximizing the use of guy who isn’t fit enough to play much longer than 20 minutes, but it also led the FC to all out from the opening whistle because they weren’t expecting any help, and the surprise provided a boost to them and a shock to the SC.
This episode was all soccer start to finish – and then some, as the game and the episode spilled over into extra time. Araki made a huge difference from the minute he ascended from the skies and took over for Endo as central midfielder, immediately displaying an array of fancy moves and issuing commands to his inexperienced teammates. I can’t imagine the ep will have been of much interest to a non-soccer fan, but as a devotee of “the beautiful game” I rather enjoyed it. For all the over the top drama, the conflict between the FC and SC is a very real one that can be seen in any international competition – the creative and flowing attacking style vs. the disciplined, defensive minded style that plays the game mostly through the air rather than on the ground. The two best sides I’ve ever seen at playing “beautiful football” (a Dutch expression, as it happens) are the Japanese Women’s National Team (the “Nadeshiko” that won the 2011 World Cup) and the current F.C. Barcelona, starring the best footballer in the world, Lionel Messi. It’s clearly Messi that Araki’s skills are modeled on – a tireless runner, an incredible passer, and a conductor of the first order.
The episode had pretty much everything in football terms. Kakeru finally used his left foot, Matoba got off a couple of beautiful nutmegs (embarrassing as hell when that happens to a defender), Arakai scoring on a chip over a charging keeper, Kakeru’s strike off the goal post, and at the cliffhanger, even a bicycle kick from Kakeru (who’d already scored his second goal). Bicycle kicks are the golden unicorns of soccer, and you see a goal scored that way in top-line competition maybe once a year, but the most significant football moments of the episode actually came from Oda, the heart, soul and most talented member of the SC. Not only did he break the team’s directive against dribbling longer than five seconds, but he actually executed a deft backheel pass that almost resulted in the winning goal. It’s clearly a watershed moment when the SC actually disobeys their coach, and I expect the fallout from that to be interesting.
One thing no one has explained as far as I know is what happens if this game ends in a tie – who represents Enoshima High then? SC by default? A replay, extra time, PKs? This is an important question (no manga spoilers, please) and one the next ep will surely confront – unless Kakeru’s bicycle kick dents the old onion bag. Shounen manga convention dictates that the SC wins by one means or another, as you really aren’t supposed to beat the enemy on the first try, but we’ll see. Apart from that, there’s not much to talk about apart from the football – to be honest, I wasn’t expecting so much action so early in what I assumed was a character-driven tale. Until we get back to that – exploring Kakeru and Seven’s relationship deeper, for starters – it’s hard for me to have a firm opinion on Area no Kishi. The game episodes have been fine – not spectacular, but entertaining enough and decently choreographed, and the unrealistic dramatics have been held to moderate levels. But I’m mostly in this for the drama, and I’ll need to see more of that before I decide just where I stand.