Having finally dipped into the Mid-table with Danseur, Spring 2021 levels up to “Highest Expectations” at long last. The heavy hitters of the season come hot and heavy from now, but as the leadoff hitter (wrong sports metaphor, I know) the pressure still feels high on Ao Ashi. It would have been anyway – this is an adaptation I’ve been predicting since 2019. And looking forward to for just as long. Sports anime is having a sort of boomlet (especially originals) but the vast majority of these new school shows are so insubstantial they’d be blown away in a brisk breeze.
No, there’s no substitute for a classic sports anime based on a long-standing sports manga of real quality. And the anticipation with Ao Ashi is all the greater because in truth, we really haven’t had a great soccer (or football, in most parts of the world) anime since Ginga e Kickoff – which premiered 10 years ago in Spring 2012 (maybe the second-greatest anime season ever) on NHK – just like this series. A good omen, perhaps. I’m not prepared to say whether Ao Ashi will be the next great soccer anime, but I am prepared to say this premiere met my expectations with no caveats required. It scored a brace at the very least (got the metaphor that time). It was a “shit-eating grin” sort of premiere, and I go through whole seasons without a single one of those sometimes.
Straight up – if you’re looking for a sort of avante-garde soccer anime, you’d be better off waiting on Blue Lock. Ao Ashi is die-hard traditional – maybe just a hair less so than the third member of the “blue triumvirate” of soccer manga, Be Blues, but traditional just the same. There are no superpowers here, no save the world subplots or science-fiction elements. Just a boy, a sport, a coach, his family, pretty managers, teammates and opponents. And lots of tactics – if you love soccer minutiae, you’ll geek out over Ao Ashi to be sure. I think anime has seen the rise of a new sub-genre, “sports anime for people who hate sports” (and this season has an example of it). This series is decidedly not that.
The titular hero is Aoi Ashito (Ohsuzu Kouki). Production I.G. has cast a newcomer here and a teen at that, which I heartily welcome – and he’s great, though he does sound eerily like Yamashita Daiki at times. As we meet Aoi he’s carrying his backwater junior high team in Ehime through a fierce battle with a much better side on the merits of his own skill. Aoi makes no bones about the fact that he’s his team’s entire attack – and his teammates are fine with it, as they’d never won a thing until he showed up. It turns ugly, though, when the opposing goalkeeper goads Aoi into head-butting him by insulting first his teammates, then his mom. That’s an instant red card on any level if the ref sees it, much less in a middle school game.
Those of you who follow soccer know that this sort of thing happens all the time. Guys try to goad especially troublesome opponents into lashing out at them and getting booked, sometimes successfully. Usually it takes the form of a slap, but I’m put in mind of Leicester’s Jamie Vardy suckering Sevilla’s Samir Nasri into butting him (and getting sent off) in the late stages of their round of 16 Champion’s League tie in 2017. It’s part of the dark side of soccer (like diving and racist fans) but it’s a very real part of the game (indeed the most unrealistic thing here may be the keeper apologizing after the fact). This slip-up not only costs Aoi’s team the match, but him a possible recommendation to a soccer power high school.
Stepping into the fray is Fukuda Tatsuya (an excellent Kobayashi Chikahiro), a youth soccer coach (“Esperion”) from Tokyo. It’s strongly implied that he was in town specifically to recruit Aoi, and he takes advantage of the situation to get some eyeball time with the lad on the beach as he’s letting off steam after the debacle. Fukuda’s mastery of Control Orientado (the high-level skill of directing the ball exactly where you want it with one touch) certainly gets the boy’s attention. And Aoi’s unwillingness to give up until he’s mastered the technique himself even if it takes all night (which it does) get’s his.
The other prominent angle in the premiere concerns Aoi’s family. His single mother Noriko (Sonzaki Mie) works hard to support the family and seems not to think much of soccer. Older brother Shun (Nakajima Yoshiki) also works, but he knows the game. It’s he, in fact, who clues Aoi in to the fact that Fukuda was a former national team player who made it all the way to La Liga (in truth the best league in the world is the EPL though, sorry). Mom is dead-set against Aoi even considering Fukuda’s offer to try out for Esperion, but Shun goes behind her back and gives Aoi the cash to go to the tryout. Shun proves himself a bro in every sense of the word here, not just literal.
There are a lot of details about the game that Ao Ashi just intrinsically understands – like the fact that perhaps more so than in any team sport, selfishness is a key component of success for a striker. Balancing that selfishness with the reality of functioning as a part of a team (both on and off the pitch) is a fascinating challenge that even some successful forwards never totally master. This series sweats the small stuff but it never comes off as dry or analytical, which is a quality it shares with many of the best sports manga. It balances character and competition quite deftly, a crucial element in its success.
Ao Ashi is certainly respected – winner of the Shogakukan Manga Award for Best Manga in 2019 (though that competition is less than 100% impartial), nominee for the Manga Taisho in 2017. It has Production I.G. behind it, and if this premiere isn’t as lavish as peak Haikyuu!! it still looks great, and animates the sports moments beautifully. Not a lot to go wrong here, in other words – though episode count is certainly an exception. In 2012 Ginga e Kickoff got three cours, but 2022 in anime (and otherwise) is no 2012. Still, NHK doesn’t typically do one-cour adaptations, and I can’t recall a single sports series where that’s happened – so I’m hopeful we get at least two cours. If we do, Ao Ashi has every chance to etch its name into the record with the likes of Giant Killing and Ginga e Kickoff at the head of the class for modern soccer anime.