OP: 「Mushinhakusuu」 (無心拍数) by (Alexandros)
「東京シティ・エスペリオン」 (Toukyou shiti esuperion)
“Tokyo City Esperion”
A lot of what I said about Summertime Render can apply to Ao Ashi too (oddly enough). Like the supernatural thriller, sports is an obvious like-a-glove fit for anime. But while there are even more series in this genre, it’s surprising how few really great ones there are. Especially in recent years sports anime have gotten pretty dumbed down, creatively diluted and drained of ambition by the production committee system. Most of the recent volume has come from originals, and more than any other genre this one seems at its best when adapted from manga, but we get relatively few complete adaptations even when the manga are finished.
Ao Ashi isn’t finished of course, though the manga has something like 300 chapters. I’m starting to get quite stressed by the lack of news on an episode count. We aren’t getting anything close to all those chapters obviously, but one would like to think that an NHK sports series wouldn’t be one cour. Especially when the committee got Production I.G., which is hardly the low-budget choice. But who the hell knows in anime 2022? There’s not a lot else that could realistically go wrong, and this medium has proved itself awfully adept at shooting itself in the foot.
Episode 2 finds Aoi wide-eyed at Tokyo Station, as many youngsters from the sticks surely are on their first visit to the metropolis. As befits his unusual route to the Tokyo Esperion tryouts, he knows nothing to speak of about how all this works. Certainly less than the other 85 kids on-hand to try and claim a precious spot in the Esperion youth system. The first person Aoi bumps into (literally) is a young girl his own age, Hana (Kawase Maki). She recognizes him, having been told to look out for the Ehime boy with “hair like (Colombian star Carlos) Valdarrama”.
To say Aoi is a wide-eyed innocent here is an understatement – just playing on grass is a wonder for him. After a round of gruff welcomes from the coaching staff, including Date Nozomi (Yasumoto Hiromi – you know this is an elite program with both Sugimoto and Hoozuki coaching) Fukuda-san gives a perfunctory address, in which he tells the boys it’s entirely possible none of them will make the cut. This is a brutally competitive process – most of the new players will be promotes from the junior team or studs scouted and recruited by the staff. This strikes Aoi as rather unfair, and he shocks all concerned by mouthing off to Fukuda (who clearly loved it, and is prompted to a much more inspiring if no less sobering speech).
Among Aoi’s fellow aspirants, most prominent thus far is Ootomo Eisaku (Tachibana Tatsumaru). He’s a smallish boy with biggish hair and a nervous stomach, and the most inquisitive of the bunch. Once the kids are paired off into 7-on-7 practice games, they get a chance to display their skills – and other things. The teams are grossly mismatched, and Ootomo-kun and Aoi wind up facing a team with the tryout’s biggest star, Tachibana Souichirou (Yamashita Seiichirou). This is no accident – Fukuda and his staff are much more interest in seeing how the boys think their way through awkward situations on the pitch than in their technical skills (which are coachable, at least to an extent).
What becomes clear here is that Fukuda-san is interested in Aoi quite simply because he sees himself in the lad. Aoi is raw and immature, someone who’d never even be here if he didn’t have the boss’s eye. Is that fair? No – but it’s not Fukuda’s job to be fair, it’s his job to find and develop talent that can someday help the parent club (and the national team). Aoi’s ball-hogging tendencies obviously don’t go over well with this group, who respond by freezing him out. It’s exactly the sort of crucible Fukuda wants to apply, and it’s Aoi and Ootomo who show best under the strain – the latter by continuing to organize and push his teammates. And Aoi by thinking outside the box and seeing the opportunity his team being so overmatched provides him (and having the technical skill to exploit it).
The episode closes with the staff deciding which 11 candidates will advance to the final round of the tryout. To say it would be surprising if Aoi and Ootomo don’t make it would be an understatement, but that would just be the first step on a very long journey. That feeling is as elemental to sports manga as it gets – it’s a genre where the great ones are always marathon and never sprint. But this is the anime we’re talking about, and we have no way of knowing how long the trip is going to be – one of the reasons why being a fan of sports anime can be such a frustrating lot.
ED: 「Blue Diary」 by (Rinne)