「夜練」 (Yoru neri)
The thing with sports shows is that when they’e good, they tend to feel much too short. Never mind on the macro level – if this series is a single cour I basically punt on the whole anime thing. That would just make no sense at all. But what here I’m talking about here is the episodic level. I guess it’s just in their thematic nature, but a great episode of a sports anime (like this one) seems to end in about ten minutes. The main characters and their stories are constantly in flow, and episodes almost always end on some sort of cliffhanger, be it literal or emotional It’s a good thing, but it can be frustrating.
I’ve never tried to do with anything what Ashito is trying to do with soccer, but I find his situation extremely relatable just the same. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders at the moment. From the beginning he’s been well aware of the sacrifices his mother is making for him. He’s away from home for the first time. He overheard his coach saying he wasn’t going to get a fair chance. And he’s had an extremely rude awakening about just how behind the curve his soccer skills are. What his peers take for granted he still hasn’t mastered. And I do know this – soccer is hard. Those skills don’t come easily.
The “dead weight” game is an unmitigated disaster after that first goal. As Yuuma takes over as field general he freezes Ashito out of the action completely, and the only use he can be is as an anchor to keep Asari from defending in his own box. In the end it’s Togashi who nets the second goal, and it’s Yuuma who gets the only call-up to the A team. Not getting that isn’t a disaster in itself, but the way it happened was – a total confidence crusher. Especially when the A-hole Akutsu comes along to rub his nose in it (stepping on the “Mom” third rail in the process).
This is the moment when it all hangs in the balance for Ashito to be sure, and he passes the test. He calls home to find out how much this is costing his mother, and it’s ¥300,000 per year. Shun is about to tell him that’s less than most high schools would cost, but Ashito wants no part of it – he swears he’ll pay it all back before he leaves Esperion (though his Mom tells him to chill out). He then goes and humbles himself in front of Date, begging for advice on how to start the long crawl up from the bottom. “Kill it and kick it” is that advice, the most basic skill in the sport (trapping the ball and quickly passing or shooting). So Ashito does what he does, grinds himself into dust trying to master it.
All this is why Hana’s support is so critical – having someone who’s always on his side is what Ashito needs more than anything at the moment. Of course it’s her brother he reminds her of (it’s the eyes), but Fukuda is her step-brother as it turns out. I don’t think she has an actual romantic crush on him – it seems more like abject admiration, thank goodness. But the sponsor’s daughter Banri (Ueda Reina) definitely does. Whether the friendship between Hana and Ashito develops into something more I don’t know – sports series tend to slow-pedal that sort of thing – but I rather hope it does, as I really like both of them.
Ashito has other allies, too. The kindly sempai Nakamura Taira (Ono Kensho) understands just how cutthroat the youth program is. But Taira has seen Ashito busting his ass at night trying to get better, and stands up for him. His two mates from the tryouts, Soichirou and Eitarou, volunteer to help him practice at night. But that’s the Catch-22 Ashito finds himself in – not only is training after curfew a rules violation, it’s impacting his energy levels during official practices. Even a 15 year-old has finite reserves, and simply exhausting himself with repetition is not a real solution.
That’s what his roommate Togashi tells him, too. I kind of suspected Togashi wouldn’t narc on Ashito to Date – his attitude towards authority seems clear. But he actually takes an interest after silently observing what Ashito is doing to himself for a few days. Taira actually suggests to Ashito that he use Togashi – whose basic skills are tight as a drum – as a resource, but the surprising part is that Togashi is actually up for it. Learning from someone who understands economy of effort sounds like a good thing for Ashito at the moment – practicing more isn’t always the answer, and smarter rather than harder is a language our protagonist desperately needs to learn.