「広がるサッカー」 (Hirogaru sakkaa)
“Broad Soccer”

I wrote that tagline about the contents of the episode itself (sometimes they come to me as I’m watching). But as it turns out I could just as easily have applied it to the other side of the fourth wall. It was finally made official today that Ao Ashi will have 24 episodes. I was in denial about the chances of a single cour as it just made no sense, but still – it’s a relief to know that catastrophic possibility is off the table. I believe there could be even more – manga backlog sales have jumped impressively, to the point where I’m pretty certain the production committee is pleased. But at the very least we’re getting two cours, which means the series can give an honest accounting of its considerable charms.

I’ve made reference to my view that Ao Ashi is a soccer anime for people who love soccer, and the upcoming Blue Lock one for people who hate it (you’ll see what I mean). This series is so focused on detail, that’s the thing – soccer is a very poplar sport in Japan (right there with baseball at the very top) but it sometimes surprises me that the manga is as popular as it is. No detail is too small – not content with simply depicting “kill it and kick it” Ueno Naohiko deconstructs the notion itself. Like so much about soccer it seems very simple, but in point of fact is rather complex.

Not everyone who’s good at something is good at teaching it, as Togashi-kun proves here. Simply telling someone to “open their body” is no help if the person doesn’t even know what that means. But he is right about one thing, which he learned from Fukuda-san – stuff sticks with us better when we make that final connection ourselves. The key moment comes when a frustrated Ashito yells at Togashi to just show him what the hell he’s talking about. One thing they teach you when you’re learning how to be a manager (in the business world for me, though it’s the same with sports) is that everyone falls into a distinct learning style (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing is the most common configuration). And it’s pretty clear which one Ashito is.

Ashi-kun gets his first chance to road test in a 4-on-4 drill, with each side in a diamond and denied the option of challenging their man or passing backwards. Kill it and kick it is literally the only option here, and in this controlled environment Ashito sees the power he’s unlocked by figuring out the most basic of soccer skills. Taira is on his team, and he remains the picture of patient encouragement, but Ashito’s improvement merits a “nice!” even from the opposition. That’s not a patch on the little smile (unseen) he gets from Date-san, though – and an acknowledgement that he has good eyes.

As far as Date is concerned, he’s been an asshole so far but the crux of it is whether he’s capable of admitting he might have been wrong (about Ashi or anything else). In a sense, as with Junpei in Dance Dance Danseur (sorry to keep harping, but it fits) his lack of high-level experience is an advantage – he has a lot of improvement potential that’s low-hanging fruit. He can get better in ways that his more technically advanced peers have already banked. That doesn’t diminish the sheer scale of the task before him, but it gets him a bit of a head start – and he’s already shown he’s an extremely willing learner who doesn’t give up on himself.

To be sure, the mountain represented by the A-team is a huge one. After a 9-0 win over a high school team in a practice match they’re bickering over how poorly they played. This is the bully of the U-18 J-League, the top youth team in the country – effectively professionals despite their age. When the A and B teams finally scrimmage together, the size of the gap becomes even more apparent. Fukuda has the two teams engage in 21-on-11 drills – a method I confess I’d never heard of before. It’s no surprise to see A run rings abound B when they have the numbers, but even with the extra 10 men B still gets blanked 3-0. There’s a lesson to be learned in this – but then that’s the whole point.

In particular, Asari and Kanpei are incensed with Ashito for an attempted back pass to the latter, coming on the heels of his shouting at the team to stick to basics and play “regular soccer”. I’m sure Ashito wasn’t pleased to have Date in his face after the practice, but it was actually an encouraging moment because it reflects the fact that Date considered it worth his time to give Ashi that assignment. Even when he produced a magic moment in the tryouts, the main thing the coaches wanted to know was whether Ashi understood how he did it – and could express it. It all comes down to Ashi hitting a glass ceiling in terms of relying on instinct – in order to break through it, he has to turn those eagle (crow?) eyes of his inwards and blossom his self-awareness on the pitch.

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