Director – Osamu Dezaki
Original Writer – Sumika Yamamoto
Studio – Madhouse
When a total beginner on the tennis team is called upon by the coach to replace one of the five regulars, so begins 26 episodes of pure drama. In this 70’s shojo title, the key word is expression. Herein lies a whirlwind of emotions, of shocking burdens lain upon our cast, of friendship and enmity, and of very forceful character development.
As many watchers of 70’s anime know, this was a decade of kids shows. The budget was terrible, and as a result the animation was abysmal. This show is the first production by famed studio Madhouse, founded by ex-animators and directors from Mushi Pro, including Masao Maruyama, Osamu Dezaki, Rintaro and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. If you recognize any of these names, congratulations, because these are all central figures to the (early) anime industry!
So, the animation being abysmal, the director Osamu Dezaki made very interesting choices in order to produce a memorable show on the cheap. His distinct style is interesting enough for a blog post of its own, and has inspired many (or, perhaps I should say most) other directors, especially leaving his mark on guys like Kunihiku Ikuhara and Akiyuki Shinbo.
The reason it’s especially important to know the director in this instance is because he invented many of the cliches that typify japanese animation. It would be easy to watch this show and say “another dramatic freeze frame? This show is so cliche!” Yes, it’s cliche, but it is in the special position of being both cliche and original. When those two things combine, you know it’s pretty darn good.
However, in addition to the word “good”, we can also throw it “dated”. This even applies to the plot. Aside from the archetypal rise-to-the-top framework, there are cliches, like the stern and distant coach, that just feel so over-used. Some stuff is dated for other reasons besides cliches, such as the social roles between men and women. One strange scene that speaks to these attitudes is where a tennis player gets injured, so the coach rips her sleeve and uses it as a bandage. This is so offensive to her that she slaps his face, and then the entire rest of the team are so offended that they call for his resignation! The male tennis players responded “Huh? Obviously you have to stop the bleeding”, to which the female players claimed they “don’t understand a woman’s heart”.
The dated hearts of Japanese high school girls from the early 70’s, the dated storylines of sports anime, the dated tropes of Dezaki, all this should make the anime feel more like a piece in a history museum than something relevant and exciting. Yet, the themes are universal, and the excitement is palpable. Perhaps surprisingly, the most exciting moments are not on the tennis courts, but in the character interactions outside the courts. It is here that Dezaki’s sense of drama is most effectively employed, often to comical extremes. For example, when the ringleader of a social circle turns on our protagonist, Hiromi, her minions are rendered faceless. It gives an effect of mob mentality that’s almost scary, to the point I wanted to yell “run away Hiromi, get out of there!” Of course, I don’t usually yell at screens, but I was rather tempted.
The thing that compelled me so much about the end is a bit surprising to me, because it’s something that features in most shonen; a display of sheer determination and willpower that overcomes the odds. It reminded me why this has become a trope in the first place: there is something truly inspiring about watching someone give their true best effort. Watching Hiromi overcome not only her petty preoccupations but even love, it’s a determination that evokes envy (“I wish I was that passionate”).
I guess the last thing I have to say about this series is that Hiromi’s cat is amazing. Forget Prince of Tennis, they merely *wish* that their cat/protagonist relationship was this adorable.
Personal Appreciation Score: 11/15Trivia: The Japanese titles of Gunbuster and Aim for the Ace! are, respectively, Top wo Nerae and Ace wo Nerae. This is no coincidence, as the former show is modeled after the latter, particularly in the characters.
Reccomendations: If you liked this show, check out other Dezaki works such as Rose of Versailles and Black Jack. The former is closer in style, even though Dezaki only directed the latter half. Black Jack is just flat out amazing. Make sure to watch the OVA though, the TV series is directed by Osamu Tezuka and is quite different in feel. Of course it’s good, seeing as Tezuka is the father of anime and manga, but it’s not the same kind of goodness that a Dezaki show exudes.