Saturday, December 4, 2010

Big Windup! (anime TV series + OVA), via Hulu

If you watch this on Hulu, there is something you should know. Although Hulu says this is a 26-episode series, it's actually a 25-episode series plus a 1-episode OVA that takes place a year or so before the series and stars an entirely different team, the one with Abe's previous pitcher. "Episode 26" might be better viewed after episode 9 (maybe 10 - I can't quite remember which episode finishes up all the stuff about Abe's previous pitcher). If you do this, you might be able to avoid the confusion and annoyance I went through when I watched the supposed 26th episode.

For once, I have written a post that is spoiler-free, or close to it - I'm pretty sure you can read the whole thing without ruining anything about the show for yourself. If you'd like to completely avoid spoilers, I also recommend not reading Hulu's descriptions for each episode, because they reveal who wins each of the games.

Synopsis:

Mihashi loves baseball and being a pitcher more than anything. Unfortunately, his junior high team lost every game they ever played, and Mihashi knows it was because of his lousy, slow pitching. Determined to stop being selfish and let his teammates enjoy playing baseball again, he transfers to a new school, Nishiura, where no one knows how much he sucked. To his combined horror and joy, he ends up being the only pitcher on Nishiura's brand-new baseball team. He wants so badly to play, but will he ruin the game for his new team the way his did for his old?

Although the entire team needs to learn how to work together, this is especially true for Mihashi, the pitcher, and Abe, the catcher. Training helps somewhat, but Abe doesn't really start to understand how to work with Mihashi until the team plays its first practice game - against Mihashi's old team. Abe wants to show Mihashi what a great pitcher he can be, now that he's finally got a team that will support him and appreciate him, and Mihashi becomes more confident in his pitching as he learns to trust Abe's direction.

Later, the summer tournament begins. Unfortunately, it looks like Nishiura might not last long: their first opponent is Tosei, last year's champion. The team trains and studies as hard as it can, so that they actually stand a chance when their big day comes. Although Tosei underestimates them at first, Nishiura holds its own. It's a close game in which just about every one of Nishiura's players gets a chance to shine.

Commentary:

I almost didn't watch this show. I put it into my Hulu queue on a whim, and then I started watching it because I noticed that the later episodes were going to expire at the end of this month. When I began the first episode, I groaned when I realized that Hulu only had the English dub version of the series: I usually like to watch anime in the original Japanese, with English subtitles, before watching it dubbed in English.

Fortunately, I stuck with it (and finished the entire thing in under a week). The dub was, for the most part, quite good. I found Sean Michael Teague (Mihashi) to be almost too whiny at times, but I'm willing to bet that the character is just as whiny in the original Japanese. Mihashi's just that kind of guy, and Teague's pathetic voice fit. Although I occasionally cringed when Mihashi went into full "kicked puppy" mode, I was also just as likely to squeal "he's so cute!" - as a character, he worked out for me, but it wouldn't surprise me if Mihashi turned away as many potential viewers as he attracted. If you've seen Fruits Basket, ask yourself if you liked Ritsu. If the answer is yes, you'll probably be fine with Mihashi. If he grated on your nerves, you might have problems with this show.

Anyway, back to what I thought about the dub. I wasn't sure I liked the idea of Greg Ayres as Abe at first. I'm so used to Ayres playing pathetic/goofy/whiny/immature characters, and Abe didn't look like he fit into any of those categories. As it turns out, Ayres is great as Abe and manages to make episode after episode of baseball lingo seem interesting. The truly awesome VA in this series is not Greg Ayres, however, but rather Todd Haberkorn (Tajima). Like Ayres, I wasn't impressed with him at first, but he just got better and better as the show progressed. After hearing him, I might have difficulty listening to Tajima's Japanese VA.

Aside from a couple characters whose voices made me cringe (Mihashi's childhood friend and the guy in the OVA who was going to quit the team), the dub was pretty good. I'm looking forward to getting to hear the show in the original Japanese (I don't own the series yet, but I plan to), but I have a feeling that this will be one of those shows where I'll prefer the English dub. The Japanese language track would have to be brilliant to overcome reading screen after screen of baseball terminology and internal monologues about strategy.

The first thing that drew me into this show was the relationships between the characters, particularly Abe and Mihashi.  Mihashi is like a puppy who's been kicked for years. He wants so badly to do good by his new team, and he's so sure that's impossible. Abe is a strong, confident player with a very dominant personality who can, and often does, steamroll right over Mihashi. Abe sometimes comes on too strong, leaving Mihashi convinced that he's angry at him when he's really not, but his direction also keeps Mihashi on track when Mihashi would rather run away and hide.

There is a sequel to Big Windup!, but I read that FUNimation was not planning on licensing it because Big Windup! didn't sell well. It's a shame (especially since I'd desperately like to see Nishiura play against more teams), but, after only a few episodes, I could see why Big Windup! didn't sell that well. Some of it may be due to the show's pacing, which is a bit slow - the characters play like real people, so this isn't a show with over-the-top action, and Nishiura only plays two games in the entire series, one of which takes 10 episodes.

I have a feeling, though, that the primary reason why the show didn't do so well is because of things like Mihashi and Abe's relationship. Mihashi never gets very good at reading Abe, but Abe becomes so attuned to Mihashi that he can tell if he's not feeling right just by nuances in how he acts. He notices the temperature and feel of Mihashi's hands, he worries about Mihashi's weight, and he gets upset when he learns that Mihashi responded to Tajima's text messages but not his. Abe tries to be the best catcher he can be not only for the entire team, but also for Mihashi in particular. He wants Mihashi to trust him as a catcher, and he wants Mihashi to become more self-confident. Combine all of this with Mihashi's constantly flushed cheeks (flushed, I think, with his passion for the game and his feelings of awkwardness and nervousness) and often hesitant manner.

I'm saddled with the usual American baggage, so I can't really say how all of this comes across to Japanese viewers, but I'm guessing everything in the show was intended to be viewed as plain old male bonding, with characters' closeness being a sign of how well-developed the team was becoming. I figured I had a dirty mind, and then I read a few reviews and realized it wasn't just me. We emotionally backward Americans can't help but see homoerotic elements in relationships like Mihashi and Abe's. I remember reading or hearing somewhere that, in the U.S., sports are one of the few things in American culture that give American males a socially acceptable way to touch each other and show affection. That doesn't mean that the male audience I'm guessing FUNimation was hoping would be attracted by this show would be comfortable watching Abe hold Mihashi's hand.

As for me, the list of shows I've watched and enjoyed include Hetalia: Axis Powers, Gravitation, Loveless, and Kyo Kara Maoh, to name a few. Whether or not the homoerotic elements were intentional, they are actually a plus for someone like me. In fact, in the U.S. there are tons of fans (many female, but I'm guessing also male) of shows and manga featuring romantic or near-romantic relationships between males. Had FUNimation made it clearer in its promotional materials and previews for the show that character relationships were more important than action in this show, Big Windup! might have been more successful. I almost didn't watch this show - how many other viewers with tastes like mine never watched this show because it looked like it was just about baseball?

Well, enough about the relationships - while those are what made me stick with and love the show, baseball still plays a huge part. As I've said before on this blog, I am not into sports. At all. I know very little about baseball. So, what did I think about all the baseball stuff in this show?

The show assumes that viewers know how baseball works - this isn't something like Eyeshield 21, where the viewer/reader learns the rules of the game as the players do. As a result, the show occasionally lost me, leaving me to get my enjoyment only out of the characters and the emotional content, rather than the specifics of what was happening in the game. For instance, I didn't even remember, until it happened in the show, that base stealing exists and is allowed. Things were only explained when characters did something special, for instance when players had problems hitting Mihashi's deceptively slow fastball, and even then I tended to have problems following the explanations. I'm sure that, if I had had a firmer knowledge of baseball, I would have been able to enjoy the show on another level. As it was, confusion and all, I still enjoyed the show.

It's amazing, really, that this show works as well as it does. Nishiura's team is filled with people who don't look particularly special - by the end of the series, I still couldn't remember all of their names. Although certain players play very well, everyone plays within the boundaries of what real people can do: you don't see the kind of flashy moves that turn up in Prince of Tennis. However, I think part of what causes this show to shine is that these characters do seem like real people. Every single one of them had to work hard to play as well as they do, and viewers can watch that hard work in action. Not only do these characters all seem real, they are also all very likable. This entire show could be held up as an example of what teamwork and good sportsmanship look like. This is not the kind of show where people cheat or hurt each other in order to win - everybody wins or loses by their own efforts.

I would recommend this series to anyone who enjoys good-hearted shows that are heavily dependent upon character relationships (keeping in mind that the possibly unintentional homoerotic elements might be considered a red flag). The show's only negatives, to my mind, are Mihashi's often over-the-top pathetic behavior and the tortured pacing of the game against Tosei. I was also disappointed that the show only allowed viewers to see Nishiura play against two teams - I would have liked to see more of the tournament. The tournament isn't the only thing that never gets resolved: viewers are never told what it was that Mihashi's childhood friend really did that got him held back a year (unless I missed it), and we never learn which player Shino'oka has a crush on (why introduce the potential for a romantic storyline if you never do anything with it?). It really is a shame that FUNimation has no plans to license any more of this series.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Whistle! (manga) by Daisuke Higuchi - This is another sports series (soccer, this time) that features fairly realistic gameplay and characters. This series focuses even more on the sport than Big Windup! - character relationships aren't quite as close (I don't think the word "homoerotic" even entered my brain when I was reading this series), and I don't think schoolwork is ever mentioned. Teamwork, soccer, and individual improvement are the important things in this series. I think characters' family relationships also come into play. There is an anime series based on this manga, but it hasn't been licensed in the U.S. and I doubt it will be, considering how things went with Big Windup!
  • Eyeshield 21 (manga) story by Riichirou Inagaki and art by Yuusuke Murata - This series focuses on American football (like Whistle!, there is an anime version, but it's not licensed in the U.S.). I've included it on this list mainly because it's another sports series and therefore features things that show up in just about every sports series, like tough training, learning to work as a team, playing against good opponents, and at least one character who starts off convinced that he can never be a good player. This series has all of that, but otherwise it's pretty different from Big Windup! - everything about it is more over-the-top, rather than realistic. If that's not a problem, then this is a fun series with a ton of energy.
  • Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - This might seem like an odd one to include, but it might appeal to those who enjoyed Big Windup!'s relationships and characters. One particular character, Ritsu, is a lot like Mihashi, and the relationship between two of the main characters, Tohru and Kyo, reminds me a lot of the relationship between Mihashi and Abe. In this series, Tohru, a cheerful and kind girl, ends up living with a few members of the Sohma family, after learning their big secret: when certain members of the family are hugged by a member of the opposite sex or when they become weak, they transform into an animal from the Chinese zodiac. Tohru begins to find a new family among the Sohmas, but will the Sohma family curse destroy all of that? Although I prefer the anime, it leaves a lot of loose ends, whereas the manga is now finished.
  • The Prince of Tennis (manga) by Takeshi Konomi - As you might guess from the title, this series focuses on tennis. The main character is a young tennis prodigy who manages to rise above older players in his high school tennis team and even take part in national tournaments. This series is basically all tennis, all the time - occasionally family relationships come up, such as the main character's relationship with his father, a former professional tennis player, but you rarely see the characters doing anything that isn't related to tennis in some way. The explanations of everybody's style of tennis playing seem to be grounded in reality. As far as the visual appearance goes, however, Konomi lets artistic license run wild, resulting in tennis-playing that appears super-powered. Like Eyeshield 21, this series is included mainly because it's a sports series and therefore has some of the same things you'll find in just about every sports series. Because it's tennis, there's way more focus on individual growth, rather than team growth, although several characters have to learn to be able to play doubles together.
  • NANA (manga) by Ai Yazawa; NANA (anime TV series) - Those who liked Abe and Mihashi's character types and interactions might like this show, which features a similar pair of characters: Nana Komatsu is a lot like Mihashi, while Nana Osaki is a lot like Abe. Character relationships are a huge part of this series.
  • Cross Game (manga) by Mitsuru Adachi; Cross Game (anime TV series) - I honestly don't know much about this series, except that it is one of the few other U.S. licensed series involving sports and happens to also feature baseball.The descriptions I've read of this series make it sound more serious than Big Windup! (there's some kind of tragedy involved).
  • Hikaru no Go (manga) art by Takeshi Obata, story by Yumi Hotta; Hikaru no Go (anime TV series) - This is basically a sports series, only the "sport" is the board game Go. Hikaru knows nothing about Go, until he awakens Sai, the spirit of a Go instructor from a thousand years ago who had been haunting a Go board. At first, Hikaru just plays like Sai tells him to, but, as he becomes more interested in the game, he learns how to play on his own. Gradually, he becomes an excellent player in his own right, and readers/viewers get to watch him grow into his own as a Go player. Those who appreciated Big Windup!'s emphasis that it is important to have a passion for the game might enjoy this series, in which Hikaru is surrounded by those who already have a passion for Go and gradually finds that same passion within himself. Plus, the rivalry between Akira and Hikaru is fun to watch and is as close, in some ways, as the relationship between Abe and Mihashi.

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