#116 : Aim for the Ace (TV series)

AftAtv_1The sun beats down as sweat drips from your forehead onto your hands. Those hands are gripping a tennis racket and as you pant for a moment of breathe you concentrate your stare upwards to your opponent. It’s your turn to serve, its match point and you are about to finish the game of your life. … (shakes head) … Wow, daydreaming really takes your mind away from where you are. Almost as if you are in the ‘game’ so to speak; the game of tennis in this instance. We are not here to discuss the actual sport itself, but an anime about a girl’s rise into the world of high school tennis. Serve, smash, volley… welcome to the original TV adaptation of Aim for the Ace.

AftAtv_2For shojo sports anime, Aim for the Ace is perhaps the grand dame of the genre. The elder spokeswoman, yet not the originator. A volleyball themed series from 1969, Attack No. 1, is from my research the first anime to show girls in the world of sport. Aim for the Ace is perhaps remembered better because of the popular and excellent film adaptation from 1979, but this entry will look at the previously released TV series of 1973. Both tell the same story with a small amount of variation to story, both were created at TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsha) under the direction of Osamu Dezaki (GENIUS!) and both are hallmark titles representing the growing sophistication of anime in the 1970s. The movie may have a more technically sophisticated presentation (which is ‘SO’ important in our HD obsessed world), but the TV series has a few tricks up it’s sleeve that I found endearing.

AftAtv_3Like many sports entries, Aim for the Ace is a simple coming of age story. Our heroine Hiromi Oka, though being a complete amateur (and at times a klutz), wins a spot on the coveted varsity team at Nishi High School. Nishi’s coach Jin Munakata sees much potential in the abilities of Hiromi, which in typical shojo fashion starts a soap opera of drama between the other girls on the team. Kyoko Otawa, in particular, would loss her spot on the varsity squad, which brings out a very jealous and deceptive character. And then there is the queen herself, the best player on Nishi’s squad, Reika Ryuzaki a.k.a. Ochoufujin (Madame Butterfly). At first, Rieka lives up to the sempai relationship towards Hiromi by becoming a shining example to follow. Yet when Hiromi’s skills begin to improve and challenge those of Reika’s is when we see the dark side of the beautiful butterfly. Needless to say the greater length of this TV series lends itself to more story and character development compared to the movie.

AftAtv_4Visually, Aim for the Ace is a great example of manga come to life. Gorgeous watercolor like backgrounds and rougher lines push the look of being hand made. There is a simplicity within the rawness that makes it feel honest and have a lot of heart. So while this may have been par for the course for animation back in the day, it is welcome to see a cartoon not look too overly polished and sophisticated like many productions of today. Then again this was all completed under the direction of Osamu Dezaki and I have many times commented on how much I enjoy the way he approaches animation. Dezaki knows just how to make it all look so… so… so damn good!

Much like Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam, Aim for the Ace was cancelled early due to low ratings (well thats what Wikipedia says!). All three series through the effort of loyal fans, reruns and eventual film adaptations would become legends. Often in our current glut of all that we have nowadays, how often does this opportunity of a second chance gets to come to a fruition. But much like many of these other shows from the 1970s, Aim for the Ace would get it’s second chance, but if you ask me, it was just right for what it had to bring to the table the first time around as well. I loved the movie, but I also loved this TV series for what it was, still is and always will be… a forerunner… a classic… a beautiful anime!

#108 : They Were 11

TW11_1Now for that age old question… what do you want to be when you grow up? The more appropriate version I would say is… when you mature what identity, or role, will you tie your life towards. For a group of young students in a far off sci-fi future these questions amongst many others will be answered as they learn to live with each other and understand what is important and true for themselves. In 1986, these students were the focus of a feature film by the name of They Were 11.

TW11_2Imagine having to pass a final exam as if your life was on the line, literally! Groupings of ten students have to board spaceships and survive on what is available and solve any problems without guidance. If you need to call for help, even just once, you have to forfeit the idea of graduation. As the story begins we have an immediate problem. This group of ten students we will be with during the story numbers one more. We have eleven students instead of ten, which means one of them is either a stow a way, an imposter and maybe even a threat. Who can it be? Everyone seems to be a suspect, yet all of them have legitimate reasons for being part of this final test. As the story unfolds, the drama grows as problems and issues ensue and trust becomes difficult between these eleven as one of them seems to intuitively understand the ship and certain circumstances better than the rest of the group. This would be enough for any other tale, but They Were 11 has even more to tell.

TW11_3The eleven students all come from different backgrounds. Many of them come from royalty, or well to do families and are in school to essentially follow their family’s traditions. These students are locked into their own paradigms and don’t have much choice for their lives. Tada, one of our main protagonists, is an exception as he is a highly gifted young man from a modest background and is making his way based on his talents instead of his lineage. Add to this, Tada begins to awaken to esper and psychic abilities, plus repressed memories from his childhood, that makes him quite suspect to the others. Frol, our other primary protagonist, is a young feminine androgyne who desperately wants to fit in and be one of the boys due to male privilege and freedom. Frol’s questioning of gender is the other major focus of They Were 11 as Frol comes to terms with the fact that in heart, soul and body a woman she is meant to be. A relationship soon develops between both Tada and Frol as they both share each other’s company, ideas and struggles.

TW11_4So many times space opera is a showdown of spaceships, laser beams, battle tactics and macho bravado, or perhaps, stern military seriousness. Many examples can follow these traits and do it successfully, but They Were 11 goes against this trend. Instead we have a story about relationship, characterization, love and sacrifice set in a future outer space environment. Sounds more like a shojo type of story than the usual shonen/seinen and by jove it is; one of my all time favorite’s of the designation. Instead of the bombast of say a full symphony orchestra, we have a string quartet. And though the size is smaller in scale, the power behind the meaning being expressed may be a little more intense. This is space opera treated as traditional drama for the stage; They Were 11 is dramatic theater, a play, set to animation.

They Were 11 tackles many difficult issues and does it all with grace and dignity. The original manga was the creation of one the best from the Year 24 Group, Moto Hagio, a woman who I have heard was the female equivalent to the great Osamu Tezuka. They Were 11 is a story that represents themes of self discovery and aspiring not to become someone, but to embrace an inner truth in ourselves that only we know to be correct. In a year that saw the release of Studio Ghibli’s first film Castle in the Sky and one of my all time favorite’s Windaria, They Were 11 represents a true dark horse that deserves more attention and recognition; an awesome and inspiring movie.

#104 : Aim for the Ace (movie)

AftA_movie1I often find that the older I get, an interest in professional sports and following a team, or such, is not something to aspire towards. Yet I respect sport and competition and my love for anime is strong, if only there were anime about sports… oh, yeah there IS! And LOTS of them too. There are several I have enjoyed and are quite good as well. And then there are entries that are legendary, hall of famers so to speak. Aim for the Ace is part of that higher echelon of sports legends. As I make my way through the original 1973 Aim for the Ace TV series I had to stop and take a break to revisit the cinema version of 1979.

AftA_movie2The influence of this movie is epic and goes well beyond the sport of tennis and sports anime itself. I am sure Studio Gainax and a young Hideaki Anno loved this story because Aim for the Ace is written all over Gainax’s first OVA release and Anno’s directorial debut Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. The name totally gives away the influence, but also the story in and of itself is a close facsimile except tennis was swapped out for a sci-fi world with mechs. Still in both stories the concept of aiming to be your best! And not just the best in your own frame of reference, but also to your fellow peers and most importantly, to a mentor who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself. It’s a type of story that never gets old because don’t we all need a reminder to pick ourselves up and try again if we stumble?

AftA_movie3Aim for the Ace’s story begins with it’s starry eyed protagonist Hiromi Oka, a new student at Nishi High School. She and her best friend Maki join the illustrious and highly noted tennis club and soon she has her eyes on two particular individuals. The first being the all-star of the girl’s varsity team, the amazingly talented, most beautiful and girl with perhaps the best hair in all of anime (seriously where do you get all that volume and curls?), Reika Ryuzaki better known as Ochoufujin (Madame Butterfly, so fitting). The second is Nishi’s new coach, Jin Munakata, a former champion, who is a tough yet fair mentor whose presence brings out a little fear and sweat. His first objective is to test the team, to see which of the hundred or so members are most fit to play on the school’s varsity squad. Hiromi is still very much a rookie and when her time comes to test her skills, she connects with one ball that impresses the coach in more ways than one. So much so that she lands a spot on the varsity team… wha, say what? Now the drama, no, more like soap opera begins!

AftA_movie4While watching the original TV series concurrently with this film, I could not help but notice the jump in animation quality and complexity. The fluidity of the film is a quantum leap from the TV series and could be down to a number of factors. First, the idea that you go from TV to movie is obvious since there is often a budget increase. The second is the six year gap between TV to the movie. This second reason is a strong point to a theory I have about how the 1970s is perhaps the most important decade in all of Japanese animation. Stories grew into more sophistication, many traditions and cliches settled themselves during this time and drawing and animation began to mature and become more complex. Such an awesome decade and Aim for the Ace is a great example of the growth of anime during this era. Ah to be born in the ‘70s… wait I was born then… 1979 no less… so that means I am the same age as this movie… interesting!

Now for the final wrap up… Aim for the Ace, is based on a great shojo manga (check!), was made at the awesome Tokyo Movie Shinsha (check!), was directed by the creative and artistic Osamu Dezaki (check!), and it still stands the test of time (double and triple check!). Aim for the Ace wins in straight sets!

#90 : Twinkle Heart

TH_1What this world needs is not more cowbell (thanks Christopher Walken), but… more super cute stuffed animals that come to life. Mmm hmm. You got to love them and hug them and this anime has that and room to spare. Even killer giant stuffed animals… can this be for real? If you want high brow you better run and hide, because Twinkle Heart is about two things, simplicity and all things adorable. KAWAII!!!

TH_2So apparently God has a couple of daughters and they have a very important assignment. Their names are Lemon, the sweet one (lemon’s are sweet?), Cherry, the loose cannon (token redhead 🙂 ), and their posh guardian Miss Berry. Together they are in search to find the ultimate love in the universe that has apparently become lost. Now hold on, are you telling me God has lost the ultimate treasure of love? Dude you are not keeping up your end of the bargain, who voted for this guy anyway… I miss the other God, he at least remembers love… OK enough of all that. The three girls end up getting a signal on a distant planet and proceed to go, except Cherry waits for Lemon and Berry to get changed before going into warp. Lemon gets her bra strap stuck on her sweater. COME ON! We got a mission to attend to.

TH_3Once our merry band of ladies arrive to their destination they discover the source of this lost love and it is contained in two totally cute stuffed animals. One a bear named Shimy Shimy (this one is shy just so you know) and a bat named Cream Puff Bat (and this one loved cream puffs so much that eating several turned it white). Both of these adorable ‘toys’ are being harassed by a few bratty little boys. The girls try to stop the bullying and in doing so end up going crazy because you should never, ever… ever… call a girl a flat chested pig. That’s a direct quote! Cherry being the sensible one lays down the law in an almost psychotic way. Once free of the so-called brats, Berry begins to ‘communicate’ with our cute stuffed friends.

TH_4And then… this dude in a scarf and nicely combed hair shows up to steal these stuffed animals because that is his job, a treasure hunter (and not a pirate). Lemon seems to think he is some guy she met on Earth. Her heart is going pitter pat because he looks exactly like that oh so cute guy that showed her how to drink a milk properly without swallowing the marble in the bottle. … I may have done enough damage as to describe practically half of this 45 minute one-off OVA. Well I can provide on more spoiler… guess what the name of the guy who invented the toys is named? Geppetto; nice reference to Pinocchio. It may not be for everyone, but you can at least have a sense of humor and enjoy what it is. I found it a funny release, but I would not consider this high on any priority list.

Oh how I want a piece of ham and bread to go with this cheesy anime. Twinkle Heart is often considered a pointless anime, not bad, just pointless. Still something seems to be missing. One absolute remains… in the title screen it said that this was volume one. Are you telling me there is, or was a volume two? A second installment never made it into production, but it makes you wonder what if it did? I’ll be honest… I would watch it!

#84 : Blue Sonnet

BS_1Say shojo and often words like romance and magical girls become the defacto answer. Of course this is only stereotyping and not the complete truth. As an example, CLAMP creates shojo material and it is anything but light fun and flowers. More like some of the best dark and psychological material ever made. But, what if a shojo title was more like say Fist of the North Star in it’s level of action and even at times… gore. Hang on a minute… got to thumb through these old LaserDiscs here… AH HA found it! Let’s rap about a little OVA from 1989 called Blue Sonnet.

BS_2For an OVA that is five episodes in length, Blue Sonnet hits you fast and hard from the beginning with intense fervor as we dive into the opening credits. That theme song, “What is love?”… such a favorite of mine. Interspersed between the rockin’ guitars and gritty vocals we see the back story of our anti-hero Sonnet Barge. She is a teenage esper who seems to have come from the rough streets of New York and awakens her latent powers during uncomfortable circumstances, which brings more confusion into her life. After the credits we fast forward to find Sonnet showing her skills in a training example, against tanks no less (damn girl!), which highlights the cyborg enhancements she has received from a group known as Talon. She also has this weird tiara like headpiece that becomes a funky visor… stylish! From here she becomes focused on her new mission, to find Red Fang… and go to a Japanese high school as well.

BS_3Now onto our other main character and perhaps the true hero of this anime… wait… Blue Sonnet is not all about Sonnet? The original manga title was Red Fang Blue Sonnet, so either the producers or the English translation dropped out Red Fang. In a way this works out because Lan Komatsuzaki doesn’t have a clue she is Red Fang, a super esper from an ancient lineage. She is just an average high school student… yeah we have all heard that one before. Come on Lan, you can move objects and mentally sense things at a higher level than most of us. All kidding aside, her eventual meeting with Sonnet becomes fated, confusing and dangerous. Lan’s questioning of why the new girl in class has it out to get her mixed with emerging powers will turn her life upside down. Plus, she is beginning her menstrual cycle as well. When it rains, it pours.

Over the course of these five half hours, more characters become involved (including two more super powered espers!), the story gets darker and the action explodes. Almost like a video game with five levels, will you be ready for the final boss at level five? Just watch out for that tank thats called a Tarantula. Or, perhaps on another view, like an organism Blue Sonnet just keeps multiplying out of the shear reason of existence. The plot is fairly run of the mill 80s sci-fi and action, but it does it so well that it doesn’t matter. Much like punk rock, this OVA is a more simplified approach in art style and attitude, but loud and big in presence.

BS_4Let’s return to our girl Sonnet. She is after all a tool for the Talon organization and eventually she comes to question what is right and just for herself. She questions what is her true enemy and is it right that she should commit these violent acts in the name of a group that brought her out from her troubled past. Will she ever learn, as the opening credits say, What is love? And maybe more appropriate, what is my own truth for me? By the end we get a little glimpse of a vulnerability from Sonnet, but because this is a short OVA, its glanced over very quickly. Could we get an episode six to finish this off instead of all of this being up in the air? I mean there are romantic tendencies here, but I leave that to you to view as to with whom.

So on a final note… Blue Sonnet you kick ass oh so well. Now I need to re-listen/watch those opening credits yet again just because 🙂

#80 : Little Princess Sara

I like a story that represent the cycles of how we live our lives. After all, business marketing and historians may disagree on this stating everything is always up and up. Life and nature, my friends move in a circle. We reach peaks of success that must in turn draw itself back into the darkness and end up going into the so-called ‘Hero’s Journey’. The changing of the seasons and even your life as an individual all go through this process every day and year like clock work. It is never linear in fashion and neither is a great story. And I know such a story from 1985, Nippon Animation’s Little Princess Sara.

Sara_1I have become a fan of the World Masterpiece Theatre series over these last couple of years. These are stories familiar to many of us in the west, which instead of the heavy lines of a printed text we get an animated version in full color… “come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination”… I couldn’t help but include that line (Willy Wonka forever!). And we must all begin somewhere and for me, World Masterpiece Theatre would begin with the 1985 entry, Little Princess Sara. Having never read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original writing and only knowing a sparse amount of detail, I was essentially going into this one blind. And in many ways, that is an advantage. Well, at least in my mind it is. No expectations are the best expectations.

Sara_2Sara Crewe is a very fortunate young lady. She has a supportive family even though her mother had passed on some time ago. Her father, who is quite the successful businessman, is loving and a source of stability for young Sara. She has almost everything she could ever ask for and in turn is not spoiled and honors what she has. Being as she is to become a proper lady of her generation (we are talking late 1800s Europe here), she is sent to be educated at a prep school in England, while her father will return to their home to continue his business in the British colony in India. She is soon brought to the attention of Miss Minchin, the headmistress of the seminary she will be attending.

Sara_3Settling in with her treasured doll and an assortment of new friends, classmates Ermengarde and Lottie, and allies such as Peter the stable boy and Becky the maid, Sara begins to enjoy her time at the seminary. Until… fate had to reigns it’s hand to announce that Sara’s father had passed away without any known inheritance. Sara’s identity switches from student to servant in order to stay at the seminary. And this brings a smile to those who didn’t like her in the first place. Such an example is Lavinia, who in the tradition of Mean Girls, could be the spitting image of Regina George. She is such a snot-nose and of course has a couple cronies that agree with every little conniving idea she musters up in that twisted brain. But what of who is in charge, Miss Minchin? Does she give any grace to our downtrodden Sara? Hardly, after all ‘Minch’ rhymes with bitch so you can see where this is leading towards.

Sara_4Can Sara once again rise? Return to a state of glory and humanity? The answer is yes, but the heartache she endures makes this one tragic tale with a very happy ending. Passing through the dark night of the soul is always a painful period for anyone, but handling it with grace and dignity will always lead to a finality of compassion. Much like a typical soap opera, the emotions and circumstances are heightened for dramatic purpose, but they show the difficulty she must endure to in turn, wait for the proper season to rise again. Have some tissues ready at certain moments. I may have gone through a box, or am I just exaggerating for dramatic purpose? I leave that up to your opinion of the story.

Thank you Little Princess Sara. You gave me my initial sojourn into the World Masterpiece Theatre and for that I am grateful. I have seen a handful of the collection and I have many more to open up to. And since most of these are subtitled, that count’s as reading material, right? Even though the printed copy is no where near the front of my face? Maybe? Nothing wrong with text, but I do like all the animated pictures! 🙂

#74 : Hikari no Densetsu

HnD_1More anime needs an emphasis on rhythmic gymnastics. And I am being serious here folks. I never in my mind would have thought that before I watched Hikaru no Densetsu, a simple sports shojo anime about this graceful and elegant sport that I would be smiling gleefully from ear to ear. And in a short 19 episode run I would be crying for just a little more. Sometimes you find diamonds in the rough and sometimes you find perfectly polished gems ready to reflect the light of the sun so clearly. Hikaru no Densetsu (Legend of Hikari) shines beautifully.

HnD_2When I gave a panel on the anime of 1986 a couple years ago, I knew I had many well known titles to talk about. 1986 is in my eyes an all-star year and with names like Dragon Ball, Saint Seiya, Maison Ikkoku, Castle in the Sky, M.D. Geist and many more all have a large reputation that cement my standing for the year. And then there was this little show on my list of ‘to watch’ anime, which was headlined by Hikaru no Densetsu. I had at that point no knowledge of this show and no serious expectations either. I found out quickly that it was about a young girl named Hikari and it centered around her school days and her talent as an up and coming rhythmic gymnast. Once I began the show I could not stop, I got the Hikari bug very quickly. Perhaps because Hikaru no Densetsu filled a void that I needed filling from my 1985 panel the year before. That void was left by Touch and the need for a quality romantic sports anime was fulfilled.

HnD_3Each episode opens with the same intro sequence, and I will say I am a sucker for that theme song. Many themes are often exciting, fun, or danceable, but Hikari’s theme is a ballad. A soft, gentile and relaxing song; what a nice change pace. Beyond the intro we learn of our main heroine Hikari Kamijo, a student who has a dream of being a great rhythmic gymnast much like the fictional champion Diana Gueorguiva. Hikari is a part of her school’s team where she is one of the many junior members under star standout Hazuki Shiina. Add to this Takaaki Ooishi, one of the two male leads, who is also a gymnast and a romantic interest for both Hikari and Hazuki. And the other male lead, who is kind of a bit of an odd ball as he is a rock musician and not a gymnast. Mao Natsukawa, who is Hikari’s neighbor, may be out of place with the rest of the cast, but he did compose one of the pieces Hikari used in her routines and also has some romantic feelings for Hikari as well. Now that’s a solid quartet.

HnD_4I have to give a salute to Tatsunoko Production, not for being a great classic studio (which you are and you know it), but for the quality of the fluidity of the movement during the gymnast routines. If it took extra effort or budget to pull this off then my hat is off in appreciation. You didn’t cheap out when the moment was needed and for that you get yet another gold star from me because I love you anyway! And I have to give a salute to those of you in Europe. You got to watch this show, amongst many other, way back in the day. LUCKY! And from some light research, both Italy and France in particular had a very warm reception towards the show. Just how popular Hikari was I can’t say for sure, but I have found many fan sites in regard to their local adaptations. Even the English fansubs I got a hold of had the French dub as well with the usual Japanese track. Very nice.

The lessons I have learned from Hikari no Densetsu… watch more sports anime, watch more shojo anime, just keep watching more anime as you don’t know what you will find. Hikari will eventual become the champion she desires to be and Hikari no Densetsu the show, deserves a trophy for being what it is. Nothing more than a simple little show that puts a smile on your face. A true winner!