#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!

#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!

#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!