I’ve taken a slightly looser attitude towards picking up and dropping shows of recent times, so in the last few seasons I haven’t been so rigid about locking in my season line-ups within the first couple of weeks of the season starting. Last season I subbed out Pandora Hearts and Shangri-La from my line-up for Valkyria Chronicles. I can’t say I have massive regrets about dropping Pandora Hearts or Shangri-La, but in all honesty, Valkyria Chronicles has turned out to be a massive disappointment. I wasn’t expecting anything amazing, but for only one of the last ten episodes to be any good is a real underachievement. It wasn’t as if the show jumped the shark either, the show going downhill just kinda sneaked up on me, but in hindsight, all the signs were there, starting with the awful, spoiler-ridden OP sequence.
I haven’t dropped anything this season, since it has been a particularly good one, but after seeing an incredibly infectious Youtube video doing the rounds on /a/, I knew I had to pick up another one. The opening minutes of Taishou Yakyuu Musume really set the tone, and I’m hard-pressed trying to think of a more adorable sequence in anime… ever (which says a lot, since anime seems to be a constant competition to outdo each other for cuteness). And, unlike last season, I think this season’s change to my line-up has been an excellent one. I don’t think it’s overstating things to say that (at least so far, up to ep 8 since I’m deliberately holding out for widescreen subs) this has been a great anime. At the very least, it’s revived my faith in the moe slice-of-life genre, after K-On! gave it a good battering. Taishou Yakyuu Musume is certainly a different type of slice-of-life anime to K-On!, so comparisons only go so far, but I still think looking at a few contrasts is a worthwhile thing to do, at least to clarify why I think one is a good example of a slice-of-life moe anime, while the other is not.
The first difference is that Taishou Yakyuu Musume is a lot more plot-driven than K-On!, which I guess is a strange thing to say since “plot” and “slice-of-life” are generally considered mutually exclusive terms when it comes to anime (although it doesn’t have to be this way, IMO). But, more importantly, Taishou Yakyuu Musume is incredibly earnest (unlike K-On!, which I thought was obnoxious in its halfheartedness) which is probably what makes it so endearing. One of the best sequences in the show so far happened in the third episode between about 6:04 and 10:08. There was very little in the way of comedy, but it’s a rather engaging, almost uplifting few minutes where we see the girls just work. It’s “slice-of-life” in a very true sense, but it also shows the position of disadvantage they’re starting from, as a team of girls playing baseball in a period where girls playing baseball wasn’t socially acceptable, and as a group who aren’t exactly the most naturally gifted athletes anyway (partly because they are girls). And yet, even after just a bit of training, they improve.
But it’s not unrealistic either… the girls that do have natural talent do so for a reason, whether it be skills picked up from a previous pursuit that translate well to baseball or something else, but they all still have several other weaknesses to work on. It goes back to this idea of reward-for-effort which I’ve always found so compelling about sport (and that fiction about sport too often seems to miss), ie, that the amount of work you put into something is somewhat proportional to the amount of reward you get out of it. Natural talent will only get you so far, but it is only by working hard can one achieve a level above one’s own natural ability, and reaching that level is the biggest reward sport can offer. Seeing the girls of Taishou Yakyuu Musume strive for that, especially given the obstacles they face and the fact that they’re, in essence, pioneers making their own road for themselves, is one of the most appealing aspects of the show.
The fact that the girls have yet to win a match shows how much they have to work on, but there’s been a clear focus on the fact that every loss has a lesson learned, and the improvement is tangible. One gets the feeling that a win is just around the corner, and I’d be surprised if anyone watching doesn’t want to see it happen soon. Taishou Yakyuu Musume also has a thematic depth which surpasses K-On! (not that K-On! exactly tried to have any depth). The choice of setting (Tokyo, 1925) is quite deliberate, and it’s another anime which tackles one of my favourite set of themes in the medium: the links between modernization and feminism. Kure-nai is probably the anime that has explored these concepts better than any other, and while Taishou Yakyuu Musume is a completely different kettle of fish, it has shown a great understanding of balance and fairness in gender roles. It also gives the characters, Akiko in particular, a reason for wanting to play baseball to begin with… this motivation feeds nicely into the earnest effort we see, which makes the whole thing tangible and believable. And, geez the anime has a massive seiyuu cast: Ueda Kana, Noto Mamiko, Kitamura Eri, Goto Saori, Makino Yui, all of whom have performed excellently. But the two stand-outs for me have been Hirohashi Ryou and Nakahara Mai (ironically, two Clannad alumni). Nakahara in particular is almost unrecognizable, taking on the ojou-sama type character with aplomb.
The other baseball-themed anime I’m following at the moment is Cross Game, which continues to be the best currently airing anime by a street. It’s still a fairly straightforward story, but the way it’s unpretentious is a strength. Like all good dramas, it understands that, in order to be truly moving, it first needs to present us with characters worth caring about, and this is something the series has done extremely well from the beginning. But it’s strength is the way it incorporates Wakaba’s death into the story. Almost every time we get an important event or an important piece of character or relationship development between the two main characters, they link it back to Wakaba’s life, which makes the event even more significant. What’s clear is that Wakaba made a deep impact on both Ko and Aoba, and her death has left them with a heavy burden (as Azuma says in a great scene in ep 17).
The story continues to be mostly about Ko and Aoba’s relationship, but the baseball moments augment it well and are a great chance to show how the characters have grown in other ways. Like Taishou Yakyuu Musume, it also has ideas about reward-for-effort, but the improvements in skill and work ethic aren’t quite as noticeable here because the characters were already pretty skillful to begin with. Nonetheless, they’ve succeeded a few times with the underdog status, and the show is very clear about what the Seishu Prefab team had to go through to win. And because we care about these characters, we want to see them succeed.
It’s a funny coincidence that two of the best recent anime have involved baseball in a major way. I also hear One Outs is quite good, even though I haven’t seen it for myself. Considering it comes from the same trinity (author, director, actor) that brought us Akagi and Kaiji, I’d credit it.