Yowamushi Pedal: Inside Japanese Culture

yowamushi pedal 1

I’ll be honestI’ve never been a huge fan of cycling. Watching the movements of dozens of athletes hunched over two-wheeled vehicles has never really appealed to me in the same way that soccer or Starcraft have. Yet Yowamushi Pedal, a show I picked up first thinking it would be a relatively light watch, has hooked me into a sports anime for the first time since Cross Game. A good sports anime can turn the topic of a sport you’ve never had interest into entertainment, and Yowamushi Pedal is just that.

No doubt if I was still a student, I would have been entertained by the show without thinking much of it, but after working in Japan I noticed that Yowamushi Pedal is a fantastic representation of some of the unrealistic expectations Japanese society places on its youth. Before I delve deeper into what I mean by that, let me describe just what it is about the series that has me thinking.

Yowamushi Pedal is the story of scrawny Onoda Sakamichi, an Akiba-kei otaku who is discovered to have a natural disposition for climbing when on a bicycle. After a chain of events leads him to race against skilled and talented racer Imaizumi Shunsuke, he gains an appreciation for cycling, and the unforgettable feeling of working towards a common goal with friends.

Onoda’s growth throughout the show is unbelievable. Placed in situations where he always has to climb above and beyond his skills, Onoda finds himself improving leaps and bounds under the careful watch of the more experienced members of his team. This type of growth by trial or experience, quite common in sports anime, has become a stable of manga and anime: the protagonist, considered weak by most measures, is able to unleash full potential via training and sheer strength of will.

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Basically, Yowamushi Pedal  is a modern sports konjo (meaning sports and will-powertype series, a form of sports anime that tends to focus on drawing out action scenes, adding tension by examining each of the character’s thoughts carefully while taking careful time to illustrate the action. This style of anime and manga has a long history, dating back to the manga classic baseball series Kyojin no Hoshi, a superstar title that most middle-aged Japanese are familiar with.

While current anime has shifted towards cuter drawings and heavier focus on atmospheric tales, sports konjo once dominated Japanese television and manga with its huge influence on what it meant to have “will-power”. It’s a genre that is quintessentially Japanese, and easily reflects an important mentality within the culture: no matter how tough it gets, it’s possible to improve by sheer will. This notion of “guts” or “will-power” being a powerful source of strength isn’t unique to Japanese culture, but it does tie intricately to one of the country’s core cultural values called gaman, the act of enduring and persevering.

In other words, sports konjo manga and anime represent the Japanese notion that by sticking through incredibly trying times, you can improve tremendously without thinking too much about method or technique, know-how or plan. While not scientific by any means, personal experience has proven that other aspects of the culture are structured around this concept. Just to name a particular instance of this concept, Japanese companies delight in putting new employees into situations where they feel the employees will struggle, just in order to figure out which ones have the mental fortitude to continue. Even if it’s not a very linear or measurable way of predicting growth, there’s something oddly romantic about overcoming all odds and succeeding.

"In the end, it's all about will-power."

“In the end, it’s all about will-power.”

For example, work in a Japanese company can be more vertical than horizontal; often a worker will see everything in a project through, even if it means sleeping at the office every day for weeks to make sure everything is done. Compare this to a corporate culture where different stages of a project can be passed to and from specialized units, rather than being controlled by a single individual. There exists a feeling of “ownership” over your own projects simply based on each manager’s obsession to make sure their vision is achieved. It’s not a matter of efficiency or systematicity, but rather a belief that people will pull through in the toughest of times, and that each individual is invested into the projects they work on.

Yowamushi Pedal is an entertaining show that reminds me far too much of the realities of Japan in general: you’re often not free to negotiate what you do, particularly at a young ages, and can be thrown into challenging situations you don’t always want to be in. Thus, if you’re interested in gaining a bit of insight into an essential element of Japanese culture, pay attention to Yowamushi Pedal; it’s an excellent tool for understanding the strong sense of perseverence and seeing things through that has no doubt shaped the making of modern Japan with its long work hours and growing army of NEETs.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s made cycling far more interesting to me than I ever could have imagined. That alone says a lot about the show’s quality.

2 Responses to “Yowamushi Pedal: Inside Japanese Culture”

  1. It’s entertaining because it’s got fantastic direction. The first episodes weren’t that great in this regard, but ever since Kinjou’s accident … Man, let me tell you, that was the first time I got visibly and verbally upset over some shit by a character from a cartoon. But I can see your point, in case of Tadokoro or Naruko, who really edged out on willpower alone, while the other party lost because he was too worried about technicalities, such as his own wellbeing. Ridiculous, but that’s what got them the win.

  2. @Cyth

    Thanks for your response!

    I completely agree that the direction has managed to keep the show’s balance between tense and somewhat fun. I think the character’s personalities can easily become caricatures, overblown to such an extent that we would feel like we’re watching a puppet show rather than an anime about the struggle to achieve excellence.

    I also really liked the show going into the Interhigh tournament; I think it was really necessary in order to make the third years seem much more interesting as supporting characters.

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