Personal post. Mild spoiler for Daiya no Ace. Feel free to skip.
Recently, I showed my mother, a complete newbie to anime, the Sakurazawa vs Inashiro match in Daiya no Ace as an introduction to anime.
It may have been a slightly bewildering choice. Out of all the rival teams that are mentioned throughout Daiya no Ace‘s highly competition-focused first season run, Sakurazawa is accorded a mere two episodes. Moreover, it was smack in the middle of the season, and Sakurazawa was not even a ‘main rival team’ – a sports anime plot development cliche where protagonists’ main rivals are usually given fleshed out backstories, large amounts of humanisation meant to induce empathy, creating emotional dilemma for viewers as they waver in their otherwise no-questions-asked support of the main protagonists. I had to keep re-emphasising to my mother on how the ‘main characters’ in the series were seated in the stands throughout the entirety of the forty minutes.
Sakurazawa was merely a rival of the main rival, a team that should have been given close to zero screen-time, or whose existence would probably have been passed over by half an episode of being massively overpowered by the main rival just to emphasise the strength of the latter.
So, why did I choose these two episodes as an introduction to anime?
Why bother talking about two measly episodes at all and cramping my style of long-winded self-serving ambitious arguments about over-arching phenomena that nobody likes to read anyway?
Japan’s favourite formula in any competitive skill-based activity is how hard work, dedication and motivation are inevitably intertwined with the youthful zest, vitality, and strengthening of teammate bonds, all which are necessary for ‘memory-making’. While shounen anime is renowned for any catchphrase that is nakama-related, it is in sports anime where such ideals are potentially more grounded, partly because it is more difficult to pull off supernatural deus ex machina without becoming far too removed from what sports, a real-life entity and common source of fanaticism, essentially is. (Kuroko no Basuke comes close, but the bishies and the animation saved it.)
Because anime is essentially an escapist form of entertainment, fans naturally prefer stories where effort is commensurate with outcome, embroidered with flashy tactics that are a by-product of the long-running shounen that the current anime-watching generation grew up with. Such formula is a sure-win, as evidenced by the success of Kuroko no Basket and Haikyuu!.
Ironically, it is also only why only Sakurazawa’s forty-minutes of fame hits the closest to my reality, no matter how many sports’ rivals’ backstories I have sat through. (Daiya no Ace essentially is bae, but I’ll leave that for another day.)
Sakurazawa is a Tokyo prefectural academically-acclaimed school, whose students are merely in the baseball club as a means of keeping fit since their time is mostly devoted to attending cram schools for college preparation exams. Nobody seriously considers that they would ever have a chance for making past the preliminaries for Nationals. That is, until Akira and his two friends came into the school as first-years.
Even though they know that it is near impossible to go to Nationals, Nagao Akira dared to dream.
“If, and only if, since it’s a very low chance, statistically speaking, we went to Nationals, wouldn’t it be cool? I bet we could change the world!”
A team with a Professor at its helm, the team experiments and deduces, logically and academically, how baseball should be played. They think through ball movements, and they write notes – just like how academic minds think. They eventually derive their own formula of winning – one that depends on Akira’s mastery of a difficult, unique pitch – a knuckleball – a ball which breaks (in non baseball-speak, curves or moves) in unpredictable ways that make it a difficult pitch to anticipate on time and thus hit.
As the game continued in the present, it becomes clear that Sakurazawa’s prevailing philosophy was to continue to believe in their version of baseball and success, calmly and steadily, no matter who they were up against. That was how they had faced their opponents thus far, and how they were going to deal with Inashiro, who were the obvious tournament favourites and had drastically more skilled players.
“If I can master this pitch successfully, then maybe I can dare to dream.”
Even so, Akira continued to be single-minded, focusing on his present – that he was finally being given a chance to play in a game. This had a two-fold meaning; a good knuckleball required a completely zen state of mind, but it was also important how in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, what one ought to do is to continue believing in his efforts and his way of life thus far, because that is one’s greatest weapon.
“No matter who we’re up against, let’s play persistently and patiently, just like we always have. If we do that then, we’ll get a chance to score at some point.”
In reality, there are often too many things out of our control. Life is never a surefire formula of effort = outcome. Anime often aims to subvert this because it is meant to be entertainment, and never a truly reflective outlook on what life is in the eyes of the jaded, who turn to anime precisely because it offers the sanctuary that we need – the escape valve. Anime is not the only medium with that characteristic, but it is certainly the most closely associated with it.
What Sakurazawa’s story presents is an ultimately pessimistic outlook, but harshly reflective of those who have constantly been disillusioned – whether its grades, social relationships, unsuccessful job searches, or what the context of this story is – high school competitive sports. In terms of abilities or notions of success, comparison with others only yields dissatisfaction because there would always be somebody better than you.
But what is truly important is one’s attitude with dealing with such failures and challenges in one’s way, and continuing to believe in what is truly important – the fact that you truly did try your very best, and in celebrating what you have achieved till now.
“We get to play baseball in such a large stadium. Let’s not worry about the results, and play like we usually do to the end!”
So when Mei Narumiya, star pitcher of the Inashiro team, told Sakurazawa at the end that they should not be to discouraged since they ‘only lost to the best team in Japan’, it was sufficient.
“The best in Japan?
No wonder we lost.
We never even had a chance.
I have no regrets.
Now I can finally … give up on my dream.“
My mother got the message in the end, because she said “This is you, isn’t it?”
To which, my answer is: the failure is mine, but Sakurazawa’s spirit is what I am working towards.