The East Asian game of Go has made many appearances throughout the medium of anime, yet I never had any idea what it was about. Unlike chess or shogi, where you get a sense of how the game works just by looking at the board, Go looks like a mess of black and white dots to the untrained eye. My greatest concern going into Hikaru no Go was the game itself. Being a shounen sports anime (the focus is on the sport), would I lose interest because I knew nothing about Go?
The story begins when Hikaru, a young boy, stumbles upon a Go board with a bloodstain in his grandfather’s attic. Weirdly, his friend can’t see the blood. Touching the board awakens the spirit of Sai, an ancient Go master wronged in his time by a cheater during a show match before the emperor. He only has one goal – to play Go! Unfortunately, Hikaru has no interest in the game. Fortunately, Sai is a ghost that only Hikaru sees and can pester him all day to play. Sai plays his first game in this era – by telling Hikaru what moves to make – against the Go prodigy Akira Touya of Hikaru’s age. Sai wins. From the outside, this looks as if a total novice beat the best junior player in his first game. Touya grows obsessed with this kid and the secret to his talent. Meanwhile, an interest in the game begins to blossom within Hikaru.
The first thing to draw attention with Hikaru no Go (apart from Hikaru’s ridiculous hair) if watching it today is the poor art. This is a budget kids’ anime, so you know what to expect. It’s almost enough to make non-Go enthusiasts turn off the series. Then you meet Sai. What a delightful character. As you would anticipate from a tagalong ghost sidekick, the writers played much of his character for laughs. He’d be pestering Hikaru about something only for Hikaru to shout at him, appearing to yell at the wind from a spectator’s point of view. His enthusiasm for the modern is great. His love of Go is even better. Since he can’t interact with anything, he relies on Hikaru to make the moves for him and is like a nagging child when Hikaru won’t play for him. He’s not annoying though.
Sai also plays the role of mentor, providing Hikaru – and the audience – a commentary on the game, like an analytical shoutcaster, while also teaching rules and strategies. It’s a natural way to convey such information without seeming like a stilted info dump. Other mentors enter the story to teach more about the game when Hikaru attends classes or seeks tutoring later on. All of this makes it easy for the unaware (like me) to understand the complexities of the game and follow the action. After each episode is a live action segment with a real Go teacher explaining the finer details of the sport to kids. Hikaru no Go take the game seriously.
I am a major strategy player across video and board games (one of the things I’m known for). However, I have never had much interest in chess and I assumed that Go was in the same vein. It couldn’t be more different. To give you a basic idea of Go, think of it as territory control meets 2-player Snake (the mobile game). Players each take turns placing pieces (called “stones”) with the objective of surrounding the opposing stones. Once you’ve “fenced off” a section of the board, any stones within that section are yours. The game seems so interesting to play.
It was a smart move to make the first game between Hikaru (a.k.a. Sai) and Touya, giving the audience a taste of high-level play and the depth inherent in Go. This match engages you from the start. Then the story has time to rewind Hikaru back to the basics as he learns to play without Sai’s help. That reminds me of my major concern following the Sai-Touya match. I was worried that we would have a Yu-Gi-Oh situation, where the protagonist relies on an ancient spirit to win for him. In other words, cheat. I am happy to report that Hikaru no Go does no such thing. When Sai plays, it’s clearly a Sai game against other high-level players. Hikaru, on the other hand, pairs up with players around his level. He does have the advantage of an excellent private tutor, but he wins matches on his own merit. The only times Hikaru “cheats” are against nasty opponents, such as scammers.
The story spans a few years and goes in depth with the world of Go – tournaments, ranking, practice, etiquette, and so on. Should you watch a few episodes and not find Go engaging, I recommend dropping the anime. It’s not worth it otherwise. If you stick around, you should know that Hikaru no Go is incomplete, the anime ending shortly after a significant turn and from what I hear, the manga is incomplete and shelved. It’s a shame. Regardless, I enjoyed most of my time with Hikaru no Go.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: Try it. Even if you’ve never heard of go, give Hikaru no Go a shot. It is beginner friendly and the strategy makes for great duels.
In general, there are three types of sports anime. The first, and most common, is the “shounen” sports anime almost always set in high school and covers those last three years of youth (some will limit themselves to the final year to heighten the stakes with one last chance at the championship before adulthood kills). Most of the popular sports titles fall under this type, featuring the likes of Haikyu, Ace of Diamond, and Slam Dunk, and is the easiest to write but must have engaging matches to retain viewers. Second is the “drama” sports anime, where the focus is on characters and personal conflict with the sport as a backdrop. In fact, the choice of sport is interchangeable. March Comes in Like a Lion (need to review season 2) and Ping Pong the Animation are exemplars of the genre. Lastly, we have the “career” sports anime, which as the name suggests tracks the protagonist’s rise from a nobody into a star of the professional scene. This type has a balance between drama and sport. We will be looking at the third option today with the six seasons of Major.
We start this career journey in pre-school following Goro Honda, son of professional Japanese baseball player Shigeharu Honda. With his mother dead from a sudden illness a few years ago, Goro only has his father left and adores him. He idolises him as a father and a player. Just as the family is set to expand with the engagement between Shigeharu and Momoko, Goro’s pre-school teacher, his father takes a fastball to the head from American transfer, Joe Gibson. All seems fine at first, but brain injuries don’t play fair. Goro loses his second parent. His almost stepmother and ex-pre-school teacher takes him in.
Here’s the thing about Goro. He’s good at baseball. Excellent. He has baseball in his veins. Major will take us from casual games to little league to high school and onto major leagues. Rejection, failure, fear, and injury are but a few of the things he will experience along the way. There is good too – triumph, pride, satisfaction, love. When people describe Major as a career anime, they don’t exaggerate.
The brilliance of Major isn’t solely in the breadth of its story. None of this would matter if not for the execution that grips from first episode to last. The first season alone of Major is better than anything you will find in Ace of Diamond, Cross Game, or Big Windup. I don’t know which element to elaborate on first. There’s so much to talk about! I went into these four anime with no expectations and ended up with the full gamut of baseball anime.
Looking at my notes, the first point I made sure to record (other than story events) was the relationship between father and son – how real it felt, full of turmoil and love. The author understood the struggles of a working single father and the frustrations of a lonely child. The father dies early on yet is a complete character is so short a time. There’s drama without being melodramatic. Kid Goro acts like a real kid as well. When his dad thanks him in a post-match interview, Goro says to Momoko, “Hey, that’s me! He’s talking about me!” as all kids do before they learn of basic context. I love the dad advice too about never admitting that pee splashed on your pants. “Always claim it’s water from your hands.”
Then we have the teacher turned mother. She was a mother figure to him before she dated the father. She plays catch and takes him to the games to watch Dad live. So wholesome. Within a few episodes, we already have meaningful, well-developed relationships. Such a good start raises high expectations for characters in the rest of the series. It delivers.
In Cross Game, I talked of how predictable it was. Major is the opposite. From the characters to the baseball, this anime isn’t predictable. It doesn’t invert everything, of course (that would make it predictable, ironically). The subplot of Joe Gibson, the man responsible for killing Goro’s father, and Joe’s son is excellent. It occurs in later seasons, so I can’t talk about it much, but it combines family drama with high expectations to create the tensest baseball. Gah! It’s so good.
The writers use this great technique to keep the audience on their toes about who would win. You know the build up to a big moment in sports anime – the last second slam dunk, the mad dive to block a shot, the winning homerun? Usually, this tells you what is about to happen and who will win. Major mixes it up by giving both teams that inspirational build up. Both teams “deserve” to win after such emotional hype.
We can’t talk about excellent characters without mentioning the main kid himself, Goro. On the surface, Goro is the typical arrogant sports protagonist, which normally indicates the first of many problems (see Ace of Diamond). Goro is the arrogant ace, yes, but they don’t let him get away with bad behaviour. When his arrogance interferes with the game or affects others, people call him out and it shows how much he has to learn. Natural talent isn’t anywhere near enough. In one game with a bunch of kids, he tries to do everything and yells at his teammates for doing it wrong. He believes he’s untouchable. There’s a harsh lesson waiting for him. Baseball is a team sport and even the best player needs support. At the same time, it doesn’t go soft and say friendship will win everything.
That’s just the beginning. Major deftly evolves the character conflict at each stage of life. We aren’t dealing with the same issues in the Majors than from his time as a kid. The power curve across the six seasons is fantastic. He’s so much better than everyone else is on the first team, but as he works his way up to the Majors, the skill gap closes and competition becomes more intense. The importance of the team grows ever stronger. This constant evolution keeps games engaging. There isn’t a single boring match. Starting with Goro’s father in the professional games was a good idea, as it indicates where we are headed with the kid. It’s like the Metroid games that give you one level of Samus with a full arsenal before you lose most gear. You know what you’re in for.
One aspect that surprised me here is the changing cast each season. In your standard anime, when they introduce a team, we stick with that team to the finish. There might be an addition or subtraction here and there, though it’s in effect the same team. Season 1’s team of little guys receive full attention and development. Convention dictates that they will be staples. Nope, season 2 brings on a completely new team. His closest friend of the time soon realises that he isn’t good enough to stay in the same league as Goro. It does make sense – wouldn’t be realistic if everyone could reach the Majors. It shakes things up each season without losing progress on Goro.
The baseball industry outside of games is also far above the competition. It places a huge emphasis on player injury, from the dangers of permanent damage should you start a child too early in life to career ending injuries that crush dreams. Psychological blocks also enter the field to demonstrate how important mental state is to star athletes. Injuries, I’ve noticed, are the most neglected aspect of sports anime, which is surprising when one considers how impactful they are to real sport and all the opportunities for drama they bring.
Even training arcs are good. The writer understands that this is a good time to build characters, not repeat the same exercises a thousand times.
Other baseball areas Major explores include scholarships, scouting, trading players, tryouts, language barriers, the different tiers of teams, and so much more. This is a comprehensive dive into baseball. If you know nothing about baseball, fear not, this is the perfect anime to learn from. Prior to this baseball quartet, I had only watched a few baseball games in my life from various hotel rooms while on holiday (when you don’t speak the language in some countries, sport is all that makes sense).
I’ve heaped much praise on Major, so what’s wrong with it? Most notably? The art. If anything is keeping more people away from Major, it has to be the art. The first season released in 2004, yet wouldn’t have looked good for 1999. The final season was in 2010 – looks like it time travelled from 2004. I do like the character designs. No monkey ears is a plus. Another negative of Major is season 3, where the high school situation and team leans a little towards the unrealistic. It’s good in the end, though there was no need to go that underdog. Season 3 is certainly the weakest. All up from there, however.
If you’re looking for that “capital A” Anime type baseball and you’re concerned Major will be a bit too serious, then you have nothing to worry about. This still has the classic shounen tropes of hot heads, sideline commentary, overconfidence, etc. They simply have balance.
In a contest against the other baseball anime, Major is the instant winner. It was better than the others before Goro even played his first game.
Art – Low
Why did this have to be the worst looking of the baseball anime? At least they assigned more of the budget to pitches and hits.
Sound – High
Thank heavens they changed actors as Goro aged, unlike too many other sports anime. Great acting for the Japanese characters, though it’s a real shame they went full Engrish with the Americans, which is odd since they used real Americans for minor roles. Nothing breaks immersion more than hearing a hard ass American – with not a word of Japanese in him – speak English like a Japanese actor after one lesson.
Story – Very High
From fanatic as an infant to little league and onto the Majors, we follow one guy’s baseball journey. Major has everything you want from a baseball story – characters to cheer for, others to hate, consequential drama, a bit of romance, and excellent baseball games.
Overall Quality – Very High
Recommendation: A must watch for sports fans. Don’t let the poor art deter you from watching what might be the best sports anime.
The typical shounen sports protagonist will be the most energetic and often most arrogant player in the game (see Major and Ace of Diamond). Apart from being one of the easier archetypes to write, his personality facilitates big plays and big drama. If he’s arrogant enough to get into someone’s face to grandstand ahead of a match, he’ll have the confidence to go for the long shot that moves you to the edge of your seat. Big Windup goes for the opposite and in the process demonstrates why the high tempo protagonist is so common.
Mihashi isn’t just an underdog. He’s a crybaby – I’m not using hyperbole. This guy is on the verge of tears when someone merely looks at him. On the pitcher’s mound, on the sidelines, at school, at home, hanging out with friends, wherever, it doesn’t matter, this dude wants to cry about anything and everything. That’s not all. He’s supposed to be the team ace. I’m not sure if we’re meant to feel sorry for him or to find his social ineptitude humorous. I could argue either way.
The arc is obviously to have him come out of his shell and gain confidence through the support of his teammates. However, it starts with a flawed premise. How is this guy an ace to begin with? How does he have the skill? The answer the story gives is that he was on a team in middle school as the ace, but also that he was so bad they could never win…? Is he good at the game or not? Never mind playing baseball – Mihashi would have a mental breakdown from the pressure of having to strike someone out. He should be in therapy, not baseball. I watched the first season, 25 episodes, and he is no less of a crybaby by the end (they still use his frailty for comedy with that chicken face in episode 25, so again, not sure if comedy or serious). There is another season, but surely by this point he would have some change.
The brilliant ProZD portrays Mihashi perfectly here, just without the badass growth:
Let’s suppose you either don’t care about this character or can tolerate him, is the rest worth it? No. The baseball is rather dull and lacks tension, both in a game and character sense. Most teammates are the same milquetoast person, blending into one forgettable mass. Some are alright, though nothing to write home about.
At its core, these problems all feel like symptoms of the same illness – the aversion by the author to have tough conflict. Meekness characterises Big Windup. I don’t want to sound nasty, but this needed more nastiness. I have the impression that the author leant on wishful thinking for a “nicer” world to craft this story, rather than facing reality, often caused by an author’s fear of hurting their beloved characters. Twilight’s author, Stephanie Meyer, refused to kill off any of her characters because she grew too attached.
An alternate possibility is that Big Windup is about mocking a kid with a mental disability (again, not sure if we are to laugh with him or at him), though I like to give the benefit of the doubt.
A major subplot centres on the cheer team, which is an unconventional side to explore in a boys’ sports anime. It’s insistent on following these characters. However, there isn’t much to see here, which is disappointing, as Japanese cheer squads are rather nuts. They’re nothing like American football cheerleaders. They’re more like choirmasters, leading the crowd into a high energy, disciplined chant for the team. Deafeningly loud too.
The cheer and baseball teams alike are all about the power of friendship, everyone is good, competitiveness is toxic, and other “hippie” philosophies, for lack of a better word. Now, I’m not saying that being nice is a bad thing. Ideally, everyone in the world would be nice at heart. But having your head in the sand and believing that just being nice makes one a great athlete is delusional. This is a baseball team that would fall to a perfect game from any team that takes the sport seriously. Or if this were StarCraft, it would ban the Zerg rush for being unfair, then ban the MMM ball for being too competitive, and forbid everyone from using Stalkers’ blink for being too skilful. It wouldn’t patch the game, mind you, just make everyone promise not to use them. Because being competitive isn’t friendly. It isn’t fun if not everyone gets a medal in the end.
In every story, no matter how bad, I firmly believe there is a kernel of greatness. Having someone like Mihashi as protagonist isn’t the end of the world. What Big Windup needed was an altered backstory and different first act. Remove the baseball past altogether and replace it with a lonely kid suffering from mental illness, who breaks down in tears at the slightest conflict – doesn’t have to be real conflict. The possibility of conflict cracks him. You can make it that the one joy in life he had was watching baseball at home, wishing he had the camaraderie of a team like they do in those stadiums. There’s the baseball connection. Want to provide a little backstory to foreshadow him as a great baseball pitcher? Turns out, he would practice pitches against a tree in his backyard for hours (no friends to spend time with, after all), developing killer accuracy and speed. You could even have the classic sports shounen reveal when a later friend comes over for the first time and sees the dent in the tree – shocked silence, slow pan close up of the face, quivering irises, the whole deal.
We start the series with him moving to high school, where a classmate befriends him (feel free to have Mihashi tremble when he thinks it’s a bully). This friend is on the baseball team. The scene is set.
From here, Mihashi will slowly come out of his shell thanks to his first friend and work on his mental health. An adult at the school would be the perfect mentor character, one to bring awareness to the importance of mental health and explain to Mihashi that he isn’t broken. He just needs help. Want to lean the tone towards the happier Haikyuu end rather than the dour March Comes in Like a Lion side? No problem. Incorporate comedy, from the rest of team perhaps, in the battle against his mental illness.
Episode 3, we have the baseball connection (see backyard tree above). Episode 6, end of act one, Mihashi plays baseball with others for the first time. Season finale, he loses the match with his team – only been playing a few months, after all – but he played the game to his fullest, and that’s what matters. He could even cry, not out of fear or sadness, but out of joy and pride for his progress. We keep the underdog, the reluctant ace, the crying, and power of friendship, but we balance it with pain, struggle, and hard work.
Big Windup seems well intentioned. Infantile treatment of characters isn’t the direction to take in what is supposed to be a competitive sport, requiring some level of competitive spirit, drive, and confidence. I don’t know if it’s talking down to the audience, mocking a kid with mental and social issues, or merely an unintentional disaster. Next review, we look to Major for redemption.
Art – Low
Though the environmental texture is nice, it can’t make up for the character designs. What is with everyone blushing as if going through a menopausal hot flush 24/7? Then again, I suppose these blushing brides are an ideal match for the mentality of Big Windup.
Sound – Medium
The acting is better than this anime deserves and the music is alright. I can’t imagine anyone could make this protagonist sound good.
Story – Very Low
A bumbling kid is expected to be his team’s baseball ace. No level of baseball would be worth enduring this character and philosophy of playing a drum circle as a substitute for skill.
Overall Quality – Very Low
Recommendation: Skip it. It’s difficult for the protagonist alone to kill a story, yet here we are with Big Windup.
Cross Game is a story about two families connected by business, baseball, and tragedy. Ko is son to the owner of the local sports shop and Wakaba is daughter to the owner of the batting centre. These two are as close as kittens wrapped in the same blanket. They even share a birthday. An accident sadly takes Wakaba from this world, shattering the lives of both families and many more in the tightknit community. Wakaba’s younger sister, Aoba, who was always jealous of the close bond between those two, starts to befriend him in later years as he looks to honour his friend’s memory.
Cross Game’s first impression is that of an anime for kids with those character designs and bright colours, but with the death of Wakaba in the first episode, it tells viewers that it’s being serious for a kids’ anime. I appreciate that it doesn’t talk down to the audience. It handles death with an honest reality. From there, Ko has to move on and grow up.
Characters are one of Cross Game’s strengths. I love how Ko is such a scoundrel. At one point, he pretends to be interested in forming a baseball team at his school, which he succeeds with, but it was all a ploy to have the team buy equipment from his family’s store. Then he bails on the team. However, when confronted by bullies, he has to divert and hide in the team again for protection. Awful at the game though. He’s a good character. I like the relationship between him and Aoba, keeping each other in check and making for believable kids.
The general plot jumps back and forth between the high school and childhood years. Emphasis here is more on the characters rather than the baseball, opposite to the likes of Ace of Diamond. Matches don’t drag into dozen-episode epics. So if you’re here for the baseball, Cross Game isn’t the best choice. Not bad baseball, by any means, just not much of it.
One notable flaw of Cross Game for an older audience is its predictability – not in a “the butler did it” sense, but if you ask, “What’s the most obvious thing to happen next?” you will answer correctly nine times out of ten.
This is a simple anime, good for those that want something with drama, but whoa, not too much. Some baseball as well – easy there, not too much. Perhaps this game plan of playing it so safe prevented it from reaching greater heights.
Art – Medium
The style suits the younger slant of Cross Game and it’s a unique look. However! Those monkey ears. On everyone. God damn. I don’t blame the anime artists. I blame the manga artist, who – I’d wager – didn’t know how to draw ears, let alone differentiate them in profile and portrait.
Sound – Medium
Acting is good (except from the cat, but bad animal acting in Japanese is never a surprise) and the music is that fun kids’ fare.
Story – Medium
A kid swears to become an excellent baseball player to honour his lost childhood friend. Cross Game is for kids and as such hasn’t the most complex story, but it is solid without glaring faults.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For kids. To adults, Cross Game and its predictability may not have much appeal unless you can relate on a personal level. You must tolerate monkey ears.
Of the baseball anime quartet I’ll be reviewing over the next few days, Ace of Diamond was the first I watched (more than a year ago at this point, having waited to complete all four for comparison). I started here, as it seemed the most “shounen” of the baseball anime. I was right.
Eijun is your typical high-energy protagonist with arrogance as his defining characteristic. We join him at the end of middle school, where his pitch is the final fault in the last baseball game of the year. A scout sees something in him and recruits him to an elite high school’s baseball team, one filled with players of a higher calibre.
Let me be straight with you right away. I don’t like Ace of Diamond. Eijun is so bloody obnoxious. He’s an annoying arse who trash talks and hits others but can’t take it himself, claims not to watch baseball (how did he learn?), and would turn down a prestigious school to play with his weak teammates while still trumpeting his seriousness towards the championship. He personifies “keeping the cake and eating it too”. He’s a walking series of contradictions, and not the good kind that add character depth. There’s a lack of consequences for this guy. When he dishes it out and can’t take it, nothing happens. Obnoxious to everyone around him? Eh. No one cares. In fact, now that I think about it, the inter-character drama is weak. Everyone does their personality “trait” and…we move on. The most common interaction is people yelling at one another.
Don’t get me started on the yelling! Have you seen Drifters with its constant interjections of random humour? It’s like that but with yelling. I take it the audience is to guffaw every time – and humour is subjective, I know – but man does it grow tiring quickly.
Let’s not talk of the yelling in serious scenes. They communicate with overdramatic, try hard shouting, which would be fine in moderation. This is all the time. Everything is overdramatic, then repeated in the instant flashback, with overdone effort sounds of course. Early on, a guy hits a difficult shot once and everyone’s heads explode. One instance isn’t an indication of skill. A total amateur could get lucky. I don’t doubt he has skill, but would you mind proving it too us before you wet yourselves with delight? Greatness comes from consistency and reliability. One good hit should give management pause. “Huh, not bad.” Twice in row – “Okay, twice lucky.” The third time – “Now I’m interested.” If one hit blows everyone away, you can’t escalate from there.
I cannot emphasise enough just how much they dramatise. Remember the words of the mighty Syndrome. “When everything is super dramatic, nothing is.” (Or something to that effect.) Moments that should be impactful feel the same as normal events because they all have the same hype.
It’s a shame because the baseball itself isn’t half bad, drawing much inspiration from real plays and real games. Looks great too. Excessive dramatisation and flashbacks for the gigantic cast keep obscuring the good qualities, unfortunately. And they kill the pace. This reminds me of when Naruto Shippuden would stall in canon episodes by flashing back to a scene from five minutes ago. These 75 episodes are equal to three standard seasons yet have two seasons of content, made obvious when we get to Cross Game and Major later. Now, if it were dramatics of the JoJo variety accompanied by crazy characters to match, I would be singing a different tune (you know, that sounds like a great anime. Someone make it, please).
If you love baseball and live for the non-stop hyper shounen energy, you will have a great time with Ace of Diamond. It works as a “turn your brain off” sports anime.
Art – High
Considering baseball’s popularity in Japan, it’s surprising how many of its anime have low budgets. Ace of Diamond is the exception with its clean art and more than two colour tones for the full runtime. It’s only real visual flaw – more a fault of the manga – is the standard character designs that don’t match the hyperactive shounen energy. They’re too normal. With helmets on, half of the team looks the same. Not a big deal though.
Sound – Low
SHOUTING = ACTING best summarises major character performances. Everything is overdramatic, yet nothing is ever serious thanks to truly delightful random acts of yelling. Music is better.
Story – Low
An unconventional player joins an elite high school with a baseball program. The matches are okay, but the characters are below average.
Overall Quality – Low
Recommendation: For hardcore shounen baseball fans only. Being a baseball fan isn’t enough; you need to like this type of sports anime.