Buried Treasure
Aim for the Ace!

by Justin Sevakis, May 29th 2008

In the years I've spent trying to entice people to watch anime, I've noticed a very distinct pattern in people's reactions: older people tend to throw out cultural differences as a defense mechanism, an excuse to not be threatened with new ideas that don't jibe with their own value system. I'm sure most young anime fans who've attempted to present their favorite show to their parents has likely noticed this as well. "It's a wonderful cartoon, I enjoyed it. I wonder, because of the cultural differences, what I might have missed, though."

For younger generations, who have grown up with globalization and the internet, the opposite is true: nobody seems to pay these concepts any particular mind. The attitude that we're all generally the same is, no doubt, a good thing and proof that at least certain aspects of humanity are moving forward. Today, I notice that most people younger than 30 might pick up on an obvious quirk (like bowing) but are more likely to dismiss them as an unimportant aside than think of any deeper significance.

Perhaps no other concept exemplifies Japanese life more than Ganbarimasu, or doing one's best. While most anime fans certainly know the word (if nothing else, as a replacement for "good luck" in conversation), it's hard to understate the concept's importance in daily life; it seems to permeate everything in Japan. In the late 80s, when Japan seemed to be an unstoppable economic force, this became known as the "Japanese work ethic": the idea of completing your personal task the best way you possibly can with what you're given. It's a society-wide drive that, as I observed upon visiting Tokyo, appears to Westerners as if everyone has obsessive compulsive disorder. From the music to the anime and manga (Naruto, Hataraki Man, every sports anime in existence) to countless TV dramas, the desire to put every effort that you could possibly muster into your work encompasses so much of Japanese culture that it's easy to forget it's there.

Aim for the Ace!, a shoujo series dating from 1973, is possibly the perfect point of reference. In true 70's shoujo style, every emotion is cranked up to their conceptual breaking point, impossible to ignore. Despite being Western-looking and ostensibly about universally accessible sport of tennis, it's a fascinating look at Japanese personal motivation, interaction and decorum. More accurately, it's about giving it one's all, no matter how hard things get.

Note: I've only seen the 1979 movie version of Aim for the Ace! in its entirety, so that's what this article will cover.

We pick up the story at Nishi High School, where freshman Hiromi Oka has joined the tennis team with her best friend Maki. They're both total beginners, and are more intent on goofing off and having a good time, leaving the heavy hitting to the seniors, among them the beautiful and talented Reika Ryuzaki. She's the queen of their tennis team, and they all coo in her presence.

But there's a new coach, and he's a quiet, demanding badass. His name is Jin, and he quickly has the entire team (over 100 girls) hit balls to see who might have talent. The top 5 picks are no surprise... until the last name is chosen. It's Hiromi.

Nobody is happy with this decision. Reika is angry at having her team be shackled with a newbie, while Hiromi is quite happy to step back and leave things be. But the coach insists that she practice and forces her, despite the objections of everybody else, to try. And try HARD. Every day Hiromi runs and trains and hits until she can no longer stand. The coach is merciless, and when Hiromi badly loses her first game, he thoroughly rejects her request to drop out. Then he makes things clear: either you can quietly admire those people, like Reika, that rise above, or you can become one of them.

The story, despite being simple (and has by now become cliché after endless imitations) has a ring of purity to it. There are no manufactured obstacles to overcome; nobody is an irredeemable jerk or clearly a bad guy in any way. Even Reika, who could easily play the heavy, never holds the coach's decisions against her and eventually takes her under her wing. There is a guy that Hiromi likes (the school's male tennis idol Takayuki Todou) and there's a bit of a flirty romance building, but that's merely a detail in a life ruled by tennis and this frustrating, tough coach who makes Hiromi rise to the challenge.

Of course, the Coach has a secret that everybody will see coming 20 minutes into the film. Perhaps more revealing are his very personal reasons for picking Hiromi. I won't give away the spoiler, but suffice it to say he is intent that a woman be able to have strength of the body as well as the spirit, so that she won't become broken some day. It was a progressive notion in Japan 35 years ago; today it's a breath of fresh air (where the fantasy world of anime has returned to idealized weak females, now that strong ones are the norm).

Aim for the Ace! started life as a shoujo manga in Margaret back in 1972, and was animated for television a year later. Unfortunately, like many TV series from the 1970s, its animation is now so dated and its pace so slow that even most open minded fans would probably have a difficult time with it. Far more watchable today is the movie version, 90-minute retelling of the story with (then) theatrical quality animation. And what animation it is! With the bold lines of Akio Sugino under the direction of Osamu Dezaki, the two continued their tradition of Wagnerian drama. Every harsh stroke of the pen seems strained under the weight of suffering; every pan seems to limp across the screen in into a harsh wind. Of course, the most dramatic moments become gorgeous pastel sketches, a Dezaki trademark he likes to refer to as a snapshot of a memorable moment. The artwork itself, is lush with the recent discovery of multi-plane technique (pioneered by Dezaki and Sugino a year earlier in Nobody's Boy Remi) and the considerable efforts of TMS Entertainment, who was hitting their stride around that time. Certain aspects are most definitely showing their age. The theme song, a quaint and dainty ballad to fiery youth, is just sort of quaint today. The hair styles are also quite silly looking.

Even the acting, taking its queues from Japanese theater and classic cinema, feature the bold and strongly expressive tones that exemplified most of the country's creative output before the mid 80s. (To see that style clash against the more restrained Western method, check out Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.) To Western audiences, this style seemed like yelling. There was also a TV drama adaptation as recently as 2004, which did moderately well in the ratings, but I found too hysterical and over-the-top to take seriously without the abstraction of animation. Perhaps this style of acting is now a lost art.

This over-the-top style of Dezaki and Sugino perhaps always suited vintage shoujo best; the duo is best known to this day for Rose of Versailles. Other highlights include Ashita no Joe, Space Adventure Cobra and the Blackjack OAV series. They're currently working together on Ultraviolet: Code 044. Together they continued the Aim for the Ace! story into the '90s, and as Sumika Yamamoto's manga stretched over 3,000 pages in total, the anime has spawned a second movie and two OAV series (along with a Super Famicom game).

Throughout my viewing of the film a voice in my head kept repeating, "this is SO Japanese! This is SO Japanese!" From the decorum and formal decision-making to the coach's quiet stoicism to Hiromi's endurance, Aim for the Ace! plays like a catalog of Japan's most interesting cultural quirks.

These differences do exist, and they are particularly striking when you're actually in Japan. (Witnessing an elderly janitor quickly drop to his knees to scoop up cigarette ash with his gloved hands dropped less than a second earlier by a passer-by was my favorite incident to date.) These differences tend to fade over the years, as Japan gradually becomes more Westernized, and so to see them in their purest form, one must seek out a relic. Aim for the Ace! is one of them.

Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How to get it:

I don't think anybody would ever attempt to release Aim for the Ace! in the US market in any form. Sports anime, non-fantasy shoujo and classic titles all have a tendency to bomb in North America, so a DVD release of this would surely go over like lead paint chips at a kid's birthday party.

I've only been able to find a fansub of the movie (and boy, did the translation need work!) but the series was quite popular in Europe, dubbed into French, Spanish or Italian. However, I could only find DVDs in Japan, and as one could guess, they're not subtitled at all. At least they're all still in print.

Screenshots ©Sumika YamamotoTMS


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