Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 14th 2012
Knight in the Area
Episodes 1-25 Streaming
Kakeru Aizawa lived for soccer. That is, until he shattered a player's knee with his left kick, rendering him psychologically incapable of shooting with his left. Crippled by the handicap and a debilitating inferiority complex—his brother Suguru is a soccer god—he's now resigned himself to being a manager rather than a player. The return of longtime teammate and resident soccer cutie Nana and pressure from his brother force him to reexamine his halfhearted attachment to the sport, but he's still on course to leave when tragedy strikes. In one catastrophic moment he loses both his brother and his own heart, and is saved only by a timely transplant. As fate would have it the heart he receives is Suguru's. After healing he returns to soccer, this time at the raggedy soccer-for-fun club at Enoshima, his new high school. But something is definitely different about him. Does the legendary Suguru Aizawa live on in his younger brother?
Great sports series are about more than sports. Fighting Spirit, Yawara, Tomorrow's Joe, the various and wonderful sports tales of Mitsuru Adachi—on the surface they're about boxing and judo and baseball, but ultimately they're about life: about growing up, struggling with dreams, coping with loss, and finding your place in the world. The Knight in the Area knows this. It's about all of those things (and soccer of course). Unfortunately, in addition to ambitious, Knight is also broad and trite and clumsy. When the soccer action is running fast that isn't a problem. When the show leaves the field to explore tragedy and healing and other delicate things, however, it's downright lethal.
The ambition is right there from the start. It's not every soccer series that begins with its character at a crossroads, dealing with a messy sibling rivalry and a psychological wall, before it even dips its toe in soccer. And even fewer kill off a main character in episode two, upending both rivalry and wall. But the crude writing and taste for the hackneyed are right there as well. Offing Suguru is problematic in itself—his relationship with Kakeru was the most interesting thing about the series' first episodes—but transplanting his heart into Kakeru? That's soap-opera stuff. The inevitable scenes of Kakeru starting to act like Suguru, feeling Suguru's feelings, and eventually being possessed by Suguru, are just awful. The series makes an admirable attempt to keep some ambiguity about whether Kakeru is truly channeling Suguru, but it's pseudo-spiritual gobbledygook nonetheless, and worse still, painfully clichéd pseudo-spiritual gobbledygook.
And that's more or less the level the series plays at whenever it's off the field. When it shoots for romance, it's a classic (read old and decayed) romantic rivalry between the good girl and the pretty, frivolous girl. The grieving in the early episodes is handled with the delicacy of a defibrillator to the tear ducts, after which it's swept under the rug as if it never happened. Kakeru agonizing over his relationship with soccer, coming to grips with his brother's death and his transplant, the myriad personal issues of the supporting cast: they're all broadly written, unenthusiastically delivered, and disappointingly pat in their resolution. Occasionally the series will make the right decision when capturing life outside of soccer. That's particularly true when it's being funny. The way the boys goof off and tease each other has a rare ring of truth, and the fluctuating weight of tubby ace Araki isn't just funny, it's quite true to life. But more often Knight makes the same boring decisions as hundreds of shows before it. Decisions to go for phony drama, to settle for simplistic relationships and easy solutions. The wrong decisions.
But that changes whenever a game starts. The series displays surprisingly good judgment when the cleats go on. Its games run two to four episodes each and are structured with the kind of lead-swapping, studied unpredictability that makes the time just fly by. They don't make the mistake of resolving matches with brute athletic skill, dividing their time fairly equally between run-and-shoot action and sideline strategizing. Each new opponent presents a new tactical challenge. A game might pivot on dealing with tight man-on-man defense, a thrower with an ungodly arm, or a coach who uses big, athletic players and frequent substitutions to tire out the opposition. The strategies the team devises to counter are interesting to puzzle out, and also do a decent job of obscuring who has the advantage at any given moment. They highlight the team nature of the sport as well, with Enoshima coach Iwaki recombining the disparate skills of his patchwork team in novel (and sometimes surprisingly fun) ways to cover each new challenge. The end result is fast, exciting and nicely varied.
It is not, however, stylistically polished. Whether the series is tripping over its dramatic conceits or dashing through a good, solid game, it always looks flat and generic. Its designs are derivative, its backgrounds merely sufficient to their purpose, and its animation thoroughly unimpressive. Director Hirofumi Ogura consistently uses speed-blurred stills instead of actual movement, and implies actions with editing or even sideline commentary rather than actually animating them. He recycles certain compositions over and over again (the sliding interception from off-screen being a favorite, probably because it's easy to do with stills) and frames pretty much everything from game-saving goals to parents in the throes of every family's worst nightmare with as little imagination and originality as humanly possible. He also keeps an obviously lax eye on his quality checkers; his characters often look decidedly odd, with variable builds and facial proportions—a problem that plagues Araki in particular.
And then there's the score. Knight's visuals may be uninspiring, but it's score is a genuine blight upon the world. It's a blaring irritant that Ogura uses like a fist to the face. It's probably best when rocking the guitars during a game, but even then it's like being slapped and told “this—yes this right here—is really cool! Got it?” Other musical snippets shout at us to feel sad, or to laugh, or to get up and cheer at some particularly rousing turnaround. Which naturally has the opposite effect. This is one of those rare scores that actually hurt a show.
Early on it's often best to give a sports series the benefit of the doubt. They tend to gather momentum as they go. That's certainly true of Knight. By the end of these episodes it's really moving, and even manages to show some promise on the personal front (the decision to give Nana her own soccer subplot was the right one, and the way the Enoshima team tightens up and repairs its weaknesses is well handled). It'll never be one of the greats, but that doesn't mean it can't be a nice diversion. That is, so long as it lays the soccer action on heavier than the heart-transplant, ghost-brother nonsense.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : C-
Art : C
Music : D-
+ Solid sports action with a nice focus on teamwork and soccer strategy; decent sense of humor.
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