Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 26th 2007
The Prince of Tennis
DVD - DVD Box Set 1
In the world of tennis, there is a new rising star. Only twelve years old, he's the son of ex-pro tennis sensation "Samurai" Nanjiro, and he's set to cut all of the squinty-eyed ill-natured tennis players of the world down to size. His name: Ryoma Echizen. His starting point: Seigaku Academy's acclaimed tennis club. His target: to put his taunting father in his place. His weapon: a bad 'tude three sizes to big for his slight frame.
In sports anime, Prince of Tennis is among the dregs of the genre. It's worlds apart from crowd-pleasing entertainment juggernauts like Slam Dunk and Fighting Spirit, and comparing it to a masterpiece like Touch is tantamount to sacrilege. It isn't because it's painful to watch (though about half of the time it is excruciatingly so). It isn't because it's despicable or exploitative; it's neither, at least not to any serious extent. No, Prince of Tennis earns its place at the bottom of the heap because it's boring. Soul-sucking, jello-brained, insomnia-curing boring. And for a series that's purportedly about a world of intense competition, that's absolutely unforgivable.
Of course, tennis doesn't lend itself to pumping adrenaline as well as, say boxing, but that's no excuse. Hikaru no Go, which is about a board game, is infinitely more exciting than this tedious slog. So why is it so tedious? Part of it is unquestionably the execution. The rock-bottom production values, which make playing spot-the-repeated-animation a disturbingly entertaining alternative to actually watching the show, have an undeniable dampening effect on potential excitement. The hideously obvious score, which telegraphs climaxes with its strident da-da-dum-DA-DUM-DUM, doesn't improve things a whit. The director constantly interrupts the action with insultingly unnecessary explanatory commentary from bystanders, and marks the turning point of each match with Ryoma's tag-line "you've still got a ways to go," effectively eliminating all potential tension from there on.
These issues would be but gripes were it not for one other overpowering problem. It lacks the human drama necessary to get audiences to care who wins or loses. The creators of the series aren't unaware of this necessity; they're just incapable of pulling it off. Sakuno, the young girl who fills the role of Ryoma's potential romantic interest, would normally provide some drama, but hasn't any personality or life outside of her obsession with Ryoma. Ryoma's opponents are generally petty bullies with mean eyes and oversized egos, exactly the kind of puffed-up straw-man antagonists that a sports series shouldn't need. Ryoma himself is terse, reserved, and arrogant, which makes him difficult to like. The fact that he's a masterful tennis pro from the start eliminates underdog appeal as well as its accompanying tension. Surrounding Ryoma are the slimmest of characters, defined by their gimmicky tennis styles rather than actual personalities. The series' suffocatingly narrow focus on competitive tennis doesn't mean that the creators don't spend time detailing the off-time and personal lives of their cast, but all of these scenes are frustrating in their purposelessness. Does anyone really believe that showing five seconds of each player's home life or killing time with utterly flat character interaction will actually make the audience care what happens on the court?
Boredom isn't the only response that the show elicits; there's also pain. The vocalized descriptions of characters' personalities are a cat o' nine tails to the intellect, as are the unnecessary side-line commentaries on the tennis action. Ryoma switches his racquet to his dominant hand. Oh, we think, he's switched to his dominant hand, he's getting serious. "Huh? He switched to his left hand...!" says Sakuno. "So he's ready for battle." "Aaargh," we say as we gouge our brains with our thumbs, trying to release the pressure. As a companion piece to spot-the-repeated-animation, playing spot-the-cliche helps relieve the boredom. Until you realize that everything is a cliché, and then the pain sets in. You know the crafty guy is crafty because he has a perpetual squinty smile. You know the cold calculating guy is cold and calculating because he wears opaque glasses. Apply a little brainpower and you can predict every single plot development with agonizing accuracy. Adding insult to injury, the displays of tennis prowess in the opening include flaming balls and whirlwinds of tennis ki, leaving one waiting for someone to go "kame... hame... shot!" And then there's street tennis. Street tennis? Unruly street tennis punks? What's next, street golf?
There is one episode where the opponent is vile and old enough to present an actual threat, making for a mildly exciting match. It's telling though that the match takes place during a filler episode. Ryoma's dad is also a (comparative) kick in the pants; any scene involving him is immediately elevated far above the rest of the episode. His taunting, confrontational parenting also explains perfectly Ryoma's reserved, inapproachable personality. With a father like that, he simply had no choice. Ryoma and Sakuno are adorably cute, and there're plenty of posing pretty boys with carefully animated, athletic legs for the female fans willing to brave boredom. The bright, attractive coloring also makes the art easy on the eyes without crossing the line to garishness.
The dub starts off rough, hobbled by a noticeable lack of enthusiasm and wooden acting. The actors do smooth out as they get more experience with their characters but never gain that crucial spark that makes for a good dub. None of the actors are conspicuously miscast, not even Ryoma who is deeper and more adult in English (with good reason, his actor in Japanese was an actress). The script takes quite a few liberties with the more incidental dialogue, but keeps the endless tennis explanations intact. If you simply must have a dub, it will suffice, and really, nothing that the English cast can do can make it much worse than it already is. There isn't a single mention of the Japanese cast anywhere in the credits and the English cast is credited without matching actors with their roles.
Extras are fairly sparse. There's some production art that goes into unusual detail about characters' coloring, and the original Japanese opening and closing, complete with their less than impressive Japanese songs. The opening used for the actual episodes in this set is entirely new, composed of images from the original opening and ending in addition to some footage from the show itself, punched-up with lightning editing choreographed to some lively electric guitar. Ironically, it's superior to the original, though the original—due to its dull execution—is more representative of the content. Amusingly enough, the new opener is considerably better than the rest of the series' crudely utilized score.
You know you're in dire straits when the sight of the hero's middle-aged dad scratching himself on the veranda is more exciting than his son's tournament. There is one moment during these thirteen episodes when you can't help but stand up and cheer: when the end credits roll.
Overall (dub) : D-
Overall (sub) : D
Story : D
Animation : C-
Art : B
Music : D
+ Ryoma's dad; some cute character designs.
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