Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 31st 2008
Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl
DVD Box Set 1
To the casual observer, Yawara Inokuma is a terribly normal girl. She loves to shop, dress up and hang out with her friends. She's desperate for romance, has all kinds of silly ideas about love, and has terrible taste in men. What the casual observer doesn't know is that she has to fight tooth and nail just for the appearance of normalcy. Her grandfather, eccentric judo genius Jigoro, has been grooming her for judo superstardom since she was a tot, and doesn't truck with all the girly stuff Yawara wants so desperately to experience. He'll do anything to guarantee that his granddaughter will walk the path of judo straight to the Olympics (as opposed to the path of moral decay that leads to *gasp* discos). He manipulates her into judo matches, manufactures a rival, and even tries to strong-arm her into the judo college of his choice. His efforts aren't entirely in vain—somewhere in Yawara's heart, she does love judo—but Yawara is no pushover. She knows what she wants and is just as stubborn as her mule-headed grandfather in her pursuit of normal life. She also finds an unexpected ally in Kousaku Matsuda, a gifted reporter working for a third-rate scandal rag who helps her despite his intense interest in her promise as a sports star, and a potential love interest in Shinnosuke Kazamatsuri, the womanizing coach (and unwilling fiancé) of her self-proclaimed rival, debutante Sayaka Honami. Can she find love amidst the whirlwind of fame, paparazzi and judo-ka out for blood that her debut puts into motion? Not if Jigoro (or Sayaka) can help it.
It may seem incongruous that Naoki Urasawa, the man known as Japan's Master of Suspense, made his name with this light, sweet sports romance, but it was the original Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock himself who famously said that “a film isn't a slice of life but a slice of cake.” With forty long episodes sardined onto six discs, AnimEigo's first Yawara box set is a lot of cake. It's a testament to its tastiness that, after wolfing down seventeen hours of it, there's still plenty of room for more.
Seamlessly blending romance, humor, life hurdles and sports intrigue, Yawara is a lesson in forthright entertainment done right. It has no towering ambitions, no manipulative melodramatic leanings, just a genuine desire to entertain and an enduring faith in the power of normal life and normal people to do so. A cast of believably endearing oddballs and an eye for comic discomfort gives the series a healthy veneer of humor as it moves with leisurely ease from one bittersweet complication to the next. The humor can be broad, particularly when dealing with Sayaka's errant false tooth or Kazamatsuri's narcissistic grooming habits, but the emotions never are. The consequences of Matsuda's self-sacrificing meddling and Yawara's frequently-wounded romantic naiveté are sharply observed, and neither Urasawa nor director Hiroko Tokita is prone to taking emotional cheap shots.
Though far more interested in romance and Yawara's rocky coming of age, the series is at least nominally a sports show, as the judo term-dropping that trips the dialogue up on occasion will attest. The judo action is rigorously accurate and executed with the same no-nonsense realism as the rest of Tokita's direction, but more often than not the matches are brought to fast, forgone conclusions. Tellingly the most interesting matches are those focusing on Sayaka, whereas Yawara's matches are more about the emotional underpinnings than the action or suspense. Yawara's one serious bout, a breathtakingly ferocious match with the curiously loveable American (okay, Canadian) stereotype Jody Rockwell, makes it amply clear that this will not always be the case, but for the time being, intense judo action isn't one of the series' draws.
Yawara herself, on the other hand, is. With all due respect to the natural flow of Urasawa's writing and the homey warmth of Tokita's cel-animated visuals, Yawara the series is Yawara the character. All of the series that throw prefabricated character traits at their female leads in a desperate bid to woo audiences would do well to take notice of the ease with which Yawara steals her every scene. Yawara is no character construct; she's a living, breathing girl. She's adorable, of course, but more importantly she's human—a mess of contradictory impulses: selfishness, naiveté, longing, and ultimately, genuine kindness. She's a heroine to root for, and root for hard—be it for her success in love or in the competitive world of judo.
Tokita crafts Yawara's sound more from ambient noise than musical cues, using incidental sounds—crowds, animals, vehicles—to create realistic cinematic spaces and underline emotions. What music there is is pleasantly functional and little more, which makes the addictive 80's pop opener and gentle closer stand out all the more.
AnimEigo makes room on the set's final disc for some digital extras, which include an interactive map of Japan that gives the lowdown on the prefectures featured in the series, collections of eyecatches, stills and promotional art, and character profiles. The set also includes a 70-page booklet said to feature judo explanations, bios and cultural notes. I'll have to take their word for it, since my set sits shivering and naked on my shelf with no booklet to shield it from the vagaries of the thermostat.
AnimEigo provides no dub for Yawara. That isn't really an issue since no one but strait-jacketed nutjobs who believe the voices in their heads would expect it to have one. More problematic are AnimEigo's distracting multi-colored subtitles and intrusive (and repetitive) on-screen terminology notes. The terminology notes are selectable, but unfortunately de-selecting them also disables the translations of on-screen Japanese text.
At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, they just don't make them like this any more. That isn't to imply that the quality of anime is declining—I'm not stupid enough to believe that—it's just that it often feels as if shows are trying so hard to carve up the viewership pie that they have forgotten the drawing power of a simple story told well. With heart worn on sleeve and honest eyes unclouded by irony or gimmickry, Yawara is exactly that, and much more. It is, quite simply, the most purely enjoyable series in years.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Enough straightforward fun to damn an entire colony of Puritans.
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