Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 17th 2008
Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl
Every teenager, in some respect, has to deal with meddling parents. But Yawara is a special case. Her grandfather Jigoro, whom she lives with, has been training her since childhood to be the guiding star of women's judo. A former judo prodigy, he works her relentlessly, planning for the day when his young protégé will make her spectacular debut on the judo stage. His goal is the Olympic Gold in women's judo (even though the category doesn't yet exist) and eventually the coveted National Merit Award. And he'll do anything to achieve it, be it sneaking into her room to purge it of girly, non-judo distractions, creating a rival, intimidating potential suitors, or scheming to force her into judo matches. Yawara, like any good teenager, is rebelling; all she wants is to be a normal girl. She skips practice, wears makeup (the horror!), practices cooking, and most of all, goes looking for love. But being normal isn't easy when it seems the cosmos themselves are plotting against you. Her manufactured rival, one of Japan's richest socialites, won't leave her alone, a nosy reporter becomes obsessed with her potential after witnessing her takedown of a purse snatcher, and even the guy she's attracted to turns out to be a judo coach. It seems Yawara is destined to be a judo girl whether she likes it or not.
Somewhere at AnimEigo there's a little demon that delights in torturing their staff. It's the demon that drove them to finish Urusei Yatsura and then to cement their reputation as the anime industry's main distributor of lengthy older series by licensing this almost equally massive sports comedy/drama. That their licensing decision may have been influenced by the forces of evil doesn't shake AnimEigo's confidence in their product however. Such is their faith in the winning power of Yawara that this sample of the series' first four episodes is being offered free (minus a somewhat excessive shipping charge) to all comers. Their confidence, it turns out, is not misplaced.
Originally written by Naoki Urasawa, it can be difficult to see the man who would eventually craft the exquisitely dark Monster in this bright, highly entertaining series. These first four episodes take a slice-of-life tack, detailing Yaw>ara and Jigoro!'s (admittedly odd) daily routines, building their personalities, piling on the amusing situations, and radiating charm and a simple desire to entertain. It floats viewers from smile to smile with deceptive ease (and the occasional push from the crotchety, scheming Jigoro!). If Yawara were a person, it would eat charm for breakfast, sleep in a pool of it at night, and breath and sweat it all day long. It would have a sunny disposition, an essential reserve and surprising determination. In other words, if Yawara the show were a person, it would be Yawara the character. She's all that and more: she's a character tailored to soak up audience sympathy like a sponge. The show may bear precious little resemblance to the fierce Monster or the indulgent Master Keaton, but it does bear Urasawa's mark, most obviously in the visuals—his distinctive character designs and love of discontinuous editing emerge surprisingly intact—but most importantly in his ability to craft main characters of perfectly realistic kindness and decency.
The series is helmed by Hiroko Tokita (who got his start in the masterfully subdued Touch and obviously learned his lessons well), and while the humor can be quite broad and he's not above the occasional surreptitious panty-shot, his light but sure touch is one of the major reasons why Yawara is much more than a mere judo-based sitcom. He knows the importance of balancing physical appearance (he makes potent use of Yaw>ara's formidably realistic cuteness), vocal performance (nearly everyone is cast to perfection), and telling little moments (the sideways dart of an eye, a downcast glance) in building characters. He keeps the visuals spare but realistically detailed, and makes the most of the warmth and human quality of traditional cel animation while keeping the action confined to a few properly active displays such that the limitations of its television-sized budget never become obvious. His use of the score is restricted to the point of non-existence; only emerging occasionally (a chase here, an action scene there), the stretches of silence occupied with bird song, incidental urban noise, and background chatter. The cumulative effect is a quiet realism that persists no matter how outrageous Jigoro!'s behavior gets. And it is that realism, along with an accompanying mild psychological realism (especially in the naiveté of Yaw>ara's convictions about "normal" romance) and a few beautifully honed introspective sequences, which promise that the series won't always be all comic comeuppance and missing-tooth jokes.
Though it's their stated intent that more will be included on the box set, the only extras on this disc are AnimEigo's usual liner notes. They hardly need anything more. As usual the notes are eclectic, informative, and well-researched. On top of explaining translation problems (puns, as always, present the trickiest challenges), the notes delve into cultural references, judo terminology, trivia, and even a brief history of the panty-shot (would you believe that Osamu Tezuka is credited with its introduction to anime?). Comparing the careful descriptions of various judo moves in the notes with the scenes to which they refer gives some indication of the care and research that went into the show's martial-arts sequences, something that bodes quite well for future sports-action. As with Urusei Yatsura, for obvious reasons Yawara is not dubbed. AnimEigo's multi-colored subtitles are unfortunately more distracting than helpful.
Though it would be naive to assume that the series' sports angle might be a selling point, because of it Yawara is far better suited to AnimEigo's box-set releasing style than say Urusei Yatsura (which causes headaches in large doses). Whether by accident or devilish design, this disc ends just as Yaw>ara's first real judo match begins, and that prospect, along with the countless dramatic and comedic possibilities raised in these four meager episodes, whets an appetite that is more than enough to devour AnimEigo's proposed 40-episode box-set. This is feel-good entertainment without all of the treacly baggage, and things simply don't get much better than that.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Light, entertaining opening to a promising sports drama; frighteningly sympathetic lead.
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