by Justin Sevakis,
As I write this, the city in which I live is slipping into a depression. Apparently the Yankees have lost in the first round of the playoffs, and their season is over. The Mets dropped off the map a few weeks ago. While I don't pretend to have been involved, or even interested, in the proceedings, I do notice that baseball seems to affect people around here a lot more than other sports. One person explained it to me as such: people can relate to baseball because it's something nearly everybody can play.
I may not appreciate the sport in the way that the rest of my city seems to, but I do appreciate its ability to bring diverse peoples together. For example, just a few years ago how many sports fans across the country could pronounce a Japanese name like Hideki Matsui? Baseball is nearly as Japanese these days as it is American, and as afficianados of Japanese pop culture, that can really only be a good thing for us. Despite that, Japan's most famous baseball anime is all but unknown to American fans.
Touch (1985-1987) was the highest rated anime of its day (according to some sources, the highest rated anime ever aired), but it's never gotten much attention Stateside, despite fansubs in circulation since the VHS days. The age of the series is probably its biggest limiting factor: the character designs are visibly dated (and have that more natural, short and squat shape popular in the 80's), the artwork is simple, and the overall feel of the series seems as influenced by Charles Schulz and his Peanuts comics as it does standard manga. Its themes, sports and mundane teen romance, combine two of the hardest genres to sell to American otaku.
And yet to ignore Touch is to ignore one of the most realistic, best-written teen dramas in anime history. Its characters are gentle and likable, and become friends of ours. The wit is real and sharp, as is the tragedy. And its sense of sports drama and the inner growth of its characters is simply beyond reproach.
The twin Uesugi boys, Kazuya and Tatsuya, have grown up living next door to Minami, whose father owns the corner coffee shop. Since they were all born about the same time they made obvious playmates, and as if to encourage them, the two families built them a small one-room playhouse between their two back yards. As they've gotten older the play house has become a study room, and the brothers' two very different personalities have emerged: Older brother Tatsuya has become a perpetually lazy and antisocial slacker, while the younger Kazuya is a top student, well-liked, and something of a prodigy when it comes to baseball.
As we join the story, the three are about to enter high school together and Kazuya, already famous for his pitching, is being scouted by the school's baseball team. Minami, living vicariously through Kazuya's achievements, tells him that she has one dream for him: to take her to Koushien, the famous stadium that houses the national high school baseball tournament. She has one other dream for Tatsuya to fulfill, but that's a secret. Instead, she just wishes he'd pick up a text book for once in his life.
As puberty ensues, along with its inevitable rush of hormones, the two start competing for Minami's attention in increasingly heated ways. Kazuya has quite a bit of success in his first term of high school baseball -- his pitching brings his team further and further into the playoffs -- and as his confidence grows he makes it clear that he doesn't want to be just friends and neighbors with Minami. Tatsuya, forced into confrontation with the brother he always let steal the limelight, realizes that there might be something in his life worth trying for. And Minami, wanting to just hold onto the good times with both of them, tries to keep Kazuya at as much of a distance as possible, while still trying her best to cheer him on. He's the obvious choice for her, according to everyone else, but really she thinks a lot more about that "useless older brother."
But Minami never gets to make a proper choice. As Kazuya leaves for the the final championship game, he's struck by a car and killed.
The loss is devastating to everyone that knew him. But as life moves on, the long-term repercussions start affecting Tatsuya and Minami. The baseball team captain suspects Tatsuya has the same latent knack for baseball as his late brother, but having just joined the boxing club he's not too enthused with the idea of joining them. Meeting people's expectations is something he's never been too good with, and the idea of meeting people's expectations of his perfect dead brother is unappealing at best. He's drafted into the team by his boxing captain (traded to the baseball team captain for an autograph of a pop star), and pretty much sulks. He hasn't played in years (and never seriously), the rest of the team hates him, and he couldn't be less motivated. But then, he remembers Minami's dream, and decides to give it a shot after all. Before long, he's the team's "ace pitcher," almost despite himself.
There are rivals along the way. Minami takes up rhythmic gymnastics, and her talent quickly propels her to school idol, regularly appearing in magazines and newspapers and attracting attention from all over. Nishimura, a rough-faced bombastic fellow pitcher from a rival team, tries to insert himself into Minami's life (and really only succeeds in making a nuisance of himself). The star batter from front-running team Sumi Tech, Akio Nitta, gently approaches Minami, and is just as interested in Tatsuya as a rival in the game. (He never had a chance to go up against his brother.) As Tatsuya becomes more driven and successful, he captures the attention of Nitta's little sister Yuka, who genuinely comes off as annoying and clingy.
But none of these rivals for affection ever have a chance, and Minami and Tatsuya never really take them seriously. At worst, one or the other might get a little flustered or frustrated (as Minami often does when Yuka gloms onto Tatsuya). The thing is, having grown up having seen each other pretty much every day, neither feels particularly insecure about the other, and they work as each other's motivation and security blanket. At the same time, neither is ready to commit to a full-fledged romance. "We don't have to fight to see each other, so we relax and take it for granted," Tatsuya muses to her at one point.
Instead, they end up being each other's motivation to better themselves. Tatsuya pushes himself forward, working towards fulfilling Minami's dream of going to Koushien. Minami, forcibly removed from her spot as baseball team manager at one point, devotes herself to her rhythmic gymnastics, which she seems to have a natural propensity towards. They use the possibility of losing each other as the means to keep themselves going. "If you ever meet someone I don't measure up to, I won't say anything if you chose them over me," Minami tells Tatsuya at one point. Tatsuya reciprocates.
With that as its basis, the story moves along the lines one would expect. Tatsuya fights hard to get his team to Koushien, with the help of his teammates, and many an episode is spent nail-biting over each game's outcome. The way the playoffs are structured, each game is life-or-death. Tatsuya's second year of high school is his first playing baseball, and though the seeds of greatness are there, he doesn't have a chance. His third year of high school is his last chance. A tough-as-nails yakuza-type gets hired as the coach and proceeds to, more or less, haze the team. Turning him in means forfeiting the year, so the team has to bear it, but over the course of the season the coach reveals himself to be quite a complicated and tortured man... and possibly not an evil one.
There are moments so tense in Touch where I was practically jumping up and down with anticipation over a baseball game, something I previously thought myself incapable of. The next scene, Tatsuya is doing something stupid, or Minami is getting hit on by one of her many suitors, or their family dog, the large barking fuzzball named "Punch", is pouncing on people. Tatsuya and Minami are lovable kids, and watching the two of them grow up is undeniably fun. They grow physically as well, from child-like blobs into a curvy gymnast and a muscular athlete. Perhaps most importantly, we see Tatsuya's progression from someone whose lack of confidence was shielded by a fasçade of apathy and sloth into a driven, passionate young man. He struggles with his memory of Kazuya as well as against himself, two impossible ideals he may never satisfy. ("I still don't have much confidence," he confesses to Minami before a big game.) Make no mistake, Touch is Tatsuya's story.
The series is helmed by anime stalwart Gisaburō Sugii, the legendary director of Night on the Galactic Railroad, Street Fighter II and many others, and is probably his most celebrated work. His even-handedness is what he brings to the table; there is rarely a bad episode in the entire 101 episode run. The simple artwork obscures the amazing attention to emotional detail; every pause or hesitation seems to have some significance. Sarcasm and snide comments, mostly from Tatsuya, play as well as in any live action show, as Touch manages to work with back-and-forth dialogue in a way most anime never quite measures up to. Musical choices, from Yoshimi Iwasaki's compelling opening theme song to 50's-style insert songs (notably, the unbelievably catchy "Kaze no MESSAGE") keep the mood light, despite some heavy themes. Yuji Mitsuya also brings some amazing range to Tatsuya, creating lots of shifting emotions under that layer of sarcasm.
Much of the series' triumphs have their roots in Mitsuru Adachi's seminal manga, serialized in Weekly Shonen Sunday for years and wrapping in time for the series to cover pretty much everything. Adachi is someone that American fans never seem to get exposed to (again, due to his art style); his short stories were serialized in Viz's short-lived
Manga Vizion Animerica Extra (thanks, DuelLadyS) anthology many years ago under the title "Short Program", but his many well-loved stories are completely unfamiliar to most of US fandom. Most of them share Touch's gentle nudges of nostalgia and romance, coupled with a sports theme (usually boxing or baseball). His manga "Rough", which followed a similar formula with swimming, was recently made into a mediocre movie. There was a Touch live action movie produced in 2005, which I have not (yet) seen.
Anime-wise, there are three movies (that are easily skipped, as they're only recaps of the series), as well as two TV movies made years later. Neither gets anywhere near the wit or insightfulness of the original; the first, 1996's "Miss Lonely Yesterday" attempts to substitute romance anime histrionics of the most cliché variety, while the second, 2004's "Cross Roads" relies entirely on the gimmick of Tatsuya joining a small town American minor league team in order to rediscover baseball without the burden of his brother's legacy. While the latter is actually watchable (as opposed to Miss Lonely Yesterday, which reeks of bad "reunion specials" in a way that made me want to yell profanity at the TV), both specials commit the sin of forgetting who their characters are. Tatsuya loses his trademark sense of humor and becomes the milquetoast, moderately depressed male romantic lead of countless, far lesser anime. Worse, Minami is reduced to the role of insecure melodramatic doormat in "Miss Lonely Yesterday." There's no chemistry between the two (and when they talk, the dialogue is stilted and unnatural), and in this way the two specials do a disservice to the memory of the far superior series. The sharp edges of more modern anime (and updated character designs) seem jarring in contrast to the softer, faded-photo look of the series, and aren't conducive to the sort of nostalgia the original conveys effortlessly. They're better off forgotten.
In the end, it's the characters that make Touch compelling. Tatsuya and Minami are among the strongest-willed, most admirable people to ever fall in love in anime form. Their tireless efforts to better themselves is inspiring, their passions are involving, their triumphs, exhilarating. It's the sort of anime that makes us strive to be better, ourselves.
|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.|
An old, long series like Touch has a snowball's chance in hell of ever getting licensed for R1, especially with the market the way it is at the moment. Fansubs of the entire series have been released, however, and are easily found online. They look softer than many fans may be used to, as they are mastered from the laserdisc boxed set. The two specials have been done as well (watch out for an early sub of Cross Roads by a different group than the series, which features a really awful translation), but nobody has bothered subbing the compilation movies. For those who don't need subtitles, SuperVision and TOHO released a restored -- but insanely expensive -- boxed set (¥88,000!) in 2004. The set makes up for the price in extras, however, sporting a table photo stand with original artwork, a 90 minute interview with Noriko Hidaka (Minami) and Yuji Mitsuya (Tatsuya), and a CD of the two performing covers of the songs in the show. It's still available from several shops online.
Screenshots © Mitsuru Adachi / Shogakukan • TOHO • ADK.
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