The Fall 2019 Anime Preview Guide
Ahiru no Sora
How would you rate episode 1 of
Ahiru no Sora ?
What is this?
Ahiru no SoraHigh school first year Sora Kurumatani doesn't look like much, and it's easy to get the impression that he has an inflated sense of his own skill – when he tells a group of five thugs trying to rob him that he'll fight them all, he's soundly trounced. But all of that changes when he gets on the basketball court. With his pro player mother's shoes and his promise to her, Sora's a dedicated player with a skill that belies his short stature. The only problem is that his new school's basketball team has become a gathering place for delinquents who are more interested in beating people up than playing games. Can Sora's determination and love of the game change that? Ahiru no Sora is based on a manga. It's available streaming on Crunchyroll, Wednesdays at 6:25 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Ahiru no Sora feels like it may be kicking off a long run. Possibly that's just because I know that the ongoing manga it's based on currently has fifty volumes out, but it's also because it feels very much like a less-engaging (right now) Haikyu!! in its formula. High school first year Sora ticks a lot of the boxes the volleyball series' Hinata does: short, underestimated, highly skilled, and motivated to a crazy degree. There's also a bird metaphor going on, albeit one that doesn't quite work – when girls' basketball team player Madoka watches Sora play, she compares him to a duck, moving smoothly around the court as if he's diving down under the water when you least expect it. Maybe it's just me, but “ducks” aren't the first birds that come to mind when I think of swift, graceful swimmers whose moves surprise you; I'd give that honor more to cormorants. So right from the start the show seems to be engaging with a tortured metaphor that makes me a bit leery of what's to come.
Fortunately it's also working with a formula that sports anime fans know works more oft than not. Sora has to build his team not quite from the ground up, but pretty close to it. He needs to convince the guys that they want to play, make sure they actually can play, and get the rest of the school to take them seriously. That's definitely going to be an uphill battle, but the episode does a good job of showing that Sora's been pushing his way uphill for a long time now and doesn't know how to take no for an answer. That the root of this is his presumably dead, former pro-player mom is equal parts grounding (because that's a damn good reason for his determination) and shamelessly melodramatic, which should work as the series unfolds and the rest of the team figures out what his deal is.
As far as first episodes go, this is pretty standard. Plucky hero, odds stacked against him, tragic backstory, and, in a personal pet peeve, not a responsible adult in sight. That's partly what drags this down for me, because head thug Momoharu is such an unbelievable asshole that I just want someone to step in and make him stop. He's the sort of bully whose redemption could be tricky to swallow, and that's a major concern of mine going forward. I'm also not thrilled with the artwork – the animation has moments of glory, but the art style feels distinctly outdated, particularly the faces. That's not likely to be an issue for readers of the original manga, but if you're used to slicker, less beaky in profile art, it may be one. But it also may hold you over until the next season of Haikyu!!, and there's something to be said for that.
The fact that this manga adaptation is already scheduled for a full year (four cours) run shows that expectations are high for it. Based on the first episode, it's not hard to understand why. It does just about everything right in setting itself up for a long, successful run.
The premise is just a minor variation on the basic sport series concept: an undersized young man is about to use his passion and drive to convince a group of true delinquents to actually take being a basketball team seriously rather than just use it as an excuse to goof off. One of the delinquents (who wasn't obvious about being a delinquent at first) has taken a liking to the protagonist but the others are, for the moment, ganging up against him. Basketball is special to the young man because his presumably-now-dead mother was a basketball star and her basketball shoes are his last memento of her. (That this means that he's wearing women's shoes isn't so strange. I have, at times in the past, wore women's sizes of athletic shoes because I have a narrow foot and narrow shoe sizes for men aren't easy to find in the U.S. Midwest.) There's also a pretty female basketball player who looks like she's going to figure prominently into the story. In other words, nothing special here. The emotional side of it also isn't very noteworthy yet.
What does make the first episode stand out so far is the visuals. The first episode looks remarkably sharp for a sports series, with well-drawn and suitably-rounded character designs across the board. To be sure, there's nothing unique about most of the designs; Sora is as generic as they come in appearance, while many of the other male basketball players look like they were copied from a guidebook on how to draw anime high school delinquents. Madoka, the female basketball player, is legitimately pretty but probably wouldn't stand out in a line-up either. However, generic can be fine if it's drawn as well as these. The animation also shows some potential by putting serious effort into properly animating the basketball moves that Sora executes in the one-on-five challenge at the end.
Honestly, I can't see myself watching any more of this series because it takes more than this to get me into a sports series. However, I can give it a recommendation for those who tolerate such fare.
If you want me to treat your show favorably, an opening song by the pillows is a good place to start. Ahiru no Sora indeed opens on a jaunty rock song by one of my favorite Japanese bands, but fortunately, a strong musical score isn't the only thing it has going for it. From its efficient storytelling and unique character designs to its fluid animation and likable protagonist, Ahiru no Sora confidently establishes itself as a strong sports contender for the fall season.
Even before that opening song, Ahiru no Sora already demonstrates unusually expressive character animation in its introduction of its diminutive yet basketball-loving protagonist, Sora Kurumatani. From there, it quickly establishes an odd friendship between him and the hulking Chiaki Honozanu, before confronting him with the familiar “the club you want to join has been overrun by delinquents' dilemma. But Sora is determined, and with Chiaki as his reluctant quasi-ally, he forces a confrontation with the team's thuggish leaders. And in the end, of course, the fate of the team comes down to a game of basketball, as Sora proves his height can actually be an asset on the court.
Though that whole description will likely feel familiar if you've watched more than a few sports anime, classic genre pieces like this are more about execution than innovation, and Ahiru no Sora delivers on all fronts there. Directed by Keizo Kusakawa, an old SHAFT mainstay who handled a great deal of the Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha franchise, Ahiru no Sora moves confidently and efficiently through its setup, while leaving just enough time to build some texture into the relationship between Sora and Chiaki. Though Sora is your usual bright-eyed, spiky-haired protagonist, this episode's expressive character acting made it easy to relate to his feelings, while the uniquely angular and stereotypically “delinquent-esque” designs of his teammates made for plenty of fun expressions and dynamic closeups. On top of all that, the brief segment of actual basketball that ends this episode is genuinely thrilling, with the animation of Sora's movement coming across as both fluid and clearly weighted, gracefully conveying his talent for the sport.
All in all, outside of one regrettable sequence featuring a peephole to the girl's locker room, there was basically nothing I disliked about this episode, and plenty to enjoy. Ahiru no Sora isn't reinventing the wheel, but it's a very sturdy example of its genre, elevated through fluid animation, distinctive character art, and an excellent soundtrack. If you're looking for a classic sports anime this season, Ahiru no Sora is a fine pick.
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