The Fall 2020 Preview Guide
Iwa-Kakeru! -Sport Climbing Girls-
How would you rate episode 1 of
Iwa-Kakeru! -Sport Climbing Girls- ?
What is this?
First-year high school student Konomi Kasahara discovered sport climbing at Hanamiya Girls' High School after training her mind with puzzle games during junior high school. Her life changed the moment she stumbled across her new school's climbing wall, which led her into the school's climbing team.
How was the first episode?
Iwa-Kakeru! -Sport Climbing Girls- is this fall's first girls' hobby club series, and it's become easy to figure out the formula to determine whether the show will be up your alley: First, are you in any way, shape, or form interested in learning more about the niche hobby that these anime girls are going to spend a whole season obsessing over? In Iwa-Kakeru!'s case, rock climbing is the name of the game, and while I've actually had a lot of fun attempting climbing walls in the past, it is a terrible choice for the main focus of an animated series. Unlike shows that have their girls geeking over airsoft guns, soapbox cars, or indie board games, there is very little to be impressed with when it comes to the mechanics and accessories of rock climbing. You've got the wall itself, obviously, and all of the different colored rocks…there's harnesses too, I guess, and…um…caribiners? That's what those claspy things are called, right? Even when Iwa-Kakeru! tries to play up the athletic side of the sport and focuses on the mix of puzzle-solving and physical endurance that goes into the actual climbing, it just isn't all that exciting to watch.
Okay, so the formula has determined that only the most particular of sports enthusiasts will be coming here for the educational value. What about the characters? They surely must carry the show if the rock-climbing gimmick does not, right? Well, unfortunately, Iwa-Kakeru! goes down the same well-trodden path of so many of its forbears, and gives its characters identities in only the most functional sense. Jun is easily the most interesting of the bunch, since you can really feel her genuine passion for rock-climbing, bewildering though it may be to a layman such as myself. This causes her to clash with the naïve but persistent Konomi, who fulfills her job as the audience insert newbie by not knowing a lot about rock climbing, and then wanting to do a lot of rock climbing. Sayo and Nonoka are also members of the climbing team and they…well, they exist so that someone can monologue about climbing technique when Jun is too busy to do it for them.
Iwa-Kakeru! even fails the most desperate gambit a sports anime can pull: fanservice. It gets one thing right, in that it allows its experienced climbers to have well-defined muscles. However, even setting aside the sketch factor of leering at a bunch of teenagers in skimpy workout clothes, the animation on display here looks terribly cheap, and the character models are all ever-so-slightly out of skew much of the time. So even when the camera is unashamedly leering down Konomi's bosom or gazing up right into Jun's ass-cheeks as she climbs those dang rocks, the effect is more awkward than it is sexy. The artists also biffed their attempt at replicating the super angular and bony physique that athletes sport with Jun, who looks emaciated in many shots, and the extent to which her crotch is this close to slipping out of her booty shorts is, again, just kind of sad. I don't think anyone needs to go out of their way to give Iwa-Kakeru! their time, but someone definitely needs to get that girl a sandwich or something.
There's an art to making an engaging sports narrative. If you make things too technical you stand to lose anyone not already initiated into your particular athletic pastime, but if the sport itself is too ancillary you threaten to make it feel incidental to whatever story you're really telling. Paramount to all that though is crafting likable characters who have a believable reason for getting so fired up about what most people would consider a hobby, especially when they're in high school and not even capable of going semi-pro with it. Iwa-Kakeru! manages to pull off the technical aspects well enough; despite knowing nothing about rock climbing I never felt lost while watching this premiere, and the sport itself is totally integral to everything on screen. Where it struggles is in making me care about any of it.
That mostly comes down to Jun, the hardnosed veteran climber who inducts our newbie protagonist into the Sport Climbing club before challenging her to a race for daring to insult the sacred tradition of rock climbing by (positively!) comparing it to a game. The show attempts to sell this as Jun just being so dedicated and proud of her hard work as an athlete, but it comes off as gatekeeping from somebody too up their own ass to accept that not everyone treats sports as their sole identity. That the rest of the cast just let her have her way even as it's apparently driven away multiple prospective members just tells me they should try getting rid of the common denominator. Protagonist Konomi is a little more likable, but her backstory as a former hardcore gamer who had to give up the ghost to focus on studying feels just a little bland. I'm okay with having a lead who's not already hyper-invested in the central sport, but it also feels like she could have stumbled onto a game of billiards and be equally enamored.
Outside of that, the show hits all the expected sports narrative beats in serviceable, if unremarkable, ways. I do appreciate that Jun is drawn with visibly defined muscle – even if the show insists strength is secondary to technique, it makes sense that somebody as dedicated as her would exercise to improve as well – and while there's plenty of shots of Konomi's cleavage as she climbs, the show's camera isn't as skeevy as I expected going in. That said, the production values are decidedly below average, with most of the actual climbing happening between cuts, which doesn't do much to make the show work as spectator sport. It's not awful or anything, but something in the direction of this first episode gives me the impression the show might just go the way of Tamayomi, the baseball series from earlier this year that infamously melted by episode 4.
All-in-all this just doesn't leave a strong impression, though I do at least feel like I have a better appreciation for rock climbing than I did before. It's still not something I feel the need to seek out or spectate, but good on Iwa-Kakeru! for being a decent ambassador for its subject matter.
The advertising for this series is a little deceptive, as the picture features protagonist (or perhaps co-protagonist?) Konomi climbing what looks like a real cliff. However, the series is instead about a class of sports climbing called competition climbing, the kind that is done at indoor climbing centers in urban and suburban locations around the country. So nope, there's no natural background, either, at least in the first episode. (The closer does show scenes of them cliff climbing, though.)
But that's hardly a deterrent for this show. It is absolutely a sports show at heart, with the production trying hard to make the sport look appealing to viewers who have probably never even thought of trying it before. That naturally means that it is a school club activity, which makes me wonder if it is popular enough at the high school level in real life for there to be any kind of actual organization to it in Japan. (There seems to be some organized activity for it in some parts of the U.S., especially Colorado.) The first episode takes an interesting angle on the sport by showing how Konomi's superior skill at puzzle games can translate directly to climbing, and after seeing the opening scene, an in media res moment where she is involved in a serious, high-level competition, that does not seem like a stretch at all. Part of being good at climbing is mapping out the best route and best way to tackle each obstacle. Visualizing it like a puzzle game may not be the way hard-core enthusiast Jun would do it, but it is still a valid approach.
For those who might not be all that interested in competitive climbing alone, there is a fanservice angle. It is not heavily focused on, but the rock climbing outfits are on the tight and skimpy side and suggestive angles pop up a couple of times during the climbing scenes. Interestingly, the character designs are not shy about showing female characters with muscled arms and/or abs, though heroine Konomi does not look that way (yet). Efforts to use dynamic camera angles sometimes go overboard, and the animation of the rock climbing is disappointingly limited, but in general the artistry is sharp. Oh, and the team captain should have been able to guess what Konomi's past experience was based on that puzzle piece- shaped hair clip.
I may not watch any more of this, but as first episodes go, I did not feel like I wasted my time.
Rock climbing isn't just a sport, it's a whole new venue for sports-based fanservice! Okay, that may not be strictly correct, because in its defense, this opening episode does a lot more with the actual sport than any of the promotional imagery led me to expect, but the angles of the climbing wall certainly do allow for plenty of crotch and cleavage imagery, some of which do make me question how well the artists and animators know female anatomy. But if we take out the (oddly) bulging bodies, Iwa-Kakeru! -Sport Climbing Girls- has a very solid first episode.
Probably my favorite aspect of this was the way that newbie climber Konomi approaches the sport. Konomi is a high school first year who up until recently was a hardcore gamer, and if puzzle games weren't her specialty, they certainly were one of her strong suits. She gave up gaming in order to get into a decent high school, but all of those years of playing puzzle games gave her a unique way of approaching a climbing wall – she sees it as a bubble popping game, the kind where you have to line up bubbles of the same color in order to eliminate them. This translates into Konomi being able to figure out the best way to follow a color-coded route: she pictures the spaces in between hand-and-footholds as the bubbles she needs to turn yellow (for example), creating a path for herself from point A to point B. It's something that definitely works better if you see her doing it rather than reading me trying to describe it, and it gives her an eye for the sport in a way that no one quite expects – herself included.
Unfortunately for both Konomi and the show, the person who not only doesn't expect it but also takes exception to things like “someone enjoying a sport” is a member of the very rock climbing team Konomi wants to join. Jun is another first year, but for whatever reason she thinks that no one is allowed to have fun climbing rocks. Is that because she thinks “fun” equates to “not taking it seriously?” That seems like the best bet right now, but it could also stem from resentment that Konomi is good at the sport almost immediately, smiling and not giving up and (gasp) mentioning these things out loud. That makes Jun issue an ultimatum (as the only official first-year member, she really shouldn't be allowed to do this) that Konomi can only join if she beats Jun in a climbing race.
This perhaps irritated me more than it ought to, in large part because there is no actual reason for any of this to happen. The two upperclassmen should have shut Jun down immediately, if not because she was being a twit, then at least for the sake of having a team with more than two or three people on it; school clubs in anime routinely get shut down with those numbers. It also smacks of Jun cutting her nose to spite her face; she's just reacting because the rules she's arbitrarily established for herself aren't being followed by someone she's only just met. Jun really could ruin this entire show (for me, anyway) if she isn't scaled back, and soon.
But Jun aside, this has some real potential. It's interesting, the girls all have different musculature based on their builds and levels of climbing expertise, and it's a sport I know virtually nothing about. (Like…all sports, actually…) It looks like it'll be more than just fanservice on a wall, so if you're in the mood for a new sports show, I'd suggest checking it out.
Much like in the real world, girls' sports anime get so little respect or attention compared to their male-focused counterparts. They're often cutesy and dull, featuring girls who are just here to have a good time but lacking in skill; the few that depict real competition are often stuffed to the brim with bouncing breasts and butts. Anything with a truly competitive team that also treats its characters with respect and not like sex objects is few and far between, and every season, I pray the girls' sports series du jour will be the answer. I really and truly had hopes for Iwa-Kakeru! -Sport Climbing Girls-. Is it the answer to my prayers?
Well… not quite. It's not a total fan service fest, though it does utilize some leering camera angles that stare down Konomi's tank top as she climbs. Jun is absolutely ripped, as is Konomi's anonymous competitor in the cold opening, but the other members of the club don't have the same athletic look. Maybe that's a deliberate choice, since none of them are as intense about it as Jun, but it's a little disappointing.
Then there's the subject of the rock climbing itself. For me, it's a major part of the appeal, since bouldering is one of the few sports I've dabbled in. I can't do anything tougher than a beginner course, because I'm short and not remotely athletic, but the combination of strength and puzzle-solving works to my natural talents better than anything requiring reaction time or coordination. I even have family members who leveraged their climbing skills into lucrative careers. Because of my background, I was able to appreciate this way more than an identical show about a niche sport I know nothing about.
The other side of that coin is that certain parts of the story really stretched credibility to me. Climbing is a skill that takes a lot of hard work and practice, not just to understand it but to build the right kind of strength and footholds. Konomi instantly being good at it because she did ballet as a kid and is an expert at puzzle games is utter nonsense of the highest order. It's not that she's good at one particular thing that gives her a leg-up as a beginner or an unusual approach; she's the kind of savant that doesn't exist in the real world, and it would be more interesting and satisfying seeing her start from... maybe not zero, but not sixty either.
Jun, on the other hand, is more believable but also much more unpleasant. She's been climbing since she was a small child, and does not tolerate people who don't take rock climbing seriously. It's not enough to treat it as a hobby or have fun with it. You have to be driven to be the best. She would hate me. It's just amazing she can do the necessary moves with that stick up her butt, and I don't know why the older team members let her push Konomi around. It's no wonder they haven't been able to keep any newbies.
Iwa-Kakeru! -Sport Climbing Girls- isn't particularly great and I doubt it'll have staying power of any kind, but it scratches a very specific itch I've had for a while.
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