The Winter 2020 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
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How was the first episode?
Although rugby is actually played at some high schools in my area, it's not a sport that I have ever had any interest in. I am also very clearly not the target audience here, as the first episode is quite conspicuous about mixing pretty boys with hulking guys and in one instance also very conspicuously makes a joke of playing one scene for homoerotic overtones. Hence this series started with two major strikes against it for me. While the first episode did not do enough to overcome that (I certainly won't be watching anymore), I will at least acknowledge that it shows some potential for some deeper storytelling.
As this kind of series goes, the set-up here is a fairly compelling one: a former star can no longer play because of a nasty non-sport injury, so he decides to stay involved by becoming a team manager. Though he's a familiar face to nearly everyone, some of the players themselves acknowledge that it's an awkward situation all around. Further, the former player who I'm presuming is responsible for him being injured in that motorcycle accident has left the team. That is a prime set-up for all kinds of little dramas as both Natsusa and the other players have to feel out the new relationship dynamic that is being formed here. The first episode even features some, albeit from an outside angle: the newcomer who loves rugby but just doesn't think he's good enough. Hints are dropped about several more potential scenarios.
Throughout the first episode, Natsusa is both the greatest strength and biggest weakness. His perpetually cheery attitude just seems too stereotypical, too much playing into certain archetypes, and frankly, too unrealistically chipper.. On the flip side, the events shown here suggest that he has a remarkably cunning side which can allow him to manipulate people without it being obvious that he's done so; seeing that in action in one of the episode's last scenes was a highlight. That could help make him a little more interesting. The episode also manages some humor beyond the aforementioned joke. The one other thing which bugged me about the episode was some of the character designs. Especially in the opener, several of the players look like they have unrealistically overdeveloped arms and/or legs. That makes some of the body proportioning look off. But that's a small detail on a series that otherwise looks respectable. If you're normally into sports anime or series about a bunch of hunky or pretty guys, this might be worth checking out, but I can't see it drawing much attention beyond those crowds.
The anime-original number24 swiftly introduces us to Yuzuki Natsu, a former rugby star who was forced to abandon the sport after sustaining long-term injuries in a motorcycle accident. Six months later, Yuzuki returns to his college team, now taking an off-field job as a team manager. Over the course of this first episode, we mostly just see Yuzuki reintroducing himself to his various teammates, and demonstrating the sensitivity and supportiveness that will presumably make him shine as a manager.
Though this was a perfectly competent premiere in most respects, for me personally, I found it most interesting as a natural reflection on the malleable relationship between narrative and genre. Though number24 is about a rugby team, we don't actually see any rugby played in this episode - instead, it's mostly taken up by extended introductions to a whole bunch of attractive rugby players, interspersed with reflections on how the various characters feel about their roles on the team. In terms of art design, pacing, and dramatic priorities, number24 feels far less like a sports drama than a male idol show; the focus is on the close bonds between male friends, as well as Yuzuki's ability to help his team reach their greatest selves.
If taken as the opening salvo of an energetic sports drama, this episode is definitely a failure - it's slow-moving, there's little animation, and the only hooks involve Yuzuki's friend forgiving himself for Yuzuki's accident. On the other hand, as the opening to something closer to a male idol drama, number24 is quite effective; this episode covers a great deal of ground in terms of introducing characters, and Yuzuki himself has an engaging combination of thoughtfulness, cleverness, and humor. Watching Yuzuki manipulate his players through turning their own egos against them served as a charming episode punchline, and though this episode was pretty subdued in terms of its visual design, the rugby team is populated with a wide array of variably cute dudes. If you're looking for a traditional sports vehicle, number24 will likely leave you disappointed - but if you're seeking a more character-driven ensemble production (or are a general fan of male idol shows), you might want to give it a try.
Number 24 looks like it might be about rugby in the same way that Stars Align is about soft tennis. Not that anything indicates that this is going to be another trauma-fest, but in the sense that it's the players rather than the sport that is important, at least in this episode. That's certainly not a bad thing (unless you were hoping for a more mature All Out!!), and in fact looks like it might give us a different angle on the sports show, something that's particularly important in a season when Haikyu!! is coming back; if number24 is going to compete with that perennial favorite, it really needs to bring something different to the table.
That difference is largely in our protagonist. Natsuhisa may still think of himself as a rugby player, but the truth is that a motorcycle accident six months before the start of the show cut that possibility short, and now he's taken on a role as a manager rather than the star rookie player he was before. That means that we're going to be seeing this sports story through the eyes of someone who isn't actually playing and no longer quite fits in with the rest of the team; essentially he's become an outsider with inside information. That's not a comfortable place to be, for him or anyone else, and that's something that we see made abundantly clear in this episode. Best friend Sei treats Natsuhisa like he's made of glass, older players are only cautiously glad to see him, and younger players are actively angry about the accident and resent Natsuhisa for the fact that another player quit the team after it. (Hints at the start and end of the episode imply that this teammate was the driver.) No one really knows how to act around Natsuhisa, and while he puts up a good show of not being affected, it's obvious that he is, and his “lessons” to first- year player Yuu show that he's adept at hiding his feelings behind a mask of conviviality.
That all of this is largely done without the use of the Sledgehammer of Symbolism is a major plus, and part of my decision to give this a 4 instead of a 3.5. (Honestly, it was a close call.) Even when he's talking to Yuu or Sei openly, Natsuhisa never lets on that he's uncomfortable, the closest coming when he's helping Sei with a stretch. Even though he was the passenger in the accident, it's clear that he feels guilt over it, and like the blame he's getting from other players is at least partially deserved. Guilt is likely to be a driving emotional factor going forward for Natsuhisa, Yuu, and Ibuki, but with that also comes learning to cope with it, and that should be interesting. Even more appealing, however, are the relationships building between the characters, all of which look like they have potential in however you choose to interpret them.
Even if they don't play much rugby (which they apologize for in the preview), there are enough small details building up to make this worth paying attention to. (The aborted pat on the head is an especially good one, as it shows both the past and present relationship between the characters.) If it can keep the angst in check, I think this could be a keeper.
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