Reviewby Justin Sevakis,
DVD - Season 1 Part 2
It's the first game ever for the all-Freshmen baseball team of Nishiura High School, and it's a big one: they're up against last year's champion, Tosei Academy. Pretty much everybody has counted them out, but the team is confident. Even Mihashi, the clinically timid ace pitcher, seems strangely on-balance. But the game is a long one, and anything can happen.
Big Windup goes into its second half with some big expectations. The first half of the show established a truly interesting array of characters (lead by Mihashi, the world's most spineless sports manga hero), and combined them with some truly great animation and artwork, artfully lead by director Tsutomu Mizushima, and some pulse-pounding baseball action. Despite being amusingly homoerotic at times (though not significantly moreso than most Shonen Jump fare these days), it's nonetheless some of the best sports anime Japan has made in recent years. So as volume two begins, we wonder, can the show possibly keep up this level of quality and excitement?
Well, no. Actually, the second half of the show, while still fun and watchable, falls down rather badly. The series comes down with a serious case of Shonen Tournament Syndrome, its pace slowing down to an absolute crawl. Nearly the entire 2-disc set, eleven episodes in all, are spent on a SINGLE BASEBALL GAME.
That's right, a dramatized baseball game, one without extra innings, lasts an appalling four and a half hours. That's longer than most professional baseball games last in real time, with commercial breaks. It's more than an episode per inning. The show's talented array of screenwriters (including noted Patlabor alum Michiko Yokote) do their best to pad things out, to the point where every actual event in the game is preceded by paragraphs of internal monologue from at least three different characters. We waste as much time as possible listening to the players' mothers in the stands gossip and talk about their kids. Banked shots of the crowd and rival team Tosei's massive cheering section repeat themselves ad nauseum.
Despite all of that, it's still surprisingly involving. Having drawn last year's champions as their first game in the sudden-death tournament, the team of freshmen from Nishiura High School enter the game with a sense of calm. It's a calm that won't last very long, as ace pitcher/abused puppy Mihashi gets too excited and over-exerts himself, causing catcher Abe and coach Momoe to worry he might not last the whole game. Tajima, who usually can hit just about any ball coming his way, struggles to make contact with rival team Tosei's pitches. The rest of the team has their doubts too, and an ever-present rain threatens to get the game called off at any possible moment.
As for the rival team, Tosei has a truly fearsome coach, and he's livid that the champions are having to work so hard against a new public school team consisting entirely of freshmen. While they started off the game predicting an easy victory, they soon find that this is a much tougher game than they could have ever dreamed of. And so, in intricate, surgical detail, we are treated to every possible aspect of the proceeding game. Every pitch, every swing, every camera angle. We hear the thoughts of Abe, Coach Momoe, Mihashi, Captain Hanai, and most of the members of the other team as well. It's involving, but it goes on, and on, and on... After a while, even the episode names and next-episode teases seem mindful of just how long this is taking.
After the game FINALLY draws to a close, we only have one canon episode left in the series: the aftermath. Mihashi, feverish from exhaustion, recuperates at home, all the while marinating in guilt for allowing Tosei to rack up points. A few friends from the team, including Abe and Tajima, stop by for lunch. It's an important and at times funny episode: Abe begins to realize just how abusive he's being to the poor kid, while simultaneously wanting to punch him more for being such a simpering loser. It's a relief to have such quality time after such a long stretch, and it's easily one of the best episodes in the series. For a final episode we're treated to a side story based on the pilot episode of the manga, wherein Abe's middle school nemesis Haruna has to talk some sense into a teammate who's feeling he's reached his personal limits and should quit the team.
And that's where it ends, merely one game into the 12 game tournament that comprises a Japanese high school baseball season. The magazine that serializes Big Windup, AFTERNOON, is a monthly anthology, so new chapters come out pretty slowly. By the time the anime was made in 2007, there was only enough story for a single season of animation (and even that's a stretch); even today there's probably not yet enough for a second. I won't pretend it's not a frustrating place to leave off, but given a choice I'd take years of waiting for manga and maybe a second season over countless mindless filler episodes any day.
I can't help but love Big Windup. It's the most compelling sports anime since Hajime no Ippo, combining an extreme underdog with a team of lesser underdogs; a nail-biting sports serial that can grab hold of even someone with no interest in sports and make their stomach churn in anticipation of an at-bat, a pitch, or a run. Its animation, despite occasional slips in quality, maintains a high standard for the most part. The music, though nothing special, made me smile with not-so-subtle references to Chariots of Fire and other well-known sports soundtracks. And yet, this volume was unquestionably frustrating to watch, for it has fallen quite far. The glacial pacing drags down the entire production, and the strain of the writers and storyboard artists to try to keep the momentum going is all too evident in these episodes.
Although the dub is mostly excellent, it too begins to show some cracks. The screenplay is incredible, giving the back-and-forth between athletic teenagers a naturalistic feel sorely missing from many dubs. Despite a very smart ear for casual dialogue, it never strays too far from the intent of the show. Greg Ayers is a tremendous standout as Abe -- this rare opportunity for him to act more and screech less proves the guy has more chops than he's usually allowed to exercise. Other notables include Todd Haberkorn as the lovable spaz Tajima, and Joel McDonald as conflicted team captain Hanai. But as more rival teams are introduced Funimation clearly starts to run out of top-tier voice talent. There are a few decent actors on each team (usually the characters with more lines), but lesser ones tend to fare worse and worse as episodes go by. Name pronunciations have always been a problem for this cast, and this volume is rife with inconsistencies. The final episode, a side story involving none of the main cast, is a significant misstep, featuring uniformly stiff performances, off-meaning intonation, and some truly mangled Japanese names.
These are ultimately nit-picks; the project as a whole is still solid, and I generally prefer Funimation's less-polished, more natural sounding cast to the too-perfect Japanese. (Tsubasa Yonaga's Mihashi is so effeminate that I was truly shocked to find he wasn't voiced by a woman!) Moreover, these episodes are so heavy on the expository monologues that trying to watch the subtitled version would be tantamount to reading a reference book on baseball analysis. With a cast as strong as this one, viewers with an open mind towards dubs would be best served giving this one a chance.
Funimation's 2-disc set is decent, albeit barebones, featuring only clean opening and endings as extras. The video looks solid, though a bit noisier than an all-digital production this recent should. (That noise might be a faux film grain effect in the animation to soften the harsh "digital" lines -- it's hard to tell.) Despite the amount of video on the discs, the compression looks completely decent. Funimation's quality-destroying habit of including the Japanese credits as an alternate angle was retired last year, so if you haven't seen one of their discs in a while they finally look as good as any other recent anime DVD.
The problems with this second half of Big Windup are not enough to derail the show, but they add up to the point where the experience is way less satisfying than it should be. But such is the power of its characters and their truly vivid, fleshed out personalities; their charisma, their overall likability, that I still can't help but love the whole package. For all its faults, Big Windup is still a must-watch. Its slightly overblown emphasis on male bonding will keep slash fans satisfied, while the rest of us can enjoy the deftly handled sports and the fun, quirky cast. This isn't the way I'd hoped the series would end, but I'm hoping that with any luck, it won't be.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Same likable characters, mostly consistent art, and a few good episodes at the end.
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