Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-7 Streaming
Ren Mihashi loves baseball, but doesn't think he deserves to play. A year previous he was Mihoshi Middle School's ace pitcher, a position that everyone, including Mihashi himself, believed he held because his grandfather owned the place. His team bombed, and upon graduating he transferred to Nishiura High. But love of the sport doesn't die easy. While covertly watching his new school's fledgling team, he is snagged by Maria Momoe, the team's ambitious bombshell coach, and thrust back onto the mound. He fully expects to be thrown from the field the second Momoe sees the pitches that his former teammates derided, but unexpectedly she sees something in him that no one had previously seen. Takaya Abe, the team's taciturn catcher, sees it too, and he's secretly pleased at the prospect of partnering up with an easily-manipulated pitcher. But Momoe doesn't want a quivering pile of lily-livered jelly occupying the mound, so she arranges a little trail-by-fire for her new ace: a practice game with his bitter ex-comrades at Mihoshi High
In the risk-averse post-Geneon market, Funimation's decision to license Big Windup! is a bit of an oddity. Sports series have done pretty poorly stateside, and the fact that it stars a boy who would normally be a throwaway side-character or a mean-spirited joke isn't exactly heartening. Which is probably why they've been testing the waters with this stream of the series' first arc. Apparently the signs are good, since they've scheduled a release of the series' first half for August. But until then, we'll have to make do with watching Mihashi's travails on cramped little computer screens.
What the hell. I'll take what I can get.
After all, any chance at all to see a rock-solid sports show like Big Windup! (without the guilt burden associated with piracy) is to be welcomed with open arms. So open 'em up and give Funimation a big hug. Because this is the best sports show to hit the States since Ippo slugged his way onto (and off of) the market. Of course, it's basically the only one since then, but don't let that deter you. Perhaps it isn't the most exciting of sports shows—baseball doesn't exactly lend itself to skyrocketing adrenaline—but it is a bright, pleasant tale of team-building and personal growth...with plenty of baseball action, of course.
Four of the opening seven episodes' worth in fact. As one might expect from a four-episode baseball game, the Mihoshi game isn't exactly a forest fire of gut-level thrills. Mihashi's skills as a pitcher, as the series takes pains to tell us, aren't of the flashy, crowd-pleasing type, and the games he plays follow suit. The focus is on strategy and the technicalities of team play, not on skills and thrills. As boring as that may sound, director Tsutomu Mizushima paces it well, allowing the game to build slowly to a surprisingly tense finish.
That said, game-playing excitement is not the main aim of these episodes. The series is at least as concerned with how the patchwork Nishiura team comes together during the game as it is with the ultimate outcome. Player interaction trumps tension every time, with particular attention being paid to the pitcher/catcher combo of Mihashi and Abe (often to amusingly homoerotic effect). It's an approach that is unlikely to win the hearts of adrenaline junkies, but the slow meshing of disparate personalities is satisfying in a way that pure thrills simply cannot be.
If that sounds a little gooey for your tastes, rest assured; the series goes about its growing, bonding and other assorted sports emoting with a minimum of fuss. The relationships between the various teammates emerge naturally during training and game-time, rarely relying on overt displays of emotion. Mihashi's suffering at the hands of his former teammates is handled realistically, without vilifying (or sainting) either side. And whenever the series gets too serious for its own good, veteran screenwriter Yousuke Kuroda steps in and breaks things up with a well-placed gag (including a few priceless almost-shonen-ai moments).
In keeping with the overall lack of pretension, A-1 Pictures Inc. wisely forgoes any animation showboating, favoring a focus on important details. Characters run, swing and pitch in convincingly organic ways. Much fun is had with Mihashi's pathetic posture and twitchy super-deformed cowardice, and the thoughts and feelings of others are clearly communicated via mobile faces and expressive bodies. Character designer Takahiko Yoshida has a eye for simple, homey good looks, and uses it to the show's advantage, filling the cast with characters who look as believable as they act. The show favors bright, comfortingly familiar outdoor settings and easy, real-life sporting rhythms, thankfully spurning the ridiculous drama-heightening devices of peers like Princess Nine.
As simple as Shiroh Hamaguchi's score is, it's indispensable. It only comes out of seclusion on occasion—the series relies on silence and incidental baseball noises to a surprising degree—but when it does it's to put the perfect polish on a scene. Whether its a climbing bass line to mount tension or some folksy support for an interesting play, Hamaguchi is always right on target exactly when needed. The mildly rocking opener by ex-Oasis cover band Base Ball Bear and pleasing closer by Kozue Takada are nothing to be sneezed at either.
Curiously enough, Funimation is streaming Big Windup! in English-dubbed form only. Luckily it's a pretty well-rounded dub. It handles humor and sports drama with more or less equal skill, bolstering the former with a few off-the-cuff zingers and treating the latter with respect and serviceable sensitivity. That Sean Michael Teague's Mihashi sometimes gets irritatingly whimpery actually helps by making those moments when he stands up and delivers that much more satisfying, and Greg Ayres (Abe) is surprisingly adept at making the dry technical dialogue interesting. The rest of the cast is good, if not great, with the standout being Cynthia Cranz's lively rendition of ultra-aggressive, ultra-driven Coach Momoe. With no Japanese version to compare to, there's no way of determining just how far Funimation's re-write wanders from the original script, but the lack of nonsequiturs seems to indicate a fair level of faithfulness.
Though convenient to separate them out, it isn't the baseball gaming or the team-building or Hamaguchi's music or even Mizushima's visuals alone that make Big Windup! the surprise delight that it is. Rather it's the way they all come seamlessly together to tell a simple story (a group of guys, a baseball diamond, and a game they really want to win) with sly suspense and unexpected complexity. A smile-a-minute cast, quietly engrossing baseball play, a pleasantly high-quality look, and big but unassuming entertainment chops—all blended effortlessly together. What's not to like? There's almost no need to mention that Coach Momoe is also about the sexiest thing ever to wear a shapeless grey uniform. Almost.
Overall (dub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ A quiet but highly involving baseball story buttressed on all sides by superior writing, direction, scoring and casting.
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