Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
Nozomi Onda loves soccer more than anything, but she has a major problem: she can't play in matches. Her middle school didn't have a girls' team and, when she failed to recruit enough members to start one, she had no choice but to join the boys' team. Though she practices her heart out and works at least as hard as anyone else on the team, her coach refuses to let her participate in games against other schools. What's more, now at the tail end of middle-school, the boys are starting to grow bigger and stronger than her. Despite this, she's determined to find a way to play competitively and prove herself before her middle-school soccer career ends.
Gender in sports is a tricky subject all over the world. In many places, including Japan and the US, girls and women must fight to get equal access to facilities and funding as men's teams; even championship-winning women's teams often get paid less than their male counterparts. Mixed-sex sports are rare, and even when girls can compete on the level of the boys around them, they struggle for recognition and a chance to participate on a quite literal even playing field.
These are the circumstances of Nozomi Onda, a peppery middle-school third-year who, lacking a girls' team to join, enlisted in the boys' soccer team. She's skilled and passionate and works her butt off, but she's not allowed to play in games against other schools. She's determined to use whatever means possible to convince her coach to let her play, including bribery and trickery when old-fashioned skill and hard work fail.
Naoshi Arakawa is best known in English-speaking territories for Your Lie in April, a smash-hit romantic melodrama about a depressed piano prodigy with selective deafness toward his own playing and the beautiful, hot-tempered violinist who decides to pull him out of his funk. While Sayonara, Football, which came first, is a very different kind of work, there are certainly familiar elements to it. Nozomi and Kaori are cut from the same cloth: bright, talented, strong-willed, and a touch manipulative. That's not surprising, considering that Arakawa stated in an interview that he likes to write about strong-willed girls. The cast is about the same age and unusually eloquent for teenagers. Thematically, both works are tinged with a sense of melancholy and finality, as the characters feel the need to prove something before moving forward.
Even given the parallels, I found myself enjoying Sayonara, Football far more than I did Your Lie in April. While their personalities are similar, Nozomi Onda doesn't have the same taint of Manic Pixie Dream Girl that Kaori always had; she's living very much for herself and has her own goals that she's struggling to achieve. Her obsessive devotion to soccer and scrappy determination to break down barriers make her the kind of heroine I love to root for. Her passion and knowledge made me care about her pursuit, even though I know very little about the sport.
To be honest, soccer fans will probably get more out of the series than I did, even if I enjoyed it. The characters make references to famous players, techniques, and national strategies. The matches are highly technical without a lot of commentary from the sidelines explaining what's going on. Doubtless it lessened the impact a bit, since much of the action hinges on Nozomi's playstyle; her soccer-playing is graceful and skillful, instead of the forceful way the boys play. I had to take the series at its word, but for someone who understands the fundamentals of the game, there is much more showing than telling.
At the very least, Arakawa's art is up to the task. The action is weighty and impactful, and though I couldn't tell exactly what I was looking at, the difference between Nozomi's playstyle and the boys' came through. The character art, however, was a bit lacking comparatively. It can get hard to tell some of them apart, especially since some background characters resemble the main cast. Their faces can be a bit strange, cat-eyed and fish-lipped, and their “normal” expressions are never quite as expressive as they should be, especially compared to the more exaggerated, “cartoony” moments.
The character writing is similarly mixed. While I loved Nozomi, I had a much harder time getting invested in her relationships with the secondary characters. Every boy other than her little brother seems to be attracted to her in some way, and her teammates Takei and Tetsu completely fail to make an impact. As her longtime friends, they comment on her attitude and growth as a person, but they have little personality of their own. Her childhood friend on another team, a boy she fell out of touch with for years that she nicknamed “Namek,” is more memorable, but also kind of a jerk.
I had some well-deserved trepidation about the fundamental concept of the manga: once puberty sets in, can a girl hope to compete equally with boys? It's a thorny topic both in fiction and in real life, and Arakawa didn't exactly earn my trust with how he wrote the female characters of Your Lie in April. Interestingly, Sayonara, Football first came out around the same time that future Olympic runner Caster Semenya was being subjected to sex-testing and found to be intersex, with her body producing higher-than-average levels of testosterone for a woman. I'm not sure if the story was informed by current events, though I wouldn't be terribly shocked if it was.
I found Sayonara, Football's treatment of the subject to be surprisingly nuanced. It didn't lean into gender essentialism, characterizing boys as naturally tougher or more skilled than girls. In fact, Nozomi was absolutely the most skilled member of the team and possessed more toughness and grit than most of them too. However, the story also resisted giving into idealism, acknowledging the biological reality of what testosterone does to bodies and that, all other things being equal, your average cisgender boy is larger and stronger than your average cisgender girl, even if outliers can and do exist.
Sayonara, Football's continuation, Farewell, My Dear Cramer, will be getting an anime in just a few months. When I only knew Arakawa for Your Lie in April, I didn't dare get my hopes up for a rare sports series that focused on a girls' team but treated them as tough, serious competitors. But now, I think I can let myself believe.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : B-
+ Solid, highly technical soccer action; addresses subject of gender in sports without talking down and is neither essentialist nor idealistic;
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