Reviewby Theron Martin,
Taisho Baseball Girls
DVD - Complete Collection
In 1925, Japan is on a dividing line between the old and the new. Western-style food and dress is popular but traditional Japanese styles have hardly faded away and old-fashioned ideals still pervade, including the notion that baseball is purely a man's sport. Middle school student Akiko Ogasawara takes umbrage when told by her arranged fiancé, a baseball player, that education is wasted on women since they are destined to fill purely domestic roles, so she corrals best friend Koume into helping her form a girls baseball team, one that would eventually be capable of challenging the boys team of her fiancé's school. Although the two friends do eventually manage to assemble a team of nine girls, they face daunting challenges, not the least of which are their utter lack of knowledge about baseball and having to keep their efforts hidden from likely-disapproving parents. When boys teams from other middle schools fail to take them seriously enough to approve requests for practice matches, the girls must get creative to get their necessary practice in. Even once they do, facing down the formidable Asaka Middle School team will be no mean feat, especially once the Asaka players figure out Akiko's “magic pitch.”
While this series based on Atsushi Kagurasaka's popular lite novels might invite peripheral comparisons to the 1992 American movie A League of Their Own, it is an entirely different animal. Instead of telling a story about the formation and popularization of an actual historical women's baseball league, Taisho tells a tale about an independent team built totally from scratch. Instead of using adult women, Taisho features middle school girls. Instead of mixing in drama elements and taking a gritty approach to the game, Taisho remains light-hearted and adorably cute throughout – almost criminally so in the latter case. In fact, finding a sweeter and more charming anime series that is still tolerable by adults would be a Herculean task.
And that is where the full strength of the series lies. It is not a series that is going to overwhelm viewers with the intricacy of its baseball knowledge, impress them with the depth of its characterizations, or wow them with intense baseball action or top-rate technical merits. No, this one will simply charm the pants off of unsuspecting viewers and give them loads of good chuckles along the way. Director Takashi Ikehata, who also helmed Genshiken, clearly understood that the girls themselves and the historical context in which they operate were ultimately more important than the baseball elements, so the emphasis for all but the climactic game remains firmly on the organizational issues rather than the baseball mechanics; the way Akiko pitches the ball at first, while undeniably cute, will probably make any actual baseball player cringe. Watching the eagerness with which some of the girls approach the sport even though they do not know the first thing about it, and watching how naïve they are about how far they have to go to even be competitive, can be quite appealing, and unlike so many other recent series, this one does not rely on a steady diet of blatant moe trappings to accomplish that. The girls also get plenty of comedy moments, too, with highlights including Koume's rude introduction to why catchers wear masks and the whole ridiculous business about the “rogue batter” in one episode.
The series also has one other major factor in its favor: the time in which it is set. Putting the story in the second decade of the Taisho era allowed Kagurasaka to introduce all sorts of period tidbits, including the gradual transition towards the adoption of the “sailor suit” which has been a staple girl's school uniform design throughout Japan ever since. As the series shows, this was a move met with gradually diminishing resistance at first, which here results in classes that are a mix of kimono-clad and sailor suit-clad girls. The mixed-bag effect of Westernization is also prominent throughout the series. Koume's family operates a restaurant which specializes in Western cuisine and primarily has customers in Western-style dress, yet both Koume and her mother still wear kimonos. Early-model cars drive down streets also inhabited by rickshaws. A Japanese merchant walks down the street in the morning calling out “nattou” for sale, and arranged marriages for even middle school-aged girls are still the order of the day, but Koume's school also has an American teacher. The mix of prejudiced and enlightened views on the roles of women in society is deep and strong.
This is also an anime series made in the 2000s, though (summer 2009 to be exact), so it also depends heavily on typical current storytelling elements. Both the physical appearance and personality distribution of the girls is very standard; here we have the Smart Girl, the Dumb Jock, the Standoffish Girl, the Fledgling Lesbian, the Motivator, the Jealous Sister, the Supportive Best Friend, and Lack-of-Confidence Girl. Only Koume, who is nearest to being the central character, stands out or gets much development beyond a one-note performance and half of these personality types fade into the background as the series progresses. The series has expected scenes for current anime series, too, including one episode where Koume and her parents have a running argument without realizing that they're not arguing about the same thing (Koume thinks her parents are chastising her about baseball, while her parents think she's being obstinate about wanting to date despite having a designated fiancé), another where support comes from an unexpected direction, the persistent incompetence of one character in attracting the attention of a loved one, a scene where a character must be rescued daringly to make it in time for a crucial game, and of course the obligatory bath scene, which is the series' one concession to fan service but still doesn't show much that could be considered sexy. However, the writing does deserve credit for having the girls lose badly when they should and does not progress the advancement of the girls' skill levels improbably fast. The “magic pitch” is even just basically a slider, so nothing beyond the realm of normal baseball is going on here.
The strength of the technical merits lies in the character designs and period costuming. The baseball uniforms that the girls don find a nice balance between cute, period feel, and practicality; at least they don't force the girls to wear skirts while playing baseball, like in A League of Their Own. Other period costuming provides a nice variety and quite prominently shows the contrast between Western and traditional Japanese styles. The perpetually rosy cheeks of Koume are a little much, both otherwise the girls' designs are an appealing mix of the expected standards: the pigtailed girl with glasses, the willowy girl with short hair, the model-like girls (in both traditional and Western dress), the petite girls (in both short-haired and long-haired versions), and so forth. The American teacher is, of course, a voluptuous blonde and the male baseball players are, of course, nondescript, though they seem a bit on the old side for being only middle school students. Background art favors use of water colors and so is much less distinct than the character rendering. The animation is actually remarkably good for a series like this, with an emphasis on accurately depicting how boys and girls throw the ball.
Takayuki Hattori, whose has substantial credits doing the music for high-spirited, comedy-oriented anime series (most notably the Slayers franchise), shows here that he still knows what he's doing. The orchestrated musical score is as light, fluffy, and enthusiastically fun-loving as the series as a whole is and remains consistently so throughout the series. Amongst its numbers are some period songs sung in-character, including one at the beginning which initially almost gives the series the feel of a musical. Opener “Romantic Strike,” sung by four of the main seiyuu, is a sweet but forgettable song, while closer “Yume Miro Kokoro,” by Kanae “Koume” Itō, is an enjoyable, cheerily pleasant number. The Japanese vocal cast mostly does a fine job, although many of the middle school boys sound too old and teacher Anna Curtland has no hint of American sound to her beyond regular use of English words.
Sentai Filmworks' release of the title comes on two disks in a single case. It is English dub-free and Extra-free but does have valuable on-screen explanatory comments about certain period and cultural issues as they come up, such as why one girl might legitimately be acting like she's never tried rice curry before (it was an import, rather than a Japanese staple, at that point) or explaining why some of the lyrics in two of the songs aren't translated (they're Japanese nonsense words).
Although Taisho Baseball Girls does include a bit of social commentary about the cultural transformation of the era, gender roles, and the nature of team sports (the writing gives the distinct impression that forming a baseball team is as much a social activity for the girls as an athletics exercise), those are incidental to the main focus: being a light, cute, and often humorous fish-out-of-water piece. The series is mild enough that it earns a TV-PG rating and should serve well as pleasant, palate-cleansing diversion from a normal diet of harem series and action shows.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Charmingly cute, surprisingly good animation, character and costume designs.
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