Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Sakamichi Onoda is a cheerful otaku who will do anything to make his weekly trip to Akihabara – including riding an obscene distance on his “mommy bike,” a fixed-gear, pretty elderly bicycle. He doesn't see anything weird in it at all, and he just wants to make it to high school and join the anime club. Sadly for him, the club has expired, but a chance meeting with a cycling prodigy, Imaizumi, introduces him to the thrill of competitive bicycling. Onoda has never liked sports or gotten along with jocks, but that may be about to change...
Bicycles are a part of many peoples' childhoods – learning to ride a bike is the first taste of freedom for a lot of kids as suddenly they have access to places farther away than mere walking could take them. It's a rite of passage in a lot of ways, and for otaku Sakamichi Onoda, that rite translates into the right to go to Akihabara, center of the Tokyo otaku world. Riding into the city is something he's been doing for years, largely because by saving train fare he can buy more things, but over the years he's also become fond of riding his bike, in part because it gives him time to sing his favorite anime songs with no audience. He's excited to enter high school because he's hoping to find other otaku friends, and it's in anticipation of this that he sets out for his first day, riding his bike up the slope of a very steep hill. (Seriously, it looks like a ski slope.) That's where he's seen by fellow first year Imaizumi, a competitive cyclist, who can't quite believe what he's seeing. It's Onoda's date with shounen manga destiny, and Imaizumi's shock and fascination set the stage for the rest of the story.
This is another case where it's actually a very good plan for the manga to be published in two-volume omnibuses. While Onoda and Sakamichi meet in the first chapter, along with supporting female character Kanzaki, Onoda doesn't seriously begin to be interested in cycling as anything beyond a means of transportation until the end of the second original volume; even his first volume race with Imaizumi is in hopes of forcing the other boy to join the anime club. While this gives us time to get to know Onoda, and Imaizumi to a slightly lesser degree, it also doesn't quite fulfill the promise of either the title or the premise, so having that second book right there in your hands makes this a much more rewarding read in general. The book is unwieldy, but as is the norm with Yen Press' omnibuses, the spine flexes without breaking or creasing, so that does make it easier to hold. (And look better on your shelves.)
All of that said, Yowamushi Pedal is in itself something like riding a bicycle for the first time – it starts off a bit wobbly but all of a sudden things straighten out and it begins to just fly along. The first couple of chapters really are the weakest here, perhaps because they're trying to fit too much in at once. Watanabe is introducing us to three major characters, plus Kanzaki's friend, motivate Imaizumi to think beyond cycling, and get Onoda interested in the sport. That's a lot for two chapters, and when the pacing slows down a little and we get a better feel for the characters through their interactions and thoughts rather than speeded-up meetings, the book reads a lot more smoothly. Imaizumi in particular benefits from the slower pace – he's at first set up to be the basic jerk figure, the guy who thinks he's better than everyone else and can't see the world through anything but a competitive viewpoint. While he does have some of those aspects, he's also revealed to be a curious person (he can't quite wrap his head around Onoda) who can be genuinely helpful and is actually pretty nice. It wouldn't be quite right to call him a tsundere, but he does share some characteristics with that type. Onoda, on the other hand, isn't as one-note as he appears either. He is a devoted otaku, yes, but he's more proactive than the average otaku character is, and also not afraid to admit that a large part of what he's looking for is a friend group. He's seen his otaku interests as the only way he's likely to get one, but once he starts getting to know Imaizumi (and later Naruko the Speedster of Naniwa), he realizes that he could find friends anywhere. There's no doubt that he loves riding his bike or that he loves his anime, but having friends he can talk about things with is clearly his underlying wish and what helps him to make the shift.
For non-sports people, the prejudices and fears Onoda has to overcome will ring quite true. Like many of us who have little talent for sports, Onoda sees jocks and gym teachers as a group of essentially well-intentioned bullies. They may not mean to be scary or mean, but their subculture is so far removed from more bookish ones (at least in fiction) that they make Onoda feel threatened and uncomfortable. We've seen stories about the jock learning to like the nerd before, but this gives a new twist to the theme: it's about the nerd learning that maybe the jocks aren't all just big crazy jerks in an exclusive club. When we do eventually meet the members of the cycling team near the end of the omnibus, they do come off as being what Onoda fears, so it should be interesting to see how, and if, Watanabe is able to move past that, as he did with Imaizumi. I also hope to see him develop Kanzaki beyond her current point, which is much more of an issue right now: she's a one-note fangirl devoted to getting Onoda to join the team, so single-minded in all of her interactions with just about anybody that she becomes grating. She has the potential to be a liaison, but right now that role appears to be going to Naruko while Kanzaki exists in order to give the series a girl character.
Wataru Watanabe's art style takes some getting used to. It feels very sketchy and scattered, with faces looking pointy and ridiculously triangular. He does do a better job with backgrounds, and the bicycles all look good, though, so it may just be that he needs time to settle into the series for the people. This does feel likely, given that the art does improve over the course of the omnibus. The translation has a natural flow to it, and even Naruko's deliberately off-putting outgoing personality comes off well, albeit a little grating at times. The notes in the back are more focused on cycling terms, which is very helpful for those with limited knowledge of the sport. It is, however, important to remember that this was written before Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, so he is held up as an icon of long-distance cycling.
Yowamushi Pedal's first omnibus volume is a lot of fun. It starts off slowly and is definitely outdated in terms of a few of its references, but overall the characters go beyond their stereotypes and the slower pace allows us to really understand Onoda's thoughts and motivations. The art isn't great, but if you can get past that and the stigma of this being a sports series, there's a lot to enjoy in this first volume – and a lot to look forward to for the next.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : C
+ Characters feel developed, Onoda's not the usual obsessive otaku while Imaizumi isn't a total jerk. Pacing really picks up, making it read faster the farther you get.
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