If you just looked at the title of this anime you would never guess that this was a sports anime. In fact, you'd probably think it was a comedy involving a monkey of some sort. But in reality Monkey Turn is an excellent sports anime that actually is "half-way there" when it comes to licensing.
The original Monkey Turn manga by Katsutoshi Kawai debuted in Weekly Shonen Sunday back in early 1997 and ended in early 2005 after 30 volumes. In fact, in 1999 the manga tied for the fairly prestigious Shogakukan Manga Award in the shonen category; the other manga it tied with was Weekly Shonen Jump's Hikaru no Go, and anyone who has read or watched HnG knows how excellent of a title it is, so co-winning an award like that is no small feat. The anime ran in 2004 from January to June, lasting 24 episodes, and while I don't know how much of the manga the show covers I will say that it is definitely one of the best sports anime that you've never seen.
Kenji Hatano is a baseball player with dreams of being a big star in the sport. Unfortunately, he doesn't like the fact that one person's mistake can make the entire team suffer. After meeting with the Principal of the school Kenji is taken to a kyotei (mini-hydroboat) race and witnesses one of the racers perform the Monkey Turn, a type of turn that only high-level racers can do. Feeling that it's easy to perform, Kenji gives it a try, almost making it but capsizing in the end. The thrill inspires Kenji to take up kyotei racing and after two years he graduates from a kyotei training school. He's so psyched to finally go pro that he promises his childhood friend Sumi Ubukata that he'll become Japan's top kyotei racer within three years, which is generally considered nigh-impossible by the pros. Of course, during his time at the training school Kenji also found a rival in Hiro Doguchi, whose father is a high-ranked kyotei racer. Now having graduated from the school, Kenji & company are ready to try their hands at the professional level.
Yeah, the basic idea of the show is much like your usual shonen sports fare: Main character finds a love for a sport (or already had it), shows great skill at it, and wants to be the best at it. But where Monkey Turn differs is in the execution, and by that I mean the show never really slows down and trudges along. Each race takes around an episode, maybe two at the max, to finish and the next race is introduced within the next couple of episodes. Between races you get a lot of really good character development that's also told at a really good pace. Also, whereas other sports titles might take an episode for a character to realize something about himself and become better Monkey Turn does this very same thing within the same episode as the problem is being shown off. For example, shortly after Kenji finds a coach he's dumped for not listening to everything and making big problems, though he's not directly told this. At this point the episode has about another three minutes left until the end credits, but rather than have the next episode be about Kenji slowly realizing his problems instead Kenji quickly realizes his mistakes, apologizes, and he gets his coach back... All before the end credits appear! Not only does this allow the story to actually continue on but that entire last piece was handled very realistically and didn't feel rushed at all.
The anime covers Kenji's rise from the B2 level (the lowest) to the A2 level, where he's able to race against the best Japan has to offer, including those from the A1 level (the highest). There's also a focus on Kenji's fellow racers Yuko Aoshima and, naturally, his rival Doguchi. Doguchi in particular is not only trying to best Kenji but also prove to his father that he belongs in the same race as him. And with all of this is relationship building between Kenji and Sumi and even between Kenji and Aoshima to a point. There's never really any big relationship problems between characters, though, but it never feels like the races are getting more focus at the expense of the character relationships. Overall I went into this show expecting a fairly traditional sports anime, except with an out-of-left-field choice of sport, and came out fully surprised and impressed with how everything played out.
I think one reason why this show has such a great pace is due to the director, Katsuhito Akiyama. Akiyama had directed many titles before Monkey Turn, such as El Hazard: The Wanderers, the Gall Force series, Dual, and the Guyver TV series, and is even the director to the long-running anime adaptation of the Inazuma Eleven soccer-RPG video game series. Daisuke Ikeda did the soundtrack and overall it is nicely done, but the highlight is a piece that, I kid you not, sounds like a slightly altered instrumental version of "Where is the Love?" by the Black Eyed Peas. When I first heard the song I couldn't believe my ears and it's truly the best song in the soundtrack. The opening theme is "Kokoro ga Tomaranai" by JEWELRY and is a great song that has a very cool and addicting beat to it that really fits in perfectly with water sports in general, let alone the kyotei racing that's done in this show... And, yes, the opening song is played during climactic moments in the races, leaving me with an even greater love for the song. The two ending themes, "Hikari to Kaze to Kimi no Naka de" by Ai Takaoka and "Kimi wo Kazaru Hana wo Sakasou" by GARNET CROW, are both slower themes that work great as songs to cool you down after watching an episode, especially if the opening theme had just played a minute earlier during a race. Overall, Oriental Light & Magic did a great job with the production of this show.
When it comes to licensing the show is truly stuck in limbo due to it being "half-way there". Shortly before the show finished in Japan ShoPro Entertainment licensed it for North American distribution... But ShoPro was very much like Enoki Films USA, except that ShoPro titles generally got sub-licensed, with a few exceptions. Monkey Turn was one of those exceptions, and when Viz and ShoPro were merged together to form Viz Media a couple of years later all of ShoPro's titles went to Viz, including Monkey Turn. In fact, up until Viz Media changed their website recently you could actually see Viz's listing for Monkey Turn under its page of titles that were available for licensing. Who knows if Viz still has the title or not, but even if Viz was to release the show itself there's one big problem: ShoPro only had licensed the first season.
Yeah, the week after Monkey Turn finished airing a sequel series, Monkey Turn V, started airing and ran until the end of 2004. Hell, the last episode of the first season featured an episode preview for V's first episode, showing that the show was simply going through a name change. The only way I could watch the first season was via bootleg Hong Kong DVDs with subs that got most of the names wrong, but even the bootleggers never did the second season. I would love to watch this second season and see Kenji's kyotei career continue, but I will admit that the first season ends off on a well-enough note that most should be pleased with if they just watched that first show. Aside from being about a sport you would never think of if your were told to name a sport that anime had adapted, Monkey Turn just does everything right and is truly a sports anime that is worth hunting down and watching, even if you can't watch the second season.