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Monday, February 27, 2017

Chosoku Spinner: Yo? Yo. Yo?! Yo!!

I've said it before on the blog, but the thing about anime & manga that appeals to me the most is how either medium can literally be about nearly anything; you can bring up something & be told, "There's an anime/manga for that." This is especially true for sports & games, which has allowed anything from boxing to baseball to go to shogi to mahjong to pachinko/pachislot to ice skating to bread baking to be made into an anime or (at least) manga. Speaking of bread baking, probably one of the most famous for adapting nontraditional things to manga is Takashi Hashiguchi, the creator of Yakitate!! Japan. I reviewed the anime adaptation of his manga across three parts in 2015, but that wasn't even the first time Hashiguchi saw a manga of his be adapted into anime. It first happened in 1998 for a manga focused around competitive yoyoing.

Like I said, anime & manga can be about anything.

Debuting in late-1997 in the pages of Shogakukan's CoroCoro Comic, Chosoku/Super Speed Spinner was the first notable manga to come from the mind of Takashi Hashiguchi (who had debuted in the early 90s), after an initial one-shot a few months earlier titled Moero/Burn! Spinner. The focus on doing tricks with a yoyo isn't really all that absurd, since the toy has always been very popular in Japan; most World Yoyo Champions from the past 10-20 years have come from Japan. The manga would run for nearly three full years, ending in mid-2000 after seven volumes, and during the serialization Shogakukan would work with TV Tokyo & a young animation studio called Xebec to adapt the manga into a TV anime from late 1998 to mid-1999. Maybe it was because it aired as part of children's show Oha Suta, but the anime had a bit of a bizarre airing schedule to it. The first four episodes came out weekly to close out 1998, but once the new year started only two episodes would come out every month (on two consecutive weeks), resulting in the anime only running for 22 episodes across the better part of a year. Not just that, but the anime has seen very little re-releasing in its home country, with the only home video release being across five VHS tapes from 1999-2000 (which are copy-protected, so I can't record them onto DVD), & the only seeming re-airing being on Oha Suta back in 2008 (so maybe a remaster was done?), where it was considered a "legend". In 2003, though, Chosoku Spinner (both manga & anime) was exported to Singapore, with the anime being given a completely uncut English dub by Odex under the name Super Yo-Yo. So, what happens when anime gets a hold of the yoyo? Let's find out.

Shunichi Domoto is a quick study when it comes to sports, and he uses his skills to help the various sports teams in his elementary school when they need an extra player. His friends Beso & Rian ask for his help in getting Beso's yoyo back from Benkei Musashimaru, who challenges people & then takes their yoyos after winning. In just a few days Shunichi becomes talented enough to best Benkei in a Long Sleeper duel, but in the process gets the attention of Seito Hojoin, the reigning Japan Yoyo Champion, who takes offense at Shunichi's initial dismissal of yoyoing. After being floored by Hojoin, Shunichi finally finds something that can get his blood burning, & decides to enter the upcoming Japan Champion Carnival to defeat his newfound rival, no matter what physical stress it brings upon him. Shunichi also eventually winds up in possession of the Hyper Dragon, a new prototype yoyo from the mysterious D-Project.

For the most part, Chosoku Spinner is a (shockingly) straightforward & easy to understand story. The anime mostly revolves around the Japan Champion Carnival & the elimination matches within it to crown the champion for the new year. There isn't any other goal for Shunichi other than besting Hojoin, and for everyone else in the Carnival it's simply to become champion. Sure, there are some underlying reasons for a couple of characters, but this is simply an anime about elementary school kids who are competing against each other with their skills at using a yoyo in order to be crowned the best in Japan. It's kind of no surprise, since this is based on a manga for little kids (though CoroCoro is officially categorized as both kodomo & shonen, giving it some leeway), but it's actually kind of refreshing that Chosoku Spinner aims to take itself rather honestly.

That's not to say that there isn't any bit of backstory to any of the characters, though it is mostly reserved for only a handful of them. Main character Shunichi fits the role of the newcomer to the game who has some nice natural ability well, but at least here it's showcased as Shunichi being more of a quick study than already having sweet skills by some chance. The first three episodes don't involve the carnival at all, instead showing Shunichi find his reason to get into yoyoing (i.e. to beat Hojoin) & having him actually train & learn the various tricks. His knack for observational learning actually becomes a major part of how he makes it past the first round of the carnival, since he has to start doing tricks that he hasn't really prepped for, but after seeing his opponent Akagi do them he's able to imitate well enough; in turn, Akagi tries to find ways to not let Shunichi see how the tricks are done. At the same time, Shunichi's determination has its flaws, though, as he winds up really tweaking (if not outright injuring) his elbow half-way into the show, due to the constant movement needed to do tricks like repeated Loop-the-Loops, and this stays a major factor for the rest of the show. While Shunichi may not be the most fleshed out character, he's still a fine lead.

Oddly enough, the main character isn't even the most fleshed out of them all. Instead, it's two of his carnival foes & a side character. Granted, they aren't much, but Hojoin's backstory involves how he got into the yoyo as a gift from his father, but after his mother passes away (with his yoyo in hand), Hojoin's father wants his son to focus more on becoming a master pianist. In fact, Hojoin leaves a pianist competition in order to attend the carnival to defend his title, even though he was seemingly on the verge of winning that one. Another notable rival is Chuta Kogure, whose family runs a local circus, and his tightrope walking skills give him great balance & mental focus when it comes to using a yoyo; he's easily the most naturally talented competitor, next to Hojoin. At the same time, though, Chuta is also competing for his little brother Chuji, who's impatience to join his brother in the circus act resulted in him falling from the tightrope & he ended up with no feeling in his legs. Chuji's paralysis is an example of conversion disorder (i.e. it's a mental block coming from trauma), so Chuta hopes that winning the carnival can help spur Chuji to stand on his feet again. It's honestly a touching backstory, and the end of Chuta's arc is very well done.

Finally, there's Kenichi Nakamura, Japan's first ever Pro Spinner, making him worthy of being deemed a "Meijin/Master" by everyone. While Nakamura doesn't compete in the show, he's at the carnival as a third head official, alongside Judge Watanabe (the senior referee) & Hyper DJ (the commentator), and he's even given two separate episodes to himself! The first shows how he was initially a child yoyo prodigy who lost interest in the toy because there was no one to really rival him, only to get back into it as an older teenager after finding a rival in the form of Alex Garcia from Hawaii. In fact, Nakamura & Garcia are real-life yoyo legends, both from Team High Performance, who were big during Japan's yoyo boom during the 90s. In Spinner, Nakamura gives Shunichi some minor training by having him wear a spring-laden glove that adds resistance to his finger movement for roughly a week, up until the day of the carnival, but otherwise acts mostly as an observer. His second focus episode is near the end & explains what exactly the Hyper Dragon yoyo is, as Nakamura was instrumental in its creation & refining. In fact, the anime also acted as promotion for Bandai's Hyper Yo-Yo line at the time, even apparently replacing yoyos used in the manga to help encourage kids to buy Bandai's toys; yes, every yoyo used in the anime has a real world counterpart. While this is nothing surprising for anime, seeing as many are used to shill toys in the first place, it doesn't feel intrusive in Chosoku Spinner, since the use of actual professionals alongside the real-life toys helps add to the sincerity the anime gives off. Sure, the show is shilling yoyos, but it just feels natural here, at least that's how it comes off for me.

Remember, this is an anime about yoyos...

There's also the supporting cast, which don't get much development but are otherwise fine in their roles. Cheering on Shunichi are Rian & Beso, who are mainly just moral support, & "Old Man" Narumiya, the owner of the local yoyo shop who winds up being essentially the same kind of support as Rian & Beso, though he also has some importance in Nakamura's story. There's also Benkei, who quickly becomes friends with Shunichi & the others after episode 1 & even gets as far as the semi-finals in the carnival (though even Hyper DJ states that luck played a big part in that). Benkei is the closest thing to an outright comic relief character, though there is something to be said for someone knowing that he eventually has no chance the further he advances (he's Hojoin's opponent in the semis, after all), but still wants to give it his all (& even is given proper respect by Hojoin for doing so). After that are Shunichi's opponents during the carnival, who become recurring supporting cast in the second half. In the qualifier there's Wappa, a Loop-the-Loop expert who quickly gives Shunichi the first real sense of respect amongst the experienced Spinners that he didn't initially have. The first round has Akagi (who I mentioned earlier), & the quarter-finals has Mai Kirisaki, who uses short string yoyos to her own advantage. Their contributions in the second half aren't much, admittedly, but are at least good from a narrative perspective, and it's cool to see them not simply be forgotten after their defeats. There's even some playful hinting that Mai might have some attraction to Wappa, or at least likes messing with him, which is amusing.

Finally, that leaves the actual yoyo competition itself, which is enjoyable but with a nagging issue or two. The qualifier is a Loop-the-Loop survival challenge, where everyone who hasn't already qualified simply tries to do the most Loop-the-Loops & be the last Spinner standing. The first round sees the 16 who qualified perform all of the required tricks in the Basic, Super, & Hyper categories, likely much like a real-life competition. The quarter-finals go a bit silly, as the eight who advance compete in four simultaneous VR hoverboard races. Yes, the show goes all "virtual reality" for three episodes, because it's the 90s & that was a popular thing to do, even if the way it was done wasn't actually possible with the tech of the time (& may not even be doable today, still). To be fair, though, Spinner's take on VR is probably one of the most reasonable & accurate takes for its time, though not without some silliness. Anyway, the Spinners perform yoyo tricks in order to move in the VR world, with more complicated tricks giving more speed, making the quarter-finals a bit of a stamina-focused competition more than anything. The semis & final match return back to realistic yoyo competition, but by then you notice a bit of a nagging issue, which is that the anime does rely a little too heavily on looping tricks. Whether it's the Loop-the-Loop or the more difficult Double Loop (i.e. looping two simultaneous yoyos at once with both hands), a lot of the competition eventually winds up focusing on this type of trick, and it does admittedly get a little tiring at times. Luckily, it's not enough to ruin the show in the end, but it is an annoyance, nonetheless. Still, I will admit that the show almost makes me want a yoyo, so I'd call that "Mission Accomplished".

One would think that, with the bizarre "two episodes a month" airing schedule it quickly shifted to, Xebec would have plenty of time to make Chosoku Spinner look especially good in terms of animation, but that's not the case here. Granted, the anime still looks fine & there aren't really any notable animation mistakes from what I could find, but the show still isn't going to be one for sakuga fans to drool over. You can easily tell when the animation uses the standard tricks (not putting mouths on screen, heavy use of repeated animation, etc.), but at the very least it's a very consistent show visually. Director Takao Kato (Zoids: Chaotic Century, Buso Renkin) leads an overall well done production, with the animation never looking terrible & the show never becoming a bore; it is a childrens' anime, after all. The writing is split between two people, Katsuhiko Koide (Shaman King, Over Drive), & series composer Katsuyuki Sumisawa (Gundam Wing, InuYasha), though only for the first 14 episodes do they consistently alternate. Regardless, the anime seems to adapt roughly the first three volumes of Hashiguchi's manga (at least, comparing episode titles to chapter titles over at Wikipedia indicates that), and there is one indication that there is more to the overall story when two characters are introduced rather late & are revealed to be for the next (manga-only) story arc, which would be a World Tournament. The character designs by Mitsuru Ishihara (Dai-Guard, Mega Man NT Warrior) actually make the characters different enough from Hashiguchi's later Yakitate!! Japan, not to mention really give the show a strong "90s" aesthetic; I'm sure plenty will understand what I mean by that.

The music by Tetsuya Yamamoto, who I can't find any other credit for other than Manga DVD Sanctuary (I really should get to that...), matches up with Ishihara's designs well by giving off a strong "hip" vibe. Sadly, while I appreciate music a ton, I can't quite describe the genre Yamamoto focuses on, but it's something I'd best describe as "street beats", i.e. something you'd stereotypically associate with the 90s very strongly. It's honestly a really good soundtrack, too, with Hojoin's theme mixing in the piano very nicely & it does match the visual aesthetic extremely well. Also matching the aesthetic to a tee is Chosoku Spinner's first opening theme, "Someday Let's Get Together" by rub-down. An addictive mix of "street beat" with rock, rub-down's song simply screams "This is the 90s!" as much as a kids anime about doing yoyo tricks can be, complete with one of the lines in the chorus being "But I'm just gonna tell you I don't give a dawn"... Because rub-down herself (apparently) really wanted to say "damn", but knew that it would never fly for a kids show. The last eight episodes use the second OP, "Loop & Loop" by Showtaro Morikubo, which is another super-catchy & enjoyable song, and from a simple overall sound perspective I'd give the advantage to this song. Still, the first OP is what I'd call the anime's "iconic theme"; also, Odex's release of the show in Singapore doesn't feature the second OP. Finally, the only ending theme is "Future" by Chiaki Nakajima, but so little of it is featured in the anime (30 seconds, to be exact) that it's hard to really judge; the full song is a catchy bit of J-Pop, but it's weird how only the chorus is used in the anime. In fact, every episode of Chosoku Spinner is only ~22 minutes long, a good 2-3 minutes shorter than most full-length TV anime; just an odd bit of trivia there.

As for the Japanese voice cast, it's actually rather solid & well done. Shunichi is voiced by Showtaro Morikubo (X in Mega Man X, Makihara in Hand Shakers), and he fits the lead very well, with tons of energy & honest feel that the enjoyment of playing with a yoyo is giving him. Matching him well is Yuji Ueda (Hamel in Violinist of Hameln, Adashino in Mushi-shi), who gives Hojoin an appropriately calm, cool, & collected demeanor, almost never raising his voice, even when rattled. Rian & Beso are voiced by Chiemi Chiba (Mio in To-Love-Ru) & Junko Noda (Tashigi in One Piece), and both are appropriately caring & enthusiastic for their friend Shunichi. Nakamura is voiced by Shinichiro Miki, who essentially sounds like Miki normally does, though it does give the real-life pro a feeling of authority & experience. Accompanying them are Saori Higashi (Nobuko Ishihara in Lovely Complex) & Takuma Suzuki (Colbert in Familiar of Zero) as Chuta & Benkei, respectively, who are both enjoyable in their energies & personalities. Rounding out the rest are the likes of Kouichi Toochika (Wappa), Makiko Ohmoto (Mai), Motoko Kumai (Alex Garcia), Hidenari Ugaki (Judge Watanabe & Seito's butler "Jii"), & Kouichi Nagano (Hyper DJ). It's honestly a very good Japanese cast, which only adds to the enjoyment.

Normally I'd ignore English dubs made specifically for Singapore, but since Odex's Super Yo-Yo dub is actually fully available on YouTube (not exactly legally, but I have no control over that), I'll give a general overview of it after sampling a few episodes... And, to no surprise, it's not exactly all that great, much like most Odex dubs. Granted, it's not terrible, like the Fantastic Children dub was, and there are some fine performances, but it's still kind of awkward more often than not. In general there are a lot of odd pronunciations, like "Ho-Join" instead of "Ho-Jo-In" or "May" instead of "Mai", and a lot of the performances tend to sound just a tad stiff; not bad, per se, but not quite natural, either. Also, according to the ANN Encyclopedia at least, all of the major characters seem to be performed by only five voice actors, so if one character sounds a bit off, then there's a chance that there are at least two or three other characters who may suffer just as much, since they're all voiced by the same person. Probably my least liked is Chuta, who is performed by Chuck Powers (who also voices Shunichi, Wappa, Jii, & even Narumiya), as he gives Chuta this insane lisp that outright ruins every line the character says. Another problematic performance would be Christian J. Lee's Hojoin, who seems to misinterpret Hojoin's calm demeanor for that of sounding bored & listless. Oddly, enough, Lee also voices Hyper DJ, which means that he could have given Hojoin a little more energy.

All that being said, though, Odex's Super Yo-Yo dub is one of the better ones that I've heard from the studio (though I have only heard a small amount of them), and it's not a terrible way to watch the show. You'll at least understand everything, & the dub script seems to be as accurate as possible to the original Japanese.

Really, Chosoku Spinner's greatest benefit is in how honest & direct it is with its viewing audience. There isn't any outright "evil" character or organization that the hero is trying to defeat, the feats showcased are mostly within reason (minus the VR quarterfinals, obviously, though I doubt anyone can actually do 1,000 consecutive Loop-the-Loops), and even the ending is surprisingly off the beaten path & rather realistic in concept. This is simply an anime about young kids competing against each other to crown the best at using a yoyo, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't almost hook me into getting a yoyo at one point or another. At the same time, though, it doesn't come off as simply being a blatant advertisement for Bandai's Hyper Yo-Yo line, and that's likely due to it being an adaptation of Takashi Hashiguchi's original manga. As also proven with his later Yakitate!! Japan, Hashiguchi knows how to showcase "nontraditional" subjects in extremely enticing ways, & this anime does make me curious about where the story goes next after the Japan Champion Carnival. It was given a complete English translation over in Singapore by Chuangi Yi, so maybe one day I'll consider importing.

But, for now, I can say that I've seen an anime about yoyos... And it's honestly pretty fun. Once again, I love how anime & manga can be about anything.

1 comment:

  1. I watched this on Youtube last year and despite the somewhat cheesy dub and cutting out the second opening which I didn't particularly care for, it's an ok anime.