Welcome to Retrospect in Retrograde, and for my first revisit, I can't think of anything better: Monkey Turn.
On Februaru 25, 2011, I looked back fondly on my memories of the 2004 TV anime adaptation of Katsutoshi Kawai's 1996-2005 Shonen Sunday manga about kyotei/mini-hydroplane racing, and called it "the best sports anime that you've never seen." Since then, I've learned a bit more about this 25-episode anime, specifically two interesting things. First, this anime (& it's successive season) ran in a late-night slot, which honestly surprises me, both because that means that Monkey Turn ran for a solid year in late-night, which just doesn't happen nowadays, and also because of the pedigree the manga had. Kawai's manga tied with Hikaru no Go for the Shogakukan Manga Award for "Best Shonen Manga" in 1999, so I simply figured for the longest time that the anime had a prime time slot, just like its fellow award winner's anime adaptation had; both even aired on TV Tokyo. Second, back in 2011 I had no idea how much of the 30-volume manga the anime adapts, & I really still don't today, but I now do know that the anime kind of pulls a Ring ni Kakero 1 by skipping over an early portion of the manga, so that it can focus on the primary focus, i.e. the actual professional kyotei racing; some of the early parts are done via flashback at points, though. So enough re-introduction, it's time to see if Monkey Turn still comes out as one of "the best" out there, personally, when it comes to sports anime.
Kenji Hatano was originally a high school student with dreams of playing baseball, but hated how one person's mistakes could affect the entire team; he only wanted his mistakes to affect himself. His coach/teacher Mr. Tsutsui, however, felt that Kenji had the potential to become a kyotei racer, introducing him to Makoto Hagiwara, a former student of Tsutui's who dropped out of school five years ago, but has since become a kyotei racer, herself. Tsutsui takes Kenji to one of Hagiwara's races, where Kenji sees her pull off a hairpin turn called a monkey turn. Kenji wants to give it a try himself, and when put in a two-person boat to get a feel for the sport, he manages to get control & attempt a "monkey", only to capsize. The thrill of it all, however, inspires Kenji to take up kyotei racing, and now, after two years, he's graduating from Yamato Kyotei Academy. He's so psyched to finally go pro that he promises his girlfriend 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 numerous friends & rivals, including Takehiro Doguchi, whose father Takeo is a legendary kyotei racer. Now having graduated, Kenji, Doguchi, & the others are ready to try their hands at the professional level.
|Hmmm, I'm pretty sure that's not how boat races work...|
In the original review, I didn't really bring up the sport of kyotei racing itself, so I figure I should start there with this re-review, because even in the first two episodes, which detail a mini-tournament to decide the #1 student in Kenji's class, you learn quite a lot about the sport. Most importantly, we learn about how the equivalent to a rolling start works (the boats start staggered, but have to line-up roughly simultaneously by the time they hit the starting line), and any who are too far ahead are disqualified; we also learn of the "dump", which is bumping your opponent's boat to get ahead (though it's generally not looked at fondly). When Kenji & academy friend Hiroshi "Jun" Kishimoto make their debuts in the next two episodes, the viewers learn about how racers get their engines for the upcoming series by way of a raffle. The engines are in various degrees of conditioning (some are effectively perfect, while others need immediate work), so raffling them off helps keep things even, as it allows a less-experienced racer to potentially stay competitive, while a veteran will know how to make a rough engine work its best. We also see how racers have to repair their own engines between races, & the propellers themselves are 100% up to the racers to keep up & maintain between series. Newbies also are encouraged to become a "student" of a veteran racer, which ties in nicely to the first real character relationship (based around the sport) to establish, which is between Kenji & the 56-year old Kanichi Koike, who had sworn off of taking in students over a decade ago, after he blamed himself for his last student getting into an accident during a race, which resulted in the student's early retirement.
I also only vaguely brought up the characters & their interpersonal dynamics, which is obviously the biggest appeal here. Probably the most interesting aspect with the cast is the fact that they all look to be out of high school, which is a notable change from the usual shonen sports manga concept; everything that's shown is in relation to the racers & what's literally their jobs. Kenji has chosen this sport as what he wants to do with his life, so his personality has to adjust to make sure he can keep racing. Sure, he's a bit naive & always friendly to people that he meets, but he's also intensely clever & can realize new strategies during a race. His relationship with Sumi is also nice in that the two start off as effectively boyfriend/girlfriend, even if the two of them don't outright state it; everyone else states it as such, and neither outright denies it. This is occasionally complicated, however, via Yuko Aoshima, a fellow Yamato grad, as she & Kenji obviously have some sort of feelings for each other, but neither moves forward, precisely because Kenji has Sumi. Alongside Sumi for attending races is her best friend, Arisa Jougasaki, a young woman on the heavier side who decides to make herself as knowledgeable about kyotei as possible, so that she can help explain to Sumi certain aspects of the sport, like how failing a rolling start results in a 40-day suspension (though, to Sumi, Kenji getting himself DQ-ed sounds enticing, if only so that the two can be together more often). Really, Arisa is not only a relatively nice portrayal of a "larger woman" (sure, she's usually eating something, but she tends to share with Sumi), but she's also a cool & subtle example of how much of a friend she is to Kenji: The two may not converse that often on-screen, but she supports his career choice so much that she did her own research, so that she has an idea of what he has to deal with, normally.
|Kenji's family only appears at times, but they are good, too.|
Then there are Kenji's fellow Yamato grads, who are seen occasionally & have their own struggles. Aoshima's racing to pay off the debts that her father left behind after he died of cancer, & though her light weight helps give her a natural advantage, since there's less friction for the boat to deal with, she still has to push harder, because she's just not as naturally gifted as someone like Kenji. Similarly, Mizuki Kobayashi, another female grad, is shown to still be stuck at B2 rank (the lowest) after having gone pro for over a year, which makes her wonder if there's even a point to her still racing; she has talent, but she needs the right push to make her realize her own potential. Jun & his master Tao tend to appear the most, especially in the first half, but more as just reliable friends for Kenji to relate to; Tao, in particular, seems content with never rising higher than A2. Koike is an amusing teacher for Kenji, being able to switch from crotchety old man to respectful grandfather figure in an instant, depending on Kenji's actions at the moment. Finally, there's Takehiro Doguchi, who takes the spot of being Kenji's rival. Interestingly enough, though, the Kenji/Doguchi rivalry doesn't follow the usual mold, i.e. Doguchi isn't some ideal racer that Kenji has to slowly reach & finally defeat. Instead, the two are shown are being more or less equal in terms of overall ability, with Doguchi having more natural talent, while Kenji is more adaptable to the situation at hand; if anything, Kenji is actually the rival for Doguchi to beat. This results in the moments where the two of them are actually in the same race being appropriately tense, as the two are always pushing themselves harder to win out over the other. Their races are so close that, had the circumstances been ever-so-slightly different, then the other person would have won. The fact that Doguchi is only shown early on at first, before getting more focus in the second half, helps a lot, as it keeps the rival from getting overexposed this early on.
As for the story itself, it's focused mostly around Kenji making his way up the ranks in kyotei racing, starting off at B2. Over the course of the first half of the anime, Kenji spends the next couple of years going to different venues & making his way up to B1, A2, & A1 rank. Along the way, he learns new skills & sees racers with their own ways of winning, like Wakui's focus on having the perfect propeller, Okaizumi's penchant for shaking his boat before launching (so as to mix up the gas in the engine to give him a strong boost at the start), Shiozaki's semi-devious way of getting information out of gullible newbies like Kenji, or "Boat King" Yusuke Enoki's ability to repair any engine into one that can be truly competitive. The second half focuses completely on Kenji's journey of entering G rank, the highest of all. Here, he's up against the very best & experienced in the sport, like the previously-mentioned Enoki & especially "The Giant of Aichi" Takeo Doguchi, Takehiro's father who's an SG regular & feels that Kenji & even his own son are young upstarts who haven't proven their worth yet to be even considered for this highest level. True to a fast-paced sport like racing, especially since every venue uses the same oval "track" (but with sharp hairpin turns at each end) & only last for about two or three laps, the actual matches shown tend to go by without much dragging. Most of the races meant to do nothing but establish things like overall positioning & the like are over in about a minute or so, while more important races don't last longer than half an episode, max; if one runs into the start of another episode, it usually means that it's almost over, anyway.
Just like those races, though, the pacing of the anime is very brisk & focused. While I'm sure that likely matches Kawai's original manga, it's definitely to the credit of head writer Atsuhiro Tomioka (Inazuma Eleven, Captain Tsubasa ) of maintaining that pace. It's never too fast that the characters lack development when needed, but it's also never too slow to feel predictable. As I mentioned in the original review, a perfect example is in Episode 7, where Kenji wins a race by using a dump, which Koike calls him out on over the phone, & even drops him as his student. This happens near the end of the episode, but instead of stretching it out into the next episode, where Kenji can slowly realize his mistake in judgment, the spat is solved in the next few minutes, after Kenji takes a moment outside to calm down & think things over; with a cool head, Kenji realizes how stupid he was, & heads to Koike's to apologize. Similar to following Kawai's style, the character designs by Atsushi Okuda (Bastard!!, Battle Athletes Victory) look to match the manga's designs, right down to having a number of characters (Jun, Tao, Kenji's grandmother, etc.) using those all-black eyes that anime & manga utilizes at times. I already brought up director Katsuhito Akiyama (Gall Force, Beyblade Burst) in the original review, he & Tomioka would reunite for Inazuma Eleven, & I gave credit to the music by Daisuke Ikeda (Golgo 13 TV, Young Black Jack). Ikeda's soundtrack in particular is a fitting mix of R&B, dance, & synth, with a nice use of piano mixed in, & the most amusing of all is a song that's blatantly ripping off "Where is the Love?" by The Black Eyes Peas. Of course, the best song in the entire anime is the OP, "Kokoro ga Tomaranai" by Jewelry, which is just so engrossing & enrapturing that it remains one of my all-time favorite anime OPs ever; Ikeda also repurposes it in various instrumental forms, turning it into a leitmotif.
Finally, I never gave credit to the voice actors in the original review, so let me fix that by bringing up the major cast here. Tokuyoshi Kawashima (Naomasa Tsukauchi in My Hero Academia, Takeshi Iori in Gundam Build Fighters) leads the show as Kenji, delivering a nice balance of humble earnestness when not racing & hot-blooded competitiveness when on the water. Sumi is voiced by Junko Noda, who delivers the character's emotional whirlwind during races, & sometimes during life itself, extremely well & endearingly. Similarly, Michiko Neya (Riza Hawkeye in Fullmetal Alchemist , Rally Vincent in Gunsmith Cats) pulls off an excellent Arisa, with her generally deadpan & straightforward delivery sometimes getting broken with some honest emotion, usually towards Sumi. The younger Doguchi is performed by Juni Majima (Ryuji Takasu in Toradora!), while the elder Doguchi is acted by Takeshi Aono (Kami in Dragon Ball Z), and both deliver similarly self-obsessed performances, befitting an estranged father/son dynamic. Koike is voiced by Mugihito (Sigma in Mega Man X), who gives a perfect "old (sometimes cranky) master" performance. Finally, Aoshima is voiced by Naoko Takano (Kohaku in Melty Blood, Magical Ruby in Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya), and she does a very enjoyable job with the young & conflicted possible third leg of a potential love triangle.
Looking back at that original review for Monkey Turn, I realize just how little I actually wrote about this anime, especially since my overall feelings toward it remain the same. This truly is one of the best sports anime that you've never seen, and it pains me that so many will never give it the chance it deserves. Now, admittedly, there are two main reasons for that. First, this anime never received any sort of official English release, even with it technically being "half way there" at one point, as Viz did have the master license rights to it after absorbing ShoPro's US division; who knows if Viz still has the rights, anymore. Second, & even more importantly, the only existing English translation for Monkey Turn comes from a bootleg HK DVD, which has a serviceable translation overall, but is filled with words & turns of phrases that were obviously chosen by a non-native English speaker, not to mention the fact that every single name is completely wrong & likely transliterated from Chinese ("Hatano Kenji" becomes "Potoye Shier", for example). These "HK subs", as I call them, are out there on the interwebs, however, so search at your own risk. Still, this anime is every bit as outstanding as I remember it being, & I'm so happy to finally give it the long-form credit that it needed.
But why did I say that I couldn't think of anything better to debut Retrospect in Retrograde with than this anime? Well, that's because I can finally watch & review the second season, & I felt that the only proper way to do so would be by rewatching the first season. See you in a couple of weeks...