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Thursday, May 3, 2018

Monkey Turn V: I Wonder if the Kyotei Champion Goes to Tokyo Disneyland...

The year 2004 was an interesting time for anime, especially when it came to late-night. Before this year, the late-night "anime infomercial" was still a niche, though it was expanding ever since the end of 1996. This specific year, though, saw around 60 different anime series air in late-night TV slots, establishing this format as the future. At the same time, though, 2004 was the end of airing a single series over the course of an entire year (if not more) in late-night; longer series have more recently come back slightly, but it's been mostly shorter shows since then. I bring this up because Monkey Turn was one of those "last" year-long, late-night runs. However, unlike Monster or Hajime no Ippo, which both ran as gigantically long single shows, the kyotei racing anime was split up across two 25-episode seasons, though there was no hiatus between episodes. That being said, though, I can fully understand why there was a split between seasons here, because Monkey Turn V offers a concept that's different from Monkey Turn. Where the first season was your standard "rising to the top" story in concept, the second season goes in a direction that's not seen too often in sports anime & manga: What happens after you achieve your dream?

Upon graduating from Yamato Kyotei Academy, Kenji Hatano made a promise to everyone, including his girlfriend Sumi Ubukata, that he would become Japan's #1 kyotei racer within three years. While he got close to doing so when he made it to an SG tournament in his third year, it wouldn't be until after 3.5 years that he finally beat the likes of "Boat King" Yusuke Enoki, "Wolf of Hokuriku" Gunji Inukai, & rival Takehiro Doguchi, becoming SG Champion. Now Kenji has to not only maintain his new spot among the best, but he also has to watch out for new challengers, like female expert Chiaki Kushida or local favorite-turned-SG-competitor Hidetaka Gamou. Before he can do any of that, though, Kenji suffers an injury, as a horrible capsize during a race results in his left wrist & hand getting sliced open by another racer's propeller, potentially ending his racing career right as it finally hit its stride.

The big appeal of a sports series is the underdog story, where you root for the main character as they fight their way up the ladder, with the feeling of finally becoming champion being the ultimate finale. Occasionally, though, you see a sports story continue on beyond the point where the lead is no longer an "underdog", but rather now is the target of others' goals. Therefore, the story has to change things up & introduce new complications, and Monkey Turn V starts off with an injury arc, one that works on many levels. First, it pushes Kenji to have to make a major decision between simply quitting kyotei because of the pain it has now put him through or putting in even more effort to come back & stay competitive; it's the perfect evolution from him doing kyotei racing because he likes the feeling to truly making it his life. Second, it doubles down on his relationship with Sumi, as when she, the Hatano family, & best friend Arisa Jougasaki fly over to the hospital he's at, she's the one who stays behind to help him get through the seething pain of the post-surgery healing, and when Kenji decides to go through the hard rehabilitation to return to racing, Sumi comes back to offer emotional support; these two are truly meant for each other, and this arc solidifies their relationship.

Don't worry Kenji, injuries are a normal worry in sports, and...

Finally, it also reasserts the love triangle element involving fellow racer Yuko Aoshima, as she's the person who manages to convince Kenji to not just give up, by constantly giving him the latest newspaper that talks up how rival Takehiro Doguchi has been doing excellently. At the same time, Doguchi & Aoshima wind up getting into a potential relationship (it was set up at the end of Season 1, but is pushed more here), turning the existing love triangle into a pair of semi-overlapping love triangles: Kenji-Sumi-Aoshima & Kenji-Doguchi-Aoshima (because, seriously, Kenji & Doguchi love their rivalry); it's not a "love quadrilateral", because Sumi & Doguchi don't interact at all. It's obvious that Aoshima looks out for Kenji's well being, both in & out of the sport, but she knows that Sumi is truly there for him in the grand scheme of things. At the same time, she knows that Doguchi is slowly making himself more & more of a loner by focusing so much on winning, to the extent of being willing to risk the safety of his fellow racers to take the lead, so she wants to be the person that's there for him when needed; Doguchi's habit of blushing when he's shown this level of care shows he that he appreciates it, too. This is especially complicated later on, when Doguchi outright admits his feelings to Aoshima & asks for her hand in marriage; not only does she have to consider her feelings for Kenji, but also how she feels about Doguchi's racing life.

Once Kenji recovers & gets back to racing in Episode 6, the anime returns to the modus operandi of the first season, i.e. new venues resulting in focuses on other characters, alongside Kenji. We get introduced to some new racers, like Gamou, an decade-plus veteran (who's even Enoki's "senpai") who stopped competing in SG tournaments after getting DQ-ed in a final, only to find himself wanting to fight for the top once again after racing Kenji; he also has an amazing knack for being able to judge an engine's performance just by sound. Kushida, in turn, is suddenly introduced for the SG Ocean Cup, but is just as quickly shown to be supremely likable, as she's easily one of the best racers in the tournament, regardless of the fact that she's the only female in the running. If that's not enough, she becomes a victim of Doguchi's ruthless style, taking a harsh dump that results in her getting whacked in the head with Doguchi's boat(!), yet still manages to finish the race; it's this act that even results in Aoshima wanting to beat Doguchi in a race, straining their relationship.

Throughout the show, we also see some nice bits of extra time given to some of the supporting cast. We see bits & pieces of other characters' racing dreams, like Hamaoka (who's been around since Kenji debuted as a pro) continually trying to take a top spot, Okaizumi actually being given a notable win due to Kenji & Doguchi trying to top each other, & we even see a small bit of Tetsuo Isa, the young racer who cut open Kenji's wrist in Episode 1; he feels bad about the incident, but Kenji quickly forgives him, which in turn makes Isa stay competitive. If anything, though, the main difference with Monkey Turn V is that there isn't the same driving force behind the storytelling that the first season had. Those first 25 episodes had the overall story of Kenji wanting to rise up the ranks, enter an SG tournament, & become the #1 kyotei racer by winning it. Now that he's achieved that, there has to be a new driving force propelling the story forward (no pun intended?).

What this second season winds up doing is splitting up the focus between each half. The first 13 episodes start with Kenji's injury, followed by Kenji's return to racing & getting into the Ocean Cup, so that he can prove that he's still just as good as he ever was. The last 12 episodes, in turn, focus on all of the characters, including old Yamato Academy classmates of Kenji's, wanting to get their chance to become SG champion, culminating in the Prize King GP, where the 12 highest ranked racers compete; with such equally-matched competitors, luck becomes the game changer. In fact, characters like Sumi, Arisa, Koike, & Kenji's family, who all had more direct importance to Kenji's story, appear much less often in the second half than they did in general. Thankfully, the show still manages to pop in surprising or downright shocking moments every now & then, but overall V's story removes an easy to relate to conundrum that the first season had. It's partially why the climb tends to be the main driving force behind a sports story, but at least this anime still manages to be appealing by doubling down on the characters' interpersonal relationships, & how they relate to kyotei racing. This results in you actually cheering for other characters to beat Kenji at times, too, because of their own trials & hills to overcome. One final thing that I actually didn't realize until the very end, though, is that no race in either season gets filled with six important characters; the most you ever get is four racers to focus on, with the last two spots being "filler" racers. Still, at least one race takes advantage of this expectation to give an unexpected victory.

Since the staff for this season is effectively the same exact people as the first season, I'll focus more on some of the technical aspects that I neglected to mention in either take of the first season. First up is the use of CG for the races themselves, with the boats, characters, & even water all being computer generated, and while it does show its age, especially in how the characters look, I think it holds up rather well, and it's easy to see why anime studio OLM went with CG for the races; animating the water traditionally would have been hell. At the very least, V seems to rely slightly less on it than the first season, especially for close up shots of the racers during races. In fact, I definitely noticed some short bits & pieces with some really smooth & detailed animation, which makes me feel that this second season might have gotten a bit more attention; maybe the first season did better than expected. Also a nice touch is that you see a lot of variety in the casual wear from everyone; racers have their standard outfits, but otherwise everyone wears something different regularly. That being said, it is notable that seemingly every single character's hair is one of two colors: Black or blonde; no wild "anime colors" to be found here. Plus, as a neat bit of trivia, Boruto: Naruto Next Generations director Hiroyuki Yamashita got his start in the anime industry doing in-between animation for Monkey Turn V, working on a little over half of the episodes. Another part of the staff to mention is the sound team lead by sound director Jun Watanabe (Fuma no Kojirou OVAs, Medaka Box), who apparently went to actual kyotei courses & recorded the boats, engines, & even races, so as to give the anime a 100% accurate sound to everything; it definitely helps, in the long run.

The music by Daisuke Ikeda returns, complete with that "Where is the Love?" knock-off, plus some new compositions, including a couple of nice variations of the new OP theme. Said theme, "Mune Ippai no Kono Ai o Dare Yori Kimi ni", is another Jewelry song, so therefore it is maddeningly catchy & engrossing. While "Kokoro ga Tomaranai" is still the overall better theme, V's OP does show more of the other characters, rather than focus primarily on Kenji. The original Monkey Turn OP also returns as the ending theme for the final episode, with a "best of" collection of scenes from the season being shown, a fitting way to end off the anime as a whole. As for V's own ED themes, they're both performed by fellow girl group Sparkling★Point, and they offer different sounds. First ED "Hey Hey Baby! You're NO.1" is an intensely enjoyable & fun song that's honestly the best ED across both seasons, complete with animation that enforces the Kenji-Sumi-Aoshima-Doguchi love conundrum, while second ED "So stay together" is slightly more R&B in style, and works for what it is; the chorus is sweet, but the verse is a little too slow.

Since I dedicated the re-review to covering the voices behind the main characters, I'll focus on Kenji's fellow racers in this review, as they do similarly great jobs here, including some well known seiyuu. Katsuyuki Konishi performs Enoki, going for a deeper delivery here in place of his more energetic style, and it does wonders for a man whose generally calm demeanor hides a truly tough force to deal with on the water. Gamou is voiced by Yasunori Matsumoto, who gives the character an appropriate accent that matches his generally easy-going nature, but also fits the moments where he, too, gets serious. Kushida doesn't appear quite as often, but Mami Kingetsu gives her a nice mix of grace & intensity. As for the secondary cast, Shigeru Shibuya (Gene Starwind in Outlaw Star) gives Hamaoka a lot of nice emotion & friendliness, while Takumi Yamazaki's iconic deep voice matches Wakui's general demeanor very well. Finally, the rest of the cast is rounded out by the likes of Atsushi Kisaichi (Jun), Akemi Okamura (Hagiwara), Isshin Chiba (Okaizumi), Kouichi Toochika (Shiozaki), & Mitsuaki Hoshino (Inukai), among many others; the cast across these two seasons is absolutely gigantic in size.

It's easy to see why the underdog story is so appealing & reused in sports stories of any kind, and that's because it creates an underlying path that one can relate to & follow. At the same time, though, there is something really cool in seeing a career story, where one is simply seeing the trials & tribulations of professionals doing what they chose to do for a living. That's the inherent difference between Monkey Turn & Monkey Turn V, and it's essential to go into this second season with that frame of mind. Because I didn't fully know what to expect going into this second half, I did start to feel that Monkey Turn might have been spinning its propeller (pun most-definitely intended) once the injury storyline finished up a quarter of the way through, but once I realized that the underdog story had evolved into the career story, similar to what Hajime no Ippo went through, I started to enjoy this anime for what it was, rather than feel like it was disappointing because it simply wasn't doing exactly what the first season had done; in reality, it simply couldn't. Admittedly, a lack of any sort of English translation (even a bootleg one form HK DVDs) does hurt Monkey Turn V a bit, but the series as a whole has always been very good at visually explaining what's going on, especially when it comes to certain strategies being used during a race, so I was still able to have a good time in the long run. Considering that Kawai ended the manga right around the same time as the anime was finishing up, and the fact that the first season skips over the manga's early stuff involving the Yamato Academy training, I think it's reasonable to guess that the anime covers all the way to the end of the manga, and if so then it's a perfect way to end the series; a career doesn't normally end after only a few years, after all.

Without a doubt, I still feel that Monkey Turn (both the first season & V) is one of the best sports anime that "you have not seen," and maybe one day it can be given a chance to show those interested what it brings to the table. It's about as likely as "BOAT RACE", as it's officially titled in Japan now, becoming more internationally known, but I guess one should never underestimate the underdog, because there could always be the potential for it to evolve into something more.

1 comment:

  1. I'm currently on episode 9 and having a blast with it. Years ago, I watched some episodes of Monkey Turn on TV, and only recently have I managed to recall the series again during my attempt to fill in my list on MAL. That then lead to me watching the series from the ground up and finally to discover your blog here. I find it a rather pleasant coincident that someone is reminiscing about this series with such a positive tone in 2018. Cheers.