What’s it about? Frustrated at never getting stronger, Sonoda Michi decided to quit practicing judo after middle school to focus on relaxing and getting a boyfriend. But when her opponent from her final kendo match shows up at her high school, she can’t help remembering what she loved about the sport.
COME GET YOUR FOOD, SPORTS FANS.
We here at AniFem seem to be constantly despairing at the lack of quality lady-led sports series. There are some exceptions, of course (especially if you’re counting Chihayafuru under the sports umbrella), but too often it seems that shows about girls playing sports tend to get short shrift from a production standpoint, have an aggressive amount of fanservice, or otherwise fail to stick the landing. The first episode of Ippon Again! makes me dare to hope we’ve broken that streak.
The episode sets itself firmly in the comfortable embrace of nostalgia from the word “go”: sunshine, soft-focus lenses, dreamy narration. This is definitely going for a “halcyon days of our youth” sort of vibe rather than hot-blooded competition. But while I tend to bounce off overly nostalgic framings of high school, the rest of the episode sucked me in with its endearing cast. While each of the Ippon girls are connected to an archetype—Michi is earnest and blunt, Sanae is shy and studious, Anna puts on an imperious act but wants attention, and Towa is mysterious and laconic—their interactions feel closer to real teens than Cute Anime Characters™.
Hats off to the animators as well. Because this is a judo series, there’s a lot of close-ups of bare feet in order to convey different moves. It feels like feet are a popular choice for series that fetishize teen girls lately, so it was a huge relief to see the series to treat that element matter-of-factly. The designs are rounded and soft but not to the point of making the girls look like grade schoolers, and that nostalgic lighting in the prologue lingers as a sun-soaked vibe over the episode proper. It’s cozy, is what it is, and surprisingly understated. It doesn’t have much running commentary on what this or that judo move entails, but it tries to be clear in its motivation, and the flow of choreography made it easy to follow along with the arc of each match. I was also impressed that the simple plot bones conveyed a lot about where the characters could go from here.
Michi is clearly the kind of character who blusters ahead to get away from difficult emotions, and Towa has some excellent physical comedy conveying how desperately she wants to be friends despite not being able to work up the courage. Sanae, though, stuck out to me in particular: while I’m not prepared to make a hard call, there’s something about the way her reasons for joining the club are framed (particularly her reluctance to voice why she joined to Michi, and the way the latter’s invitation is framed) that makes me suspect she might harbor a crush on her friend.
There is a bit of oddness in the production credits that gives me a bit of pause. There have been plenty of key animators stepping into the role of director for the first time over the past year, but Ippon’s Ogiwara Ken has worked almost exclusively in “photography” – a job that predominantly involves compositing various components together into the final product. His only directing credits are on a few episodes of JORAN: THE PRINCESS OF SNOW AND BLOOD and as unit director on last year’s To Every You I’ve Loved Before. That’s a pretty big jump, especially considering that sports series in particular need a lot of care to convey what makes various techniques impressive to the lay audience. Series composer Satsuki Aya is also a newbie to the world of anime but has worked a writer for tokusatsu and drama series. The Tiger & Bunny fan in me gets excited when a live-action writer brings a fresh eye to a project, but I’m not sure how that will gel with a director who’s also quite new to his role in the project.
Still, I want to believe. This is based on a very long-running shounen (21 volumes and counting), so I’m settling in for this series to be more about vibes than a neat, conclusive arc, but this first episode has already convinced me that hanging out with these girls will be a great time.