Ace of Diamond (TV)

High school baseball is probably the most natural fodder for a formula anime outside of martial arts. Koshien, the Japanese high school baseball championship, is a treasure trove of storyline setups. Every year, 49 schools from rural areas to near-professional baseball schools in Tokyo come together in a tournament to decide the best high school team in all of Japan. Students have a ticking clock of three years to learn a game made up of players who both have to attack and defend as well as become stars at their position and a working cog of a team. Even the biggest hack of a writer could think up a story outline in 15 minutes based on this. Ace of Diamond isn't the work of a hack, though.

The trick of Ace of the Diamond is trying to figure out what exactly the story hook is. Even though it’s based on a long-running and successful manga series by Yuji Terajima and made as a co-production between high profile studios Madhouse and Production I.G., its qualities aren’t immediately obvious. Baseball anime/manga like Cross Game and Major tend to punch the soul with death to get the emotional backing of the main character’s determination, but this series' approach is a little different.

The series starts with main character Eijun Sawamura, a dark-haired pitcher as almost all baseball anime protagonists must be, losing his final game in junior high and finding himself in deep trouble after getting into a slap fit with the opposing team who laughed at his team (Yes, a slap fit). Even losing the game and facing disciplinary action, he is recruited by Seidou Academy, a Tokyo school with one of the best baseball teams in the country.  At first, it seems like a series about a rag-tag team of losers who gathers around a pitcher who has the spirit and heart to compete with the best. Perhaps have the one girl on the team and childhood friend be the protagonist's love interest, and eventually have his ultimate rivals be the elite team he turned down. But no. After discussing matters with his family (Including his grandfather, who seems to firmly believe in corporal punishment), he accepts the offer at Seidou and leaves his middle school buddies behind with a heavy heart. 

What's given instead is a series about truly making it at a premier baseball academy with a few anime indulgences. Seidou Academy is depicted as a more common educational fixture than most anime that see them as an authoritarian dictatorship bent on wringing out the souls of baseball players in exchange for the school's glory, but that doesn't mean it lacks massive amounts of pressure and competition. Eijun initially makes his mark by striking out the team's slugger, but his lack of baseball knowledge, respect for his fellow players, and control of his own abilities soon leads him to constantly being on the edge of getting cut from the team.

This brings up to the series' biggest success and shortcoming. This kind of atmosphere breeds a whole cast of characters bent under the immense stress of being the best. For instance, Eijun is teamed up with Chris, a stoic catcher who sternly tells him he will never be the ace of the team yet gives him a massive list of exercises to complete. Starting out a seemingly hypocritical and overly morose clod, Chris' backstory eventually paints him as a far more sympathetic baseball genius who succumbed to a seriously injury, and despite his desire to return and win a national championship, is being held back by his father who doesn't want him to risk his pro career for a boy's dream. Eijun is Chris' one hope of being able to return to high school ball, which is initially unfortunate because Eijun is kind of an idiot.

As much as there are the interesting stories within the team, most of them don't involve the main character. Oh, Eijun has perfectly decent motivations and his heart is in the right place with wanting to succeed as to not let down his classmates he leaves behind after promising to build a winning team with them, but he goes a little too far with the brash, speak-before-thinking teenager schtick. He has a lot of spirit, hope, and just enough raw talent to stay above water, but for the first ten episodes or so, he's also a self-centered, chest-pounding jerk who knows nothing of baseball and only gets as far as he does because of luck and the help of other players he's occasionally judgmental towards.

It's not so bad as to be insufferable, but with characters who've spent their whole lives up to this point dedicated to the sport getting bragged at and condescended to by a first-year who barely learns how to throw properly halfway through his initial season, Eijun occasionally hits some very sour notes. Even as he mellows and becomes a more respectable teammate, he never gets that interesting. Despite a student/teacher relationship with Chris, he almost seems to avoid getting intertwined with other people. This would be fine if the series intended such. Unfortunately, Ace of the Diamond seems to want him to be the center of his team and yet it doesn't seem to have the time to develop him as such. The ending credits imply a later romantic fling with a clumsy trainer named Yoshikawa who disappears for five episodes at a time. He has a rivalry with a quiet pitcher named Satoru that never becomes much more than throwaway humor. Even when it's strongly suggested he spends an evening in the dorm getting to know his teammates, he takes it as a punishment.

So sometimes the main character can be a pain. How's the series when it focuses on baseball? Quite good, actually. Madhouse and Production I.G. bring quality production values with fluid and realistic animation. Curveballs furl into the catcher's glove satisfyingly and fielders make plays with the ease or difficulty of their experience or fatigue. The games themselves maintain a steady pace of excitement and intrigue naturally occurring from baseball itself rather than utilizing Shonen Jump-esque tricks to pump up the drama. However, the series will occasionally opt for cheap dramatics by freezing and obscuring an important play and waiting until after the results are revealed to show how the play unfolded.

Its unique slant and baseball action makes Ace of the Diamond a worthy title even if you've scrounged through the best of the genre. Its lacking lead prevents it from being an all star, but being a solid second or third starter is a pretty decent accomplishment nevertheless.


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