I try to keep my shipping goggles off for episode reviews, primarily because if I didn’t, they’d be three times as long, and nobody would read them. However, sometimes a show’s writing pushes the envelope of subtext so far beyond the breaking point, it becomes professionally negligent to not talk about it, which is all to say that if “Ippon” Again! expects me to believe that Nagumo isn’t crushing hard on Michi, it needs to go to the medical tent and be checked for a concussion. I haven’t seen the word “friend” stretched this far since the gals in BOFURI had a candlelit dinner for two where they literally drank starlight together.
I don’t just bring that up to go all Garth Marenghi on the show, but because that level of intimacy and connection is central to Nagumo’s conflict here. I appreciate how much of that is communicated with very few words. We could have gotten long internal monologues about how Nagumo and Michi grew up together and how much they mean to each other, but we can understand all that just through the snapshots of their childhood we see when Nagumo’s reminiscing. The girls’ personalities, how their dynamic developed as they grew up, and just how much it all means to Nagumo is clear as day. It’s not exactly a complicated relationship, but that simplicity lets it grip your heartstrings and leaves no doubt that joining the club with Michi would make her the happiest.
Of course, the rub is that Nagumo is a little defensive turtle who hides behind a semi-comical bravado to avoid being honest with herself or others. Rather than having to convince her father or kendo teammates to let her quit, the conflict comes from her struggling to be upfront and vulnerable with her feelings. That’s a thousand times more terrifying when you’re a teenager. It may not textually be a love confession, but Nagumo saying she wants to join so she can be with and strive alongside Michi has all the same heft of one because both scenarios involve being honest about a preciously held emotional truth. The addition of having Hiura help bolster Nagumo’s determination, even lending part of her uniform to share her confidence, is the perfect touch. After all, she just got done tying up her years-long interpersonal conflict with a cherished companion – what better way to cap that off than to assist with someone else’s?
The whole sequence makes for a surprisingly quiet conclusion but is no less charming in its delivery, which makes it all the more confusing that it comes midway through the episode. After that, a surprisingly large amount of this episode is taken up by an extended montage, during which Nagumo learns the basics of judo before getting her white belt. I have yet to read the manga, but if you told me this was skipping over multiple chapters, I’d believe you, just for how abrupt the transition is. It could be necessary narrative massaging to get Nagumo past the absolute basics so the story can progress. However, moving so swiftly through her fully joining the group dynamic is still disappointing. The best aspect of this show is its character writing, so skipping over such a large chunk of their time together feels like a waste.
We do, at least, end the episode in an exciting place, promising the entrance of the fifth member alluded to in the OP/ED. Having somebody totally disconnected from our core cast and an older student at that holds a lot of potential for the overall rapport of the cast. There’s always the chance a new entry could mess up the balance, but so far “Ippon” Again! has crafted a lovable cast with infectious chemistry, so I have complete faith that they’ll be able to keep that up.
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