Anyone who’s watched enough sports anime knows there’s a list of things every last one of ’em just has to cover. Tournaments and rivals come with the territory, but there’s also reoccurring tropes that are less intrinsic to the world of athleticism, but nonetheless feel obligatory for any cartoon about sporty teenagers doing sporty things. High up on that list is the former player who’s lost the love for the sport, and must be cajoled by the bright-eyed new recruits into coming back to the team. That’s more or less what we get here, in “Ippon” Again!‘s signature gentle and contemplative style.
What makes it work for me – and what makes Himeno feel so authentic – is that her quitting judo wasn’t caused by any dramatic or catastrophic event. She didn’t get some debilitating injury or experience a demoralizing loss at Nationals that made her want to give up. Rather, it was the rest of the club graduating that eroded her drive for the sport, left as the sole holdout at Aoba West while isolation slowly sapped the joy from training. Sports, especially martial arts-focused ones, are tough. They’re tiring, often painful, and take up a ton of time on top of school and family and a million other things most teenagers want to spend their sparse personal time on. With judo in particular, it’s almost impossible to train properly if you don’t have regular sparring partners. Once the community aspect of her friends and teammates was gone, soldiering through it stopped feeling rewarding to her, and it’s totally understandable why she’d quit.
Though Himeno wasn’t entirely alone, and I give massive props to Shino-sensei for going above and beyond as a teacher and coach during Himeno’s solo run. Not every instructor would be willing to drive their only student to different schools just so she can practice against their teams, let alone try to get the kid back for one more tournament. It would be entirely reasonable to just leave her alone to finish out her final months of high school without dredging up old memories. Instead, Himeno’s teacher was there for her, and earnestly reached out to give the kid another chance to enjoy something obviously precious to her. That prior relationship gives the pair a connection and trust that’s unique from the rest of the club, and really sells Himeno choosing to return.
As consequence of that, however, Himeno doesn’t spend a ton of screen time with the other girls this week, but what we see is very promising. I like how she has a bit of a rebellious side to her, strategically dodging school regulations to dye her hair, and even keeping a wig on her for emergencies. It’s also super sweet to see all the younger girls clamoring to have a match with her, after she spent so long alone. It’s the perfect way to illustrate how the club has transformed, without any unnatural speeches about friendship or teamwork from the others. They don’t need to make a big show of welcoming her in, because their presence and enthusiasm is more than enough to make judo fulfilling again.
All that charm is great, and also vital in keeping this episode engaging, because the visuals hit a very hard wall this week. “Ippon” has only rarely been a visual stunner, and nearly every episode features some slight-of-hand to avoid having to make anything move too much, but all those rough edges are magnified here. There’s multiple stretches where effort was made to never show characters standing up, walking, or even moving their mouths. I am now intimately familiar with a particular window in the club dojo, because they cut to it about ten times during conversations and matches this week. Considering we’re heading into a new tournament next week, it’s probably the right move to preserve resources for upcoming matches, but it doesn’t make the jarring cutaways and awkward models any less distracting. The infectious energy of the cast still shines through, but here’s hoping the production can pick itself back up moving forward.
“Ippon” Again! is currently streaming on