Yawara, a sports animé adapted from a manga by notable writer Naoki Urasawa, is a curious series; it is, first and foremost, incredibly funny and takes sport as being both something one can take very seriously, or not seriously at all. It is full of visual humour, and incongruous references (a timer at the end of each episode saying “X Days to the Barcelona Olympics” evokes more than anything Yamato‘s timer saying “X Days to the Destruction of Earth”), but at the same time often has an affectionate – if light-hearted – message to say about sports culture, or young people. If anything, the intensely silly, dramatised reactions to strange events – far more parodic than many sports or girls-school dramas would be – make the events feel less like the series moralising and more like a chance to laugh at a ridiculous world.
Yawara is a long series, but its opening arc seems to give a good setup for where it will go; immensely talented student Yawara has no real love of judo, and her grandfather has visions of her winning a gold medal at the next Olympics. It is really a similar underdog story to other sports-series – idle or disinterested protagonist has to grow up and make the most of their talents. What sets it apart, however, is how the story unfolds. Yawara’s grandfather is, one could argue, the “demon coach” archetype in how he constantly pushes for her to succeed even when she does not want to – his bizarre schemes to boost her self-confidence, if played for greater drama and less comedy, would be not so different to the plotlines of Aim for the Ace. But at the same time he is an eccentric, ranting old man who makes a fool out of other people and has no regard for social conventions. He is the centre of the series’ comedy, blustering about, scheming in ways that succeed, but never quite as planned, and really it is hard to think of him as much other than well-intentioned, if rude. What is clear, and what makes his interactions and schemes so charming, is that he loves his sport and genuinely cares about teaching it.
Yawara herself is a similarly charming and strong-willed character; she wants to be an ordinary schoolgirl, and not have to worry about a sporting career despite having huge talent. The series is being set up, it is fairly clear, to be a story about her learning to realise her talent and live up to it, finding the success and enjoyment she is looking for through sport. Her resistance to practicing is not depicted as idleness or poor character – as might be in a more “dramatic” sports animé, where the coach must convince the student that slacking off and avoiding responsibility is bad – but instead just a natural kicking out against familial pressure. Her grandfather represents sport to her, and she does not want to be like the embarrassing, crazed old man. It is a very natural conflict and at the same time a very amusing one; that she invariably ends up not only having to compete or practice, but doing so with aplomb, is a running joke that does the same as a melodramatic sequence of practicing late into the night in terms of character development. Most importantly, though, she is a leading woman who is strong and seeking independence from what she sees as a male-dominated world of sport but – aided by the comic framework – comes across as human and relatable.
The men in Yawara are invariably embarrassing and crude, perverted or cowardly, and the world of sport is shown to be threatening to the uninitated. She is a woman competing in what is being presented – at first – as a male-dominated sport, and holding her own through natural talent. This is what makes the series great – it does not consistently highlight her as a reductively stereotypical Strong Woman, some masculine amazonian who is freakishly strong, but instead as a girl who has worked hard to compete in a male-dominated sport and who can stand up for herself. This is presented as a natural, desirable thing to do – she earns the respect of people for doing this, rather than their curiosity or ridicule. Yet the fact that she does not want the prestige of sport is the core conflict; she is immensely talented, and yet wants to make her own choices about whether or not she does anything with that talent. Indeed, the initial episodes present her as trying to balance “femininity” – in typical schoolgirl activities such as shopping and dating – with the demands of training for a professional sport career. What comes off the worse in its depiction is the social expectations of a young girl. The shopping and dating is shown as superficial and unsatisfying, filled with living up to the expectations of others while the sport is a place where competing is what matters. Cheats and sneaks and perverts do not prosper in the judo arena, but deceit is intrinsically associated with dating. Yawara’s object of affection is in fact a rival sports coach trying to get close to her to get information about her training regime, while her oftentimes “saviour” is a tabloid journalist who simply wants the scoop on a sporting sensation. There is a tension of expectation, and it is an interesting one; Yawara is driven from sport by the fact it is other people telling her she is good at it and should devote herself to it, before she can even make her own decisions. The conflict of interest in some school stories is between idleness and school spirit – in Aim for the Ace, the protagonist is held to high expectations by her coach and her school. In Yawara, she quite specifically does not represent her school at sport if she can help it – her grandfather is an independent coach who is called in to help others, including her school. It is a school drama in that it is set in school, but not a school sport drama because it actively rejects the idea that school sport is the be all and end all. Yawara’s grandfather wants her to be an Olympian – not just a school champion. What matters is playing sport, practicing and winning.
Thus in its attitudes to sport, to women and to men Yawara stands ahead of much animé; it is a show about a school-age sports star where the emphasis is as far from beating other schools as possible – Yawara is to practice with champions of the sport, challenge the masters and win the Olympic Games before she leaves high school. Beating a rival school is a diversion, a vital ruse of her grandfather’s to bring out some competitiveness, but merely that. She is a substitute in her school team. Indeed, the sport is only half the story – it is the root of much of the humour, but the real interest of the plot is in how it uses the sport as a vehicle for exploring familial – and social – expectation. Yawara believes society wants her to be feminine, and sees femininity as rebellion against her grandfather – but at the same time this is set against a very sympathetic and indeed progressive handling of a woman competing on an equal footing in a male-dominated sport.