Last time I wrote about Yawara, I was only a small way into the series; even now, around a fifth of the way through its 124 episodes, there is still some distance to the main “event,” the Olympic Games which every episode counts towards. If anything, the series’ pace is slow and all the stronger for it; 25 episodes is the same length as some entire animé which tell a full story, and yet Yawara is just beginning its journey. Enough time has passed to settle nicely into the characters’ roles in this story, but enough time remains (over eight hundred days – over two years of these characters’ lives to follow) to leave things incredibly open for a change in focus and plot.
It is this frankly impressive combination of length of narrative – a promised look into over two years of a large cast of characters’ lives over over 50 hours of television – and the focus of this narrative – a crucial period of time in the life of a young girl – that makes Yawara so special. It has taken 25 episodes for the significance of this to become apparent, because at first it seems like a flippant, trivial gesture; but, as the series progresses at a very leisurely pace, the sheer dramatic space that its format gives it feels well-suited to a tale of someone going from no-name to international celebrity. Indeed, with the ever-looming fixed endpoint reiterated at the end of every episode, there is a sense of urgency; this is a finite story, Yawara’s journey to Olympic competition, not an endless one. Thus the main plot of this first section – the tension between the pressures of local-level, let alone international, sport and academic excellence – is given a different perspective. There is not the easy belief that a shorter series would have that everything would be neatly wrapped up come exam day, that Yawara will get what she wants and enjoy effortless success to tie up a nice story within a half-years’ worth of episodes. Graduation – leaving high school and moving on to further and higher education – is simply one step, one story arc and the repercussions of what happens will be shown as the series progresses.
In many ways, the choice of rival for Yawara – the rich, leisured Sayaka Honemi – is a very apposite one. Sayaka is so rich and privileged that she sees sport as a pastime – one to be taken seriously, but nevertheless something to do to fill the time. She has the resources and free time to travel the world, enlisting the help of the best coaches and sparring with the best martial artists, and apparently exists in a world where school is barely a concern; she is to inherit vast wealth and a business to supplement her already immense wealth. Yawara, on the other hand, must worry about school, and employment, and her eccentric grandfather’s needs. This is a very standard shoujo setup; villainy is frequently associated with privilege, because squandered opportunity put against hardworking normality is a good conflict. Yawara is the epitome of the everywoman and presented as a kind of role model; she works hard to do well at school and at sport, looks after her family and wants to be in control of her own relationships. A good work ethic, a strong sense of self-determination and crucially a sportswoman’s selflessness come together in a protagonist who earns the viewer’s love. The arc of episodes surrounding the visit of international judo star Jody Rockwell to Yawara’s dojo sets this in perspective; Sayaka flies around the globe scoping out international competition while Yawara has to fit a practice match around her college application – but, in proper style, Yawara’s natural talent is once again superior to Sayaka’s hothoused skill.
In this arc, Yawara is still uncertain about her sporting future and learns a different lesson about its importance. She fears over-emphasising sport will affect her chances of academic success, which is an entirely sympathetic reason to de-emphasise it. Often in sport animé sport is the ideal, the thing to focus on, the embodiment of school spirit and the sole focus of the series – but for Yawara, it is something she wants to do while still having a “normal” life. That her “normal” life is academic achievement – and that her sports career is completely outside of school – is a very different perspective. For the protagonist, and her rival, sport is not a school affair because her school is poor at sport. Yawara’s aim is international success, and so she must practice at higher levels – and her rival apparently eschews school altogether. Thus the tension between study and sport is quite different; it is not an interdepartmental affair, of school commitments interfering with sporting fixtures, but instead independent study to ensure a good academic future competing with professional sport for free time. It is here that Yawara’s grandfather, Jigoro, comes into his own – he shamelessly guilts her into excelling in the way any “demon coach” in sports animé would. His apparent resistance to her academic excellence, born from his confidence in her making a career of sport, is the motivator she needs to redouble her efforts in both fields.
But what truly sets Yawara apart, and what has become clear in these recent episodes, is how strongly the show emphasises sportsmanship and good ethics in sport. It does not do this through outrageous cheating and gamesmanship on the part of the opposition, there are no teams of scheming cheats from an upper-class school, but through positive reinforcement. Yawara’s classmates compete in schools judo leagues and are bad at the sport – so she uses her free time, despite how busy she is, to help them out both with coaching and moral support at competitions. While Jigoro is intractable and standoffish, willing to only share his talent with people who are “worthy”, Yawara is presented as selfless to a fault, almost jeopardising her own career to help those less skilled than her improve. This is a wonderful mindset to promote – absolute selflessness – and goes further to imply a love of sport than any scenes of hard work or decisive victories. It is the difference between skill and a love of the sport for its own sake, something Sayaka is shown to constantly lack. Even at the highest level, Yawara behaves impeccably as a sportswoman, calling off a fight with Jody after the latter is injured so that Jody’s impending international is not affected.
There is no scope, in a series about the professional sporting world, for the sorts of chicanery and deceit that a school sports shoujo might use. Yawara competes on a level beyond girls’ tiffs leading to stolen rackets or lost kit and the series reflects that in how it depicts sport itself. It is something overwhelmingly positive; Sayaka is the closest the series has to a villain, and she is villainous because she does not appreciate sport in the way others do. And, in turn, she loses and loses. Her internaional sparring match, against a Korean athlete, ends in a draw – but it is ungracious and scrappy compared to Yawara’s gracious annulled fight with Jody. Indeed, it is that fight with Jody that sets up Yawara’s renewed relationship with sport; she wants to face an international athlete on the competition-field, at the peak of her condition, and have a fair fight to repay her for giving her the incentive she needed to work hard. As an amateur sportsman myself, I am drawn to Yawara because of its healthy, admirable depiction of why sport matters and why it is so enjoyable. It is a broad comedy, full of wonderful scenes, but at its heart it is a story that does not shy away from how gruelling – and yet rewarding – the pursuit of excellence can be.