"Star of the Giants" Pioneering animated sports series
"Star of the Giants" (Kyojin no Hoshi) is an animated series about Japanese baseball that premiered on Japanese TV on March 3, 1968 and ran for 182 episodes, ending its run on Sept. 18, 1971. The Clements/McCarthy "Anime Encyclopedia" declares it the very first sports-themed anime series. Its popularity spawned an endless succession of sports anime that continues to this day. The series is also significant for being the first animated contemporary drama without any supernatural, sci-fi or historical elements. It offered the Japanese TV industryand the audiencesolid proof that animation could be used to tell all kinds of stories in all kinds of genres and wasn't necessarily aimed at children. It also proved that audiences were willing to sit and watch a continuing animated story, week in and week out.
I watched two Japanese VHS tapes containing ten episodes of the series in Japanese with no subtitles. The first tape, containing eps. 53-56, is from the beginning of the second season, while the second tape, containing eps. 112-115 and 117-118, is from the third season. (I have no clue why ep. 116 was deliberately omitted from the tape.) In the first tape, Hoshi, the series' young protagonist, is a junior player with the Yomiuri Giants and is seen mostly in practice. He'd been trained since childhood by his father, a former baseball champ, and his joining the Giants is the beginning of a great career for the future star pitcher. In these episodes, he's still living with his parents.
In the second tape, Hoshi is already a star pitcher but he and his father are now bitter enemies. Hoshi, a southpaw, has perfected something called the "Diving Ball," a nearly lethal pitching technique that involves hurling the ball in such a manner that it heads right for the batter's face, forcing him to hold up the bat to defend himself, thus rendering his hit ineffectual. The pitch has such power that it often knocks the batter down even though he'd successfully deflected the ball. Hoshi's dad, Ittetsu, coaches a rival team and has trained a rival player to counter the Diving Ball and score hits off it. This player happens to be a black American named Armstrong who sees Hoshi as his enemy and taunts and snarls at him whenever they're on the same field. (Armstrong speaks Japanese.) It doesn't help matters that Hoshi is tortured by flashbacks of past batters getting hit and seriously injured by his Diving Ball pitches.
This is as overwrought as you can get. Hoshi is clearly disturbed by his father's behavior and has waking nightmares that pit him and his father, in the form of lions, against each other on an open field. Every time the scene moves into Hoshi's head, there is a sudden shift to stylized abstract backgrounds marked by jagged lines and dark colors. There are frequent flashbacks to his training and to bad encounters in previous games. Hoshi does not seem to be well liked and batters often taunt him from first base. They take baseball quite seriously in this series and there seems to be no time for banter, jokes or light-hearted moments. I'm also quite sure that the Diving Ball and taunts from first base would be strictly illegal in real baseball.
The character design is strong, with well-etched lines and distinct features for each major character. Which is important, since the series relies on frequent closeups to tell the story. While the eyes on the main characters are a little wider than Asian eyes would look, chiefly to facilitate more explicit displays of emotion, most of the Japanese characters are made to look Japanese from all other design standpoints. Only Hoshi's mother has light-colored (brown) hair. (She is also the only female character seen in the episodes available to me.) The characters are very emotional and the men cry and sweat a lot.
The series, based on a popular manga (comic book), is told realistically for the most part, aside from the extreme tactics used in the game and the reliance on stylized visuals to dramatize Hoshi's state of mind and depict certain baseball actions. For instance, when the ball is in motion after a pitcher's throw, it appears in a flattened or curved shape as it flies through the air. Also, when Armstrong is up at bat and decides to swing at the ball, his image is briefly replaced by a furious whirlwind, a visual cue that he's sure to hit the ball. There are abstract touches like this throughout, usually in moments of great baseball prowess or extreme emotion.
There are newspaper articles that have real photos in them. And in one TV newscast covering a baseball story, a few seconds of live-action horse racing footage is inserted, the meaning of which I couldn't grasp. In ep. 54, the team goes to Hawaii to play an American team and they win, 13-4. In ep. 56, Hoshi's father tells the story, seen in flashback, of a samurai ancestor who challenges a sword master repeatedly until the master relents and fights the challenger, killing him in one quick slash. I didn't quite get the moral of that story.
It's highly doubtful this classic series will ever get a subtitled release in the U.S. It's not the kind of baseball story that would appeal to American sports fans and its style of animation would strike young anime fans as old-fashioned. But I found it compelling for the intensity of its drama and the force of its imagery. It had some of the same appeal for me as another animated sports series I saw recently without subtitles, "Aim for the Ace" (Ace wo Nerae), about a female tennis player, which I've also reviewed here. I recommend this for other students of anime history, given its significance for the reasons outlined in the first paragraph.
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