"Aim for the Ace" Classic anime about women's tennis
"Ace wo Nerae" (Aim for the Ace) is a 26-episode Japanese animated TV series that aired from 1973-74. It was based on a manga series by Sumika Yamamoto about a female high school tennis player and was popular enough to spawn a movie (with all new animation), a follow-up TV season and two series of made-for-video (OAV) sequels, the last one appearing in 1990. It's focused on Hiromi Oka, an unassuming 15-year-old who takes up tennis at Nishi High School after watching glamorous star player Reika Ryuuzaki in action. Reika is a rich girl with striking features, an air of privilege, and long, flowing blond hair with lots of curls. She manages to make everything she does look easy, while Hiromi has short brown hair and little confidence and has to work much harder to achieve even the minimal level of competence required by the team. There's a handsome classmate named Todo who likes Hiromi and is liked by her as well, but they hold off any expression of feeling once Hiromi's stern (male) coach insists that she focus entirely on tennis and practice incessantly in order to catch up to the other members of the tennis club at the school.
I recently purchased two VHS tapes of the original series, containing episodes 19-23. They are, of course, in Japanese with no subtitles, yet I found the episodes compelling enough to watch them all in one sitting. The stories are told visually, with bold graphic design and great use of color and dramatic imagery designed to capture the characters' emotional states. There's a lot of tennis playing and heavy doses of exercise, jogging, and practice, so it's not that much of an effort to follow without translation. (As far as I have been able to determine, this series has never received an official release in English.)
What impressed me most was the sheer physicality of the animation. You feel what Hiromi and the other players are feeling. You are immersed in their experience. When Hiromi misses a ball and takes a nasty spill on the court in ep. 19, I felt a jolting sensation of discomfort. That had to be painful. Even in the quieter scenes, there are plenty of details that make the experience so vivid for us. When Hiromi jogs in ep. 20, we see her breath in the cold of the early morning as she jogs through the woods and on the walk of a bridge alongside chugging trains. When she exercises to the point of exhaustion we see and hear the labored breathing that results.
The director, Osamu Dezaki, likes to break down a scene into individual components, including facial closeups and shots of the ball speeding by or hitting the racket in slow motion, often with abstract color backdrops. Closeups of Hiromi are set against an overcast sky with jagged strokes of dark blue, even though a cut to another player is framed against a sunny sky. I'm assuming that Hiromi's backdrops are meant to stress her vulnerability and insecurity. (In one game, however, a storm actually breaks out, complete with thunder and lightning, and the referee stops the game only after it starts pouring.) While there are all sorts of animation shortcuts during dialogue scenes and interior sequences, the tennis games boast a high degree of extraordinarily intense and fluid playing action, with fast-and-furious exchanges in each of the games seen in these five episodes. It's all very exciting.
One sequence in ep. 23 includes illustrations of then-famous female tennis players, including the celebrated American player of the 1970s, Billie Jean King.
Osamu Dezaki went on to become one of the master stylists of anime, as evidenced by the rich visual imagination on display in so many of his later works such as the "Black Jack" OAV anime series (1993) and two Golgo 13 films, "The Professional" (1983) and "Queen Bee" (1998), among many other titles. Before "Ace wo Nerae," he directed another acclaimed sports series, "Ashita no Joe" ("Tomorrow's Joe," 1970), about a poor boy in Tokyo who becomes a boxer. He also went on to direct another famous adaptation of a shojo (women's) manga, "Rose of Versailles" (1980), set in France during the reign of Marie Antoinette.
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