July 07, 2014

Team of Two

There's a trope in shōnen manga and especially in sports manga where effort and training will inevitably turn into success, regardless of your skill and talent. But this trope does not treat everyone equal. In order for someone to win, someone else must lose.

Sports manga are often fashioned around something of an underdog scenario where the protagonists are still learning the basics of a sport, trying to overcome their status as amateurs by training and going through a series of wins and losses. The other characters in the story are usually depicted as more talented or experienced and act as goals of sorts for the protagonists to strive for and surpass.

And so it is with Yowamushi Pedal, a manga by Wataru Watanabe first published in 2008 and currently being also broadcast as anime. The protagonist of Yowamushi Pedal is Onoda Sakamichi, a guy who has no special skills save for a tireless love of anime and the habit of riding his bike to Akihabara once a week. When he gets into bicycle racing during his freshman year of high school he has to learn everything about the sport from scratch, which is what much of the manga is about.

Seemingly, Onoda's only asset is his high cadence – the way he can pedal fast even when going uphill – but as is demonstrated over and over again, that is only his basic technique. That's just how he rides. His true strength comes from the same place as the true strength of largely all shōnen manga heroes: a will to win, tenaciously enduring training and hardships to emerge stronger after every challenge. And indeed, that is the framing of much of the early chapters of the manga. Onoda faces a challenge but somehow pulls off an impressive feat just by pushing himself a little harder, a little further, a little more.

What matters is your will to win and the lengths you're willing to go. Furthermore, what matters is that seemingly ordinary people like Onoda can be extraordinary if they just have the will to do so, and determination to train. Over and over again the other characters are amazed by Onoda who – even when lacking in skills – pulls through a race just out of pure perseverance.

This is the axiom of the genre. Skill and talent get you far, but your spirit and desire are what count in the end. Enduring hardships, training persistently and believing in yourself will lead to winning.

But Onoda is not the only average guy aiming for extraordinary feats at the cycle racing club. Second-year student Teshima Junta has been into bikes for a good while but hasn't got much to show for it. In junior high he kept attending races but never placed high. He trained and studied theory but couldn't surpass hotshots like Onoda's friend, the lauded cyclist Imaizumi. In the end, Teshima concludes:

No matter how hard the trained, he couldn't break out of the shadow of cyclists like Imaizumi. Teshima had the strategy down but couldn't follow up on it because he lacked stamina.

Then he meets Aoyagi Hajime. Another ordinary guy in his second year of high school who has trained hard but doesn't seem to get any results. Like Teshima, Aoyagi too is "just an average cyclist." Unlike Teshima, Aoyagi has stamina, but he can't come up with a good strategy so he ends up wasting his strength.

The two realize that in each other they have what each of them lack. And so they train and train, combine their strengths, and cover for each other's weaknesses. And they start to win, because – of course – they're ordinary people who put in a lot of effort. The laws of sports manga are on their side.

They promise to each other and to their third-year mentor that they will go to the Inter-high – the big cycling tournament – together. But in order to do that they need to win one more qualifying race to get to the competition team: A race between Teshima's and Aoyagi's "Team of Two" and the first-year members of the cycling club (Onoda, Imaizumi and their friend, the renowned sprinter Naruko).

And how could they not end up in the Inter-high? They have trained harder than anyone, made promises of the sort nobody else has done and have more spirit than anyone else. They've spent all their time training themselves to overcome the mundane. By the axiom of the genre, they should be the obvious winners.

When the time comes for the final sprint of the race, everything is in order for their victory. Except that Aoyagi and Teshima are not the main characters of this story. They cannot win if that means the loss of the protagonist and his friends. Or rather, their winning or losing is not even up for discussion. The point of view is wrong. We should be looking at it from Onoda's perspective. Whether he wins or loses and the significance that has is the important thing. For a sweet while the reader has forgotten that the Team of Two is irrelevant in the grander scheme of things.

And so the axiom fails for them, with Aoyagi and Teshima collapsing at the goal line, their dreams shattered and their bodies failing.

Onoda and his friends go to the Inter-high whereas the second-years are taken to the infirmary to get their torn muscles and broken bodies patched up.

For someone to win, someone must lose. What makes this scene so harrowing and so powerful is not that Teshima and Aoyagi lost, because in sports manga someone always loses, but that they lost even when they were cushioned with the effort axiom of the genre. They lost when they should've won.

After his team wins the race, Onoda looks at his friends, the hotshot Imaizumi and the sprinter Naruko who both are already recognized in the competitive cycling scene, and wonders if he will become as fast as them if only he trained hard enough.

Of course he will. And we readers know that. This is a sports manga after all. A genre where the effort you put in turns into concrete results sooner or later, and where your determination and spirit carry you to victory.

It's remarkable that Onoda asks that question right after Teshima and Aoyagi have fallen. The axiom is still obviously in effect, but those readers who've sympathized with Teshima and Aoyagi find themselves in a weird situation: those exact same things that did nothing for Teshima and Aoyagi are cheerfully re-established for Onoda, who, as it turns out, is nowhere near as average as everybody thought. Onoda is no underdog, nor someone to challenge the elite from the laypeople's perspective: Onoda is one of the elite, through and through.

Of course, epic losses are part and parcel of sports manga. But to have a loss happen so blatantly against the core tenets of the genre is also a betrayal of sorts: for as long as we've read sports manga, we've learned to trust that the weak will overcome the elite. That the best are the best only as long as it takes for the weaklings to power up to their level.

Teshima and Aoyagi had all the reasons to win, except that they were side characters in someone else's story, in a story arc about how willpower sometimes isn't enough, because on the road anything might cost you the victory. It's a manifestation of an unfair world that so often is missing from sports manga. In stories celebrating doing the impossible and winning the unwinnable, having a moment of total failure where all you can do is give up and cry has more impact than a hundred wins. And that failure is all the more stronger when it happens not to the elite but to the laypeople. The ones you trust to win.

I could never pedal like Onoda, Imaizumi or Naruko. I'm a Teshima or an Aoyagi. And sometimes I won't win a race no matter how much I'd deserve it.