Ten years ago is a long time ago in retrospect. A new year in 2015 means what I watched in 2005 is now under scrutiny and has it changed for me? Whilst last year shows like Nanoha and Maria-sama continue to be good, I felt School Rumble was weaker (though still good) than when I remembered it. So for a new year, we start off with a show that you’d think I’d be the last person to give an opinion on…a Brit…talking about a Japanese show…about American Football.
Sounds like the opening to a joke…
Eyeshield 21 was originally aired in Japan on April 6th 2005 and lasted for 145 episodes finishing on March 19th 2008—having had a couple of OVAs in 2003 and 2004 as well. It is based on the long running shounen jump manga of the same name published between July 23, 2002 and June 15, 2009 and is fully released in the US via Viz. The anime didn’t fare so well in the licence department—the anime initially was going to get a dub and the first episode (compressing pretty much the first few episodes into one) was aired in December 2007, but the hope to continue the dub on Jetstream failed when the company became defunct. The anime did get a DVD release…but only for the first 52 episodes via Sentai between 2010 and 2011, however the entire series is available to watch legally streamed via Crunchyroll. For the purposes of this look back, I will be focusing primarily on the first season with mentions of the sequel. As you can expect, there are spoilers if you haven’t seen this show.
Fortunately, I have a few friends who are big on American Football who will probably give me approving nods and strangulations after this article is done (one even said, ‘It referenced Dan Marino. It is golden for LIFE.’)—however sadly it is not that simple. Like a lot of long running series it suffered from filler episodes/seasons, and similar but in a different way had a similar problem to the manga in terms of its ending being rushed. However, those were things I noticed back then as I was a big Eyeshield fan after being introduced to it by an American friend of mine. So rewatching it (thank you Crunchy) has it aged badly, ignoring the obvious problems mentioned?
The plot is very generic shounen style but applied to a sports anime. We have the loser team (The Deimon Devil Bats) whose goal is to get to the Christmas Bowl, the Superbowl of high school football in Japan. They currently only have two real players, the powerful yet fat and slow Kurita, and everyone’s favourite and most memorable character, Hiruma—the demonic quarterback who is able to bully almost anyone to his demand via his book of threats, machine guns and general look and demeanour. When judging the new kids entering the school, one kid appears to be bullied in the football room, when Kurita mistakes the bullies and the kid as potential recruits. After accidentally throwing out the new ‘recruits’ the one kid, Sena, remains to make friends and become a team manager. But when the bullies try to get revenge on Kurita via Sena leading them to him, Sena doesn’t want to trouble his new friend and escapes. Here, we discover Sena has a rather surprising skill—from years of being bullied, gophered and running away, he has developed incredible speed and dodging ability, managing to weave around crowds, spin away from bullies and dive into high sped trains just as the doors close.
Just as Hiruma is passing by. Cue new running back.
From there, the series is pretty standard: the team slowly builds as they get more players via hook or via crook, you meet other teams including the rival (Shin from the White Knights, a linebacker modeled after Bruce Lee, considered the fastest in high school football, who is stunned to find someone faster than him during a match with the Devil Bats), and various antagonists, whether they become friendly (which is most of them to be fair) or not (Agon of the Nagas the most famous), as they go through their challenge to the Xmas Bowl, with training, friendships, learning new plays, character development, recruitment and epic plays.
I will start with the problems any long-running anime has, which is of course the fact that they deviate from the story at times, and add filler a lot—though it isn’t the most horrendous, it is pretty obvious at times (especially during the gap after the 3rd place playoff until they face the Nagas late on)—and extending the matches over quite a few episodes. However, this is common place in long running series so it is expected.
The animation sadly wasn’t that impressive originally and hasn’t aged the best to today. There are a lot of repeated scenes as well to cut corners (usually involving the Devil Bat Ghost or the crowd scenes)—plus they did have to cut a few things from the manga which makes sense when it aired (Hirumas’ swearing, his guns aren’t shown as much, references to gambling; though alcohol was still retained regarding Doburoki, the Devil Bats trainer) but again, definitely feels watered down.
In that regard though, I am looking at it as a fan of the manga. How does it just feel as a) an anime on its own and b) after 10 years?
Surprisingly…not that bad at all.
But until then? The series was…and still IS a lot of fun.
Let’s go through the most memorable part of the show – HIRUMA. 10 years later…he is still one of my favourite male leads, anime form or manga. He is toned down a little but not enough that the sheer insanity of the character doesn’t make you root for him. His methods for recruiting, his blackmail with that devil grin – all these things make him an obvious villain protagonist. However, he is sooooo entertaining that he is easily the most memorable part of the show – and whilst it isn’t done as well as the manga, the hints that he slowly cares and trusts for the team (in his own way) is still there. He has an anything goes mentality to winning, but he is so unique in this show (and any show for that matter) that he is an instantly memorable character.
And speaking of characters, let’s talk about the characters in general, because one thing the show did do well was the character development. I may moan about filler, but they did actually help flesh out characters from opposite teams at times, more so than the manga (Ikkyu for example, of the Nagas, got a filler episode with a friendship…then rivalry with Monta) and pretty much anyone of face value that was in it for more than two episodes (even Ishimaru – a running joke of the manga gets some development and fun in the rewrites) got their moments. All of the opposing teams that had a point – the Chameleons, the Poseidons, the Gunmen, the Sphinx, the Spiders and of course The White Knights, became integral parts of the story, and a lot of the characters from the teams outside of Deimon were popular as well because of their back stories, interactions, and characterisations (Mizumachi, Habashira and Riku in particular were fan favourites).
The leads as well grow well – Sena is your typical protagonist – here a wimp being told to become a lie as Eyeshield 21, a legendary Notre Dame athlete. However, most of the story is him becoming stronger, not just physically but more confident, into making the lies into reality. His development is key to the series and whilst Hiruma is more memorable, Sena is a more than acceptable protagonist. His fellow teammates also add a lot – the bullies in the first episodes? They become members of the linemen and become sportsmen. Kurita, the soft hearted gentle giant? So satisfying when his back-story is revolved and he comes face to face at the end of a particular game… Monta? A monkey-faced baseball nut that goes to football as he is only good at catching? A lot of fun and he develops in terms of skill as much as anyone. One of my favourites is Yukimitsu, who is a 2nd year who is very smart but not athletic, but has always wanted to try sports. He actually doesn’t get into the main team at first despite doing the same hellish training, but seeing him finally get that moment on the field is still one of my favourite things that happens in the manga and the anime.
And of course, the rivals are a big part. Sena and Shin have a real respect for each other as Shin is pretty much the perfect athlete, strong and fast. His own foil, Sakuraba, is a mediocre athlete but grows as a character to rival Shin as an ace. Of course, there are also a lot of comic relief characters as well like Otawara from the White Knights, which adds to the show’s appeal. It actually even does a good job explaining the game throughout with eye catches and explanations in game early on (done by either Mamori, Sena’s childhood friend who surprisingly DOES NOT become a love interest for him (kind of rare even back then), or by the Devil Bat cartoon character). Very good for those like myself who at the time only knew the bare basics of it. So the show actually does do what it sets out to, do an anime about American Football—both for those familiar and not familiar with the game, as they explain it well enough so you get the general idea—whilst at the same time letting you enjoy the characters as the Devil Bats grow and more matches are played, and you get even more characters to enjoy.
And because of that, the show is actually timeless in a way. As it is about a sport which still has a huge popularity worldwide, the teams, the plays, the different skills, they all still matter, so 10 years later it is still an anime that could air today new, because it would be relevant. The issues of being compared to the superior manga are always going to be there for fans of course, but for what it sets out to do, it does it well enough. During the filler parts it can feel a drag, but occasionally it brings back characters you love or gets a decent preparation for the next arc (though I understand why they couldn’t do it, the fact the NASA team doesn’t even speak in English is a bit farfetched, even a little—when Panther returns in a filler arc, it is like he has known Japanese as his first language…yeah). On the other hand, some episodes were just…yeah, we need to fill half an hour. (The ‘kidnapping Mamori episode’ was one, and introducing Suzuna much earlier than she was in the manga was a bit of a stretch…though in a minor defence, if they were going for a Sena/Suzuna romance, then it made a lot more sense to throw the seeds early).
The arcs minus the filler are very predictable – almost typical Shounen writing. The good guys (Deimon) start off as a rag tag team, get one good player (Sena), get a win, but then get thrashed by the main rival (Ojou White Knights) who in turn get some development as well. Good guys become stronger with new team mates but still not to the level of their rivals, so have big training to become super powerful (Death March arc) and return stronger than ever but not fully powerful; the final piece is added (the mysterious Musashi, though he returns later in the anime compared to the manga) so the team is complete; and now ready to kick everyone’s butt. So it almost feels like the sports equivalent of Dragonball Z in your Shounen 101 – so yeah, the story is very predictable and the fillers do drag it on a bit, but it is still actually entertaining to watch, the repeated and poor animation aside.
I am surprised it didn’t do better in terms of being licensed. Maybe the show was getting too old? Maybe it wasn’t good enough looks-wise? Maybe the poorly rated way the dub was first showcased (by squashing three episodes into one and cutting almost anything that made the original look unique, like the guns – understandable in one respect, but after 4Kids you’d think too much censoring and changing would have been learned)? Whatever the reason, Eyeshield didn’t take off and even the sub-only DVD release only lasted 52 episodes (right at the match with the Poseidons).
So re-watching it now, is there a reason why it hasn’t done that well anime-wise?
Well, the show doesn’t look the best as mentioned. And you could argue that, bar Hiruma, none of the characters really have anything unique to them that makes the show stand out in the crowd even amongst the sports genre. However, as a show about American football and very different teams – it still does its job. I won’t say the anime is as good as the manga, far from it, but they kept as much as they could story wise, sometimes changing a few things to add to the story, but always keeping to the results in the end.
After 10 years though, it does feel a bit dated in terms of the typical shounen story line, the animation, and that every character does feel like they are a stereotype. The ending certainly doesn’t help when it finished the story early, and because there are a ton of characters, the chances are if you just watch a part of it, you will only remember Hiruma. However, I will say this…if you are a fan of American Football, it is definitely worth a watch, even today. It references NFL stars and plays of past years, for the most part it is quite realistic (I have it on good authority though there are a few moves that would be considered illegal) and even if you aren’t into American football, it does teach enough so you can learn as you watch, and hopefully you get into enough of the characters that it is enjoyable enough for you.
So, it has aged, no doubt about it – but at the same time, the concept is timeless, so for a quick shounen jump bit of silliness, there are certainly far worse and less entertaining shows out there.
And none of them have Hiruma. All together now….