Aim For The Ace!
In the Internet era, we have shorthand for a lot of things. It's hard to remember the days when we would write out phrases like "be right back" or "by the way" or "in my humble opinion." Those and countless other common comments have turned into shortened acronyms ubiquitous across the social networking landscape. They've gotten used so often that they've become cliches in their own right. It's no longer good enough to LOL...one must ROTFL or LOLOLOLOL or LEL. And from there we have "lolcats" and heaven only knows what other abominations. Kind of makes you wish you could back to the time when you could, indeed, laugh out loud and nobody had any desire to abbreviate it.
In a certain sense, Aim For The Ace! is the longhand version of all the shorthand we've seen in the shoujo world. While there are plenty of tropes in every segmentation of anime, shoujo has its own unique ones as well. Glittering heroines with impossibly coiffed hair, eyes the size of your fist, musical stings that signal stress, the overwhelming desire to ganbatte (do your best) and make even your enemies your friends...been there, done that, right? The difference is this: Aim For The Ace! was not even close to the first popular shoujo title, but it is one of the best. Aim For The Ace! established forms that are endlessly co-opted, parodied, and abbreviated today in countless manga and anime for young women. While an earlier animated television program and a live-action serial also exist, the 1979 film is a great way to experience this story. You may feel you've seen a lot of this before, but only because you've seen its imitators.
Hiromi is a high school freshman who's joined the 85 other recruits to her school's tennis team. She and her friend Maki aren't planning on seriously challenging any of the seniors...they're essentially beginners, and besides, the school is known as a tennis powerhouse. What they aren't prepared for is Jin, the new coach. He has them run countless laps and puts them through the proverbial ringer. Hiromi guesses that Jin might have something against her, since she nearly ran him over trying to get to a tennis match before she knew who he was. That makes it all the more surprising that Jin makes her the team's fifth player -- one of the few members of the team whose matches actually count towards the school's ranking. While the entire team is mortified, no one is more so than Hiromi. She knows she's a rank amateur and complains to Jin that others are far more qualified to have a coveted slot on the team. Despite her protestations, Jin is determined that she is Nishi High School's missing link.
For Hiromi to become a player worthy of her ranking, she has got to strive harder than anyone else. Early morning laps, drills 'till you drop, unheard-of matches in the rain -- this becomes her life. While Maki is still her close friend, Hiromi's life becomes tennis. Reika, the team's #1 player known by the nickname "Madame Butterfly" due to her graceful play, begins as her harshest critic, refusing to play as her doubles partner. Yet as the film progresses, Reika begins to see what Jin saw in Hiromi and even helps to nurture it in her own snotty way. The question is, does Hiromi have it in her to become a world-class tennis player? Or will the regimen of suffering prove to be too much?
The Aim For The Ace! film is a time capsule into another era, but it's a time capsule filled with the very best of what the era could offer. This film is simply gorgeous. Director Osamu Dezaki, also responsible in the same year for directing the seminal shoujo TV series The Rose of Versailles, has an incredible eye, and it serves him well that he treats animation as art. Sometimes, the picture genuinely looks to be an animated manga. Occasionally, he goes for photo-realism; when appropriate, he moves into a beautiful abstractionist style, particularly in city scenes, that captures the feeling of the moment. His camera angles aren't predictable, and he pulls out a variety of techniques -- split screens, tri-level pictures, and so on -- that invigorates what could be dull in lesser hands. Truth be told, this man's resume also includes the original Golgo 13 film and Air: The Movie. Both of them had lame plots, and yet the visuals rose above the junk. Here, Dezaki has a bit more to work with, and he does a great job. Certain elements are dated, mostly the music, but I found them endearing.
Plotwise, you already know this stuff if you've watched much anime at all. However, what's refreshing about it is not those cliches but how well it presents everything and how many shortcuts it doesn't take. It's not as if Rocky didn't employ a million of the same concepts; it's that it did it well (at least the first one). Aim For The Ace! is a triumph because it keeps a laser-like focus on Hiromi and makes her an "everygirl" you can believe in. I would even say that the "everygirl" aspect makes the film. Hiromi is believable as the average Japanese gal of the '70s. She's at home a lot, not cruising cafes or planning the next school festival but talking on the phone with Maki and occasionally going to an arcade (and not doing all that well). Her progress is gradual, despite putting in an amazing amount of effort. She doesn't have secret techniques or amazing secrets given to her by her coach. And while some might consider this a spoiler, the movie doesn't end with a national championship or anything like that. While you might consider Hiromi's story incredible -- most tennis players don't become great starting at age 15 -- she's always on the tail end, trailing those who've put in years ahead of her. But nevertheless, she's got what it takes. There's only one plot turn that is a little too much, and that's in Jin's story...it's what kept this film from getting a perfect score. Otherwise, it takes every shoujo expectation and plays it like Charlie Daniels' fiddle.
For my friends who can appreciate the best of '70s anime cinema, I can recommend this film without question. I'm amazed, quite frankly, that this movie has stayed so underground for so long. I mean, it inspired the opening plotline of the excellent Gunbuster, and countless lesser sports anime stole its style. Maybe it's disappeared because sports anime and manga have never been big in the West? Perhaps. Maybe it's because the shoujo elements have become overused? A definite possibility. But if you have a place in your heart for Arcadia Of My Youth or Macross '84, you owe it to yourself to see this film. It's that enjoyable.
Aim For The Ace! -- a few brief shots of girls in underclothes -- A