SPOILERS AHEAD FOR EPISODE 1 OF BLUELOCK
Isagi Yoichi has a few issues he needs to work through.
His teammate calls out for a pass as he charges the goal in the final moments of an intense soccer game. Isagi complies and the teammate quickly misses, losing the game for Isagi’s team. This brings to the surface things that have obviously been brewing inside Isagi for a while. He pauses to shriek while on a path, not caring that he’s being watched by a few terrified children. This howl of pain isn’t the only visceral element of the first episode of BLUELOCK — Tetsuaki Watanabe directs this initial installment with constant cuts to distorted facial expressions and bulging eyes. For a group of adolescent dudes with no real purpose in life other than the testosterone-fueled, uber-patriot order of “BE GOOD AT SOCCER FOR JAPAN OR YOU MIGHT AS WELL BE A CORPSE,” it’s fitting.
It’s something I honestly expected to be a little more subtle when I began seeing reactions to BLUELOCK online. The comments tended to center around BLUELOCK as an anti-teamwork show, a “Haikyu!! if everyone was deeply selfish,” if you will. But it’s the first episode, right? These kinds of takes will be dulled by the end, I thought. All Isagi needs to do is shave off any of the troublesome edges that prevent him from being an inspiring main character and head into the end credits as a future team leader. But he absolutely does not do that, and I couldn’t be happier.
The whole episode embraces Isagi’s drive to consider selfishness as a theme. When everyone is introduced to Ego Jinpachi, the lithe, grinning BLUELOCK manager who delivers the soccer program’s thesis without a hint of forgiveness, we see the other characters in the crowd. They’re revealed in standard “look at their different hair, they must be the main character” anime fashion, a cool creative choice since BLUELOCK is built around finding a small group (and then eventually one player) to be a star striker for the nation’s team. It’s little bits like this that make me excited for BLUELOCK’s next episodes — even the characters are introduced and framed with a hint of desperate egotism. An entire battle royale experiment built solely out of people who believe they’re destined to become a heroic anime chosen one.
What little we see of the BLUELOCK facility seems tailor-made to accentuate those feelings of hysterical predestination. When Isagi is introduced to his room, it’s bare and lonely, despite having a few other soccer-playing peers in it. As they perform their first game, trying to hit each other with the ball, I couldn’t help but recall that oddly iconic grade school memory of being the last one left on my team in a game of dodgeball. The gymnasium felt so empty and angry at the time, like a terrarium for insecurities. The smashing force of the kickball — those big, red, rubbery kinds, the ones with a bouncing sound like a drum beat of the apocalypse — was magnified in that area. In BLUELOCK, when the soccer ball slams into a character (something the animators capture with grandeur), the comparison is more than apt. A drive that’s yours alone and a failure of it that everyone can see and acknowledge.
While this is a reversal of the bread-and-butter trope of sports and battle anime alike (“We must all work together to achieve our dreams!”), it’s not exactly new. Heck, the most recognizable title in the shonen genre, Dragon Ball, mostly concerns a guy that wants to get stronger than anyone else, a goal that motivates Goku to ditch friends and family so he can go flex on a sparring partner or an intergalactic warlord. Here, though, BLUELOCK doesn’t hide it behind any mask of do-goodery. There is no world to save, just glory and championships and the maintenance of pride. Trapped in the walls of BLUELOCK, they’re far removed from the parents, siblings, friends and significant others that might cheer them on. All they have to go on is the idea that they are better than the guy in front of them.
Stories will change, and considering that BLUELOCK has, at the time of this writing, 20 published manga volumes, I don’t doubt that these soccer players, Isagi included, will face crises of faith and definitely further issues with character. But for the time being, I hope we stick around and dive deeper into the troubles and sense of accomplishment that come and get blended up with such a narrow-minded narrative endgame. There’s a certain delicious paranoia to the first episode that I’m really digging, and it keeps me on my toes even when I think that an emotional arc is headed for some kind of ordained upswing. If it can keep this up, I think BLUELOCK will be one of my favorites of the season.
Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter! His book, Monster Kids: How Pokemon Taught A Generation To Catch Them All, is available wherever books are sold on October 4.