And That’s the Game – Ahiru no Sora (Anime Review)

I am back with my final thoughts regarding Ahiru no Sora. The basketball anime that I watched once a week, every week for an entire year. Aside from the original Yu-Gi-Oh! anime, this is the longest series I’ve watched on a weekly basis ever. I know for some 50 episodes isn’t impressive for some, but for someone like me who prefers short and digestible seasonal series, it’s quite the feat. It’s such a feat, that I was actually dumbstruck for a bit.

Now that I’ve let the series sink in, I think I’m ready to give my review. I highly recommend checking out my earlier post, “Half-Time with Ahiru no Sora“, to jog your memory before reading this.

I never actually explained Ahiru no Sora‘s premise, other then it being a sports anime, centered around a short basketball player in my earlier review. So here’s the actual premise for context: Kurumatani Sora, has always struggled with his height given how much he loves basketball. That’s never stopped him from pursuing the sport, nor has it prevented him from being a talented player. He enters Kuzuryuu High School (Kuzu Kou), in hopes of joining the basketball team and competing in matches. Kuzu Kou’s basketball team is run by two twin delinquents Chiaki and Momoharu Hanazono, and their crew. Despite their lack of motivation to play, Sora challenges the duo and manages to breath a new life into a team, including recruiting more players along the way and making a real team. However, the past can not be completely undone, and the team compromising mostly of former delinquents faces an uphill battle every match, and every time they misstep.

This story is not one for the people who watch a sports anime to get hyped. It’s not for the fans of other contemporary titles because while the theme of sports is mutual, there’s a lot of distinctions between prior titles and Ahiru no Sora. Ahiru no Sora in comparison to most sports anime, is a very slow, and very awkwardly paced series. Most sports anime get the 25 episode count, and therefore usually have the team established by about episode 10. There’s some fanfare and struggles to gain the correct number of players, newbies and those with experience. Largely, gathering members is something that doesn’t usually take a lot of time since it’s not deemed an interesting aspect of team building.

Which is why it comes off as slow that Ahiru no Sora completely ignores this unspoken rule. The first 25 episodes are spent with the core four, Sora, the Hanazono brothers, and eventually Natsume Kenji i.e. Tobi. They are coaching the reserves Chuckie, Yasuhara, and Nabe since those three had no prior experiance in basketball. The difference between the core four, and the reserves is incredibly comical at points. However, this difference between the two groups is also a really interesting point.

The difference between the two groups, especially when the gap is as big as it is at Kuzu Kou, is dramatic. The core four have their own gaps in certain aspects; Sora’s never played an official game, Tobi got kicked off his team, the Hanazono’s didn’t play for a few years. Yet, the earlier experiances of having the basics introduced in childhood, not teenage years makes a big difference. No sports anime takes the time to show why new players that join in high school are more likely to struggle and quit. I’m not saying that this is some mind-blowing commentary on sports, talent, and the like but it’s something you don’t see brought up in anime too often. High schoolers are very well aware of the differences in skill levels, and some of them would rather bow out, then risk looking uncool by giving it their all. It’s refreshing to see a more realistic concern of the often overshadowed supporting cast’s issues take the forefront for a bit.

Then again, this is a slow development in the series. It’s 25 episodes on the core characters and then mostly the reserves of all people. Where are the cool trick shots, and matches?? Where’s that one ridiculously tall dude from the OP?? Trust me, their final player Shigeyoshi Kaname i.e. Mokichi-kun is worth it.

Shigeyoshi Kaname, the 198cm tall final member.

I mean, if you’re into tall dudes with physical best traits for basketball, but with none of the stamina or passion for it. When I put it that way, Mokichi doesn’t come off really appealing. He does have all the solid one-liners at the team’s expense, and a lot of logistic knowledge. On top of that, he’s one of the nicest characters with Sora and Nanao when it comes to how he treats people. Yet, it’s in seeing why Mokichi didn’t pursue basketball, his prior experiances linked to expectations as well as his poor stamina, that make him so much more interesting of a character.

They never say if Mokichi has an illness (I would guess anemia or a weak heart if there was one), or if he’s just that easily winded, but that doesn’t really matter. The fact is, we just don’t see too many players in sports anime with weak stamina that lingers. Building stamina isn’t done in a training montage. Mokichi’s stamina issues don’t just go away after joining the team. His physical ailment, adds reoccurring tension to the story, without being forced or trite.

Basketball is a game that can change in seconds. So every second Mokichi is on court, holds a lot more weight in shifting the tides of the game. He’s also not a uselessly tall character either. Of all of Kuzu Kou, he has the most thought-out play style. He doesn’t have the luxury of wasting movements, and that’s obvious from his ball handling. On top of it, unlike the stronger personalities of the team, Mokichi’s style of play is incredibly adaptable. He doesn’t need much time to figure out how to work with everyone else, and that makes a huge difference when he’s substituted in.

As you can imagine from my long-winded explanation of Mokichi’s existence, that it’s the characters of Ahiru no Sora that make the anime interesting, not the plot itself. Especially since most of the conflict isn’t the usual team vs. team or tournament arch style conflict. Obviously, those two conflicts do happen, but it’s not the main point of the story. It’s characters dealing with their circumstances, and then how that in turn affects the team.

We get insight to the reserves and their conflicts of knowing how bad they are at basketball, yet continuing to pursue. A classic case of their friends are doing it, and eventually they to develop their own passion for the sport. Being obvious, Sora gets a lot of circumstances revealed in this particular adaptation. Let me say this right now, I cried no less then three times about Sora and his circumstances. It was that moving for me. I’ve more or less talked about Mokichi’s physical issues, but he has some pretty substantial mental baggage too. I’ll just do it in a different post, I would love to talk extensively about Tobi because damn that character development is wild. Both Chiaki and Momoharu have to deal with their own basketball related baggage as well. And yes, despite the flaws of both of them, they do get my seal of approval for being well written twins.

That doesn’t mean the plot is non-existent. It’s been going for 17 odd years now, there’s gotta be a plot in there somewhere. The thing is, it’s a bit of a mystery at first what it is. From the summary I gave, it would seem that the basic plot is “short kid wants to play in basketball tournaments”. Stripped all the way back that’s exactly how I would describe Ahiru no Sora.

Except, the hoop tends to shift ever so slightly higher as the team progresses. What starts as just Sora wanting a team to practice and enter tournaments with, snow balls into a team that wants to aim for nationals. Which, for those of you who’ve seen a sports anime before, that idea isn’t particularly new. It’s par for the course I’d say.

In this moment, I am Chiaki, and my viewers are Nanao, Tobi and Sora all questioning why I am so passionate about this anime.

What makes it interesting is how Ahiru no Sora is written. There are no handout victories, or shoehorned character development. Things are fought for earnestly and potentially won, or lost. It’s not easy to predict how their games will go at all. There were plenty of times I thought I called the game, and was utterly wrong. That is largely due again, to the fact this story runs on character conflict, not team conflict. I’ve said that a million times, but I swear that finding genuine character conflict in sports anime is really rare aside from some footnote moments.

Issues that a player has are brought up seemingly as that week’s conflict point. Yet, they aren’t just a one note issue. No character conflict is solved within an episode, and most of them are reoccurring issues. As expected that tend rear their ugly heads at those critical times. For a case study that isn’t Mokichi let’s look at Momoharu Hanazono. He’s not the tallest guy on the team, but he does have the highest jumping capabilities as well as shortest recovery time between jumps. That makes him nearly impossible to beat when it comes to securing rebounds since he has the weight, power and stamina to do so. However, the boy can’t score a point to save his life. Forget jump shots, Momoharu can’t even sink a free throw after being fouled. This is something that comes up again, and again despite it being addressed by Momoharu himself, and worked around by his teammates.

You just don’t see this type of conflict in other sports anime. That isn’t a dig at other series, but an observation about the genre as a whole. Sports anime has it’s own unique set of circumstances that cause story problems. The first being, most sports anime are adaptations of popular manga. The more popular the manga, the longer that initial episode run i.e. that sweet spot of 25 over 12 episodes. The problem is a lot of these hit sports series are incredibly new, and very rarely capture a generation the way a Slam Dunk or Haikyuu!! has. So the anime has to made as soon as the series hits a peak, otherwise there’s no profit to be made.

Inevitably this means the anime has the potential with catching up to the manga. Coupled with both Japanese and Western audiences no longer being as forgiving with filler episodes, studios really have to play their cards right with that first season to nail the adaptation. In addition to this, a lot of mangaka’s work with the added pressure of not knowing when their series will be told to end, or even worse, when their series will be asked to extend beyond the envisioned end. Finer details like character conflict and subplots are often passed over for more relatable and ‘exciting’ conflict like tournament arches and climatic games.

Let’s be real this is the type of action people watch sports anime for.

For better or worse, Ahiru no Sora simply doesn’t have the constraints of a currently popular series. The series is old, it’s popularity is not the issue. In fact, I’m still a bit baffled as to why after all this time, 2019 was the year to get Ahiru no Sora an anime. I don’t have a complete answer, but keeping a manga running that long there has to be a dedicated fanbase. I won’t say cult following as Ahiru no Sora is too mainstream for the designation, but there’s a demand for the series at least in Japan. And again, given the extent of the source material, there’s more then enough material to make a second, even a third season should the demand remain.

Which is where I have to end my excitement and take a look at some other factors. Once my finished-a-series-high faded a bit, I started doing some post-watching research. I normally wait until after I review, so I don’t taint my writing. However… given where the anime left off; I had to know if we are getting a second season. As of writing, no such announcement has been made. While my anime-only viewer would totally be down for another full tilt 50 episode season, my research has made me hesitant at the possibility.

Firstly, is that Hinata-Sensei has made it clear he is not a fan of the anime adaptation. In fact he’s expressed his displeasure about this several times. His reasons for not enjoying the adaptation did put a big damper on my post-enjoyment of the series. Given how much material was covered in this initial run of anime (apparently up to chapter 139 of the manga), has me wondering. How much of the actual story was lost in this adaptation? Even worse, how much was completely butchered in this execution?? It doesn’t help that now I know Hinata-Sensei actually turned down anime adaptations of Ahiru no Sora before, as well as movie adaptations since it didn’t agree with his vision. I sincerely give him my respect for holding off. Let’s be real for a second, most mangaka’s and their editors, just take the first deal regardless of how it actually pans out, because money. Hinata-Sensei clearly has a strong sense of how he wants the series presenting and isn’t taking it lightly that the spirit of his work isn’t being captured correctly.

One of the main sources of conflict was this particular inclusion. The light streams from the eyes is very reminiscent of Kuroko no Basuke, the last really successful basketball anime. It’s not something from the manga, and other fans (myself included) as well as Hinata Sensei, were pretty vocal about it being a cheap move on Diomedea’s part.

I have written a lot about Ahiru no Sora, but I do want to add some final points about the anime that potential viewers probably want to know. The animation was solid. Diomedea has never done a sports series before (mostly romance or comedy series) so it could have gone either way. Given that the character designs are different from their usual stuff, they pulled it off. I didn’t notice anything too glaring, nor did any of the animation, aside from the awful Kuroko no Basuke rip-off bullshit with Fuwa’s eyes, do anything particularly remarkable. The sound design was solid, there was probably some recycled sound design with sneaker squeaks and basketball bouncing, but nothing unbearable or obnoxious. The voice acting cast, with my limited knowledge, is actually a star studded one with extensive backgrounds. Every scene felt really and full with the voice acting in place. Hell, I even have to give the opening and ending themes their credits since they really did suit the series image.

I’m not going to reiterate too much about the series. Anything else I want to say, I will do a follow up post separate from this initial review. Ahiru no Sora, is indeed ‘yet another basketball anime’. But given it’s unique circumstances it is a stand out for a lot of nonconventional reasons. It’s a long haul series, that takes some getting use to if you’re not a sports anime regular. For me, Ahiru no Sora was a breath of fresh air, taking the time to really establish everyone and their motivations over just exciting the viewer.

That’s enough from me for me. If anyone else was an all four cour watcher like myself, let yourself be known down below so we can share a virtual high five. If you’re feeling bold, be sure to let me know what you thought about the series. With that, I’ll see you guys next post.

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