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If you ask most manga fans about Naoki Urasawa the titles that will spring to mind are: Monster, 20th Century Boys, and Pluto. Super cool people who are awesome will also know Master Keaton. Urasawa is famous in the States for his well-written mystery series that are equivalent to literature. In Japan he has the same reputation but people also have a fondness for his softer, earlier works. The most famous being Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl. Yawara! was Urasawa first break out hit. Decidedly lighter than his later works, it still shows his ability to make compelling characters that draw the reader in. The Yawara manga ran for 29 volumes and the anime for 124 episodes. In 1992, when Ryoko Tamura got the silver medal in Judo during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, she gained the nickname Yawara-chan that she still has today. The Yawara anime ran as a sister show to Ranma 1/2 and often got higher ratings. Sadly while Ranma 1/2 became a huge hit in America, Yawara is basically unknown. This is a real shame because Yawara is a really charming show that is both funny and filled with a good deal of heart.
I have only recently started reading Urasawa’s works such as Pluto and 20th Century Boys but they are certainly a very different story from A Fashionable Judo Girl. The title alone could probably tell you that. However, I don’t really have a clear opinion of Urasawa yet so I didn’t go into this show with an sort of expectation. All I really knew was that Yawara! was a rather popular sports comedy from the early 90’s. It is a rather long series, so here we have sampled the first 18 episodes to give you a taste of it.
Yawara Inokuma has very simple dreams: to have fun with her friends, go shopping for bargains, and get a handsome boyfriend. She would probably be living her dreams if not for one major obstacle: her grandfather Jigorou. Since she was born, he has been training her to be a Judo champion. He wants her to win the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics since it will be the first time that women’s Judo will be a medal competition. Seeing Yawara’s lack of ambition Jigorou decides to recruit a rival named Sayaka Honami. After Sayaka is offhandedly defeated by Yawara she vows revenge trying to beat her in judo and love. At the same time the sports reporter Kosaku Matsuda has discovered Yawara’s immense talent and is convinced she will be a worldwide sensation.
Yawara packs a lot of hilarious moments into each episode, but don’t let that fool you. There is plenty of character and relationship development as well as the underlying story of Yawara’s family. Oh right, and there is also Judo. From the main description of the plot you might think it is at the forefront of what is going on. Well, it isn’t. Judo does occur in almost every episode but it is not crazy-over-the-top-go-out-and-learn-judo-right-now inducing. Though it does seem to have that affect on a lot of people who see Yawara throw people. People in this show, like everyone on the street, seems to love Judo with a passion!
Yawara will eventually go on to set the standard for Urasawa’s female protagonists. She is kind, generous, bold, and smart but also very headstrong and slightly naive. Yawara is an amazing Judo prodigy with a unbelievable amount of inborn genius. If this were a different series she would be claiming that her kung-fu is unbeatable. So far we have not seen anyone who poses a serious challenge to her. When she has difficulty it has been due to her not having her heart in the matches. Her toughest challenges and the drama does not come from Judo but in the area where everyone is weak: romance. Yawara is attractive and sweet but also romantically awkward due to bizarre upbringing. It does not help that she has several people doing their best to make sure Yawara does not get anywhere in her relationships. It might initially seems that Yawara is shallowly avoiding her amazing talent for Judo in favor of romance but as the series goes on we learn it is more complex.
To Yawara, Judo is an obstacle that prevents her from being “normal.” If the series wasn’t so heavily comedy based, you might find her constant mantra of wanting to be normal trying at best. However, the idea of normalcy is mostly played for laughs. Her life is a series of crazy incidents one after the other surrounding her love life and Judo. A boring day does not exist for Yawara. Yawara also feels completely unfeminine as a physically strong woman. However, it becomes increasingly apparent that she is the only one that feels that way when it involves her. She literally has a few suitors throwing themselves at her feet. What has led her to believe she cannot be both a woman and Judo champ is still unknown. Even so, there are moments you glimpse Yawara enjoying Judo. As a watcher, you always know that deep down she does have an affection for the sport. So therein lies Yawara’s biggest challenge: accepting and embracing her abilities while maintaining her simple dreams. She takes little steps to this. It is especially wonderful to see her get caught up with the boys Judo team at her school. While she takes a roundabout way to getting to things, we know and can see her changing even in just a few episodes.
One of Yawara’s biggest obstacles in her search for love is her grandfather. He keeps saying that love will only get in the way of her becoming a Judo champion. He insists that when she wins the gold she will be able to pick and choose her boyfriends but Yawara wants to hear none of that. Jigoro spends most of his time orchestrating amazingly obtuse plans to push Yawara to greatness. It’s fun to see him set up a phony race car set in the dojo to throw off nosy reporters or manipulate the boys judo team in an attempt to awaken Yawara’s passion. The only thing that equals his fanaticism for Judo is his lust for food. He is almost always snacking on something whenever we see him, even in the eye catches. He is extremely amusing but I know some people find him annoying. But seriously, how can you not like his appearances in the countdown to the Olympics at the end of each episode?
Jigoro is a sly old coot with an appetite the size of a small country. He is also a tiny little thing with a feisty attitude that makes all of his appearances comedy gold. The constant misunderstandings and miscommunications between Yawara and her grandfather make for some of the most hilarious moments in the series. Between Jigoro’s completely transparent ulterior motives and his incorrect assumptions about Yawara’s motives, things couldn’t get further entangled. Despite Jigoro being insane and overbearing, he truly believes Yawara is the greatest Judo youth in existence. He is her biggest fan even if Yawara would rather pretend not to know him. Simply put, no one, and certainly not Yawara, can convince him that she doesn’t have a passion for Judo that runs deep into her soul. And maybe he is right.
Sayaka Honami is the spoiled, rich girl. She starts the series bored since she has beaten anyone is any sport she participates in. Thanks to Jigoro, soon Sayaka sees Yawara as her rival in everything. At first she just wants to beat Yawara at Judo but when her handsome coach, Kazamatsuri, becomes involved with Yawara she feels she must beat her in love as well. It does not help that Kazamatsuri is a pretty playboy that attracts women like moths to a flame. Kazamatsuri was set to be one of the greatest Judo champions but due to horrific stage fright he was never able to talk to the press or participate in any major tournaments. I must mention that there is something so very right about getting Akira Kamiya to do Kazamatsuri’s voice thanks to his role as Mendou in the past. In the other corner is Kosaku Matsuda a reporter from a third rate newspaper mostly assigned to the lowly duty of getting sports gossip. He becomes fascinated with Yawara after seeing her take down a mugger with a flawless Judo throw. In the process of trying to find who this amazing girl is, he begins to become more and more emotionally invested in helping her. As the series progresses Kosaku is not just interested in living out his dreams though Yawara but he also has romantic feelings for her. He is a delightfully goofy character who always tries his best to help Yawara even if it does not always work out correctly.
Sayaka immediately reminded me of Kodachi from Ranma 1/2 and then it sort of clicked why the two shows were played back to back during their original airing. Sayaka’s passion for sport and competition is 180 degrees from where Yawara stands. In fact, if you combined the two of them they would probably have the right amount of competitive spirit! Consequently, you would think there is little for them to fight over but Sayaka’s love for Kazamatsuri ensures that her and Yawara butt heads often both on and off the Judo mat. She is just the right amount of over-the-top for Yawara’s rival complete with perfect mocking laughter. I assume that other rivals will appear as the series goes on but it is hard to imagine one better. Yawara also has a bevy of suitors creating a fierce fighting spirit in some of them since she has only eyes for Kazamatsuri. And let me tell you, you will have no idea why. Kazamatsuri couldn’t be more gag-me material. He will make you roll your eyes and shock you as a plethora of women call him handsome. However, I truly believe he is there for the audience to laugh about. Clearly the guy to root for is Matsuda! He is a report who has a knack for showing up at interesting times sometimes leading to success but often leading to chaos. He is very passionate about Yawara’s Judo abilities and eventually becomes passionate about Yawara herself. His motives are unique and he really wants to help Yawara realize both the dream of being a pretty girl and that of being a Judo champ. Rounding out the boys is the school Judo team filled with colorful characters including the big, overly-emotional Hanazono and pervy street punk Sudoh. Jigoro sure has his work cut out for him!
The animation is solid. So far I can’t see any decline in quality but it clearly has the budget of a long haul, popular show. So most of the time the animation is good but never great. They adapt the characters quite well and they have a good sense of capturing the humor and action. It’s also worth noting the anime benefits from starting a couple of years after the manga. It took a book or two for Urasawa to settle on the character designs so everyone looks a bit different in later chapters. The opening and the ending are catchy but oh so very 80’s. The 1st opening is snappy and bright and set the mood for the comedy of the series although it tends to focus of the fashionable part of Yawara instead of the mostly ignored judo part. The 1st ending at first made me think Tears for Fears was going to start singing. The ending is more sentimental and reflective. These are all good reasons that if you have to choose either to watch the anime or read the manga I would watch the anime. Also there is no legitimate release of the manga as of this article going up so the choice should be clear.
Well, you certainly couldn’t convince anyone that this show isn’t from the early 90’s (which still feels like the 80’s). While the animation itself is decent, the character designs clearly show its era. This might be a strike against it for some (not me) and could be the reason a more stylized show like Ranma 1/2 found a loyal fanbase in the U.S. where Yawara missed out. But truly these things lend the show its charm and gives you some insight into why the show follows certain patterns and humor. Some of the more wonderful moments worth experiencing are the eye catches with Jigoro eating random things sporting the logo Jigoro with “…is a fantastic Judo boy” and his Olympics countdown at the completion of each episode. Actually anything involving Jigoro is most likely must-see viewing.
As always Animeigo does an amazingly comprehensive book of liner notes. These liner notes are stunningly detailed and often go off on amusing tangents but never fail to full explain anything you might not be aware of in the series. We get brief bios of everyone involved. The judo section is well researched and detailed. Every phrase used in the show is given an indepth explanation and the general rules are explained so everything that goes on in the show is fully spelled out. The notes clearly make the boxset worth the price of admission.
I think the only thing that would could have been added to the handbook is a list of all the foods Jigoro consumes in each episode. I think that would be hilarious and informative, however that is neither here nor there. The packaging overall is very nicely done from the box, to the cases, to the discs themselves. Such great care was taken with series and it deserves it. There are certainly tons of shows that go unnoticed but Yawara! shouldn’t be another on that list. It is funny, easy paced, and has a bit of heart that makes you smile. The length of the series is a bit daunting but it’s the type of show you watch in conjunction with another show. Yawara! is great to plop down and watch a disc of and then come back to again and again.
I have heard Yawara! along with Happy! were heavily influenced by editors’ demands because of Urasawa being new on the scene. So, much like Master Keaton this is more of a collaborative work. It is a lighthearted, largely episodic work with an overall storyline moving forward towards a goal. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. You can’t go into this show expecting Urasawa’s gripping epic thrillers like Monster or his powerful stories from Master Keaton. It is a fun show to watch a few episodes at a time whenever you want. Sort of like Ranma 1/2 but with a stronger and more directed main plot which is why I assume they were paired together. It’s a fun blast from the past that can be enjoyed by open-minded modern day fans.
Win the first boxset of Yawara! by e-mailing us (email@example.com, subject: Yawara!) your answer to this simple scenario:
Yawara has her crazy grandfather pushing her to become a Judo champ. When you get crazy and old what are you going to mentor your young prodigy in? What crazy over the top training methods will you use?
Entries are due by Sunday, May 31th. The winner will be announced on Friday, June 5th.
This contest has ended.