The Prince of Tennis Box Set 1

A number of years ago now, I watched the film Drumline. Although the plot of the movie was just OK, I admittedly got into the score. The rhythmic cadences and musical sequences were just incredibly enjoyable to me, having always been a fan of percussion. The next day, I was talking to my neighbor across the street about the film, and he was less than impressed. He was thoroughly disappointed because the actors in the film really didn't know quite how to play what they were supposed to be performing. Having been part of a top-notch drum core at one point in time, he knew what to be looking for -- and he didn't see it.

My problems with The Prince of Tennis, at least with the thirteen episodes contained in the first box set released in the U.S., are much the same. When I was a teenager, I played on the middle school tennis team just like the characters in the show. While I've switched over to racquetball in my adult years, mainly because you can play more easily year-round, I remember days spent doing nothing much but hitting a tennis ball against a wall hour after hour trying to improve my skills. And so far, a lot of The Prince of Tennis is far from realistic. There are other problems, too, but this is key. While the show can be grating, however, it's also strangely addictive...and Viz Media was wise in releasing it via box sets rather than a disc at a time.

One name will soon be on the lips of every tennis player in Tokyo: Ryoma Echizen. A seventh-grader who's easily blown through the U.S. junior championships, he's returned home to Japan. While many people don't realize it, his father Nanjiro is a legendary Japanese tennis player (who's now for unknown reasons become a lazy bum who likes to read girlie magazines). But without his heritage trailing him, Ryoma's got to earn his respect from the regulars to become a part of the Seigaku tennis team. And they aren't ordinary players themselves -- not when one guy has a "snake shot" and another computes every move his opponent will make! But Echizen is really all that and a bag of chips, and the school's tennis sponsor knows it. With a gaggle of girls, seventh-grade wannabes, and a tag team of tennis reporters on his side, Echizen has plenty of support to improve his game to the point of his ultimate challenge: to best his father.

The Prince of Tennis starts with several strikes against it. While it was apparently a popular manga, the show is on the barest of animation budgets.  Every technique known to anime artists to cut corners is on display, from motion lines to pans to faces where only mouths move.  While the animation gets slightly better by the end of the first thirteen episodes, it's really noticeable in the first few. The soundtrack is dull, and while the original opening and ending are attached as extras on the third disc, the American version has a different OP/ED with different music that's not an improvement. Although not completely grade-Z in terms of animation (that award still goes to the Colorforms of Shadow Star Narutaru), it's close.

The show breaks no ground in the plot department, either. Many sports programs follow the shonen formula to a T, and The Prince of Tennis does so as well. Ryoma is a egotistical jerk, plain and simple, who happens to be our hero because he's so darn good at what he does. Of course, Ryoma's opponents are generally even bigger jerks who think that the short, scrawny seventh-grader couldn't possibly beat them. So it's time to root for the least annoying person! Yeehaw! Meanwhile, the show has put together a huge Greek chorus of fans who love Echizen and talk about his every move in order to explain the plot to the audience. Most of their discussion is completely unrealistic; they seem to think that the opening game (and even the opening point!) will determine the winner of every match. This is to create tension where there really is none. The show also uses the "super move" cliche where an opponent uses a special technique to throw off Echizen, and he has to figure out how to defeat it before the match is over. And besides all of this, we really learn nothing about Echizen personally in these thirteen episodes. We only see him at home for less than twenty seconds and never in class. So far, such a big yawn.

And yet...and yet...for all its many and varied faults, it is completely and totally watchable. Two shows, s-CRY-ed and IGPX, come to mind as programs where I had plenty of episodes to watch but gave up on them a few episodes in because they were just unbearable. The Prince of Tennis, on the other hand, gets better as it goes. While I would never suggest my son act as prideful as Echizen, it becomes clear that it's his way of dealing with everyone's constant disbelief in him because of his age and stature. What's more, in a few character moments, Echizen turns out to be a fierce competitor but not all that incredibly interested in tennis. He doesn't know exactly why he plays; he just has done so for so long that it's in his blood. He makes friends with a couple of the other players who realize just what a find he is, and those rare moments are nice. And ultimately, while Ryoma does have a few key moves that he uses to beat his opponents, his key is simply to play great tennis. No power-ups, no last-minute techniques, just good old form. It's not a realistic show, but there's enough realism to appreciate it as a representation of sport.   

The world of The Prince of Tennis is squarely aimed at late elementary and middle school kids, and they might really enjoy it. I've personally preferred similar shows like Initial D, but that program is geared far older. Most children will likely not have experienced a shonen sports show, and this one will likely entertain them. It's derivative as all get out, which is why it gets my lowest recommended rating.  But the truth lies here: if Viz Media were to send me the second box set, I'd almost certainly watch it.

The Prince of Tennis -- minor trash talk, situations appropriate to middle school -- B-