Touch: The Ace Without a Number

Baseball is the mystical sport. Sure, fly fishing might have seemed sacred in A River Runs Through It and the Zen of golf got its day in The Legend of Bagger Vance, but baseball inspires more Western cinematic theology than almost any other sport. Whether it's the down-and-dirty lust for life of Bull Durham, the legendary comeback of The Natural, or the cornfield fantasy of Field Of Dreams, baseball arouses our basest emotions somehow. It's a game of fathers and sons, the sweet smell of oiled leather gloves, the pitcher/batter combat, the competition that combines the world of team sport with the loneliness of the warm-up circle. It's like life in many ways--it's impossible to win every game, but we keep swinging anyway. It's possibly those same connections that have made baseball Japan's most popular sport, and it makes for excellent anime fodder as well.

Touch is arguably the best-loved "sports" anime ever made. The television show ran for 101 episodes from 1985 to 1987, and it regularly captured an astonishing 30% of the viewing audience. Three compilation films boiling down the essence of the show did more business in movie theatres. It was broadcast throughout much of Europe where its popularity was stunning, especially considering that baseball is considered a dead sport outside the U.S. and Japan. In fact, follow-up features released in Japan in 1998 and 2001 still attracted huge numbers of viewers, almost fifteen years after the show's initial run ended.

Strangely enough, Touch has virtually no following in North America whatsoever, not even among anime fandom. Although the modern baseball series Princess Nine has finally shown up in Western stores, Touch has never made the leap. After seeing the first film, the 1986 release An Ace Without A Number, I must say that it would be a shoo-in for fans who prefer the romantic setups of 80s shows like Orange Road and Maison Ikkoku to modern slapstick paperweights like Love Hina, even if they aren't sports nuts. In fact, the only significant problems with the movie I had were with details most casual fans of the sport wouldn't even notice. As far as I know, though, the first film is the only one that's ever even been fansubbed.

Kazuya and Tatsuya are twin brothers, but apart from their looks, there's very little identical about them. Kazuya's the star pitcher for the Meisei baseball team, and although he's just a freshman, he's their starter. The popular one, he's got a sweet girlfriend, Minami, that they've known since childhood. Tatsuya, in comparison, isn't sure exactly what he wants to do, and he's perfectly content to be a layabout. Though he's frankly more intelligent and more athletic than Kazuya, he doesn't want to get in the way of Kazuya's hard work and success. He may the older brother by a few minutes, but he's been left behind otherwise.

As the movie begins, Tatsuya is trying to decide what school club to join. He thinks about baseball, but when he realizes that Minami has just become the manager, he backs off. Fact is, he really cares about Minami, but once again, he cares too much about his brother to take his girlfriend. Tatsuya winds up on the boxing team instead. Being a scrawny kind of guy, he finds himself getting pummeled on a regular basis. As the story progresses and Kazuya pitches his way to victory after victory, Tatsuya watches from the sidelines through his bruises and sprains. But there's still something about Minami...although she likes Kazuya, she has a big soft spot for his forgotten brother. Even Kazuya realizes it and tells Tatsuya so, though he's not quite ready to give her up. As Meisei gets closer and closer to making it into the national high school World Series, it turns out Tatsuya will have his shot at glory, but at a tremendous, tragic cost.

Touch: An Ace Without A Number has a soul to it, which is rare enough for any dramatic medium. The characters are far more authentic than what we get in most anime, ambiguous and dynamic and prone to change. They are also very nice to each other, which may not seem very realistic, but it strikes the right mark here. Tatsuya could be faulted because he lets his concern for others sideline his own ambitions; at the same time, he could be commended for it. Minami is written as a young woman her age should be...not really wanting a permanent relationship yet, confused exactly what her feelings are, and yet loyal and touchingly sweet. Kazuya's honesty is also refreshing. The haziness of these characters is a respite from the cookie-cutter stereotypes we see far too often. It's clear that it's the relationships that made this series such a huge success.

There are a few things that take this film down a couple of notches. First is its lack of concern for the realities of the game. Kazuya is not only a pitcher who can withstand tossing a full 9-inning shutout without breaking a sweat, but he also is a world-class batter. If this were even remotely possible, St. Louis would already have him under a multi-year contract playing in their next game against the Cubs. He's not the only impossibly talented player in the show, either. A big deal for the regular audience? Of course not. But for someone who knows baseball, this can be a little too much to swallow. There's also the issue of the ending. It's not bad, but again, it's one that will cause some indigestion. That's not to say I didn't like it, but for a show that feels almost real, it stretches the credibility band thin. Finally, the animation is fine, but the styles of the characters looked a little different even when they debuted. The average modern fan will take one look and walk away to their loss.

I would say that there's one last problem, and that is this movie will drag you like it did me into the Touch world, even though it's completely self-contained and enjoyable on its own. Since An Ace Without A Number is the only one I even know how to get ahold of, there's not much I can do about my interest except to petition the niche anime boutiques like AnimEigo to give it a try. But it's worth the effort to try and track this show down, particularly for 80s fans and those who appreciate something new and different in their anime, regardless of how old the show turns out to be.

Touch: The Ace Without a Number -- very minor profanity, themes difficult for very young audiences -- A-