Touch 2: The Farewell Gift

Mitsuru Adachi is finally back in the news. With the licensing of Cross Game in the United States, he's become a mangaka that some American otaku recognize (at least by name). And frankly, it's about time. His storytelling has entralled Japan now for four decades. Although Cross Game is getting a lot of publicity, Touch is by far his best-known work. The anime got exceptional ratings - at times around a 30 share, which is unheard of. All of the publicity made me remember a pledge I made a long time ago to see at least the rest of the movies in the Touch film series. And, thanks to the Internet, they are much easier to track down now than when I was collecting VHS fansubs back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

While it's been a few years since I saw the first Touch film, The Ace Without A Number, it's stayed in my mind. Its one-of-a-kind (some would say simplistic) character designs and tearjerking plot, not to mention its surprisingly kind leads, make it unique. The second film, The Farewell Gift, includes some of those elements, but it lacks the power of the original. It is unfocused and uncertain in its narrative. And yet, I cannot fault it too much...because indeed, that is the point of the movie. Give me a moment and I'll explain. [Note: Spoilers of the first film are an absolutely necessity to discuss what goes on in this segment. While it was released almost 25 years ago, since so few Westerners have seen any of the Touch saga, I thought it still needed warning.]

The film opens with Tatsuya and Minami visiting Kazuya's grave only to find an unexpected visitor there. Nitta, an all-star hitter from Sumiko, deeply respected Kazuya's ability as the only pitcher able to take him out on three strikes. He's looking forward to a similar battle with Tatsuya at the end of the season, but Tatsuya's not so certain he can deliver. He may have more raw talent than his brother ever did, but it takes more than a strong arm to become a great pitcher. Besides, Tatsuya isn't at all certain if this is really his path at all or simply his attempting to fill the shoes of his brother.

Meanwhile, Minami is torn between being the team's manager and stepping into a position on the rhythmic gymnastics squad. Turns out she has real skill at her new sport, and that gets her name plastered in the papers. It comes, however, at the expense of the time Tatsuya and Minami normally spend together. Add to that the attention she begins to get from the opposite sex, particularly from Nitta, and her relationship with Tatsuya becomes more of a question mark than an exclamation point.

As with the first film, this movie will look (at best) quaint to modern eyes. Tatsuya, Minami, and the rest all lack details that we expect today. Yet there's nothing lacking in the backgrounds, and there are scenes that have great color design. As the film series was spawned by the long-running TV show, anything was an improvement over the budget constraints of yesteryear's programming. While there are a couple of musical pieces that are obviously from the '80s, there's not a lot of fashions or other things from the period, which makes it more timeless than many of its contemporaries.

Without stunning artwork, a film like The Farewell Gift needs a strong story or, at least, compelling characters. It doesn't, not at least on first glance. I was surprised that Tatsuya doesn't mourn his brother, at least not in any recognizable way. He's driven to honor his brother's legacy, but he's never in the least emotional about the loss. The film meanders around Kazuya, and though Tatsuya's determination to become a great pitcher eventually brings his brother into the picture more, there's little sense of true grief. Minami is much the same. She's still the quiet yet deeply sweet girl from the first picture, seemingly unaffected at the death of her boyfriend. The two of them wander through the narrative, trying new things, succeeding and failing here and there. It doesn't gel until the film finally gets to the baseball tournament at the end. Say what you will about Touch, when we get back to baseball, it gets good. But their characters? Not particularly emotional nor interesting.

You might think that the laziness of the narrative comes from condensing a long-winded plotline from the manga and anime into a short movie (less than an hour and twenty minutes). That isn't the problem; I never felt like I had missed something or that events had become time compressed. While there are title cards indicating the passage of time over the seasons, it's only to lend narrative structure to the whole. It took me a while to process the film, and when I did, I realized something: the show was trying to be true-to-life in a way hardly ever seen in anime. Plot in the sense that we normally think about it wasn't the point at all.

The Farewell Gift creates a sense of ennui, trying to find purpose where there is no purpose. Tatsuya does not mourn openly...but what does his culture expect of him? He is to carry on. The ubiquitous phrase in Japanese culture shikata ga nai - "it can't be helped" - fits this mentality to a T. He honors his brother not through tears or sorrow but working hard all the time to be the best pitcher he can be, adapting even his brother's pitching style to overcome his own limited skills. Minami is great at her new sport, but is she passionate about it? I don't get the sense she is, though she grows fond of it.

Near the conclusion of the film, we see both of them struggle, but their failures are not overwhelming or heart-wrenching. Yes, they need to keep practicing - ganbatte, "do your best," always - but are these sports really who they are? Without Kazuya in the mix, who served as each's best friend, do they have their own identities? Are people defined by their interests and appetites or by their jobs and their places in society? Touch is too subtle to answer those questions outright. Moreover, that ambiguity is appealing to the Japanese mindset. I can see why Touch was so darn popular; more than most anime, it captures a lot of the Japanese spirit, even some parts we in the West have a difficult time understanding. Sometimes, I think that the popularity of anime overseas has diminished the native Japanese nature of the art form, and that's too bad.

However, it's still hard to balance out if ennui and slow plotting and whatnot makes for a good film. Here, I have to say maybe. It's merely an OK watch, but it's more revealing about the emotional nature of Tatsuya and Minami (and perhaps Japanese society on the whole) than what appears at first glance. I plan to watch the next film within the month, and I still look forward to it, but my expectations have been lowered. I hope that Touch 3: As You Passed By gets the tale past the death of Kazuya and begins to solidify Tatsuya and Minami and their relationship. A story can go nowhere for only so long before I hop off the train to find something going to a more promising station.

Touch 2: The Farewell Gift -- nothing objectionable -- B-