Touch 3: Don't Pass Me By

It's becoming a cliché for me to be writing about clichés in one of my reviews. And yet anime is so full of them, it relies on them so often, that you can't help but mention it. And if there are specific tropes for shonen and shoujo, then they are even more the further you subdivide into genres. Among the worst offenders are sports-oriented anime. There's only so many stories you can tell...the washed-up hero trying for a final comeback, the underdog made know them all. A common plot device is the "devil coach," the icy stone-faced menace with dark secrets who drives his players to the brink. Touch 3: Don't Pass Me By is one of those "devil coach" stories, and as I'd seen another film with the same concept recently (Aim For The Ace!), I wasn't expecting much. Thankfully, it gets past its humdrum concept by making baseball the prime focus of the film, and the last half is tension-filled enough to make it easy to forgive its problems.

As the film begins, Tatsuya's focused on a new season. Minami, having quit the rhythmic gymnastics team, returns as the team's coach. It seems that their lives are no longer lived in the shadow of Tatsuya's twin brother Kazuya's fabulous skills and tragic death. But before you can say "mistaken identity," a new coach appears on the horizon. Turns out that Meisei's coach, Nishio, has been hospitalized. He asks that Eiichiro Kashiwaba, a star player from years past, take his place as he recovers from his illness. Problem is, it's not Eiichiro that shows up but Eijiro, Eiichiro's younger brother who was kicked off the team!

It's not completely clear what Eijiro's motivations are, but "killing off the members of the Meisei baseball team one by one" would be a good guess. He works the guys to the bone, leaving them all but dead at the end of each practice. He has no use for Minami. He takes Tatsuya off the mound where it's obvious he belongs. By all appearances, the destruction of Meisei's baseball program is imminent. And yet the players persevere, making it far along the road to Koshien and the national baseball championships. What's uncertain is whether or not the Meisei team will survive Eijiro long enough to win it all.

If you have any real interest in this review, I have to assume you've seen something of Touch, so I'm not going to get into its technical merits, which are on par with (but no better than) the first two pictures in the series. This movie expects that you are familiar with the back story; while it can be enjoyed on its own, there are significant segments that hold emotional weight only if you've seen the previous entries. For example, there's a rivalry with another team's powerhouse hitter, Nitta, that is covered in depth during Touch 2: The Farewell Gift. Nitta shows up in the pivotal game in an important role, but the film assumes you know him; a newcomer might think, "Where the heck did this guy come from?" Simply be aware that this film doesn't stand alone.

In fact, I would suggest that the second and third film entries in the Touch canon require each other. I had problems with The Farewell Gift, as it felt incomplete and not terribly compelling. In comparison, Touch 3 gets us back to the heart of the story, which is baseball. It is far more focused. Some plot strings left dangling in the second film are resolved. Even though Tatsuya and Minami do not change significantly by the end - the TV show has more time to spend in the arena of character development - I sensed their moving forward. The ennui of the second film, the lack of dealing with Kazuya's demise while it hung over every frame, is gone. Kazuya barely enters the picture, and when he does, it's made clear that Tatsuya is finally playing ball on his own terms. (If he wasn't, Eijiro's coaching would have pushed him right out of the sport.) In retrospect, Don't Pass Me By makes The Farewell Gift a better picture.

But the central strengths and weakness of the film are tied into one character: Eijiro. To its benefit, Don't Pass Me By makes him a complex character who we never completely figure out. His history with his brother is an obvious parallel to that of Kazuya and Tatsuya, but one that plays out far differently. He's cruel and obnoxious, and it's not as if he's redeemed as the credits roll. Those ambiguities appealed to me. However, for what was to be the last film in the series for almost a dozen years, there's too much of him and not enough of our leads. I wanted to see the relationship between Tatsuya and Minami grow, but there's virtually none of that. Instead, this is the story of the fantastic player burdened by an insane coach who's more interested in breaking him than making him the best player he can be. Director and scriptwriter Sugii Gisaburo was able to get this film into theaters just a month after the TV series ended, and I think in the rush Eijiro's role became too pronounced. Had the film been given some extra production time, perhaps this would have been corrected.

But as a sports anime, the romance and theatrics are only live or die on the field. The film is split roughly into two parts -- half the running time is spent getting us to the finals, and the second half is spent entirely in one game. Not only is the second half incredibly exciting, it holds surprises...not least of which is who will emerge victorious. As previous installments made clear, no win is certain. I might have had my beefs with the setup and the overabundance of Eijiro in the first forty minutes, but the second forty are as excellent as I could ask for.

After the acceptable if somewhat mediocre Farewell Gift, I wasn't sure that the franchise had anywhere to go but down. Don't Pass Me By made me reconsider that appraisal, and I'm looking forward to watching the final two segments in the series. In fact, this film even made me think about tracking down the television show to see if the story works better when it has more time to breathe. Don't Pass Me By, flawed as it may be, makes me want to see more of this '80s phenomenon, and that's no small praise.

Touch 3: Don't Pass Me By -- very mild profanity -- B+