By Takuma Yokota
The elementary school club setting in Shudan! continues to provide interesting deviations from sports manga norms. Mixed-gender sports teams are atypical in itself, yet clichéd arguments that Akira shouldn’t be on the team just because she’s a girl are missing. Rather, the kids largely accept Akira and respect her skills, and the few kids like Soshi who have reservations is because they aren’t used to talking to girls and get easily embarrassed interacting with them. It’s really nice to avoid the tired “girls have to prove themselves to the boys” narrative or there being a sexist needing to have his mind changed, and instead openly embrace girls playing sports alongside guys as natural and no big deal.
What’s also nice is the more active role of parental figures in their children’s lives. Parents usually take a backseat in high-school sports manga since high-schoolers in japan are pretty independent. However, the characters in Shudan! are elementary students, so the children are more dependent on their parents, which necessitates a synergistic dynamic between parents and children usually absent in sports series. Soshi’s mother has much presence in the chapter, and we see how her and Akira’s mother’s friendship helps each other out in taking care of their children’s sports need when she picks up Akira and has her stay over until her mother comes back from work. Rarely do we see circumstances like this in sports manga, and it hammers home how dependent the kids are on their parents to even be able to play the sports they like. Soshi never thought about how his mother has to take time out of her day to take him to practice, having assumed that was something only parents should worry about. Whereas Akira is fully aware of the responsibilities her mother has to assume, thus compromises between her interests and her mother’s work schedule. Since Akira knows it takes sacrifices to even be able to play soccer, she is more invested in playing well and making the most of her time than Soshi, who takes his and his mother’s time for granted. The challenges in balancing the needs of both parents and children is something I’m hoping the series will continue to explore, especially in regard to how it influences how the children value their time playing sports.
While both the mixed-gender team and parental involvement aspects of Shudan! are praise-worthy, where the series really shines is in its thematic explorations of motivation and effort. This chapter examines what motivates someone to take an activity seriously using Soshi and Akira as contrasting examples that influence each other’s behavior. Most kids usually get involved in a variety of extracurricular activities that they never truly dedicate themselves to. I myself was in a youth soccer club in elementary school, and like Soshi and his teammates, I never took it very seriously. Shudan! understands that children are like this, and contrasts Soshi’s lack of motivation with Akira’s dedication. Soshi’s room is bereft of soccer memorabilia, whereas Nanase describes how her room was adorned with posters. This simple comparison is enough to establish the stark difference in dedication to the game the characters have. It also provides two perspectives for readers to relate to. There are kids like Soshi, who will only think about sports when they’re playing, and kids like Akira, who love sports so much they always want to play. As is often the case in real life, seeing someone dedicate their heart and soul to something really makes you want to try harder yourself.
Akira doesn’t care that Hamanishi FC isn’t that good or passionate about the game as she is, they’re a soccer club, and she can play with them. Whereas Soshi doesn’t think much about the good qualities of his team, Akira notices their strengths and potential to be great. There’ve been sports manga protagonists that need to be motivated to play better before, who become inspired by someone else’s dedication to be a worthy rival. Where Shudan! differs is that Akira isn’t a rival, but a friend and teammate. The story positions itself being about her infectious passion for the game pushing her teammates to try as hard as she does. We already see how Soshi, who never practices, becomes inspired by Akira to kick the ball outside even though its nighttime. As Soshi’s narration remarks, “give them a push, and off they go,” it only takes a little inspiration, and the desire to be better, to start giving your all in an activity you may’ve previously taken for granted. Shudan’s message is one that’s eminently relatable no matter what your age; it’s never too late to try.