5.0 out of 5 stars Highly addictive martial-arts romance
There was a Golden Age of anime in the late 1980’s. Takahashi Rumiko had scored a mega-hit with her series Urusei Yatsura, and the studios were looking for the next big thing. Two animated projects were developed side-by-side, both with a martial arts/love story theme and both adapted from popular comics in the Shonen Sunday magazine. One was another Takahashi comic, with a more fantastical feel, called Ranma 1/2. The sister series had a more realistic take on martial arts, in this case judo, but was no less popular in Japan. “Yawara: The Fashionable Judo Girl” was in fact more popular in Japan, and consistently scores higher on “Top 10” lists than its more American-famous companion. Yawara was so popular that when judo athlete Tamura Ryoko took the silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, she was instantly given the nickname “Yawara”, which she still is referred to by to this day.
“Yawara” is a long-running series, with over 100 episodes, so it is impossible to encapsulate the entire story here. The basic set-up has Inokuma Yawara as a judo prodigy, a young high school girl who has been trained from birth by her grandfather, 7th dan judo master Inokuma Jigorou, with one goal in mind. She is to win the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and later receive the National Medal of Honor as a result of her prowess. Yawara, however, doesn’t want to be a judo star, and just wants to act like all the other girls her age; dressing in pretty clothes, having cute boyfriends and frivolously gossiping over cake in fashionable cafes. Jigorou has his work cut out for him, as he pushes and prods, connives and schemes, all to get Yawara on the path of judo. He creates a rival for her, in the form of Honami Sayaka, a spoiled rich girl who has succeeded in every sport she has ever tried, and isn’t about to let a plain girl like Yawara get the better of her. Between Yawara and Sayaka is the smooth-talking playboy and judo coach Kazamatsuri Shinnosuke, who captures the hearts of both tough ladies. Needless to say, hijinks ensue.
Staying on the realistic side, “Yawara” never goes for the slapstick physical comedy of Ranma ½, but reminds me a lot more of Takahashi’s other series Maison Ikkoku. The characters are so well-developed that you find yourself quickly sucked in and gasping for a new episode. Serious subplots develop, new characters enter the playing field, but never with the “joke a week” sense that they are temporary throwaways. One character, Jody Rockwell, is particularly heartwarming as a giant Canadian judo champion who comes to Japan in order to test herself against Yawara. The plot isn’t a dead giveaway either. I honestly don’t know who Yawara will end up with, if she will go to the Olympics, what will happen to other characters…all of which keeps me coming back for a new episode. Yawara also does a daily countdown towards the Olympics, something that I remember fondly from the first Japanese animation I ever saw, Space Battleship Yamato.
As usual, Animeigo has set a new level of excellence with their boxset release of this series. You never just get the movies from Animeigo, you get an entire cultural package, which is really helpful. Shows like “Yawara” don’t exist in a vacuum, and much of the cultural references wouldn’t be caught without Animeigo’s handy pop-up information. I have also found their subtitles great for studying Japanese, as they take the time to explain certain words rather than just translate them.
This boxset contains the first 40 episodes of the 124 episode series. I am looking forward to the release of the remained of the series, and hopefully (fingers crossed!) the 1989 live-action “Yawara” feature film as well. After seeing this boxset, I am a confirmed Yawara fan! Ippon!