No this is not a post about Softenni. I did not last more than an episode of that show. They’re not even doing actual tennis. This sport that I love (and unlike basketball, I love to play tennis more than I like watching it) is pretty amazing. Why? Much like boxing, there is nowhere to hide on a Tennis court, even in a doubles match, you will be exposed for your lack of skills. Women’s tennis, while obviously less powerful than the men’s game, is still incredibly powerful (these female athletes will crush male recreational players). And the game is such that you can see and play both men and women mixed on the same court on a very high level.
We take it for granted that female athletes don’t look feminine and beautiful unless they’re gymnasts or figure skaters, or do sports that rely a lot less on physical strength and power. This is not the case with tennis. At the highest level (top 100) you’ll find tall and glorious women. Also, you’ll find incredibly young winners: Maria Sharapova winning Wimbledon at age 17, and Martina Hingis winning the Australian Open at age 16. These are ages of anime girls you like to ogle… and younger than the cast of K-On!!
Don’t take my word for it. I invoke what could be one of the greatest paragraphs from the greatest excerpt from what is one of the more controversial and revered works of fanservice in Western literature:
Despite her advanced age, she was more of a nymphet than ever, with her apricot-colored limbs, in her sub-teen tennis togs! Winged gentlemen! No hereafter is acceptable if it does not produce her as she was then, in that Colorado resort between Snow and Ephin-stone, with everything right: the white wide little-boy shorts, the slender waist, the apricot midriff, the white breast-kerchief whose ribbons went up and encircled her neck to end behind a dangling knot leaving bare her graspingly young and adorable apricot shoulder blades with that pubescence and those lovely gentle bones, and the smooth, downward-tapering back. Her cap had a white peak. Her racket had cost me a small fortune. Idiot, triple idiot! I could have filmed her! I would have had her now with me, before my eyes, in the projection room of my pain and despair!
She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before going into the act of serving, and often bounced the ball once or twice, or pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the score, always cheerful as she so seldom was in the dark life she led at home. Her tennis was the highest point to which I can imagine a young creature bringing the art of make-believe, although I daresay, for her it was the very geometry of basic reality[…]
Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second of a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip.
-Humbert Humbert (Vladimir Nabokov 1955, Lolita)
I haven’t been reading enough good fiction the past few years. I’ve forgotten how good writing could be so electric! Nabokov could not have written that whole part of the book without having an intimate experience of tennis… because the excerpt is about 10 pages long and filled with really good technical stuff expressed in such a casual but immortalizing sequence.
In anime, you have examples in Hatsukoi Limited, a little in Itazura na Kiss (though the character designs don’t lend to appealing fanservice), of course the wasted opportunity of Softenni, and perhaps worse (for it could’ve had lots of female tennis… but considering the fanbase…) The Prince of Tennis. But the one to watch is still Ace wo Nerae!, or at least, its film version (Dezaki Osamu, 1979).
I learned about Aim for the Ace! predictably from the anime that remembered love for it: Aim for the Top! Gunbuster! which I had read sometime after I watched it was derived heavily from the 70s anime (and manga). So when the opportunity to watch a digestible version of it presented itself, I didn’t hesitate.
Now, the viewer used to contemporary, or even character designs as early as the 1980s may find it difficult to see the female characters in Aim for the Ace! visually appealing. Even I require myself some mental contortions to get myself into the right mindset to enjoy the show as a visual treat. But once I did, it’s rather exquisite! It’s similar to how to find Hingis in her 90s get-ups adorable (trust me, she gets to look a whole lot worse in those days).
It takes some doing, especially if you’re used to seeing sleeker, smoother silhouettes as you’d find a very young Maria Sharapova sporting from the previous decade:
But I suppose every decade in anime had a particular look, and it takes some adjustment to get comfortable in finding the particular designs appealing (excepting a few ‘timeless’ examples i.e. Matsumoto Leiji’s designs in Galaxy Railways etc from the 70s, Mikimoto Haruhiko’s designs in Macross, etc. from the 80s). Anyway, here are some images:
It takes a bit getting used to, but the late Dezaki Osamu made this movie move splendidly, and when it stills, it’s almost always a pretty picture. The tennis matches do get absurd, but they are absurd in terms of having the whole match played practically from the mid-court to the net. It’s like the baseline was there to mark out-of-bounds for players.
Being made in a les permissive era, you won’t find a lot of panty shots, or situational ecchi, but then again this is shojo anime adapted from shojo manga. Perhaps it’s why the girls, and the tennis don’t seem to be made to be beautiful for boys. To me they seem simply beautiful… as if the kind of thing Nabokov could write about, because something from Hatsukoi Limited would seem too blatant an image that he wouldn’t have to paint it with a thousand words.
The other awesome thing about Aim for the Ace! is that it’s not afraid to make its girl go ridiculously awesome and badass. Oka, you’re a badass.