Yawara just wants to be an ordinary girl: hang with friends, wear pretty clothes, fall in love, go to college. But “ordinary” is not the future her crazy grandfather Jigoro, a legendary judo champion, has in mind for her.
Determined to see Yawara win gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (the first year women’s judo was a medal event) and earn Japan’s National Merit Award, Jigoro has been rigorously training her since she was five. He believes friends, modern fashion, and boys are nothing but insidious distractions. Yawara may be a judo wunderkind, but all the pressure – from her grandfather, from the media, and from the judo-loving public – makes her resent the sport. Convincing her to tune out all the noise, enjoy judo for herself, and discover her own ambition may prove a greater challenge than winning Olympic gold.
Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl aired simultaneously in Japan with its sister show Ranma 1/2 (which it consistently beat in the ratings), yet only the latter saw a U.S. release at the time. What a shame! Based on an unlicensed 29-volume manga series by Naoki Urasawa (creator of the popular psychological thriller Monster), Yawara! presents a more realistic and substantial, though still plenty funny, story than its screwball-fantasy sibling. But without the opportunity to be appreciated in English when originally broadcast from 1989-90, the series is showing its age and may have a harder time winning over new fans. The character designs are understandably old school — though it’s fascinating to see Urasawa’s stylistic influence in such a light-hearted story — and frames can be unsteady, with cell edges occasionally jumping into view at the bottom of the screen. Nevertheless, the characters are visually appealing and the animation fluid for its era, with a welcome focus on realism, particularly in the carefully depicted judo scenes.
With the exception of selfish Jigoro, whose constant harping and one-track mind quickly become more a source of viewer vexation than amusement, the characters are fun and dynamic. There’s kind, fumbling Matsuda, the intrepid young reporter whose devoted interest in Yawara becomes more than strictly business; arrogant, ambitious Sayaka, Yawara’s highly motivated rival in judo and love; handsome Kazamatsuri, Sayaka’s womanizing coach and Yawara’s crush; plus a colorful assortment of classmates, media folk, and international competitors.
As she goes through high school and begins her first year of college, Yawara bonds with and supports her down-and-out judo club, makes new friends, faces fired-up challengers, falls for two very different men, stands up a little to her grandfather, and tries to find her own way. The story occasionally bogs down with padded plotlines, but it has enough depth, drama, laughs, and action to overcome its slower moments and keep the viewer rooting for the heroine and wondering what happens next.
And there, unfortunately, is the downside. This thoughtfully-produced, long-overdue, sub-only box-set has already gone out of print after just four years. It also comprises only the first 40 of the series’s 124 episodes, the rest of which (along with two feature-length sequels) have never been licensed. So, viewers longing to know with whom Yawara ends up, how she comes to love judo, and how she fares in Barcelona will have to resort to research or a monumental license-rescue campaign. Otherwise, they’ll have to console themselves with the increasingly scarce set’s extras, including bonus features (character bios, an interactive map, screen shots, and eye catches) and a surprisingly detailed guidebook with creator and series background information, episode-by-episode cultural notes, and an introduction to judo terms and scoring.
Yawara’s strong, independently-minded personality and her struggle to reconcile her own desires with other responsibilities and expectations will obviously draw female viewers, but males will have plenty to identify with, too. The mostly mild fanservice is similarly balanced between audiences, with a few panty shots and boob jokes on the one hand and shameless Kazamatsuri periodically flaunting his fine physique on the other. Teen and adult viewers who don’t mind the fanservice and who are willing to embrace the series’ datedness (80s fashion! rotary phones!) will find a lot to enjoy here, including more complexity and smarter storytelling than the deceptively simple visual style would lead them to expect.