This is the one. The Match. It's all about Tezuka and Ryoma. And Oishi. But mostly Tezuka and Ryoma. Please help me figure it out.
25 & 26. The Strongest Man in Seigaku
What's with all the train imagery? I suppose it could signify a journey, thus change. Which is what the episode is all about.
The normal credit images are replaced with flashbacks to interactions between Tezuka and Ryoma. (Also Arai!)
More flashbacks to start out the episode -- Tezuka puts Ryoma in the ranking matches, Tezuka watches Ryoma play in the ranking matches and denies being interested in Ryoma, Ryoma plays Kaidoh while Tezuka looks on, then six minutes later, we get into the real episode.
Tezuka denies to Ryuzaki that he wants a duel with Ryoma and tells her the real reason, which we do not hear at this point. While Tezuka is being so serious about playing Ryoma, Nanjiroh is totally goofing off and annoying Ryoma. But when Ryoma leaves, Nanjiroh muses that Ryoma has to defeat him soon or he'll be past it. (At 12 years old! Must. Suspend. Disbelief.)
They both want the same thing for Ryoma, but Nanjiroh knows he can't help Ryoma find that right now. Ryoma won't listen to him. I think Ryoma can hardly see Nanjiroh as a person. He's just a wall that Ryoma wants to climb over. They are so adversarial. And it doesn't help that Nanjiroh is such an ass.
(Oh, Fuji and Kaidoh are playing a practice match! I wish we could have seen more of that.)
When Oishi comments to Tezuka that they seem good to go for the tournament, Tezuka comes back with his ultra-serious "we can't be too careful" line and Oishi seems really taken aback by it. From which I deduce that this behaviour is serious even for Tezuka. Certainly, Oishi is suspicious.
Tezuka takes Ryoma off the court for their talk. Ryoma looks startled at the command.
There's a flashback to the conversation with Ryuzaki. We find out that Tezuka's reason is that Tezuka thinks that Ryoma's tennis is just a copy of his father's and that if he doesn't break out of that, he'll be stuck. He needs to find his own tennis.
Ryuzaki thinks that Tezuka is being reckless, risking his arm when the tournament is just around the corner. No, Tezuka says, that's why it's important for Echizen.
Tezuka thinks he can do this without hurting his arm, but that's far from certain. And he seems to find Ryoma's development more important.
In the conversation with Tezuka, we can already hear the voice Ryoma uses with him, that he doesn't use with anyone else. It's softer, not challenging. (Though he is a little cheeky to Tezuka on occasion.)
Ryoma is thunderstruck by Tezuka's order for him to play. He stands there, clutching the ball Tezuka threw to him, and stares after Tezuka.
Why does Tezuka give Ryoma the ball? Is it just a visual aid for the conversation? Does he want to give Ryoma something? It's a nice link between them and a focus for Ryoma in the days before the match.
Oishi's participation in this episode is really important. He's the only one who can tell Tezuka off. And he tries to. There are competing loyalties here. If Tezuka injures himself, how will he and Oishi take the team to Nationals, like they promised back in first year? Oishi has a right to complain of Tezuka, both for the team's sake and for his own.
But Tezuka doesn't want to hear it. He shuts Oishi down. "It's fine."
Ryuzaki impresses Ryoma with the seriousness of the match and the level of Tezuka's skill. But I think Ryoma already got that.
Usually a big match will make Ryoma smile as he enjoys the anticipation. He doesn't smile over this one, not until he's actually playing. Instead, he's distracted and restless, playing with the tennis ball. His family remarks on his odd behaviour. He takes a bath and keeps playing with the tennis ball, hearing Tezuka's voice in his head.
I don't think he knows what to expect. He's seen Tezuka play a bit, at tournaments and at practice. And he doesn't know why Tezuka wants to play. Does he think Tezuka feels he has to prove himself against Ryoma? Ryoma must get lots of people wanting to challenge him.
Tezuka is out staring at the court they'll play on. I wonder what he's thinking about the match. Does he think he'll enjoy it? Or is that even relevant to him right now? It must be, since the message he's trying to give Ryoma is that you have to play tennis for its own sake.
And that was the lesson of Yamato-buchou. Yamato wasn't that good at tennis, but he loved it very, very much.
Now, now Tezuka is at the doctor's, getting the final word. If the doctor had said he wasn't healed, would he have cancelled the match with Ryoma? I don't think so. And it would have broken Oishi's heart.
Tezuka smiles when he hears he's okay. It's a nice moment with him and Oishi. But the doctor tells him not to play any long matches and not to hit any drop shots.
Tezuka still won't listen to Oishi and Oishi is getting more and more upset.
[ Full disclosure: I ship Tezuka/Oishi in manga canon, parallel to how I ship Tezuka/Ryoma in anime canon. More on that another time. ]
Inoue goes to talk to Nanjiroh and recaps the fact that Ryoma needs to break out of his copy tennis. But he brings up an interesting point, that during the match with Shinji, where Ryoma was playing injured, he made a shot that was entirely his own. It seems like Ryoma has to suffer to grow, but I guess that's universal.
Nanjiroh says there's more Ryoma has to do, that just breaking out of imitation isn't enough to defeat Nanjiroh.
And then the match begins. In passing, Tezuka is in lavender and purple.
They both look serious and determined. Ryoma is not cowed. He even tries a bit of light conversation, but Tezuka is having none of it. And Ryoma buckles down.
They play, Oishi watches and he's so worried for Tezuka, his bag falls to the ground. That's his entire focus right now. Tezuka and his arm.
Tezuka asks Ryoma if he can beat Tezuka. Ryoma says he'll do it if Tezuka tells him to. He still doesn't quite know what he's got himself into. But he's enjoying it, at least so far. I think he thinks he can win.
Oishi notes that Tezuka is going all out. Tezuka asks Ryoma why he plays tennis and Ryoma says it's because he has someone he wants to defeat. This is the key. He needs to shift his focus off of Nanjiroh and play tennis for its own sake. Of course, really what happens is Ryoma's focus switches to Tezuka.
Ryoma loses his cap, which seems symbolic of his loss. And Tezuka hits the zero-shiki, while Oishi looks on horrified. It seems to fire up Ryoma though, as he smiles happily.
We don't see the end of the game. We do see Nanjiroh ask if Ryoma was on a date and Ryoma says, "Something like that." Ryoma is quiet. He lies on his bed, staring at the ceiling.
There's a flashback to the game where Ryoma tells Tezuka he won't lose like this. Tezuka keeps trying to bring out Ryoma's tennis and in doing so, develops a golden glow.
Tezuka and Oishi take the train. Oishi tells Tezuka off for playing so hard, but Tezuka says, "My joints are nothing." (While I'm typing this, I'm tearing up over Oishi. I feel so badly for him here.)
It's all about Ryoma. Ryoma is more important than Tezuka's arm, more important than his promise to Oishi. Though if Ryoma's potential is released, then that will help them get to Nationals. But that's not what Oishi wants, I don't think.
Oishi is also concerned for Ryoma; his injury has just healed. And what about the psychological effect of losing?
But Tezuka says it would be meaningless not to go all out. The match was necessary. "This is the only thing I can do for him." And he zones out while Oishi talks to him. Obviously, this was an intense experience for him.
Flashback to the end of the match. We don't even find out the score. Tezuka tells Ryoma to become Seigaku's pillar of support. Just as Yamato-buchou told him.
The next day, Tezuka goes back to the doctor for a checkup. The doctor tells him off for using his drop shot. Tezuka says it was necessary. Talent has to be explored. Afterwards, he stands on a rooftop and we see a plane go by. "It was necessary to start Echizen's tennis, even if the cost is great." He clutches his elbow. He's still standing there when the sun sets.
Ryoma is lost in thought. He goes home, skipping practice, and plays with Nanjiroh. Ryoma gets the golden glow and finally gets a shot past Nanjiroh. They are both happy.
Inui can only think of one reason why Ryoma is absent two days in a row, but he doesn't say what it is. Has he figured out what happened?
The ED plays over images of Tezuka and Ryoma, then switches to the usual images. I think it's an extended version of the song.
Oh my god, what an episode. This was the first time I really felt the implications for Oishi.
What does Ryoma think of all this? He doesn't know about Tezuka's arm, obviously, but why does he think Tezuka is doing this? Does he know it's to help him?
I think he must. He ends up just respecting Tezuka even more. And he, well, I'm not sure he feels the weight of Tezuka's decree just yet, but it's tapping at his skull anyhow.
And he learns the lesson. He starts to break through. I wish Tezuka could have seen it.
Oh, Tezuka, Tezuka. Why? Why do you go to such lengths? This seems beyond what a captain owes his teammates or what a senpai owes his kohai. Is it that he truly sees the potential in Ryoma, knows that it is so much greater than his own, and feels he can't let it go to waste?
Is it that there's something inside of him that makes him a martyr? For that matter, why does he destroy himself in the match against Atobe? I suppose I shouldn't really speculate on that too much until I get there, in this go-round. But I think that along with wanting to win for his team, wanting to win for his dream with Oishi, wanting to show Ryoma his determination, along with all that, I think that on a subconscious level, Tezuka wanted out.
When we see him in Germany, he's so relaxed. He laughs. There's no pressure, except to get well. He gets a break from being buchou. And it seems to do him a lot of good. Everybody expects so much of Tezuka. It must be nice to get away from that.
But back to Ryoma. Why? We've seen Tezuka help other people. He was necessarily harsh with Momo when Momo was favouring his leg after his sprain had healed. He engineered things so his coach in Germany would regain her confidence. But those things are not on this level.
Maybe it's just fate. Maybe he knows he's destined to be the one to find Ryoma, to set him on his path. John the Baptist, Qui-Gon Jinn. Okay, that's a bit much, but still. I think of Hughes telling Roy that he'll make sure to have a lower rank than Roy, so he can support him from below.
I wonder this doesn't crush Tezuka. It seems impossible for anybody to be this altruistic for someone not their own flesh and blood. And at this age? Tezuka is the One but then he finds out that he's not the One after all, it's Ryoma. Ryoma will surpass him. Tezuka doesn't try to fight that. He encourages it.
"This is the only thing I can do for him." It sounds like he wishes he could do more.
And so they are bound together, for all eternity.