NOTE: This article is also available at Ideas Without End here.
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night –
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote –
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’
Vitai Lampada, Henry Newbolt
The British public school story, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays through Billy Bunter, The Owl of the Remove to Harry Potter has an almost mythic status – it depicts an educational ideal but more than that promotes an ethos so strong it inspires war poetry like Newbolt’s poem quoted above. Being a good student for someone like Newbolt, in his optimistic war poem, is not simply excelling at school, it is embodying Britishness and being taught how best to be a good citizen.
The British Schoolboy has certain expectations and stereotypes in a positive sense; he will be noble, not cheat or be cowardly. He will excel at everything, and those things he cannot excel at he will strive to improve at. His battlefield will be the playing-field and then the front line in service of his country.
Most of all, the idealised student is one who identifies their own failings and strives to overcome them; they overcome bullying (be it Flashman or Draco Malfoy, the bully is as important to the school story as the protagonist) and protect others from bullies. If they fail, they are duly contrite and take their punishment nobly – or if they do not, as Tom Brown comes to, they have their moment of epiphany and ultimate Pauline conversion in due time. While this religious comparison sounds hyperbolic, it is particularly apt; Tom Brown’s Schooldays conflates academic excellence and good conduct with living a godly and pious life; academic success is linked to spiritual as well as bodily wellbeing.
How, then, does this equate to shoujo anime such as Ace Wo Nerae? To begin with, a brief explanation of the genre; shoujo series are aimed at a female audience, and are generally melodramatic character pieces with the focus being on an outsider overcoming adversity to improve at their dream skill or profession. Glass Mask, another famous example, focuses on acting; Rose of Versailles on transcending historical gender roles. Ace Wo Nerae‘s subject is tennis, and the focus on the sporting ideal sets it clearly in the same genre as other public school stories although the girl’s school as a setting has slightly different connotations to the boy’s boarding school. While the core concepts of decency, honesty and hard work still show through, the overtones are less militaristic and focused on Empire-building skills, and more on social development.
Ultimately, though, there is a commonality within the school story genre that is picked up in shoujo anime – that hardship is improving. Ace Wo Nerae‘s protagonist, Hiromi, is met in media res – she is an aspiring tennis player happy to be in the shadow of the established team. What at first is presumed to be modesty at her perceived lack of talent is shown within the first four episodes to be a kind of laziness; she is happy to be mediocre and attempts to fix this behaviour on the part of the “Demon Coach” that joins her school are met with laziness and resentment.
This is a stock plot of the school story – the student with the potential to excel who falls prey to complacency and a lack of determination. Hiromi doesn’t play up and play the game, to quote Newbolt – she is content to watch her idols do that and relish both the attention she gets for having potential and the easy life that being mediocre gives. This is, in narrative terms, similar to Tom Brown enjoying a little success and popularity and then falling back on his vulgus-book and crib-sheets – although rather than seeing a rise and fall, the viewer is introduced to a character already at the bottom and being dragged up until they can stand alone. While her fear of failure and the bullying she undergoes are supposed to justify her unwillingness to take the chances presented to her, it rings a little hollow when it is set alongside her consistent malingering and attempts to avoid training. Ace Wo Nerae is thus about the conflict between the easy life (accepting failure and being content to be the victim – as Hiromi consistently talks about in private) and the desirable future (overcoming weakness and developing, as she, at first unwillingly, does in class).
The viewer’s understanding of Hiromi’s character is called into question by the different ways in which she presents herself; while she is bullied, it is for apparently squandering a chance – her teammates see her as mediocre and undeserving of the chance to improve because of her poor attitude, but this is shown to have been a justified reputation because of her own rejection of the chance the coach offers. In actively trying to avoid putting in effort unless pressed, she becomes unsympathetic – a poor student and the “enemy” of the scholarly, sporting ideal that the school story is about the rise of. It’s here that the greatest difference in approach between the shoujo school story and the boarding-school story is shown, though.
The bully of the British school story, most memorably Flashman, is a rake who not only breaks the rules and abuses his lessers, but also has no work ethos – he cheats, lies and skives. The bullies in the shoujo school story have the rudeness and cruelty of Flashman but also the work ethic of the ideal student – at first, in Ace Wo Nerae, the aloof figure of Ochoufujin is presented as an antagonist to Hiromi. However, the conflict between them is shown to be exasperation on Ochoufujin’s part at Hiromi’s laziness and unwillingness to better herself; she is the harsh mentor rather than the bully. The actual bully character is more interesting; a girl rejected from the tennis team despite being apparently better at tennis, she hates Hiromi because she sees Hiromi as ungrateful. She sees her work ethic as superior and this as a justification for abusing Hiromi – and when the coach explains that while she is more dedicated, she is ultimately going to prove less talented, the conflict comes to a head with an ultimate moment of catharsis as she proves unable to perform in the pressure of a match. Thus, the bully’s failing is not a lack of a work ethic and the desire to be cruel to make up for a lack of ability – it is the complacency of someone talented who cannot progress and sees no reason to try.
To conclude, the school story is best seen as a way of presenting an idealised work ethic and philosophy in a setting which allows for progression, structure and hierachy. Talent is not enough and is often linked to complacency, while potential talent is the key; encouraging someone to come out of the shadow of mediocrity and excel is a duty of the teacher and student-mentor. Indeed, innate skill is shown in Ace Wo Nerae to be inherently lesser than taught skill, since someone who already is skilled tends to simply copy their betters to try and improve – reducing their own potential in the process. On the other hand, Hiromi’s determination – once she finds it and escapes her laziness – brings with it an originality which is what is being celebrated. The ideal student makes the most of their talents, but works even harder to overcome their shortcomings – be it on the cricket pitch, the tennis court or in the classroom. Where, however, the shoujo school differs from the boarding-school is in how this ethos is then developed; since much of the British public school fiction comes from a nation in possession of a large empire, this desire for self-improvement is linked to patriotic and spiritual themes – although the intent is commonly found across these two diverse cultures.