Anime Review: Rising Impact

Rising Impact is a shonen sports anime about a third grader who is really ridiculously good at golf. This is a review, along with some thoughts on shonen sports anime and what makes them tick. Spoilers for the first season follow.

I don’t watch a ton of anime, so tend to just go in blind to things whenever something looks good to me on first blush, having not read any discussion, review, or sometimes, not even a blurb. I sometimes get surprised with something great like Frieren, and more often drop out after three episodes when there’s no spark of artistry.

I usually don’t have a problem with a sports anime, so long as it’s above a certain quality waterline. I’ve watched Yowamushi Pedal, Kuroko’s Basketball, Yuri on Ice, Keijo!!!!!!!!, most of Haikyu!!, some of Bluelock, I’ll include Shokugeki no Soma, I read the manga of Prince of Tennis … probably a smattering of others, including a ballroom dancing one that I watched with my wife, enough that I think I have a grasp on the genre, even if I’m not “well read”.

So far as I understand the average shonen sports anime, the first step is explaining the sport to the audience, which can last for at least half a season. The mechanism for this is that there’s a character who knows basically nothing about the sport in question and can get slowly introduced to it as we go. And because it’s shonen, usually our protagonist is absurdly talented, which also helps to propel the plot forward: they’re so good that they immediately get wrapped up in the sport, mentored by teammates who see their potential or accelerating through all the beginner stuff without all that much effort.

Rising Impact takes this to its logical endpoint in a few ways. Our protagonist, Gawain, is in third grade with an ambition to hit a ball as far as humanly possible. Once he gets shown by a passing professional golfer that maximum distance can be obtained with a golf ball and a driver, he’s all in despite the fact that he doesn’t know the first thing about golf. He practices with neurodivergent fervor until his hands are blistering and bleeding, honing his ability to send a golf ball flying, then his grandfather sends him off to Tokyo to seek his fortune.

I had thought and hoped that after the first episode we’d be in for a time skip, but nope! Our protagonist is just a third grader for the whole series, in spite of how little sense this makes (even for shonen anime). This choice is easily the worst part of the anime, because I am a father to a third grader and kept imagining him being sent out to become a professional golfer, and it beggars belief. I generally find myself aging up people in my head anyway (most of the main cast is like … 6th grade), but can’t really do that with Gawain, who really does act like an impulsive child.

After coming to Tokyo to live with this random woman he’d come across, he gets embroiled in some golf happenings, first challenged to see if he can hit the ball the furthest, which he wins, then challenged to putt the ball in, which he loses because he has never tried to putt and didn’t know that it was a part of the game of golf. This is the first time he suffers any kind of loss, and it’s an important part of the setup, because it’s showing speciation.

Everyone is good at different kinds of things, and sports anime will always take this to extremes. Rather than having someone with a good drive, they will have The Best Drive. Someone can’t just be good at putting, they have The Best Putt. Initially it looks as though our protagonist has The Best Drive, but actually he has a (named) ability called Rising Impact which is an ability to see the exact point of contact between the club and the ball, which makes him really good at golf. And also he has insane stamina, upper body strength, lower body strength, and luck.

I haven’t watched Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure but I’m assuming that all this was influenced by Stands, which are (for my purposes) a unique superpower that an individual has. In sports anime, everyone has a Stand, but specific to the sport, because of course everything revolves around the sport. How entertaining this ends up being sort of depends on the sport and the variety of mechanics it has, but also the creativity of the author. Part of why you want to keep going is to see how the different Sports Stands stack up against each other, how they work in different scenarios, and what wrinkles they have. When evaluating a sports anime, one of the first questions I’m going to ask myself is “how are the Stands?”

In the case of Rising Impact, the biggest problem is that the sport of golf kind of sucks, at least from a narrative standpoint. Golfers aren’t going against each other, so the different Stands can’t actually interact with each other. Sure, some guy is the Wind Master who can read wind really well, and there’s a woman who sees the Serpentine Path when putting, but when they’re golfing they’re individually going for the lowest score and counting strokes. It largely would not matter if they were playing sequentially instead of being on the green together. With that said, the first season had enough creativity to hold my interest and did enough to ensure that the matches were interesting, so my complaint is mostly about the sport, and I think “should have made an anime about something else instead” is probably not good criticism. They should have though.

After an early tournament, Gawain goes to Camelot Academy to learn golf with other (older) students, leaving behind pretty much all of the established characters. From a writing perspective, I kind of hate this, but it’s super common for anime: we’ve said everything we wanted to say about those characters, so they’re dead to us, at least for a little bit. Partly this is because new characters have new Stands and it’s interesting to see fresh ideas, but I don’t know, it also kind of smacks of someone writing with a gun to their head, and also that gun is going to go off the very moment someone loses attention.

The whole cast of new characters didn’t really grip me, though I will say this in favor of Rising Impact: one of the things it gets right is matching the Stands to the characters. I don’t think it’s rocket science, but you do want these two things to work in harmony with each other (or working against each other in a narratively satisfying way). After the first week of study, we get introduced to another cast of character who also go to Camelot, and they’re … mostly fine, though one guy’s Stand appears to be cheating, which is dumb as heck, and also he makes monkey sounds.

Most of the conflict in these episodes is about who’s going to be going to the UK for the Camelot Cup, and this is also one of the staples of a sports anime, which is that we have to have constantly escalating stakes in the form of bigger and more important competitions. The first season has its climax between two master putters with nearly identical Stands, and the final episode stops just before the start of the Camelot Cup arc, which I assume would be the whole of the second season. Personally, I think it might have been better to escalate a little bit more slowly, but I haven’t read the manga, so maybe this is escalating slowly.

Rising Impact really seems like it wants to go as hard as it can as soon as it can, and I can’t blame it for that, because … well, it’s golf, what else are you going to do to make it fun? The courses they play on get ridiculous very early on, with all kinds of bullshit you would never see in a real golf course, like they had been designed by the same people who did Green Hill Zone. They’re not shown on screen in the first season, but there’s apparently a set of legendary clubs which I would assume have special abilities of some kind. I tend to admire this kind of approach, and it’s part of the reason I watch anime, but this one accelerates toward absurdity with full force, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Something I’ve noticed in a few sports anime is that as the series goes on, it gets more and more decoupled from the actual sport. Part of this is because we quickly exhaust the author’s knowledge of the sport, even if it’s their hobby, and part of it is the need for escalation, but eventually you reach a point where there’s full separation from most aspects of the sport. Especially if the show has any mythology to it, we eventually have someone looking at players with a jeweler’s loupe and saying “ah yes, his skill Eagle Talon, which will allow the Golden Minute” or whatever. Toward the end of the short first season, Rising Impact is basically already there. It’s a dangerous place to be, because that means it needs to be carried by its “fight scenes” and character work, and as I’ve said, the choice of golf as a sport handicaps the “fight scene” approach to depicting sports.

As for the character work, Gawain is essentially just comic relief and “wow I can’t believe he’s so good”, and the only other character that has a significant story is Lancelot, the quiet and thoughtful master putter. He has a golfer sister in the hospital and … I just did not care, which doesn’t bode well for my interest in future seasons. If I’m watching, it’s for the golf.

And look, the issue is the golf. I think it’s a dead boring sport. I’ve played maybe two rounds of golf in my life, and it was fun enough, but it’s got so little narrative to it. There’s very very little strategy or tactics, and instead it’s heavy on the biomechanics. The central question of golf is “how efficiently can you hit a ball to the hole”, and there’s just no meat there. I think in a different life I could be a guy who enjoys a weekly game of golf, but there’s just no story in it.

I guess I can vaguely imagine a shonen golf anime that I would enjoy more, but I think a lot of the ways Rising Impact heads deep into the genre trappings right from the beginning makes up for golf being a narratively poor game. I’m still not sure that I can actually recommend Rising Impact, but I had fun with it, and it was thankfully light on the “anime weirdness” stuff that often puts me off. If there’s a second season, I’ll probably end up watching it, but I’m not going to seek out the manga like I sometimes do if an anime has really gripped me.

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Anime Review: Rising Impact

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