Whereas Maison Ikkoku awkwardly-but-effectively portrayed the process of joining the adult world, Touch does a similar thing for adolescence. I had occasionally heard excellent things about Touch for the past few years, but only finally sat down to watch it after learning that it holds the record for highest ratings ever achieved by an anime on Japanese television. This naturally made me very curious. This is a series that is almost completely unknown in the anglosphere – even more obscure than its contemporaries, Maison Ikkoku and Kimagure Orange Road. Yet, at the height of its run, Touch claimed over 30% in ratings in Japan – for comparison, the highest rated anime show in July 2009 was national favourite Sazae-san at 15%. The well known show ‘Bleach’ was around 3%. A multi-age, national poll for the greatest anime by TV Asahi in Japan found Touch ranked 9th – 20 years after its release. While there are many series that are more popular in Japan than in the English-speaking world or vice-versa (and, naturally, the times have changed, so directly comparing ratings might not be completely meaningful), I don’t know of many other anime that have such a sharp disparity.
Touch went on to become relatively popular in Europe as well, localized in several different countries there and sprouting a decent fanbase, but it never took off in North America. In fact, there are no official translations of either the manga or the anime. though fans have, of course, translated both. Central Anime has done a wonderful job releasing every piece of the Touch story – all 101 episodes and the additional movies. I don’t know why Touch never found an audience over here, despite shows like Maison Ikkoku getting, at the very least, decent exposure and official translations. Perhaps any mention of baseball in anime drives the companies away. But I think it is obvious to anyone who has seen the show why Touch became so popular in other parts of the world.
The basic premise of the show goes like this: Tatsuya and Kazuya are twin brothers, and they have grown up with their next door neighbor, Minami. Both Minami and Kazuya are popular and well-liked, often assumed to be a future couple. Kazuya is the ace pitcher for his school team, admired by his teammates and adored by his schoolmates (particularly the girls). Tatsuya, the older twin, possesses a bit less in terms of motivation, and is often called the “idiot older brother”, living constantly in the shadow of his younger, more successful, brother. Only a few, including Minami, are aware of Tatsuya’s other side – his tendency to put others happiness above his own, his unwillingness to compete with (and perhaps defeat) his brother, and his reluctant acceptance of his position as the “lesser brother”. The introduction that Tatsuya gives in the first episode goes something like this: “The three of us grew up together as best friends. Eventually, we noticed that one of us was a girl. It was around that time….” – Tatsuya trails off here, but the presumed ending to the sentence is, “..that things began to change”. These final words are overlaid over a shot of Tatsuya outside, looking through the window at Kazuya and Minami studying together.
It’s difficult to ascribe a genre to Touch because it is a story which spans many years in the characters lives, and the tone of the show changes along with the major events they go through. In the beginning, the show is very much a high school romance/comedy with a somewhat bittersweet love triangle element. As the show goes on, and Tatsuya begins to step into the spotlight and try to better himself, it becomes more about his drive to succeed and fulfill his ambitions – and episodes centered on baseball drama appear more frequently. But you don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this series (I certainly wasn’t, though this show may have turned me into one). Anyone who is uninterested in the sports aspect will find just as much reward in the portrayals of friendship, rivalry, love (whether romantic or familial) and the familiar sentiments of accomplishing your dreams and being recognized.
The biggest strength of Touch, like most successful shows which cover this genre, is the subdued, level-headed way in which in treats its characters. Their attitudes are believable, their personalities are likable, and their interactions, barring a few exceptions, feel low-key and sincere. Take this scenario, for instance: a male lead is dragged off, unwillingly, out for an excursion with a pesky admirer. He tries to hide this from the female lead so that it wouldn’t be misinterpreted on romantic terms, but she finds out indirectly. The typical anime reaction would be for the female lead to erupt in jealousy and act cold until we arrive at an eventual resolution. But in Touch, our characters are allowed to think like human beings would and come to their own (correct) conclusions off-screen – and it becomes a mere subject of humour between them in the very next episode. It is these sort of convincing interactions that really make Touch what it is. Despite the fact that the three main characters form something of a “love triangle”, they all care very much for each other as childhood friends would, and even when our main character is Tatsuya, his more admired twin Kazuya is never shown as anything less than a kind and equally likable person. And then we have Minami, who has a very sweet but strong personality and a very endearing sister-like relationship with both brothers.
Apart from the leads, there are many other characters who are given important roles in the series. Harada is the unlikely friend – a tall, menacing schoolmate who turns out to be one of the more thoughtful characters – recognizing Tatsuya’s personal sacrifices and urging him to take his place in the spotlight. There’s Koutarou, Kazuya’s catcher who begins the series thinking very little of his no-good brother Tatsuya, eventually coming to respect him equally and forming a friendship. Akio Nitta is the rival of the series, a star player of one of the strongest high school teams in the region. Like Kazuya, Nitta’s role as a rival to our main character does not preclude his portrayal as a sympathetic and likable figure (the “Friendly Enemy”, according to TV Tropes). There aren’t really any characters to hate or think of as villains, though an unfriendly coach in the latter makes a strong case for the role. My only disappointment with the series on this front is that the initial episodes made us bear the presence of the stereotypical “perverted friends”, who appear in different shapes and sizes in many anime of this genre, unfortunately. But, to our luck, their roles are minimal and forgotten once the show really takes off.
As for comparisons, Maison Ikkoku is probably the best match up, as they are both very long series with characters who are developed slowly. Their length and realistic pace both make us become very attached with the characters and invested in their stories. At the same time, I think Touch might even be a little bit better than Maison Ikkoku due primarily to its avoidance of the “misunderstanding”, a plot device which was used one or two too many times in Maison Ikkoku. The other 80s giant, Kimagure Orange Road, is no comparison, as the scope of Touch is far greater. The love triangle which makes up KOR has far less depth, and the fact that Touch has so many other facets added to the story propels it to far greater heights. As for more modern anime, well, the truth is that they hardly make series like this anymore. I would recommend it, if anything, as a window into a gentler and slower-paced time before everyone was glued to their cellphones texting each other.
The technical aspects are what you’d expect from a series of this age. The animation is visibly dated, particularly with Adachi’s somewhat unusual style. Although I didn’t notice after a few episodes, some may find the rounded corners of Adachi’s art somewhat jarring at first. The voice acting is phenomenal, with the main cast delivering wonderful performances, particularly Minami’s. The music, again, is clearly dated. The show makes use of insert songs quite a bit, with a few songs representing individual characters which are played quite frequently throughout the series. I thought this was an interesting choice and I personally found it effective. The background music is nothing to write home about, but it serves its purpose and has some nice melodies, though it is certainly not on par with Cross Game. The OP and ED songs are a mixed bag. Using Kanashimi yo Konnichiwa as my example of a perfect theme song, there was really nothing in Touch which matched it (most were just typical love ballads), but the songs were nice enough. My personal favourite was the final ED song as well as the second OP song (Ai ga hitori bocchi). My biggest disappointment was the third OP song, “Che! Che! Che!” which begins with a pleasant instrumental but I can’t say I’m a big fan of the “Che! Che!” chorus which opens the vocals.
I could, of course, discuss Touch for a lot longer, but I will wrap up with the following point: Touch has become one of my favourite series, and though I put it off for years due to its length (and the knowledge that it involved baseball), after watching it all I can do is give it my highest recommendation. This is one of those rare anime that simply tells us a story and allows that believable and endearing story to affect us on its own terms. Just as in life, there are moments of humour, moments of tragedy as well as those of triumph and success. Like Maison Ikkoku, it can be a bit rough around the edges at times, yet the final product is so memorable that it’s a disappointment that it is so poorly known in the English-speaking anime community. The very least that I can do is attempt to spread the word. Anyone who has the slightest interest in stories revolving around coming of age, first love, and accomplishing your dreams should give it a chance.
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