The sports anime drought ended in early July, and your resident sports anime fangirl is back in action! I’m only watching DAYS for now, since it’s the most easily accessible of this season’s sports anime, and I’m pleased to say it’s much better than the last soccer anime to plague my screen. DAYS centers on a high school first year, Tsukamoto Tsukushi. He’s small and un-athletic, but when his classmate Kazama Jin invites him to play soccer, he says yes—and he loves it. Tsukamoto has no natural talent, and while Kazama and the team captain admire his perseverance and growing love for the game, others think he’s foolish, pretentious, or at least a burden on the team. People tell him to give up.
Okay, pause. So far, this sounds like a pretty typical sports anime theme: the underdog works hard and proves that you don’t need to be a prodigy to enjoy—and even win—the game. He and his team surprise everyone who called them hopeless. And we in the audience grin and nod, because it’s anime, and of course hard work pays off.
I’ve written on nuances of this theme several times, focusing on perseverance, passion, discipline, and dealing with fear of failure. But I like the way Episode 4 of DAYS, “I Want to Put My Life on the Line,” focuses on a side character’s reaction to Tsukamoto’s straightforward, no-holding-back approach to life and soccer. I can learn from her introspection and her transformed response.
Ubukata Chikako enjoys her days with her friends and puts minimum effort into school-related activities. She’s part of the Maintenance Committee (the students in charge of cleaning at the end of the day), but she consistently skips out.
Tsukamoto approaches Ubukata, asking her to help with cleaning. Since she doesn’t help, and the rest of the kids just goof off, he’s left to clean alone, and as a result, he’s consistently late to soccer practice. She tells an obvious lie about her grandmother being in critical condition and leaves him to his cleaning.
Over the next couple days, she notices Tsukamoto running—a lot. When she realizes how much effort he puts into soccer, she’s annoyed. This weakling has no chance of success in the sport, no chance of being like their soccer-prodigy-classmate Kazama. “They should just tell him to quit now so he can spare himself the heartache,” she thinks. “He should just enjoy his life, like I do.”
Before long, Ubukata gets fed up with his efforts and stops him in the middle of a run, telling him to find something he’s more suited for. He simply thanks her and keeps running.
The next day, she finds out that he goes on morning runs because he’s late to practice—because she refuses to help with cleanup. He never tells her this himself, of course, and he doesn’t tell his teammates that she’s the reason he’s always late. As usual, he just takes the burden on himself and keeps running.
She tells him he should just blow off Maintenance Committee, like she does. He won’t. He refuses to take shortcuts for anything, whether that’s cleaning, soccer practice, or morning runs. Why?
For the first time in my life, I found something! I really want to give this a serious try! I know that everything you’re saying is probably right, and that everything I’m doing is probably wrong. I know that I’m ordinary and stupid, and I don’t have any redeemable qualities. But that’s why… that’s why… I want to put my life on the line to live!
Tsukamoto knows that he’s probably foolish, especially by most of the world’s standards. He doesn’t think he’s some special exception, or that everything will fall into place for him just because he’s passionate and honest. But he wants to live fully, and to do that, he can’t hold any part of his life back. That means no skipping cleaning, no holding back on morning runs, no blaming others.
“I want to put my life on the line to live!”
When she’s honest with herself, Ubukata wants to live the same way. But after experiencing failure, she doesn’t think she can:
I get why this guy annoys me so much. He’ll continue living his life in this naive and straightforward way, and he’ll keep on getting shafted for it. But in reality, that’s how everyone wants to live. They want to live their life all wrong. Normally, they can’t, though. They hit a brick wall and give up. Then, they forget it all. That’s how people grow. Isn’t it?
Ubukata’s contempt so far hasn’t been aimed only at Tsukamoto, but at her past self. She’s given up on putting her all into anything. She holds herself back, to protect herself, and she tells herself that’s the practical, mature way to live. If Tsukamoto’s way is foolish and childish, then she can continue protecting herself without guilt. But if he’s right, if the best way to live is to put yourself out there, then she has to admit that her selfish, safe way of life is unjustified—and she might even have to make herself vulnerable again.
Her introspection sheds light on a common part of human nature. We want a fulfilling life. We often know—or at least suspect—that this life includes unwavering integrity and passionate pursuit of a dream or lifestyle. As proof, many of our TV shows and movies center on this ideal. Maybe we can’t live like that ourselves, but at least we can experience an echo of that fulfilling, honest life through fiction. Then again, sometimes we scorn even fictional “naive and straightforward” protagonists, or at least consider them childish. Sometimes we prefer the more “mature and realistic” productions, with flawed protagonists or antiheroes who are willing to sacrifice certain ideals in order to succeed.
Like Ubukata, we often believe that the mature, smart thing to do is protect ourselves, and that often means sacrificing things like integrity, compassion, and ambition. And, to protect ourselves, we view people like Tsukamoto as foolish, pretentious, or at the very least special—even if they don’t fail, their success will be an exception, something we normal people can’t hope for.
Ubukata isn’t as hardhearted as she first appears, though. As she watches Tsukamoto run on, she admits:
No… that’s not real growth. ‘Ordinary, with no redeemable qualities’? You’re wrong. You’re special. Tsukamoron.
At this point, her response changes. She surprises herself and her friends by cheering for Tsukamoto when he plays soccer in PE. She starts to help clean up after school, so he can make it to practice on time… and then she becomes a team manager. She’s not ready to return to her old pursuits, to the person she was before failure and despair, but she’ll admit, at least, that her idea of “growth” isn’t right, and that maybe Tsukamoto is onto something. So she supports him and becomes the soccer team’s manager to get closer to him. I have a feeling that, eventually, she’ll have to choose whether or not to “put her life on the line,” and her interactions with Tsukamoto will help her make that choice.
I’ll be interested to watch Ubukata’s growth from here on. I personally can learn from her introspection and change in this episode.
As a Christian, I’m very familiar with the term “hard heart,” and I know it’s not a good thing. Hardened hearts don’t listen to God well. They seek their own way of living, and they have less compassion for the hurting. But I still confuse things like practicality with hardheartedness. When I see impractical, soft-hearted people who let others take advantage of them, who leave themselves vulnerable to all kinds of disappointment and hurt, I get uncomfortable. I’m especially uncomfortable when they’re in my sphere of influence, because if I’m not gentle and vulnerable myself, I’ll walk all over them. I’d rather they have hard hearts, so I don’t have to soften mine. Or I’d rather just avoid them, so their gentleness doesn’t make me feel bad for my occasional abrasiveness.
I also avoid passionate, ambitious people. I might not call them foolish for their passion, but I like to think they’re cut from a very different cloth than I am. The more godly their ambition, the more uncomfortable I get. If I put myself in their range, they might ask me to do something I can’t do (or that would be really hard and “just isn’t me”). Or they might judge me for my weakness and halfheartedness. At the very least, they’ll show me how much I hold myself back, and I really don’t want to face up to that.
I need to do what Ubukata does at the end of the episode: seek out those who challenge me. Instead of running from them or dismissing them, learn from them. That applies to people I’m exposed to in daily life, my mission-oriented Facebook friends, those challenging Christian books on my shelf, and of course Jesus, as revealed in the Bible. It scares me to say it, but I want to learn more about “putting my life on the line to live.”
What does it mean to live fully?
Different people have different interpretations of fulfilling living. At the beginning, Ubukata would have said it’s enjoying days with likeminded friends—perhaps a bit shallow, but fun, especially if you can distract yourself from how unsatisfying it really is. Tsukamoto can’t articulate what he means by living, but he knows he’s a lot closer to it when he puts his all into soccer and doesn’t neglect responsibilities.
Many people say a fulfilling life is an ethical one, or a moral one, dedicated to the good of your family, or your community, or your country, or even the world. Others say it involves personal ambition, rising as far as you can in your career or craft. Many talk about fully embracing who you are (once you’ve identified yourself as best you can) and spending all the time and money you can on what you enjoy. Some say fulfillment is found in romantic or other relationships. All these people agree that you have to keep pushing on, even though many won’t understand your values and lifestyle.
Different religions or faith systems paint fulfilling life differently. The system may include letting go of attachments or vices. Some types of abundant living include letting go of who you are and embracing your part in the universe.
As a Christian, I seek fulfilling life in Jesus Christ, who came to give us an abundant, satisfying, eternal life. I believe that my desire for purpose and to passionately seek and worship something or someone is fulfilled through him. I know I must lay down my life—set aside lesser desires, risk ridicule and temporary failures, and offer all of my thoughts and activities to God, to use or transform or replace as he wills. I can’t do it on my own, but by God’s grace, I want to lay my life on the line so I can share in his life. It’s risky and vulnerable. It’s not glamorous. Sometimes, it’s thrilling, but sometimes, it’s just hard work, like running in the rain and mud with Tsukamoto. I need God’s grace and power to guide and strengthen me. And it’s worth it. I feel most alive when I’m living for God.
So I challenge you, and I challenge myself: lay your life on the line to live. Find people who challenge you to live both boldly and gently. We’re not made to settle for a passive life. But we’re not made to plow forward into likely disappointment on our own, either. Connect with others, and learn to live.