When you look at stories about sports, you start to see some commonalities pretty quickly, regardless of the sport in question. This is especially true when it comes to the question of why the characters are playing sports in the first place. “For the love of the game” comes up a lot. Right next to it is “to be the very best”, which you’ll find in a lot of shonen (young boys’) sports stories. For rivals or villains, the motivation will often be the baser desire to make money or an urge to dominate and humiliate their rivals. But one major motivation that pushes people ahead in sports—especially below the professional level—tends to be forgotten. Stories of high school athletes fighting rivalries or to win someone’s love, like you’ll find in Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk or Oota Moare’s Teppu leave out a very important factor that deeply affects almost everybody’s participation in high school sports: our parents.
Soccer Moms and Hockey Dads
When it comes to anything beyond pickup games just for fun, so much childhood involvement in sports comes down to parents. This is true in logistical terms—getting equipment and transportation, but it goes deeper than that. For me and many others, our involvement in sports was instigated by our parents. Baseball, football, American football, hockey, swimming, golf, track and field—you name it, you can find parents pushing their kids into it.
Phoenix Entertainment’s Princess Nine covers all the standard sports anime bases. There’s rivalries, there’s romance, there’s rivalries over romance, there’s the love of the game, there’s the drive to be the best, and there’s twists in the story beyond that. But quietly mixed into every part of the story is how, when you’re a teenager, the baseball field is a stage where you work out your complicated feelings about your parents.
Princess Nine’s premise is simple: Keiko Himuro, the president of Kisaragi School For Girls, wants to break through the men-only sport of baseball, and plans to do this by creating an all women’s baseball team at her school with the eventual goal of making it to Japan’s National High School Baseball Championship at the legendary Koshien Stadium. Her star first recruit, whose performance on the mound motivates her to pursue this goal in the first place, is Ryo Hayakawa—a pitcher who has inherited her late father’s incredible fastball and has been using her talent to shut out adult players for her local team in a small recreational league.
Ryo’s father—a former professional player—instilled in her a love of the game. As a result, she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and go pro herself. But in the meantime, she’s helping her mother Shino run the family bar—and even though her mom wants her to chase her dreams, Ryo worries about whether that might mean abandoning her to take care of the business alone.
Ryo’s struggle is mirrored by that of her teammate Koharu Hotta. Koharu loves baseball to the point that she disguised herself as a boy to play on the men’s teams, but she was seemingly eager to toss aside her love of the sport to help her father on his fishing boat. She only ends up joining the team after losing a challenge against Ryo and her father sternly telling her she’s not yet ready for the sea—a challenge intended to push Koharu to do what she loves from a parent who knows that encouragement wouldn’t assuage his child’s guilt.
In contrast, there’s shortstop Kanako Mita, the daughter of Kisaragi High’s principal. Kanako plays baseball in explicit defiance of her father’s hatred of the very idea of a women’s baseball team, having to disguise herself to keep playing the game.
There’s lead offbatter Seira Morimura, whose parents are going through such an extremely messy divorce that she stops going to any track and field meets or tournaments and drops out of school entirely, despite being a sprinter and javelin thrower that people said would be destined for the Olympics.
There’s left fielder Yuki Azuma, an MVP for the Kansai Junior High Softball Championship, who gets ostracized and cut off from the game by her teammates for getting all the praise. To make matters worse, she’s driven further into isolation and depression by parents who don’t believe the truth about her teammates and don’t care how miserable she is, insulting her for being “neurotic,” and telling her she should care more about her father’s reputation than what she’s going through. Yuki’s pursuit of baseball is entirely in spite of her parents, who couldn’t seem to care less.
But it’s third baser Izumi Himuro, daughter of Keiko Himuro, and her connections with her mother and Ryo—and even Ryo’s father—that shows how fundamental parents are to the practice of youth sports, for good and ill.
The Canary in a Gilded Cage
Izumi has no initial connection to baseball. Like Seira, she’s actually a young star in a completely different sport, tennis. The natural expectation might be that a child of wealth and privilege like Izumi chases after glory in tennis at the behest of an adult who demands nothing less than perfection from their child, but Izumi is almost totally detached from her mother Keiko.
When Izumi picks up her racket, Keiko is nowhere to be seen. Izumi plays for her own enjoyment of the game and to better herself in the total absence of parental demands or involvement. Her father, like Ryo’s, passed a good while ago. And where Ryo has a mother who gently encourages her, Izumi has one that doesn’t seem to have much investment in her at all. There’s a coldness, an indifference in their relationship that leaves Izumi to do what she wants on her own.
This changes when Izumi finds out why her mother is so suddenly invested in starting a women’s baseball team at Kisaragi High, and why seeing Ryo pitching on the mound pushed her to do so—Keiko has held a candle for Ryo’s father, Hidehiko, for years and years. She fell in love with him in their high school years, and has still thought of him in the years since, even wearing a locket with his picture in it to the present day. And Izumi—who has lived with a mother who has shown her no great displays of love or hate, who cannot recall any great love her mother had for her own father, who plays tennis at a championship level without her mother seeming to care at all—becomes infuriated.
Keiko wants to see the memory of Hidehiko playing on the mound again, this dream realized in the form of Ryo. This is a twist on the common story—the common reality—of parents pushing their kids into sports as a way to relive their old glory days or to achieve something they never could. Instead of projecting onto her own daughter, Keiko uses Ryo as a way to connect back to her own youth, to the man she once loved, and the sport he loved.
Understandably, Izumi does not take well to these revelations. She ends up spending hours and hours practicing in a batting cage, but not to win her mother’s approval. Rather, she has made a bet with Ryo—that if Ryo strikes her out, Izumi will join the baseball team. But if Izumi can hit the ball and make it to first base, the baseball team will be dissolved and Ryo will leave the school.
The team and Ryo come to symbolize Keiko’s distance towards Izumi and her late father, Keiko’s long held flame for Hidehiko, and Keiko’s own nostalgic desires. And destroying them is what motivates Izumi—she isn’t driven to beat a rival like Ryo, she wants to punish her mother for using her as a way to relive the past, part of a broader pattern of ignoring Izumi’s life.
There’s a phrase Izumi frequently employs to describe her relationship with her mother: “I’m a canary in an invisible cage”. She sees herself as a curiosity her mother keeps around, wanting for nothing but kept at a distance by a permanent barrier. Where other children may struggle with their parents over feeling smothered or hated, Izumi clashes with her mother because she feels nothing at all from her. And where others might join a sports team to force their parents to finally recognize them, to appreciate them, to do something their parents love, Izumi wants to destroy this nostalgic dream of her mother’s in order to bring her into the present.
The story of Princess Nine moves on from there, of course. Izumi wins the challenge because of a mix of hardcore training at the batting cage and Ryo deciding to throw her last pitch much slower on purpose so Izumi can hit it, as she just can’t stand to make another person so miserable. The team avoids dissolution because Izumi realized Ryo let her win, and she can’t stand a victory not won on equal terms. Shortly after, she ends up joining the team herself. Izumi and Ryo’s rivalry goes back and forth until they become friends, as is the way in so many sports stories. Nothing surprising there.
But that push and pull with parents, that place where Ryo feels encouragement and Izumi feels ignored, and so many of the other players have their own relationships with their parents being hashed out on the baseball diamond between each pitch and hit is always still there, always being struggled with. When you’re playing sports at that age, it’s almost impossible to escape the influence of your parents, be it positive or negative.
Princess Nine sees the outside influences on the sport that so many stories never speak of, and it refuses to assign a universal value to it. At no time are we told that parent-child connection through sports is always good, always bad, or always anything. Instead, it shows us that a high school baseball diamond is so much more than just where baseball itself is played—it’s where we can figure out what we want, what our parents want of us, and that these desires might not perfectly line up.
I remember high school well enough. I had lost interest in team sports years ago and wanted to focus on drama club. But I couldn’t commit to it the way I wanted to, as my family was forcing me to keep going to martial arts classes that had also long since stopped being enjoyable for me They had become something I dreaded, knowing I wasn’t building a skill for my own happiness, but only because my mom saw something there that she wanted for me so much that she was willing to dismiss all my talk of how miserable it made me. It took half a year to finally convince her to let me quit the classes and focus on pursuing the things I actually liked.
Watching Princess Nine, instead of feeling scorn for Izumi as a tennis star who wants for nothing and insults those who can’t match her talent, I found myself connecting to her as a teenage character who defines herself by a dogged pursuit of her desires in spite of her family’s. Seeing that struggle onscreen brought back memories of those in the drama club or in sports who received nothing but encouragement from their parents, and of students who were trapped in those clubs because of their parents.
In a way, then, Princess Nine is a fantasy much like other sports stories. Only it’s not a fantasy about winning the big game or being the best athlete—this is a much more complicated and relatable fantasy. It’s one about family—either feeling their support at your back pushing you forward, or having the courage to resist their fiery disapproval or icy disinterest to carve out your own identity, to assert yourself as a distinct person on and off the field.