The premise of Ao Ashi is different from many other sports manga, including the similarly popular football (soccer) manga that Ao Ashi is frequently linked with, Blue Lock. Many people often lump them into the same category, and make unfair comparisons as a result. Whereas most other Shonen manga, especially Blue Lock, focuses heavily on the action of football, Ao Ashi has taken a distinct path, focusing on life outside of football, while still managing to keep football as its main focus.
Ao Ashi's main character, Ashito, is a 15-year-old boy in the small town of Ehime, who aspires to become a professional football player. While he does harbor dreams of becoming the best striker in the world, they are in the back of his mind, and his main motivation is to turn professional as a football player. In contrast to Blue Lock, where every character dreams of becoming the best striker in the world, and will not settle for less, the goal Ashito sets is a more realistic one. It is still out of reach for most people, but it is at least seemingly within reach of him if he puts in the effort. The drive with which most shonen (manga aimed at young kids to adults) protagonists use to overcome obstacles is admirable, and it draws us to them. Ao Ashi has this element to it. But it also has the best possible motivation. Most shonen anime protagonists want to be the best for themselves, for glory, for the chance to revel in a cathartic victory. Ashito plays football for economic reasons. But he doesn’t do it for his own sake. He does it for his mother’s.
His motivation for becoming a professional football player is to make money for his mother, who is technically in a lower socioeconomic class in Japanese society. In fact, during an infamous scene in the early chapters during his Junior High finals, his classmate hurls very intimate and hurtful insults which imply Ashito’s mother is working as a prostitute to make ends meet. Whether this is true or not is never established upon, but based on the manga, it does hint at her at least being company for rich clients. This adds a second layer of complexity. The money Ashito will earn will allow his mother to escape the negative stigma of her occupation.
Making money is not a pipe dream of becoming rich and buying mega yachts. It is not a shower of golden coins, or raining paper bills. It is for the simple, yet noble goal of being able afford his hard-working mother the life of comfort she deserves. There is no ulterior motive, or secret egotistical reveling in being “a good son” upon performing this feat. Rather, it is a sign of how much unconditional love Ashito has for his mom. It is a sign of his gratitude towards his single mother for having raised him, and always supporting his love of football despite showing no passion for the sport herself. It is emotional because it can be seen from an adult audience's perspective as truly mature for his age, heartwarming, and selfless. This is not a story of a boy trying to get glory and working hard for it, which in itself might bring tears to some viewers’ eyes. No, this is the story of a young boy who is growing up too much too fast, a young man who will literally work himself to exhaustion, and will not stop unless he is physically unable to move, to achieve his goals of upward mobility. This is not only a story of fun and adventure; it is a story, a narrative, being played out all over the world. His selfless motivation, at an age where kids like him would be demanding money from their mothers, rather than working to make some for them, is the primary reason why you can't help but to cheer for him, regardless of whether you like his slightly brash personality or not.
Ashito's mindset, despite his other childish personality quirks that most Shonen protagonists exhibit, such as arrogance and quick temperedness, is mature enough that he considers forgoing his dream of turning pro upon realizing that the academy training costs are formidable. If he fails to become a financially viable professional, all of his mother's sacrifices will have been in vain. The financial cost of paying for his football tuition at Esperion is thousands of dollars; this is no time to dream. He is at a crossroads. While Ashito's talent is certain to be viable for a J2 professional, the problem is that J2 professionals only make $44,000 a year, which is not enough to pay his mother back. Ashito is on the brink when it comes to deciding if he is good enough to make it, and he knows it, too.
When he tries to bring up the subject with his mother, he is brushed off, as his mother cannot bring herself to say goodbye. His mother has set aside finances for him to pursue his dream. She has a mindset that explicitly states that regardless of how well or how poorly his journey to become a professional footballer ends up, she will always love him. The mother knows how hard this will be financially for her if Ashito does not make it. But despite not knowing much about football, his mother knows that this is Ashito’s dream. Her heartache is not tied to the money she will be spending on Ashito, and while there are scenes that show she is concerned that she might not get her investment back, her first and foremost emotion is how to deal with being separated from her son while he goes off to train. In essence, he is sacrificing himself for her happiness by dedicating himself to hellish training, and she is sacrificing her finances for him so he can be happy pursuing his dream. Some readers may find it infuriating that she does not understand football and is seemingly indifferent towards the hard work he is putting in for her sake, and while this reviewer personally holds this view, it should not detract from the theme of the power of unconditional love this story holds for its loyal readers.
Throughout the series, he fights viciously, as if his life depends on it. Ashito was the best football player by far in his small town, a big fish in a small pond. But in Tokyo Esperion B team, where he has to work in order to get into the official Youth team (A team), he finds that he is no longer the best. He is outclassed in technique, game sense, and every other conceivable category except for his extraordinary vision, his one true talent and his saving grace. Hard work is done without the slightest modicum of complaint. The world does not owe him anything, and he will keep going until he is completely broken, if he needs to. This is not the average Shonen protagonist who works hard and thinks that he is automatically entitled to victory after a predetermined amount of time and effort. There is a limit to that zeal and egotism, and that is painfully outlined during his Esperion tryouts match.
The scene I am about to describe outlines Ashito's mental strength, and how his selfless motivation makes him strong, as opposed to Blue Lock, and almost every other Shonen manga, that emphasizes extreme egoism to overcome one's obstacles. This scene is during the Esperion Tryouts match. Ashito is desperately trying to get accepted into Esperion Youth's B team, which is currently the best youth team in Japan. From there, he can start his training to make his dreams of providing his mother with a comfortable life come true. Ashito is part of the final round of candidates, and if he and any of his fellow tryout members, who are currently playing together as a team, can show they are good football players, they can pass the tryouts exam, and be accepted into Esperion.
He and his fellow tryout members end up playing against an exhibition team that Esperion puts together, which is comprised of Youth A and Youth B team members. This makeshift team ends up being one they have no hope to win against.
To crush Ashito’s confidence further, the other team was just toying with them, giving them the illusion of control. They reveal they switched their positions around to give Ashito’s tryout team a handicap. The defenders are the attackers, and the attackers tried out defense to gain experience in positions they never played before. Furthermore, Akutsu, the best player of the makeshift Esperion team physically hurts Ashito by using the heel of his right hand after colliding into him, which nobody caught and red carded him for. Yes, this was very intentional, and served no purpose other than to be a jerk to Ashito.
The rest of the team on Ashito’s side, bar a couple of players, starts to move much slower. They have become demoralized by the physical advantages the other team possess, the fact that the other team are at least one year older than they are, and most importantly, the flawless one touch passes the other team does. It’s not just giving up on the match; they feel they can never reach the other team’s level of play within a reasonable timeframe. They doubt their own skills.
The main protagonist is physically hurt by Akutsu, and also feels like giving up in the face of the much more skilled team, and everybody else seems to be that way, too. He has every reason to cave to peer pressure, especially since he lastedthe longest before giving up, too. Plus, he's physically hurt, so he can just say he couldn't continue due to medical reasons. He then looks at one of the coaches, who glares at him with the subtext "Are you really going to give up". The fact of the matter is that he has. He isn't in the process of giving up, he has already given up. But then he remembers his family. Now, this next part is important.
Dream doping is a concept in Blue Lock that describes what happens to a player when they give up on their dreams, and essentially "go through the motions of day-to-day life" pretending that they are still trying to achieve their goals. Their actions from that point on are meaningless, small superfluous things to convince themselves and everybody around them that they are still trying to succeed. The truth is, they have no meaningful steps they can take to achieve their goal. They are wasting everybody's time, including their own.
Barou, a purely egoist character from Blue Lock, imagined himself passing the ball to his teammate Isagi rather than beating the other team with his own ability. He then subsequently imagines becoming a supporting player. His decline in his imagination has him go from being an actual supportive team player who is playing football, to merely watching football on television, cheering for the Japanese national team in the World Cup, as his way of doing something for the team, as opposed to actually playing alongside the national team. For the person who convinces themselves that this moral support is equal in every way to the physical support of actually playing alongside your team, they are dream doping. Barou manages to succeed in not giving into the comfortable temptation of giving up, but he does it by becoming even more egotistical, arrogant, and doubling down on being selfish. Ashito is his foil, in that he draws his strength not from his egotistical desires to win in football, but from the family he has surrounding him. It's the desire to not disappoint his family that drives him, not an almost absurd amount of selfish drive that only Blue Lock's narrative can sustain. One of these two manga draws up excitement upon a character's defining moment. The other one, draws emotions from its readers that are fundamentally deeper.
Just like Barou, Ashito imagines a situation playing out, where he comes home and greets his family. He says "I gave up". Happily, he tries to play it off, as if his dream wasn't "real", and he really was just playing for fun all this time. His family would play along, looking at the souvenirs he brought back from Tokyo. Sure, his brother used his life savings to fund his trip to Tokyo and to buy him new gear just for this tryout, and their family is dirt poor. And sure, his mother disapproved of him trying to go to Tokyo due to their dire financial situation and he's coming home empty handed. But what can he do, they're just "too good". He has the most legitimatereasons to give up; he has taken the most physical and mental damage out of anyone else on his team. But one look into their eyes, and he knows how this will play out. They will happily go along with whatever he says with smiles, while resenting him for giving up so easily. All of their support would have been meaningless. All of their support, using very real economic resources for a person they thought was taking it seriously, was in reality just for a kid "playing pretend". And while this fact would never be addressed, the main character will always know, deep down, his family will resent him.
That's his motivation to not give up, or more accurately, recommit himself. It's not like other deluded shonen protagonists who think they'll win if they just keep trying, it's about the shame he'll carry for the rest of his life if he leaves it the way things are. He isn't playing these last few minutes due to the power of friendship; he tried that earlier, he and his team got slaughtered, he literally gave up, and he is only now recommitting himself due to external factors. He isn't fighting to win, he's down 4-0 and he knows he's beat. His reasoning can't be called egotistical by any stretch. Instead, it shows courage and strength far beyond his years, reflects real life circumstances of when people are on the brink of giving up on their dreams, and the crossroad that follows. It’s a realistic situation, and because it's realistic, it's poignant to the readers.
This concludes the review up until the end of the tryouts arc. The next arc will focus on the basics Ashito will have to learn from the ground up, so he has a chance to move up to the Youth A team. The entire series is several hundred comics long, and still ongoing. If you give them a chance, you will most likely not be disappointed.
Anson Leung is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s Bachelor of Commerce program. He is an Alberta-based writer.