Prince of Tennis… What have you become? This CG film is probably the most accessible animated entry of the franchise In years, but decades of fandom in-jokes have warped this series into a bizarre, campy mess that barely resembles the sport action drama it once was.
The first thing you need to know about Ryoma! The Prince of Tennis is that it’s deeply influenced by the stage musical adaptations that have sustained the fandom since 2003. In other words, it’s a musical film. This genre is still something of a novelty in the world of Japanese anime, and when it does come up, it’s usually confined to stories about idols. So to see it applied to tennis is utterly unique for anime: tennis action is replaced by tennis songswhere characters wave their rackets around somewhat aimlessly as they bellow their feelings with music.
For viewers who are closely familiar with these characters from the TV anime or manga, it’s a bizarre viewing experience. Among sports anime, Prince of Tennis was always on the exaggerated end – featuring outlandish abilities and maneuvers that put Captain Tsubasa to shame – but it generally tied its most ridiculous moments to its climactic action scenes. In this film, however, the goofiness extends well off the tennis court. It’s as if the staff took that legendary filler episode where Ryoma defeats a burglar dressed as a bear with a tennis serve and decided that this is the entire appeal of the series now.
It’s glorious, ridiculous fun, but one can’t help but feel that Prince of Tennis has lost something essential about himself along the way. Don’t expect the characters to act like anything more than parodies of themselves, with side characters only getting one line at most to regurgitate their iconic catchphrases. Stoic and smug Ryoma breaks character multiple times just to keep this thin plot moving along. It doesn’t help that this is a CG film—and not a particularly well-animated one at that—so the characters always look a bit off.
It’s hard to say whether this film is aimed at diehard fans of the musicals because it also tries to tell a relatively accessible story with a small cast. Although it’s set after the ending of the original manga, the plot mainly follows Ryoma’s relationship with his father when he gets sent back in time. Some fan-favorite side characters pop up here and there in what are easily the most bizarre scenes of the film, but all you really need to know to understand the emotional stakes here is that Ryoma looks up to his father as the one opponent he can never defeat.
It’s an interesting premise for a Prince of Tennis story, because a showdown between Ryoma and Nanjiro in his prime would be the ultimate test of Ryoma’s growth throughout the series. In practice, the film spends most of its time showing Ryoma attempting to dodge the mafia by whacking goons with tennis balls, but honestly, there was no way this film could actually deliver on the tease at this point in the story. Legends are created because they’re for the time; to compare their raw skills to a modern player would defeat the purpose. And besides, Ryoma’s own journey as an athlete is far from over, considering that this film is set just before the Prince of Tennis II sequel manga.
Ryoma’s relationship with his father is probably the closest this film gets to having an emotional core. Characteristically, he walks straight into past-Nanjiro’s life, caring little for the mechanics of time travel. For his part, Nanjiro quickly accepts Ryoma’s presence without explanation, highlighting their unspoken bond. Ryoma doesn’t have to say he’s Nanjiro’s son to his face; he proves it with his tennis. On the other hand, the film spends surprisingly little time showing Ryoma interacting with his father, and a surprisingly large amount of time on him trying to protect his love interest Sakuno from the mafia. It would be cute if the two had any chemistry whatsoever, but she only seems to serve as a plot device who gets kidnapped at multiple junctures.
On the technical front, while I appreciate that this is a full 3D film that doesn’t try to drop frames or use 2D-esque character designs, the quality of the 3D models varies from “abysmal” to “okay.” Certain animation details, like Sakuno’s hair, are overlooked or portrayed inconsistently between scenes, giving the film a distinct lack of polish. The songs also aren’t that interesting on a musical level, featuring Ryoma’s voice actress singing with the exact same pitch in every number. This film feels cheap, and the fact that it has two different versions with slightly different scenes like a Pokémon game is exploitative to the hardcore fans. (For reference, the “Decide” version gets a Tezuka and Yukimura cameo, while the “Glory” version shows Atobe and Shiraishi.)
Ryoma! The Prince of Tennis isn’t a good film, but if you’re looking for laughs and a bit of novelty in your anime viewing experience, you could do worse than this. And if you’re the kind of fan who has embraced the evolution of Prince of Tennis over the years, that’s all the better. This is 100% camp and doesn’t pretend otherwise.