1998’s Princess Nine is the kind of sports anime with an instant hook: What if a Japanese all-girl baseball team competed against the boys in pursuit of the national championships? It’s a series I’ve seen get praise from professional reviewers and personal friends alike, and as a fan of the similarly premised Taisho Baseball Girls, I came in assuming I’d enjoy it. While that was indeed the case, what I find especially intriguing watching it now is how this 1998 anime feels like both a time capsule and anomaly whose style and particulars haven’t persisted in more recent sports series, be they shounen or shoujo.
Hayakawa Ryo is a talented female pitcher who helps out with her neighborhood’s small-time baseball team, when she gets scouted by a prestigious private all-girls’ school to be the foundation for an inaugural baseball team—not softball—with the aim of getting to Koshien, the vaunted stadium that symbolizes the romanticism of Japanese high school baseball. Along the way, she helps recruit new teammates, develops a budding romance, learns the secret past of her deceased father, develops a rivalry with a teammate that’s also a love triangle, and plays plenty of baseball.
The drama of Princess Nine takes place both on the diamond and adjacent to it, and that is what makes the anime so unusual relative to so many sports-genre titles. Oftentimes, an anime will use sports as either a central axis or a starting point. The primary conflict of Kuroko’s Basketball, for example, is how Kuroko’s cooperative philosophy fares against his self-centered former teammates from the Generation of Miracles. In contrast, a series like Touch! uses baseball as the backdrop to a portrayal of nuanced human relationships. But in Princess Nine, you’ll have episodes dedicated to mastering the Lightning Ball alongside ones focused on romance, and ones where feelings interfere with baseball and vice versa. The resulting juxtaposition can often be a double-edged sword, generally making the show more gripping but sometimes feeling a bit too overwrought.
If there’s anything that approach reminds me of, it would be old-school shoujo sports titles like Attack No.1. I have to think this is intentional, especially because of how one character, the aforementioned rival Himuro Izumi, is very much an archetypal descendant of Ochoufujin from Aim for the Ace!—her long and luxurious hair, the way she has the adoration of her fellow students, and even her literal tennis skills are cut from that cloth.
While Ryo and Izumi feature most prominently, the rest of the team showcase distinct personalities that really gives the sense of them being a motley crew where opposites attract, in a sense. One thing that does feel like a quality from a bygone era is how long it takes for the team to fully assemble. Early episodes are basically devoted to gradually bringing in each girl and showing both what makes them tick and the specific hurdles they face (from lack of confidence to family obligations and more). The fact that it was clearly planned for 26 episodes as opposed to 13, all without being based on a long-running manga, is the kind of thing you rarely see anymore. They don’t even play a game of 9 vs 9 baseball until almost halfway!
The looks of the girls themselves also embody a specific period aesthetic for female character design. With the notable exception of Daidoji Mao, the stocky ex-Judo player turned catcher, all of the girls have a particular kind of “narrow hips and even thinner waist” look that I don’t often see these days. Anime isn’t exactly a bastion for diverse body types, but I definitely notice a difference in beauty standards for contemporary anime characters compared to the at-the-time typical appearances of Princess Nine, even when you discount the changes to face design that have occurred in the decades since.
I realize that I couldn’t have gotten this exact perspective if I had watched Princess Nine back when it was first being recommended to me around the mid to late 2000s. At the same time, the fact that this show seems to draw so heavily from a bygone era of anime at that time might also mean that I wouldn’t have appreciated its old-school flavor.
I also don’t know if Princess Nine was ever intended for a second series, but it definitely feels like it could have gotten one and thrived in the process. I have my doubts that a sequel will ever see the light of day, but more unlikely things have happened.