Figure skating -- like many popular sports -- is a highly competitive endeavor around the world, and even more so in Japan, which is one of the top figure skating countries. To rule the ice, impress the judges and blow away the crowds, aspiring figure skaters must begin their training at a young age to qualify for both national and international competitions. It is in this frosty theater that mangaka TSURUMAIKADA sets their tale about pursuing life ambitions, especially when rigid convention stacks the odds against you.
In Medalist Vol.1, readers are introduced to Tsukasa Akeuraji, a 26-year-old professional figure skater struggling to find his place in life after retiring from competition. After getting rejected from joining ice shows, Tsukasa settles for a career as a figure skating coach under the supervision of his former ice dance partner, Hitomi Takamine -- another professional figure skater he considers more talented than himself. Readers are also introduced to Inori Yuitsuka, an 11-year-old late starter who discovered her passion for figure skating after her older sister initially pursued it.
Inori is socially awkward, struggles with school and is not particularly popular with her classmates due to her inability to help out on group projects. She doesn’t believe she has any natural talents but decides to teach herself ice skating to pursue it competitively. After a tryout, Tsukasa and Hitomi see her potential and encourage Inori’s mother to let her pursue her ambition. Tsukasa even commits to coaching her as part of his own training to become a professional coach.
Throughout the first volume, there is a central theme of people choosing to pursue their life's ambitions regardless of when they decide to start. This is pretty significant in places like Japan that culturally value overachievement. The sooner young people start pursuing career ambitions, the stronger their support system will be. The better they get, the more of their peers, mentors and even entire institutions feed into their aspirations. This is one of the main conflicts both protagonists encounter in Medalist Vol. 1.
One problem both Tsukasa and Inori suffer from is extreme anxiety over their own talents as figure skaters. With Tsukasa, TSURUMAIKADA examines the type of anxiety that's informed by childhood rejections that lead to feelings of inadequacy in adulthood. The story meaningfully explores how fear of rejection can easily take a toll on a person's self-confidence, especially when they're constantly being rejected.
Meanwhile, the extreme anxiety experienced by Inori parallels that of a younger Tsukasa in the manga, with the difference being that she is given opportunities he never had. This actually ties into another recurring theme explored in the story, which is finding the right support system to fuel the ambitions of someone young and determined. Parents, mentors and peers all play a role in building Inori's self-confidence in pursuing a life in the highly competitive world of figure skating.
As part of the theme of having a strong support system, TSURUMAIKADA similarly explores overcoming obstacles like imposter syndrome. Both Tsukasa and Inori are constantly aware of their shortcomings in some form or another, but this actually creates ample opportunities for both characters to grow in interesting ways. As the pair develop and come to realize their own self-worth, their journeys come to challenge the high standards an achievement-based society imposes on people.
Beyond the carefully crafted story, TSURUMAIKADA's dynamic art brings the characters to life in a distinct way. While the artwork varies in detail, each panel and character is full of personality. Everyone is given their own distinct look, facial expressions and body language that makes them stand out on the page, with a fluidity of motion that skillfully captures the dance movements of real-life figure skaters.
On the whole, Medalist Vol.1 is a strong start. The characters are engaging and the story explores themes about pursuing life ambitions and overcoming obstacles that say you can't or shouldn't. The writing is well-paced and the artwork is carefully laid out. Volume 1 even contains two bonus stories that provide more backstory on the protagonists, building even more on the themes already explored in the main story.