This Ballmastrz: 9009 review contains spoilers
Ballmastrz: 9009 Episode 8
“You put the ‘end’ in ‘friendship,’ chum.”
Welp, B.E.H.O.’s a hell of a drug…
Ace’s purity is a cornerstone of the series. The world that’s presented in Ballmastrz: 9009 is such an insane, unusual playground that it’s incredibly helpful to have a grounded character like Ace that largely operates as the audience surrogate.
Accordingly, it becomes very interesting to see what happens when that optimistic aspect of the character gets demolished. It’s of course obvious that none of these changes to Ace are going to be permanent, but they still make for a deep look at what Ace Ambling is really all about.
The plucky protagonist finds himself a little down in the dumps (or as down in the dumps as someone like Ace can get) and caught up in a bit of an identity crisis. All of Ace’s teammates will bend over backwards to congratulate Ballmaster, but when the transformation wears off everybody is rushing to get away from Ace.
All that Ace wants is a little sense of community, especially since the giant mechanized ball titan that they all love so much is fifty percent him! Ballmastrz doesn’t shy away from just how lonely Ace is. He constantly nurses himself with the thought that he’s the only friend that he needs, while he resorts to naming neglected animals at the animal shelter “Ace Jr.” to build some kind of bond with something. The kid doesn’t even have parents.
What’s even worse is that during Ace’s pity party he notices that the behavior and team morale of their competitors, the Choo Choo Chums, is pretty much the environment that he longs for. The team is consummately respectful of one another and when the anthropomorphized locomotives lose, they simply console each other on how to do better rather than lay out blame. They even—gasp—hang out together outside of their Ballmastrz games!
It’s quite clear that Ace would be a perfect addition to the Choo Choo Chums if he had a coal engine in his chest instead of a circulatory system and heart. The Choo Choo Chums are the best tertiary Ballmaster team to show up so far and it feels like “Hunger Cramps” knows it. This rival team gets plenty of focus, whereas some teams simply fly by as punchlines or to help punctuate a scene. You actually get to know the Choo Choo Chums.
What’s beautiful here about this episode’s plot is that Ace is certainly not the type to abuse substances and develop an addiction. However, this story plays into Ace’s naivety and turns him into a victim without even realizing it.
Ace goes into all of this with the very best of intentions, so it’s quite unusual to watch his compassion for stray animals and his fears over loneliness somehow transform into an aggressive drug addiction. The episode’s priority is playing with that balance between Ace’s pure, honest nature and the dangerous creature that he’s turning into. Not only does all of this allow the series to explore a different side of Ace, but it also highlights the people who truly care about him, in particular Gaz.
Ace has been hopeful that he and Gaz would become best friends ever since Gaz first became a part of the Leptons. There have been plenty of episodes that feature Ace and Gaz working together and the show has certainly illustrated that they have each other’s backs, but are they actually friends? “Hunger Cramps on the Playing Field of Friendship” is very interested in challenging Ace and bringing forward a different side of the character, but it’s also super focused on the bond between Gaz and Ace.
It’s time to finally put that relationship to the test and see how things look when the dust settles. Initially it seems like Gaz can tolerate Ace when he’s all hopped up on B.E.H.O., but when she continues to ditch the child it becomes clear that nothing’s really changed here. This realization throws Ace down an even darker spiral that has turn to B.E.H.O. even more than before.
Ace’s addiction grows and he becomes unstable to the point where he’s no longer able to even play The Game anymore. An innocent Ballmastrz practice quickly turns into an intervention. Gaz has the least patience for Ace’s rude behavior, but she at least understands what he’s going through and what it’s like to be an addict.
To put things delicately, the intervention does not go as planned and Ace mutates into a monstrous new form that doesn’t hesitate to swallow his entire team. The body horror again takes a backseat to the sorrows of the human heart. Ace’s gooey innards aren’t interested in killing or absorbing his teammates, but rather they’re now finally in a position where they have to spend time with him. It’s an incredibly drastic solution to Ace’s rather simple problem, but it’s a good way to reconcile the episode’s extreme visuals with its emotional core. While inside of Ace, Gaz is finally able to promise Ace the friendship that he’s long-desired and that special bond is enough to restore Ace’s body to before it became a sticky tumor collection.
The only real negative here is that the conclusion feels somewhat rushed and needs to get a lot done in a very quick fashion. This is a Ballmastrzepisode that would have definitely benefitted from a full 22-minutes.
Moments like Ace’s breakdown in the bar all serve an important purpose and it’s a good thing that they didn’t have to be removed in order to create a bigger ending. “Hunger Cramps” might also be the most impressively animated episode of Ballmastrz yet. Between the rainbow psychedelics of the Choo Choo Chums and the grotesque body horror of Ace’s B.E.H.O. mutation, there’s a lot of incredible work in this episode. It all moves with such impressive fluidity, too. It truly feels like Ace’s mutations never stop moving, warping, and that they are in constant anguish.
“Hunger Cramps on the Playing Field of Friendship” is a clear standout from the show’s premiere season, but it should be even more exciting to see where the show goes next. Everyone’s got a solid Akiraparody in them. Let’s see Karacas pull off a bonkers Spirited Away or Your Name homage in season two.
Oh, and more Choo Choo Chums in season two, please. Their rainbow exit is one of the most gorgeous things this show has done and I need an entire episode set in that vibrant, Technicolor hell.