Chapter 1:

Festival of Hope

Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light


The Obon Festival, a grand Japanese celebration, took on a unique charm in the modest town of Takachiho, in Miyazaki's southern province. Streets overflowed with joy, animating this concealed gem nestled amid mountains. The annual event transformed the enclave into a vibrant stage, celebrating tradition, and honoring ancestors and deities. Paper lanterns illuminated streets, and resonating taiko drumbeats invited all to join. Enveloping spectators in tradition and culture, colorful folk dances painted an enchanting atmosphere. This festival united families and communities, forging indelible memories for all...

And then there was football.

"Let's go, Takachiho!"

Amidst the fervor, a man's voice rose above the crowd's din and the thunderous sound of drums, joined by others of all ages and genders with passion and determination. The exact count eluded estimation, but Route 218, the wide artery that ran through Takachiho, was swarmed with visitors spanning four blocks from the main stage.

"Good morning, Takachiho," a middle-aged man with dark hair and a robust build proclaimed. "Welcome to the 2023 Takachiho Obon Festival!"

As cheers erupted, rows of men spread behind the stage. Their arrangement appeared slightly asymmetrical, forming five color-coordinated groups based on their jerseys. They stood in silence, akin to gladiators poised before entering the colosseum, projecting strength and resolve.

"The moment has come," announced the mayor, and applause swelled steadily.

Immediately, a slightly shorter black-haired boy jolted. He swallowed hard, reassured his posture, and looked firmly ahead with a determined face tinged with nervousness.

"Today, the fifth day of July, let's welcome our beloved Takachiho to the five participating teams of the Miyazaki North Intercollegiate Football Tournament!"

The players began to move, starting with the front line. Violet and white jerseys crowded the small back staircase that led to the stage, just before the large parted curtain.

"Welcome, Nobeoka team!"

Players aligned in groups of five on the stage, the first group taking the left end. As they appeared, applause swelled, voices intensified, and drums resounded. High-pitched instruments, like a lone trumpet and a cornet, chimed in.

"Welcome, Kadogawa team!"

On the right end, players in electric blue and yellow followed suit.

"Welcome, Hyuga team!"

Green-and-white-clad players emerged.

"It's time, boys!" the team's tallest player bellowed, wearing a yellow captain's armband.

The boy shivered again, taking a deep breath before becoming part of the tide of players.

"Welcome, Tsuno team!"

Moving through the curtain, players faced an exultant crowd in a festive atmosphere. Applause and cheers greeted the burgundy and yellow-clad team. Tsuno occupied the right, between Kadogawa and the host's central spot. Among them stood Takashi, front and center, flanked by two teammates on each side.

"Amazing," he said, surprised as he had never seen anything like it.

"And welcome, Takachiho team!"

Roars erupted as players donning green and yellow jerseys stepped onto the stage, claiming the center. The hometown team stirred unparalleled excitement, attendees showering them with encouragement and support.

"We are proud that each year more gather in Takachiho to enjoy football and tradition," the mayor continued as the town settled. "Once more, we cherish the presence of these five valiant teams, who..."

Takashi yawned, partly due to having slept poorly during the journey, and partly because the speech was incredibly tedious. He glanced left, spotting the Nobeoka players at the stage's far end. Tall and imposing, they outclassed Hyuga's players by at least a head. It was no wonder they were the top contenders for the title, as they were every year.

Takashi's legs trembled impatiently. He began to imagine pessimistic scenarios in which that team would defeat them. At that moment, it seemed impossible to beat them.

"We're going to-," he thought before something interrupted him.

Takashi snapped back to reality when he felt an elbow jab his arm from the left. He turned to Hiroshi, who seemed full of energy after peacefully sleeping on the bus.

"Stand up straight," he said seriously, before turning back to the front. "We need to make a good impression."

Takashi noticed he was slouching and corrected his posture, but he responded, "You should relax a bit. You look like a soldier on the front lines," he said, facing the audience as well.

Hiroshi's completely straight and upright posture, with his shoulders held high and his long matte black hair barely grazing them, did indeed resemble that of an imperial soldier.

"I want them to feel fear. I want them to see us and say, 'These guys are going to give us a hard time,'" Hiroshi said, flashing a vain smirk as he quoted the phrase, breaking his usual serious expression.

"Eh? I don't think that will help much, honestly," Takashi replied, timidly smiling.

"Of course, it will help. The psychological battle is the first and most important one."

Takashi had given up on the conversation when he heard someone hush them from behind.

"What are you laughing about?" Jun, a head taller than them, asked, leaning forward from behind Takashi. The movement was quite obvious.

"We're laughing at your face," Hiroshi quickly responded, turning slowly with the same mischievous smile and a proud voice.

"I don't think you should laugh at faces prettier than yours," Jun retorted with the same expression.

"It's clear that you pay a lot of attention to me," the front-row player sentenced before they all chuckled softly.

Takashi, who heard everything, laughed even harder than them while trying to keep his voice low. "What geniuses," he thought as they often joked ironically.

"Hey!" someone to their left said quietly but firmly. Their coach, Shiraito, was glaring at them. "Respect the speech!"

The coach turned back to the front, where the crowd seemed to show great respect. The passionate stadium atmosphere had turned into pure silence in the face of their governor's words.

"Today, on this sunny day, we are gathered to celebrate a festival that fills us with joy and pride. But behind all this splendor and the unforgettable moments we will share, there is someone to whom we must wholeheartedly express our gratitude: our beloved Inari. With your wisdom and tireless passion, you have turned this festival into a reality that exceeds our expectations. Every detail, every activity, and every smile that lights up the faces of our citizens is the result of your magnificent blessing."

The mayor barely finished before applause engulfed the air. Takachiho's players joined, along with a few from other teams. The town's numerous fox statues made sense to Takashi now. Inari, the deity of foxes, life, and reincarnation, held profound reverence in Miyazaki. Although it seemed that in rural areas, that devotion increased, to the point where Takachiho dedicated its entire Obon festival to her.

“Although you could also thank the citizens who worked, right? It would be a nice gesture for them,” Takashi thought, furrowing his brow, wanting to distract himself from his worries.

Listening to the praise, Takashi was attentive until something in the crowd seized his focus. Someone was trying to make their way through the crowd. Suddenly, they stumbled and fell forward, colliding with other spectators nearby. Startled, Takashi let out an innocent, subdued laugh.

"God, that was so clumsy," he said without malice.

Seeing the person recover relieved Takashi. However, a strange sensation accompanied this relief.

"Is that person looking over here?," he wondered.

He couldn't see well since she was far away, yet it seemed the person was observing him. A reproachful air, despite no way to hear his laughter.

A girl in a blue yukata.

A shudder ran through Takashi as he recalled that image precisely. The memory was blurred, yet he remembered a girl in a navy-blue yukata, her back turned. Recalling it now, during his journey, seemed odd. The person observing him wore pastel hues, and he saw no blue yukatas nearby. Perhaps another part of the crowd influenced his thoughts. One thing was clear: he had dreamt about it during his journey.

"Enough, Takashi. Your thoughts are betraying you again," he told himself as he shook his head to clear his mind.

Jun cast a glance at his teammate ahead, knowing it was typical for him.

"Pressure is making him even sillier than usual," Jun thought amusingly.