This month's column celebrates the return of football with a couple of unlicensed sports-themed manga that we’d love to see a publisher put in the game. For the soccer fans out there, if the World Cup was not enough to satisfy your soccer itch, then have I got a comic for you. Yoichi Takahashi's classic soccer manga Captain Tsubasa gives the beautiful game the stylish comic treatment it deserves.
The manga tells the story of the ambitiously named soccer prodigy Ozora Tsubasa (literal translation, “Great Sky Wings”). Beginning with his elementary school years in Japan on into his life as a footballer for Barcelona and the Japanese National Team, Ozora's odyssey has continued for three decades and spanned numerous book series, one-shots, anime adaptations, and serializations.
Since launching Captain Tsubasa in 1981, Takahashi has focused almost exclusively on expanding and developing the series. The Katsushika native manga-ka dabbled in a few other sports manga in the late 1980's on through the early 90's. These include lesser known works such as The Legend of Sho, Ace!, and Chibi-Chibi, about tennis, baseball, and boxing, respectively. Takahashi also published another soccer manga named Hungry Heart: Wild Striker from 2002 to 2004.
Captain Tsubasa however is the one that endured, building on an original eight year run from 1981 to 1987 with four expansion series: World Youth (1994 – 1997), Road to 2002 (2001 – 2004), Golden 23 (2005 – 2008), and Battle Abroad (2009 - ). Over thirty years and scores of volumes, fans were introduced to a rich cast of soccer virtuosos, including the arrogant Argentinian prodigy Juan Diaz and the willful forward Kojiro Hyuga. The original series' ensemble is particularly good, and made for a great cast in the anime adaptation.
Captain Tsubasa has thus farchurned out three separate TV series and four movies. Many of these animations are available in English. Alas, the original comic, inexplicably, was never licensed by an English-language distributor. You'll find French, Italian, German, and Spanish versions available from online retailers. Whether it was Americans' lack of interest in soccer or concerns about profitability, the series just never found someone willing to take a chance.
Hopefully Landon Donovan has converted a few more yanks to the sport, since it isn't hard to understand Captain Tsubasa's success in a soccer-loving nation like Japan. All the razzmatazz visuals of shonen manga combine with the tension of soccer to create spectacular matches jam-packed with trick shots and special techniques.
Take it from an American football nut: this one is a winner.
On the newer side, we have Tadatoshi Fujimaki's debut work Kuroko no Basuke, a basketball themed comic that began serialization in Shonen Jump back in 2007.
The twenty eight year old Tokyo native's work blazes its own trail with a less goofy and melodramatic narrative compared to other sports manga like Slam Dunk. Kuroko no Basuke is instead more focused on the sport itself. It's eponymous protagonist, Kuroko, is a member of a group of six legendary high school basketball players dubbed the “Generation of Miracles,” for their talent. Split up since middle school, they each have their own struggles on new teams.
Kuroko makes for a unique protagonist in that unlike, say, Ozora Tsubasa, he isn't the most talented or noticeable player on the team. His small frame and incredible speed make him a “shadow,” a master of ball control and assists, with the ability to make his team dramatically better as a unit. It's an interesting angle in a genre that prefers heroes who always hit game-winning grand slams or dunk from the free throw line. Would that more sports fiction so explicitly extol the virtue of teamwork over individual glory.
Kuroko isn't all wholesome moral messages though. There is plenty of humor here too thanks to the main character's brilliant comic timing and a strong supporting cast. Aida Riko, his team's quirky female coach, is particularly fun, as are many of Kuroko's classmates. Part of me feels like it is only a matter of time before Shueisha makes a deal to bring this one across the pond, since the humor translates pretty well and the pacing and narrative structure make it an easy read. While it isn't a Slam Dunk, we can still hope for the best.