Sports manga. Massive at home but weak stateside, sports manga have always been overlooked by both the fan community and the commercial companies abroad. Part of this may stem from the perception that sports stories are less glamorous, less exotic, than their more visible science fiction and fantasy counterparts. However, few genres can evoke the kind of timelessness and grace that many classic sports stories do. The best are powerful, original works in their own right, and many cross over into the mainstream consciousness of Japanese society. More than any other genre in the huge catalogue of anime and manga history, it may be the sports genre that best defines and reflects the shifting attitudes and sentiments of postwar generations in Japan.
An early classic in the genre of sports stories is Kyojin no Hoshi (Star of the Giants), an eleven-volume manga by Noboru Kawasaki. A baseball manga, this story follows a boy on the long, difficult path to a place on the legendary Yomiuri Giants team. The long-term popularity of the Giants franchise, very much a baseball institution in Japan the way the Yankees are in the States, may be due as much to the widespread popularity of the manga as it is to the numerous championship teams the club has produced. A more familiar example of early sports stories is the Mach Go Go Go series, known abroad as Speed Racer. This animated show, created by Tatsuo Yoshida and directed by Hiroshi Sasagawa, centers on a young race car driver and his search for an elder brother who had run away from home.
Both stories, Kyojin No Hoshi and Mach Go Go Go, were typical of their era in several ways -- both stylistic and thematic. What may strike a contemporary viewer as unusual today was probably the norm at the time of its publication. Many of these older stories employed visual and dramatic effects with aplomb. A baseball pitcher's wind-up sequence may be over-dramatized, while the speed and danger of auto racing may be wildly exaggerated. Impossible moves may be depicted, and impossible situations may be drawn. Part of this was to emphasize certain themes in the stories -- to describe more clearly the harshness of training, to paint more vividly the courage and determination of the young hero. Yet another reason behind employing these effects was to lend the stories a sense of glamor and the surreal.
The late sixties saw the entry of a sports manga that would leave a permanent mark on the popular consciousness of postwar Japan -- Ashita no Joe (Tomorrow's Joe). A departure of sorts from earlier sports stories, this manga more than any other of its time captured the undercurrents of disenchantment and unrest among the youths and college students of the early seventies. It reflected a suppressed anger at a submissive society that blindly worked on rebuilding the postwar nation, and it depicted unresolved attitudes toward western influences such as rock music. Drawn by Tetsuya Chiba, the manga's artwork is classical in its linework and composition but at the same time imbued with grit and grace. The hero of the story, Joe Ibuki, is a punk from the slums of Tokyo when he is taken under the wing of a trainer of a boxing gym. The manga reaches a critical point when Joe kills his idol Rikiishi in a bout with fatal blows to the head. Joe later resolves never to hit an opponent's head; despite his self-imposed handicap, Ibuki works his way up toward the world boxing elite before passing away in the ring in his last fight. A domestic company once acquired the rights to Ashita no Joe, but the plans for release were scratched when it was realized that the hero dies at the end of the story. In spite of the tragic note on which it ends, Ashita no Joe is ultimately a story of hope -- of having faith in the search for identity, whether it is the devastated Ibuki after his legendary bout with Rikiishi, the girl who first loved Rikiishi and then later Ibuki, or the young people of postwar Japan.
Another major change in the direction of sports manga can be seen with the appearance of Adachi Mitsuru's Touch in the early 1980's. This classic high school baseball story ran in the popular Shonen Sunday Comics magazine and found its way to the screen as a long-running TV series and three movies. Touch marked a departure from the traditional sports manga with its light feel and airy visuals. As much a romance as it is a sports story, Touch redefined the genre through its depiction of the mindset and lifestyles of Japanese youth in the 80's. Far removed from the impoverished rowhouses of Kyojin no Hoshi and Ashita no Joe, the characters in Touch live and move through the suburban landscape of an increasingly affluent Japan. However, the airy visuals and subtle pacing of the manga belies its moral conviction, the drawn-out tension and silent panels actually lending power to the story. Another shift in patterns was the increasingly common focus on high school fields rather than on professional arenas, reflecting the younger readership of the growing segment of the market taken up by high circulation publications geared toward teenage audiences.
Sports manga continue to thrive on home turf, and a few of the more recent and popular titles have garnered some attention among the fandom overseas. One is the judo manga Yawara! by Naoki Urasawa, which was also adapted into a long-running TV series. This story of a young girl who unwittingly falls into the spotlight of the judo world was so popular that when Tamura Ryoko (Japan 48kg judo champion) won the silver medals at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, the media at home labeled her as "Yawara-chan". Another massively popular sports title of recent times is Slam Dunk, the engaging and entertaining thirty-one volume basketball manga by Takehiko Inoue which follows the characters who come together as an underdog high school team vying for a place in the National Inter High tournament. Still another current favorite is H2, another baseball manga from Touch creator Adachi Mitsuru. Although sports titles will probably continue to receive limited visibility over here in the near future, this fan hopes that the genre will eventually be given the attention it deserves.