The last time I sat down and enjoyed a basketball game was in my teens. But, only because my high school’s pep band, of which I was a member, was invited to perform during a home game for the Iowa State Cyclones. And if you don’t know where Iowa is, don’t worry. Nobody does.
It’s no secret, or it shouldn’t be at least, that I didn’t enjoy the first two seasons of the anime series Kuroko’s Basketball (黒子のバスケ Kuroko no Basuke). My issues with it derived from the fact that despite having the veneer of a sports series, in actuality it fell closer to the action genre. I mean it’s very difficult to refrain one’s self from shaking one’s head in utter disgust when a character, or group of characters, name their different maneuvers. But, as much as I want to reiterate this point, I feel it’s important to focus on what few positive aspects there were in the third season of the series and the series as a whole, as well as comment on the physical training of young athletes and on sports psychology. However, to understand the former we first have to acknowledge, again, the series is of the action genre first and foremost. With that being said, Kuroko’s Basketball always had well-conceived matches throughout the series, but more so in the final season. What I mean by this is as viewers we want to root for the success of the protagonists’ team, but unlike a series such as Slam Dunk, the opposing team had to be villainous as well, be it one player or the entire team. The series also followed Weekly Shonen Jump’s signature focus on emphasizing camaraderie, hard work, and victory right down to the last minutes of the series as well. While I currently take issue with this mindset, this philosophy certainly helped make the series appealing to a younger demographic.
I feel it’s important to disclose all my biases about Kuroko’s Basketball before we proceed any further, particularly why I claim this is an action series more than a sports series. While I admit it had elements of the sports genre, such as a focus on teamwork, more often than not the tone was that of an action series. Looking at many of the popular action anime or manga series, we find the power of the characters tends to grow more than might be reasonably expected over the course of even a single story arc. In fact, one of the most common tropes of the action genre in this medium is characters training exceptionally hard for a few days to a couple of months and developing new abilities during the climax of a story arc. It’s tiring to see this trope appear so often, but for the purposes of creating drama it’s forgivable to a degree. In turn, though, a well-written sports series doesn’t rely on these tricks to engross readers.
Looking at author Mitsuru Adachi, for instance, he is adept at writing high school baseball series. While he tends to incorporate romantic drama in many of his series, the matches are all based on how the teams played compared to their opponents or the rivalry between the pitcher and batter or some combination of the players. This was why the climatic match in Cross Game was so appealing to me. As readers we knew the protagonist was a well-versed pitcher because of the number of hours he spent practicing, but we also knew he was a superb batter because he had been frequenting a batting center from a very young age. There were no special maneuvers, no themed teams, no characters with special powers—unless practicing a lot is a special power—and no special training. Just the characters, their wits, and the number hours they spent honing their skills. Thus, when I look at a series like Kuroko’s Basketball I can’t help but feel the author of the source material, Tadatoshi Fujimaki, relied too heavily on action tropes rather than studying what made so many other sports series work as a drama. With that being said, we can understand why Kuroko’s Basketball is an action series first and at best a basketball series second.
When considering Kuroko’s Basketball in this light then, the strength of the series begins to shine through. Outside of the rather senseless maneuvers and superpowers the characters had, what made the series compelling was how the opposing teams were portrayed as villainous during each game. This is important in any action series because as viewers we want to root for the protagonists. Thus, if we feel any sympathy or empathy for the villains, the effect is ruined. Looking at my favorite comparison for Kuroko’s Basketball, Slam Dunk, while each game was highly emotional and we rooted for the Shōhoku High School basketball team, we also had a sense of sympathy for some of the players on the opposing teams. Hence, we could never fully despise them in a way similar to a villain in an action series. Yet, in Kuroko’s Basketball no matter who the opponent was, as viewers we knew the “good guys” were the players on the Seirin High School basketball team and the “bad guys” were essentially everybody else. Yes, there were two instances when the focus shifted to two other teams as the heroes in the third season, but for a fair portion of the series—and I mean all three seasons—the players for the Seirin High School basketball team were the “good guys.” As such, when we saw characters like Seijūro Akashi or Shōgo Haizaki and observed their attitudes on the court, we could instantly recognize them as being villainous.
This was central to keeping the tone of Kuroko’s Basketball consistent throughout the series. In keeping the focus specifically about the third season, when examining the final match in the Winter Cup, the fictional Japanese winter high school basketball national tournament, between Seirin and Rakuzan we saw how the characters on the Rakuzan team were villainous. However, I feel we only need to concentrate on one character in particular, Seijūro. Above, I stated by observing his attitude we could recognize him as being villainous, but it ran much deeper than his attitude as he was an all around deplorable character. Not only did he exhibit a great deal of pride in himself, he was also far more than willing to use those around him as mere pawns to attain certain victory. Compounded with this was how he treated those he thought were lower than himself. It pains me to have to write about this as it’s central to his character, but his superpower, the Emperor Eye, allowed him to predict his opponent’s next move. As such he would use fakes to his advantage and force the opposing players to prostrate themselves before him. While this action wasn’t unbearable, it was what he would say to his opponent—essentially, “bow before your master”— that solidified him as the villain in the eyes of the viewers. This made Seijūro a wonderful foil to Tetsuya Kuroko, one of the protagonists, who saw team play as the core principle in attaining victory. Had we felt any sympathy for Seijūro, though, the effect would have diminished the tone of the action in each game, which was key for an action sports series like this.
In turn, when looking at the Seirin High School basketball team, an almost perfect usage of Weekly Shonen Jump’s signature focus on camaraderie, hard work, and victory could be seen. Examining the first, camaraderie, the final two episodes of the series illustrated this quite well. Again, while it’s painful to write about—but I’ll survive, hopefully—Taiga Kagami, the second protagonist, was able to enter the “zone.” While I have to admit, the “zone” is an actual mindset athletes can enter, it’s just that the way it was portrayed here was far beyond the pale of what it seemingly entails. In any case, this allowed him to become faster, stronger, and better—like the Six Million Dollar Man—compared to any other player. The drawback was he became a one-man army and the antithesis of the camaraderie Weekly Shonen Jump loves so very much. Thus, instead of focusing on team play, his teammates were depending on him to make different plays and score. Yet, when he broke the barrier to the second level of the “zone,” we saw it was predicated on extremely coordinated team play—essentially communication through eye contact. As such, this allowed Seirin to close the point gap between Rakuzan’s specialized single-player play. From this it’s rather obvious that while an individual can be strong, as a group the Seirin High School basketball team could conquer any opponent.
The final two aspects of the signature focus, hard work and victory, speak for themselves. But, to provide a general overview, the Seirin players had to not only exert themselves during each game, they also trained exceptionally hard between the summer and winter tournaments. Granted, there were a few instances when the characters achieved a new level of performance by practicing hard for two days to a week before a game, but this was to be expected from an action series. As for victory, well as I like to say, in quoting the Jimmy Cliff movie, The Harder They Come, though in slightly modified from, “Them heroes. Them no can lose.” True, Seirin did lose one or two matches, but those losses served to make their victories that much sweeter, which in a sense they were.
One thing I found interesting about Kuroko’s Basketball wasn’t necessarily the narrative, characters, or themes, but rather the physical development of the teen athletes. This may seem odd, but as I said above, as an action series the characters’ physical prowess developed rather quickly. While I’m sure there are young athletes who develop rapidly, it begs the question as to whether or not it is possible at the level seen in this series. Granted, this is a rather pointless question, but as someone who enjoys fitness, it was an appealing question to me. This led me to ask two different physical trainers about the development of high school athletes. As per the request of one I can’t give his name, but suffice it to say he is a certified instructor in many different fields, including Functional Movement Systems (FMS) and Vitality, Performance, and Reconditioning (ViPR). The other was six-time Japanese bodybuilding champion Masashi Suzuki. The two physical trainers shared the same opinion when it came to the physical development of young athletes, yet they differed on muscle development. Both Masashi Suzuki and the other trainer suggested because teens are flush with growth hormones, they see a great deal of development during those years. Yet, Masashi Suzuki postulated that because there is an imbalance in their testosterone levels, I assume in male athletes more so than female, younger athletes have a difficult time developing muscles. True, there may be some muscle development in this age range, but he added that as the testosterone levels begin to level out in the late teens and early twenties, athletes could actually see greater muscle development in those years.
While I can’t attest to either opinion as being factually correct, as I am not a professional trainer, sports scientist, or what have you, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was truth to both stances. For example, when we look at athletes who compete at an international level, I feel far more are over the age of twenty. Yes, there are many teen athletes who compete at that level as well, but it seems to me they make up only a small portion of that population. However, it would not surprise me if those same teen athletes tower above their counterparts in terms of physical development, thus standing out in competition against their peers. In regards to Kuroko’s Basketball, while I was surprised at how quickly the characters developed their skills, stamina, and all around physical ability, having spoken to professional trainers about this made me reconsider whether or not this was possible. While I don’t think Tadashi Fujimaki considered this when he initially wrote the manga series, nor did the director of the anime series while it was in production, it was something interesting to consider in relation to an action-oriented sports series.
Where physical development of teen athletes was one aspect I found appealing for personal reasons, it was the psychology seen in one particular arc in the third season of Kuroko’s Basketball that was equaling fascinating. It’s a very small moment in the sixty-fifth episode and it dealt with the rapid growth of the “Generation of Miracles,” Tetsuya, Seijūro, Ryōta Kise, Shintarō Midorima, Daiki Aomine, and Atsushi Musrasakibara, during their time in middle school. What was curious about this episode wasn’t the growth of the characters as athletes, but rather what Seijūro thought was the best method to keep their team winning: not have them practice together. On top of this Seijūro implied because each member was outperforming other players in their age range, they began to make simple mistakes during play. Thus, rather than focus on team play, he suggested it would be better if they concentrated on their individual strengths, rather than practice as a team. Yet, I can’t help but say this was actually detrimental to both the physical development of the characters and the quest to create a winning team.
As a real-world example, when the first Dream Team was formed in 1992 for the Summer Olympics games in Barcelona, Spain, head coach, Chuck Daly, held a practice game between the Dream Team and a team comprised of some of the best collegiate players at the time. He did this so he could instill in the Dream Team the reality that they could be beaten. I bring this up in regards to the sixty-fifth episode of Kuroko’s Basketball because in a certain sense the characters lacked this mentality: that they could lose. Granted, removing this notion from the characters’ mentality made them better villains on the court, but when considering that the coach of the best professional basketball players of the 1980s and ‘90s recognized his players needed to understand it was possible for them to lose, while the villainous characters in Kuroko’s Basketball didn’t, I found it rather odd. Thus, having the players understand the psychology involved in losing a game, then, is important in a series like this because it would have kept the characters focused on obtaining their goals. It’s a minor plot point and can be overlooked if one isn’t paying attention, but the lack of recognizing the fact they could actually lose a game formed the foundation of the psychology of many of the characters.
As I said, I decided to concentrate on the positive aspects of the third season of Kuroko’s Basketball in this article despite my dissatisfaction with the series as a whole. That being said, the series was still plagued with many problems. However, these issues could be resolved by examining it as an action series rather than a sports series. Thus, while the characters and games were predicated on superpowers, when we accepted these as tropes of the action genre and not the sports genre, it’s not a problem. Where the series truly excelled, though, was in the depiction of the opposing teams and their players. Removing a great deal of sympathy from those characters allowed viewers to perceive them as being villainous, which was a key factor for the tone of the series. There were two characters in particular who fulfilled this role extremely well, and without them the season would have suffered. The use of Weekly Shonen Jump’s signature focus was the best I’ve seen in quite some time as well. While I concentrated on the principle of camaraderie, there were instances of the other two, hard work and victory, throughout all three seasons. On top of this, though not central to the narrative of Kuroko’s Basketball, I personally found the philosophies behind the development of teen athletes quite interesting in a real-world sense. While the physical trainers I spoke to about the matter had differing opinions, I could see how they applied to the world within the series. The psychology of the characters, though, was far more integral to this season. Although I may have wanted a deeper exploration of the characters’ psychology, what little there was satisfied me. Overall, this was perhaps not the best series ever made, but Kuroko’s Basketball had its merits and I’m willing to admit them. Even so, I feel only a certain demographic, in my opinion those who are in their teens and early twenties, will truly enjoy the series.