Table tennis gets a lot of flack in the United States of America. That’s because they’re not winning. Maybe someone should propose making American table tennis great again.
Of all the literary genres utilized by manga authors, I feel the most difficult to convey is the sports genre. While the American film industry has created an ideal template for the genre, manga authors have traveled down the path of supokon—the idea of over-the-top sports spirit. True, this led to massively popular sports series during the 1960s and 70s, but as the genre evolved the idea of supokon ironically made sports series ridiculous rather than gripping. Granted, there are sports series that shy away from supokon, but they’re few and far between. However, one author embraced the silly nature of modern supokon by using it as a backdrop to a romantic comedy series. This series was none other than Takkoku (タッコク!!!) by Tsubasa Fukuchi. In all honesty, mixing the supokon and romantic comedy genres was a wise decision on his part because of the foolish nature of both. Yet, with this series the genres were amplified by the ages of the characters and the circumstances behind the sport in question, table tennis. More importantly, though, as the story progressed there was a natural shift in the narrative from the traditional Japanese romantic comedy to the action genre, which surprisingly fit the series quite well, if not better.
I’ve found manga authors of sports series tend to have a difficult time incorporating any given sport into their story. The reason for this is they conflate an interesting and gripping narrative with the characters having some sort of special maneuver for their position. Unfortunately, this turns a perfectly viable sports series into an action series. Consider, what makes an action series engaging is the protagonist overpowering the antagonist through cunning, wit, or even a superpower. Yet, in a sports series it’s not the victory that’s important—though in many cases it is—but rather the hard work and dedication the players put into practicing. As such, when reading or watching literature and media about a sports team the most gripping aspects are the training and the tension in the final match. However, when some form of superpower is added into the mix the narrative quickly devolves into how the players will overcome their opponent’s powers. My go-to example of a sports manga series that did this is Kuroko’s Basketball. However, the same could be said about The Prince of Tennis or Kyojin no Hoshi. Thus, what should be an enthralling match becomes a clash of super powered techniques, which we can find in straight action series. While this isn’t quite the same as the idea of supokon, it’s similar to it insofar as the superpowers are one more roadblock for the main characters to overcome. It’s silly, but it has a sound logic to it.
What happens, then, when a manga author utilizes the silly nature of supokon and superpowers in a comedic way? The results may vary between authors, but Fukuchi found an interesting way to tackle this in Takkoku. Simply put, he merged both concepts with the romantic comedy genre, with a heavy emphasis on the comedy. In all honesty, this worked quite well because readers were always aware that the superpowers in the series were meant to add to the humor. In fact, the first chapter summed up why the story needed superpowers for the humor to work and why they were also necessary for the series: the Japanese government enacted a law that stated before entering a romantic relationship, children and teens had to play a game of table tennis. This alone was a ridiculous premise, but it helped emphasize the fact that the tone of the story would be comical with a tinge of sports interspersed throughout. Ultimately, this legitimatized the superpowers by making them humorous.
The finishing maneuvers of the heroine, Kako Tamano, illustrated this quite well, as they weren’t just absurd, but were also utilized in a comedic fashion. The first chapter demonstrated this with Kako’s Big Bang Crusher hitting the protagonist, Gaku Marunouchi, with such force he flew into the side of their school building. If Takkoku hadn’t been a comedy first and foremost this would have felt out of place. Yet, with the understanding the series was comedic, the scene further instilled the idea the superpowers were meant to provide humor to the situations the characters were in. This was further expanded upon in the subsequent chapters in a similar manner with the other characters’ special maneuvers. However, it was Gaku who exemplified the ludicrous nature of superpowers and special maneuvers in sports series. Where the other characters were prone to using one or two maneuvers, the manner in which Gaku won each table tennis match was outlandish and not because he used some maneuver as well—though that’s a dubious statement. One of the best examples of this came in the second volume with the makeup techniques Gaku said he learned while he was living in Hollywood. When Gaku demonstrated his skills in makeup artistry they were unparalleled, but the speed at which he applied and removed the makeup was far beyond what one would expect. As such, this added to the humor inherent in the series as well.
What made Takkoku unique from other sports manga I’ve read over the years, though, is it also made a shift from the romantic comedy genre to the action genre. While this may be disconcerting to some, the shift worked because it was clear the mixture of the romantic comedy and supokon genres had its limitations. To be clear, the limitation was the format of Gaku being challenged to a table tennis match, nearly losing because of the opponent’s special technique, and then overcoming the technique to win the match every few chapters. Although this format initially worked, in regards to the romantic comedy aspect of the series it wore out its welcome quickly. Added on top of this, the format was far more conducive to an action series as it’s what one would expect from that genre. In fact, Fukuchi kept the same format for the last two volumes of the series, but rather than using the table tennis matches as a means for Kako and Gaku to enter a romantic relationship, he used the sport as means of stopping an alien invasion. In this manner, while the series retained the core principles of supokon, it was paired with the far more appropriate action genre.
I’d even go so far to say the supokon and action genres fit much better with each other because of the high-spirited nature of both, especially within this series. I’ve made the argument in the past that if a sports series were to utilize superpowers, the action genre would be a better fit. Considering Fukuchi already incorporated special techniques into this series and the format was closer to the action genre, the mid-series shift from romantic comedy to action was understandable. The unfortunate side effect was it removed much of what made the series appealing to begin with, the comedy. Granted, there were hints of humor scattered throughout the final two volumes of the series, nonetheless the action took center stage. For instance, the fifth volume had a gang of mysterious men chasing Kako and her friends because they found out too much information about the top secret organization “AAA.” While this is a common trope in the action genre, there was some humor interjected into the ordeal. Yet, since the scene was far closer to how an action series would deal with the situation, it worked well within the narrative.
It may seem as though I’m overemphasizing the sports aspect of Takkoku and while it’s an important factor of the series as a whole, the core narrative was always the relationship between Kako and Gaku. This was where a great deal of the humor in the series came from and without it the story would have been flat. Granted, a portion of the humor came from the scenario of playing table tennis before entering a relationship, but the penalties as well as the ages of the characters made the plot compelling and funny. Addressing the former first, it’s difficult to conceive of a penalty for people who didn’t abide by the law in the series, but Fukuchi found a clever workaround. These were the robotic “Judge Men” and their harsh punishments. What made the Judge Men work within the bounds of the romantic comedy genre was how they sporadically appeared when Kako and Gaku or Gaku and other girls touched each other, as well their use of corporal punishment as a deterrent. Considering the ages of the characters, this made for a weird sort of logic.
I’m specifically referring to the characters’ ages because the early teens are when people generally begin exploring romantic relationships. Thus, with the characters of Takkoku being so young it was understandable why Kako and Gaku wanted to express their love for each other, but couldn’t. After all, most people that young would have difficulties expressing their affection for each other without physical contact. However, as a comedy series the two needed to interact apart from the table tennis matches or there wouldn’t be anything to laugh at. Of course, in reality one can enter a relationship without having too much physical contact with one’s partner, but this wouldn’t make for a fun series, either. As such, Fukuchi worked around this scenario by keeping the most benign situations humorous, making sure Kako and Gaku physically touched each other every now and then. Outside of that, though, it was Kako’s reaction to all the girls that wanted to enter a romantic relationship with Gaku that kept the series entertaining. While it manifested itself as Kako cheering for Gaku during a table tennis match, there was one instance in the second volume that exemplified Kako’s feelings towards Gaku.
It was no more than the minor character Hikari Dōjima explaining that some table tennis players purposely broke couples up. What was entertaining about this was Hikari used the example of her and Gaku dating and Kako trying to break them up. The resulting panel was of a super-deformed Kako and Hikari with the former exclaiming, “I’m going to be Gaku’s first,” all while choking the latter. These instances of Kako as well as Gaku displaying their love for each other kept the series humorous while reminding readers of the inherent romance.
In terms of a sports manga series, Takkoku was a fascinating read if only because the author eschewed many of the common practices of the genre. Or rather, he embraced the silliness of supokon and played with it in a way to bring out the full comedic potential. Granted, this was through the romantic comedy genre, but the two genres worked nicely together. As such, the sport of table tennis took a back seat to the romance and comedy. But in reality, supokon is better as a narrative support rather than the main focus, that is, unless we’re examining an action series. With Takkoku making the shift to the action genre in the final two volumes, the full potential of super powered sports came to fruition. Because of this, we received two vastly different perspectives on the supokon genre and it was pleasant. However, it was the relationship between Kako and Gaku that made the series compelling to read. They had a wonderful humorous dynamic together and seeing the trials and tribulations they went through just to become a couple was outright funny. The supporting characters were nice comedic foils to Kako and Gaku as well. This gave the series the appearance of a Japanese comedic double act and this, too, added to the series as a whole. If you can find the series I suggest reading it because it’s not only funny, but showed the potential of what a silly supokon manga series can do.