The japanese anime they made their debut in Italy, between the end of the seventies and the eighties, thanks to romantic orphan girls, giant robots and mythical heroes. Alongside them, however, also appeared the protagonists of sporting feats at the (extreme) limits of reality. They were athletes engaged in deadly training and in matches that seemed to decide the life or death of the universe by dint of special shots and finishing techniques.
Still today spoke it is one of the most important and well-known genres in the panorama of anime and gods Japanese mangawith millions of fans around the world, and has been an inspiration to hundreds of top-level athletes.
Get back up stronger after every defeat
We are in 1964, at the Palazzetto Budokan of Tokyo. Japan is hosting the Olympic Games less than twenty years after the end of the Second World War. For the Japanese it is an enormous opportunity for redemption, and the whole country is showing the fruits of the titanic reconstruction work that has brought it from the post-atomic rubble to the top of the most advanced nations in the world. And the Japanese Olympic team is responding great to the expectations of its people: at the end of the competitions Japan will be third on the medal table, after the Americans and the Soviets.
But at that moment in the Budokan there is a glacial silence. The beloved champion of the Japanese discipline par excellence, the judoka Akio Kaminaga, was knocked down, submitted in the Olympic final of the Open category by the Dutch giant Anton Kaminaga.
The gold medal, the most precious one in the most prestigious category, is lost. For Japan it is a very hard blow, an intolerable setback. As it was after the defeat after the war, one must fight back.
In the following years there was a joint effort by Japanese governments and administrations to relaunch sport, starting from schools. From an early age, the Japanese will have to commit themselves not only to obtain the best results in learning and work, but also in sports. With tenacity, sacrifice and perseverance. Sport becomes the mirror of the very spirit of the Japanese people: an opportunity for individual and collective redemption, even if at the cost of enormous sacrifices.
The drama on the pitch
In 1966, the first episode of a manga that literally made history was published.
It’s about Kyojin no Hoshi/La Stella dei Giants (in Italy known as Tommy, the star of the Giants), written and drawn by Asaki Takamori. In the manga, little Hyuma Hoshi is subjected to a grueling training regimen by his father in order to make him the strongest baseball player in the world. The manga is aimed at a young audience, but tackles the sporting topic with a radically new approach: drama is the master, lived with the utmost intensity. Hyuma suffers unspeakable pains and is forced to face endless ordeals against increasingly stronger opponents and in a constant attempt to overcome his limits.
Kyojin no Hoshi obtains a sensational public success and, from that moment, dictates the rules of the new genre, called spoke by the contraction between sport e conjoinedtenacity.
Sport is experienced as suffering, the protagonist hardens over the years along a path full of ever-increasing difficulties that can only be overcome by appealing to an unshakeable willpower and intense and constant training.
Everything is exaggerated, both emotionally and graphically, in order to maximize the impact on the viewer. The times of the actions dilate, the inner monologues seem to last indefinitely, the eyes flare up and the combative auras of the protagonists come to life, the clashes in the field are always experienced as fights to the death and only the use of exceptional techniques , which bend the laws of physics, may offer a chance to win. The road is traced, you just have to follow it.
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From Takamori onwards
Asaki Takamori he is rightly considered the founding father of the genre. Forced to use various pseudonyms in order to work with different publishing houses (the only way to be able to earn enough, as a mangaka), within a few years he churns out one successful title after another, ranging over different sports: Tiger Mask/The Tiger Mansul wrestling, Akakichi no Irebun/The Red Blood Eleven (in Italy Superboys are coming), which will be the first spoke about football, Kick no oniabout karate and, above all, the masterpiece Ashita no Joe/Joe del domani (in Italy Rocky Joe), signed with the name of Ikki Kajiwara and with drawings by Tetsuya Chiba.
Joe Iabuki is a drifter, a lost boy and brawler who tries to live on the margins of society. His fighting spirit is noticed by a former boxer who will begin, with great difficulty, to train him until he becomes a champion. The epic story of Joe, an ordinary and rough street kid who seeks his redemption by suffering in the ring, is both a wonderful portrait of Japan at the end of the Sixties, between poverty and desire for revenge, and a tragic and beautiful story full of a lyricism and poetics still unsurpassed today, perfectly summed up in Joe’s last, emblematic and heartbreaking shot after his last meeting.
Until the eighties this will be the dominant aesthetic: boys and girls who pursue victory as a life goal, training and suffering in an obsessive (and often masochistic) way, just think of the chains on the wrists of Mimì Hijirithe volleyball star of Ashita he Attack/Mimì and the volleyball girlsor to the sentimental melodrama on the tennis court in Ace wo nerae/Punta all’ace (Jenny the tennis player).
Then, in 1983, a boy arrives at Fujisawa City Elementary School who likes to play soccer.
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Like a catapult!
Ozora Tsubasaor as it is also known in Italy thanks to the… imaginative local adaptation, Oliver Hatton, is a predestined. His talent is evident from an early age, his passion for football irrepressible. On the pitch and in training he suffers, of course, but more than anything else he enjoys it. That of Yoichi Takahashithe author of Captain Tsubasa/Holly & Benjia cult phenomenon that has several editions for both the manga and the anime, is a new approach to spoke. More sunny and clear, more interested in sports, however romanticized, than in drama.
Not that there are no dramas in Captain Tsubasa, but they take second place to the competitive spirit and the story of the athletic feats of both the protagonist and his supporting actors and antagonists. In short, it is the technical and spectacular element that takes over, even at the cost of exacerbating the elements of deformation and exaggeration which were not exactly modest in the previous works.
But here we make the leap in quality, from infinite fields to shots that become cannon shots of light (literally), to arrive at circus acts that would delight Cirque du Soleil (and yes, we are obviously talking about the “hellish catapult”).
The audience has evidently changed from previous decades and Captain Tsubasa perfectly intercepts this new taste. Thanks to Tsubasa, football becomes a mass phenomenon in Japan too and, in the time frame of his television broadcast, the students of the school football clubs increase tenfold, becoming hundreds of thousands.
A similar fate will befall another title that has entered the hearts of fans: Slam Dunkof the teacher Takehiko Inoue, just a decade later. As in Tsubasa, here too the focus is on a more realistic approach (Inoue was a basketball player in high school and is a die-hard fan of the NBA) and on a narrative that perfectly balances sports epic, bildungsroman, comedy and drama. With good reason, Slam Dunk is considered one of the cornerstones of the genre.
And even in this case the effect on the public is explosive, with thousands of kids who approach basketball inspired by the deeds of Hanamichi Sakuragi and the Shohoku team.
After more than twenty years, Inoue himself has returned to his work and, taking advantage of the accumulated experience and an innovative technical approach, has taken it to new levels in an animated film of exceptional quality: The First Slam Dunk.
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This factor “catapult”, or the ability that spoke have to become a reference model and bring young spectators closer to sporting practice, is another of the elements that have decreed the success of this genre, on the crest of a wave for almost sixty years, as well as its variety.
Se i mice narratives are always easily recognizable, even if from time to time declined more towards the slice of life (Touchdi Mitsuru Adachi), l’action (Hajime no Ippoby George Morikawa), realism (Haikyuu!! by Harauichi Furudate) or the spectacular exaggeration (Inazuma Elevenby Ten’ya Yabuno) one of the most interesting features of the spoke is that there is one for … practically every type of sport (also to be understood in a broad sense).
Obviously baseball is king, considering the love of the Japanese for this sport, but if you want to indulge yourselves, you will surely find bread for your teeth: here we have fun mentioning and recommending only some of the most original and representative ones, aware that we are barely scratching the tip of the iceberg.
For tennis lovers there is Prince of Tennisif you are a cycling enthusiast, there is Yowamushi Pedal. Do you love climbing? There is The Climber if you want a very serious story, while if you prefer a lighter approach, perhaps seasoned with beautiful girls and… interesting shots, take a look at Hang on! Climbing Girls.
For motor enthusiasts there is only the embarrassment of choice, from Initial Dwhose manga was recently also published in Italy, to get to the kart racing of devil.
On the golf courses you might find a chubby but talented boy named Lotti (Ashita tenki ni naare/I wish tomorrow will be peacefulin Italy Everyone on the field with Lotti) or maybe a couple of beautiful girls who challenge each other with rainbows and hallucinogenic shots (sic) in Birdie Wing – Golf Girls’ story. Many of these titles are easily retrievable on the main streaming platforms or in comic shops, but, in fact, that’s just the beginning: you can find spoke on dancing, swimming, American football (including cheerleaders), modeling of all kinds.
And then ice skating, badmington, sumo, table tennis and even traditional card games…
Because in sport and in the spoke as in life, what you do is not so important, but the tenacity, spirit and soul you put into it. And an unbeatable special technique, of course.