The word “seishun” (“youth”) comprises the kanji characters for the words “blue” and “spring,” which connotes the freshness and innocence of those earlier years in life. It’s also the name of a genre of anime and manga. Even as the population ages, seishun manga and anime seem to lock themselves to the Japanese psyche — where as long as your favorite seishun series exist, so does the illusion that youth is always within reach, no matter how old you are.
It should be noted, though, that even if seishun characters never grow up, this doesn’t mean their manga and anime series continue forever. The unspoken agreement among most creators and their audiences is that seishun stories will end once the central characters turn 18 or graduate from high school. This formula is especially applicable when sports come into play.
Seishun drama and sports is an unbeatable pairing — every character is gorgeous to look at and brilliant at whatever bukatsu (exra-curricular activity) they choose to do. The blood, sweat and tears of it all is enhanced further by the energy that comes with being agile teenagers, able to do amazing things on the field, in the gym, on the court and in the pool. Once these characters hit 18, however, the glory days almost always come to a close.
“Kuroko’s Basketball” (“Kuroko no Basuke”), a series of three anime starting with “Winter Cup Highlights — Shadow and Light,” opens this weekend. Together, the three films make a long-awaited cinema version of Tadatoshi Fujimaki’s mega-hit seishun sports manga, which ran in weekly installments in the magazine Shonen Jump from 2009 to 2014. Tetsuya Kuroko’s basketball skills mainly consist of lurking in the shadows of the court and springing into play just when everyone least expects it, often to assist his teammates score a winning point. In English, his name, Kuroko, literally translates to “black child,” but in Japanese it means someone who is a background supporter. It is also the name for the performers of ningyo-joruri (traditional Japanese puppetry, also known as bunraku). Ningyo-joruri dress head-to-toe in black to detract attention from themselves as they manipulate puppets.
Similar to the hero, Tetsuya, the kuroko puppeteers operate on the general assumption that they are unnoticed, and they are required to suppress their own emotions and individuality. Their sole purpose on stage is to bring the puppets to life and narrate the tale through the dolls’ actions. The more skilled the puppeteer, the more invisible he or she becomes.
Tetsuya Kuroko plays the game like his name suggests. Short, soft-spoken and unathletic, the high school freshman is treated as a non-entity everywhere he goes. He is not your typical basketball player and is generally ignored by his team’s opposition. His fellow team members, however, know better. Without Tetsuya, their “sixth man” (a basketball player who doesn’t start in the game, but is usually the first reserve to be substituted in), they’re well aware they wouldn’t be able to turn a game around when things get tough. They also know that Tetsuya is hiding a dark past from his junior high school basketball days, and that this history is why he chooses to remain in the shadows on the court.
“Kuroko’s Basketball” is being touted as an anime event, rather than a straightforward cinema release. Divided into three parts, all directed by Shunsuke Tada, the first round, “Winter Cup Highlights — Shadow and Light,” will run nationwide from Sept. 3 to 16. Part two runs from Oct. 8 to 21, followed by the final chapter from Dec. 3 to 16. Each release will be accompanied by pop-up merchandise shops and DVD/Blue-ray sales, starting with “Winter Cup Highlights — Shadow and Light” on Sept. 27.
According to media analyst Yusuke Deguchi, this sort of event is becoming common in the Japanese film industry, particularly with anime.
“Anime movies such as ‘Kuroko no Basuke’ target a very specific audience. It’s not a mainstream vehicle, just as basketball is not really a mainstream sport yet,” Deguchi said in a telephone interview. “But there is a sizable market in existence, and the distributors want to make sure they reach every single fan in that market.”
A straight cinema release, Deguchi explained, isn’t enough for fans: “The movie will play for about five weeks and then fade away. But by dividing the story up, and introducing new characters with each installment, fans can spend three whole months with their favorite basketball players. It’s almost like going back to the time when the manga was running weekly in Shonen Jump. Audiences can savor that sense of anticipation all over again.”
“Kuroko no Basuke” has often been described as second in line to the throne occupied by “Slam Dunk,” the undisputed king of basketball manga, penned by Takehiko Inoue and adapted to the screen four times (between 1994 and 1995), also in separate installments. Unlike Tetsuya, Hanamichi Sakuragi, the hero of “Slam Dunk,” towered over his teammates and had an NBA-sized ego to match his frame. It was “Slam Dunk” that pushed basketball into the mainstream of seishun sports. Before that, baseball had been the national favorite and most popular choice of bukatsu among Japan’s school kids.
But if “Slam Dunk” was the forceful confident game changer, “Kuroko’s Basketball” deserves just as much credit for offering an equally winning message to today’s youth: It is okay to be shy, reserved and even small.
You don’t have to be an impossibly tall super-teen to play basketball or possess talent. And you don’t have to be the center player to be an important member of a team.
“Kuroko’s Basketball: Winter Cup Highlights — Shadow and Light” is released nationwide on Sept. 3. For more information on all three installments of the “Kuroko’s Basketball” series, visit www.kurobas.com.
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