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Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Mangalympics: How sports manga fuels ambitions of Japan Olympians

While Indian sports legends inspire biopics, Japan has a longer, glorious tradition of sporting achievers getting inspired by and inspiring paperback heroes and their cartoon adaptations - manga and anime.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt |
Updated: July 21, 2021 3:32:28 pm
LA Angels player Shohei Ohtani and Goro Shigeno from the manga-turned-anime 'Major' are mirror images of each other. In the storyline, Shigeno too started as a right-handed pitcher but had to switch to being a lefty after injuring his right shoulder in elementary school. (Special arrangement)

It’s a shame that the modern-day Babe Ruth would be missing from his home Olympics. Japanese baseball player Shohei Ohtani — who has previously said that it’s “just natural” for him to want to compete at the Tokyo Games — didn’t get a break from his Major League Baseball employers. Instead, the 27-year-old two-way player (baseball speak for all-rounder) would continue clubbing 400ft+ home runs and pitching above 100 miles per hour for The Los Angeles Angels.

Within weeks of his 2018 arrival in the US, Ohtani’s jerseys were flying off the shelves amidst comparisons with George ‘Babe’ Ruth. Last week, the ‘once-in-a-century’ talent surpassed the Babe when he became the first player to make the All-Star game as both a pitcher and a hitter. MLB commemorated the moment with a Japanese anime-styled tribute to Ohtani, playing on the star’s love for cartoons and manga, Japanese comic books. Reality, though, has long surpassed fiction. This season, Ohtani has hit an MLB-leading 33 home runs and effected 87 strikeouts. Renowned Japanese manga artist Tsunomaru summed up Ohtani’s meteoric rise in a tweet: “No, No Ohtani. My editor will not accept such a great story. It should be more realistic.” Growing up in Oshu city in the Iwate prefecture, Ohtani would lose himself in the baseball manga series ‘Major’ and try to emulate the protagonist Goro Shigeno — a two-way marvel who could hit 400-footers and pitch upwards of 100mph.

 Kohei Uchimura Seven-time Olympic medallist Kohei Uchimura was inspired by reading the manga ‘Ganba! Fly High’ as a five-year-old. Shun Fujimaki, his gymnast counterpart from the manga, won the gold at the ‘2000 Sydney Olympics’.

“Goro’s passion made me love baseball even more,” Ohtani once told Shuukan Shounen magazine. Ohtani now regularly features in baseball anime aimed at Japanese kids and uses a song from anime series ‘Jujutsu Kaisen’ as his walkout theme. Compatriot and fellow generational superstar Naomi Osaka sings praises of ‘Naruto’, a story of a mystical ninja surpassing his peers. “Just watching as an outsider and seeing all the work that he put in, was really cool when I was younger,” the four-time Grand Slam champion told lifestyle website Highsnobiety. “He was an outcast, and then he proved himself to people, and we started believing in him. That stubbornness is something maybe I have a little bit.” Kei Nishikori, who will be representing Japan on the tennis courts at the Olympics alongside Osaka, borrowed some of his shots from the ‘Prince of Tennis’ manga. Nishikori, the country’s only tennis medallist, was gifted a portrait illustrated by the artist of his favourite series Takeshi Konomi.

The paperback heroes and their cartoon adaptations have long inspired athletes around the world. A lot has been written about Captain Tsubasa’s influence on footballing stars such as Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres, Alessandro del Piero, James Rodriguez and Sergio Aguero — though the Argentine’s ‘Kun’ nickname comes from a different anime ‘Kum-Kum’. Equally-captivating though is the symbiotic link between sports manga/anime and the Japanese Olympians. The story begins with the Japanese women winning the inaugural volleyball gold at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Volleyball manga ‘Attack No.1’ capitalised on the historic triumph and the resultant popularity boom and captivated the young female manga demographic. The relationship came full circle when a devout ‘Attack No. 1’ reader became the country’s superstar spiker. It was a black-and-white panel of protagonist Ayuhara Kozue — declaring, “No matter how hard training gets, I am aiming for the Olympics in Munich, and I will keep playing volleyball for it” — which inspired Motoko Obayashi. “That line was about what she wished for. I realised that this is what I was waiting for. I will also keep striving for the Olympics. Those words became something like a motto,” Obayashi recalls in the documentary ‘Bokura wa Manga de Tsuyokunatta’, translated into English by Japan-based editor Triana Nero. What followed was ten hours of daily practice and Obayashi eventually seizing the status of ‘ace’ — a colloquial term used for team-leading players. Through her three Olympic appearances, Obayashi fulfilled another dream. At the start of her career, she wasn’t allowed to grow her hair out due to the strict requirements on the athletes’ appearances. By the time she competed at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Obayashi had an iconic ponytail, just like her idol’s. “I became Kozue for the first time when I made a ponytail higher than anyone else’s,” Obayashi said. “It was probably the highest ponytail in the country.”

Yuzuru Hanyu Two-time Olympic champion figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu’s exploits led to the 2016 anime ‘Yuri on Ice’. The animated skating moves were choreographed by Hanyu’s trainer Kenji Miyamoto.

Weekly serialised manga stories use a storytelling technique called decompressed plot, which means a boxing round or a tennis set could span hundreds of pages and last for months, and a single season could go on for years. Their anime adaptations also stretch out the contests for multiple episodes. And while the action could be stylised, a sport’s fundamentals, techniques and strategies are accurately represented.

In the documentary, Akihiro Yamauchi, part of the volleyball Olympic squad, praises the portrayal of blocking in the manga ‘Haikyuu!!’, adding “would it be weird to say it gets you hyped up to practise.” Hardly weird, as several sports mangas have been created by former athletes. ‘Haikyuu!!’ was conceptualised by Haruichi Furudate, who played volleyball as a middle blocker. The 90s anime ‘Slam Dunk’ — which caused a significant increase in the number of junior high-school boys and girls playing basketball in Japan — was created by former high school basketball player Takehiko Inoue. In 2007, Inoue and his publisher inaugurated a scholarship for high school basketball players to study in America. And in 2010, the artist received a commendation from the Japanese federation for his service to basketball. Two-time Olympic champion figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu’s exploits on the rink were promptly followed by 2016 anime ‘Yuri on Ice’. The skating moves were choreographed by Hanyu’s trainer Kenji Miyamoto.

Motoko Obayashi In a documentary, Japanese volleyball superstar Motoko Obayashi shared her love for Ayuhara Kozue from ‘Attack No. 1’. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, Obayashi realised her dream of having a ponytail like Kozue’s.

Yawara Inokuma — the teenage judoka from the 1986 manga ‘Yawara!’ — and her moves were modelled after Kaori Yamaguchi, who had become the first Japanese woman to win the world championship title two years earlier. When women’s judo made its Olympic debut as a demonstration sport at 1988 Seoul Games, Yamaguchi took silver. All eyes were on the 1992 Olympics with women’s judo scheduled as a medal event. ‘Yawara!’ had already been adapted for TV and the Barcelona Games were supposed to be the big climax. The inaugural women’s judo medal was all the protagonist had been training for, and each episode ended with a countdown to the Games.

Real-life inspiration Yamaguchi had retired in 1989, but ‘Yawara!’ and judo fans, old and new, were enthralled by the female judokas from Japan who took five medals. Though nobody could recreate the anime heroine’s gold, Japan found its Yawara in real-life teenager Ryoko Tamura; the youngest and smallest of the medal-winning quintet. Tamura — the 16-year-old, 48kg, 4’9 tall athlete who resembled Yawara and wore a ribbon in her hair fashioned after the character’s — upset the world champion to earn silver and instant nicknames: ‘Yawara-chan’ and ‘Tawara’. Tamura bagged five Olympic medals (two golds) and seven world titles, caused the judo boom in the 90s, was defeated only five times in a two-decade long career, is considered the best female judoka ever and a role model for mother-athletes, retired in 2010 and was elected into the upper house of Parliament the same year. But for national dailies, fans and the judo fraternity, she continues to be ‘Yawara-chan’.

But nobody personifies the bond between sports manga and Japanese Olympians better than Kohei Uchimura. The greatest male gymnast ever, who won all eight Olympic and world titles from 2009-16, credited reading 90s classic ‘Ganba! Fly High’ as a five-year-old for his success. “The main character (Shun) is a prodigy and can do the most unrealistic moves. It taught me that nothing is impossible,” Uchimura, who will be competing at his fourth Olympics this month, said in an interview. Shun’s saga, meanwhile, was the semi-biographical brainchild of 1984 LA Games gold medallist Shinji Morisue, who wanted to inspire kids to take up gymnastics. It remains, till date, the only instance of an Olympic champion inspiring a manga inspiring an Olympic champion.

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