Sports Comics: The Main Forces of Japanese Comics

elo 운영진 | 2019-11-25 13:29

Sports Comics: The Main Forces of Japanese Comics

- The evolution from a nondaily body to a daily realistic body

이현석(Korean Japanese Comic Planner)

Japan is often called the kingdom of comics. Big changes came in 2017 as copies of comic magazines printed declined, which was atoned for in the e-book sector, but the market is still valued at much more than 4 trillion won. The Japanese comic market consists of a vast spectrum of comic genres as vast as its market size. Of those genres, sports comics comprise a big part of the market.



△ Sports comics are becoming one of the primary genres amongst the diverse comic works in Japan.


If someone goes through Japanese comic magazines even lightly, they can notice that comics of various genres are mixed together due to the magazines characteristic that it must handle various comic genres. Of them, the sports genre is one of the genres discussed foremost when considering the composition of included works when producing the magazine: the sports genre is a so-called “essential” genre.

When someone visits bookstores, it is easy to see masterpiece sports comics decorating the stalls. Moreover, as the genre’s structure, formula and grammar are well-established in various contexts, many successfully developed forms of sports comics are loved by readers. This includes traditional hot-blooded stories where rivals are won through individual ability, stories of leading a team of unique personnel from a leader’s point of view, and even BL stories interpreted as seen from the feminine perspectives.


Numerous masterpiece sports comics are published to great acclamation on the magazines and millions of published books are sold, such as the baseball comic ‘Big Windup!’, published in the magazine Monthly Afternoon and soccer comic ‘DAYS’ published in the magazine Weekly Shōnen Magazine by KODANSHA, ‘MAJOR’ published in the magazine Weekly Shōnen Sunday by Shogakukan, the professional soccer comic ‘GIANT KILLING’ published in Japan’s representative weekly adult magazine Morning by KODANSHA, ‘Kuroko's Basketball’ published in Weekly Shōnen Jump by Japan’s representative comic magazine Shueisha, ‘Yowamushi Pedal’ published in the weekly magazine Weekly Shōnen Champion by Akita Shoten’, and so on. Reprints of the publications occur often after the animation version gains popularity.

The sports game genres are also very diverse. Comics on baseball and soccer, Japan’s national sports1), as well as comics on comparably minor genres such as the sports dance comic ‘Welcome to the Ballroom’, sports boat racing comic ‘Monkey Turn’, and ski-jump comic ‘Nononono’ are all covered. Sports which could seem difficult to make dramatic can also be seen regularly, such as track and field stories, proving the vast spectrum the comics can handle.




△From left to right: Welcome to the Ballroom, Monkey Turn, Nononono

Some great comics can be noticed even in statistical records. Both Takehiko Inoue’s ‘SLAMDUNK’ and Mitsuru Adachi’s ‘Touch’ rank in the top 10 most comics sold. Both are considered masterpieces which represent the basketball and baseball genre respectively. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers. SLAMDUNK, which caused a huge sensation upon it’s introduction in Korea, was published into 31 books. The total accumulated copies sold reaches 120 million. The income the author made amount to tens of billions of won in royalties itself. ‘Touch’, also in the top 10, is the first ever comic in Japanese comic history to sell more than 50 million accumulated copies, and is estimated to have sold around 100 million copies total.2)

Sports comics practically contributed massively to the growth of Japanese comics on the global stage.

The notion of leisure starts to appear amongst children in the society as Japan enters fully-fledged economic growth in the 1960’s after suffering postwar poverty. For the children, one of the best entertainment forms to enjoy their leisure time was comics – and there are two evident works which stole the children’s attention, both famed to be the greatest hits in history. They are ‘Star of the Giants’ (Noboru Kawasaki/Ikki Kajiwara), Japan’s so-called national sports comic, and ‘Ashita no Joe’3) (Tetsuya Chiba/Ikki Kajiwara). It is no lie to claim that the success of these two works allowed the opportunity for comics to be realized as not only an outcast media exclusive to children, but also a huge media which all citizens can enjoy regardless of age and gender.



△ ‘Star of the Giants’ and ‘Ashita no Joe’, the two massive hits which announced the start of an entertainment era all citizens started to enjoy Japanese comic magazines.

The recent and weekly comic system in ‘comic kingdom’ Japan & the two huge hits which signaled the establishment of the system

The weekly comic magazine system exists at the center of the system which created Japanese comics we think of today. 20 episodes, each different comic titles, are published on a fixed day in a weekly magazine once every week. The episodes are gathered to create a book publication, which is sold to make profit. Profit is further maximized be securing more readers through other means of media such as animations. It is a system that everyone knows now.

The starting point of such a magazine system begins with big publishing companies ‘Shogakukan’ and ‘KODANSHA’, which issue ‘Weekly Shōnen Sunday’ and ‘Weekly Shōnen Magazine’ respectively.

The ‘Weekly Shōnen Sunday’ was the first to start weekly comic magazines in 1959 and show prominence after recruiting a chain of writes including ‘Osamu Tezuka’, also called the god of comics. The ‘Weekly Shōnen Magazine’ initially struggled but start to make huge developments by making new styles of dramatized comics after recruiting “Akahon Manga” 5) writers active in places like Osaka. Subsequently, KODANSHA become a publication legend as they create two massive hits and become the first in the Japanese comic industry to publish 1 million issues in a week. Some evaluate the event as the moment comics in Japan gained ‘civil rights’. The two comics are, as mentioned, ‘Star of the Giants’ and ‘Ashita no Joe’.

Baseball comic ‘Star of the Giants’, published weekly from 1966 to 1971, is a story on the main character ‘Hyūma Hoshi’, raised only for baseball since childhood by his baseball coach father. Hoshi endures severe training to enter the professional world and succeed as a pitcher. He also overcomes rival ‘Mitsuru Hanagata’ using ‘magical pitches’ as if the match is a contest between supernatural players.

It is one of the representative works of a sports spirit story where a talent-lacking character overcomes severe training with effort and strong will to succeed. Some people say that such confrontation was the model of Japanese shonen comics such as ‘Dragon Ball’. Moreover, the scene where the father overturns a table or another scene where the character makes a slide while spinning in the air is well-known. It enjoyed high popularity in the magazine episodes – and when it was first produced as an animation on January 10th, 1970, it recorded a 36.7% viewer rating on TV.

‘Ashita no Joe’ is a comic acclaimed to have surpassed the sports comic category by the readers and critics. Additionally, it affected numerous comics in the Japanese comics market from the late 1960’s to the early 1970’s, and is considered one of the great works of the Japanese comic history. It was published in episodes in magazines from 1968 to 1973 and released 20 published books. Furthermore, it was produced as an animation by Japanese animation master Dezaki Osamu, recording a 31.6% viewer rating and becoming a masterpiece in the animations sector as well.

 ‘Ashita no Joe’ is a story on a mixed-race character named ‘Joe Yabuki’ who is discriminated and wanders around before encountering a sport – boxing. He grows as a great boxer as he battles rival ‘Tōru Rikiishi’. A comic fan would always remember the last scene in ‘Ashita no Joe’ where the character sits, leaning on the ring, all white and burned out – symbolizing that he fought with all his might.

When the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction led the passenger plane hijacking incident ‘Yodogo Hijacking (Japan Airlines Flight 351)’, the responsible terrorists stated, “We will become Tomorrow's Joe!”, proving it had social influence far surpassing that of just a comic. Furthermore, the fans held a real funeral when the character ‘Rikiishi’ died in the comic.



△ The fan’s held a real funeral for ‘Tōru Rikiishi’ when he passed away in ‘Ashita no Joe’ in a match due to immoderate weight loss – an anecdote which proves the popularity of the comic.

The two comics also symbolize Japan’s rapid growth period. The main characters who show the limits of mental victory who achieve something with their bare fists and bared teeth represent the Japanese ‘business warriors’ who fought at the industry front lines to recover their pre-war lives from the grounds burnt from defeat.

The only objection is that many sports comics around the period relied on details from comical imagination. Magical throws which the opposition could not hit or strange fighting techniques normally expected in ninja comics were drawn. ‘Ashita no Joe’ reached the limits of reality before using imagination-produced cross counters or double cross counters in match scenes.

From a true man to an innocent city boy’s world: Japan’s national baseball comic [Touch]

The society gained stability after rapid economic growth as a shift of generations occurred from the 1980’s. People start to become assured that they do not need to live in a tough society as if they are battling. Correspondingly, they start to view their personal life in a different way. A piece which also reflects this period appears as a sports comic. The comic is none other than youth baseball comic ‘Touch’, first published as an episode in 1981 on the Weekly Shōnen Sunday and completed in 1986.

△ Adachi Mitsuru’s ‘Touch’, acclaimed to be a legend in Japanese sports comics and representative of the 1980’s. Some say that it is a good example of a city boy’s sentiment, quite contrary to KODANSHA’S true man’s comic line-up.

The 1980’s was a period of an unparalleled huge global economic boom and Japan was no different. Of the top 50 global companies, 33 were Japanese at the time, and the United States conceded top spot in the manufacturing sector including the vehicles and electronics industries.

Such economic change in Japan also brought changes in daily life and sentiments. An optimistic and bright atmosphere started to flow in the society while economic wealth brought more leisure, allowing people to have time to contemplate and look deep into themselves. Extreme experiences such as war or starvation slowly became something which could only be seen in books, and the concept of daily life rumination began to settle down.

This trend also affected sports comics. If past sports comics portrayed training through extreme physical abuse and battle scenes between trained bodies, Adachi Mitsuru’s ‘Touch’, representative comic of the 1980’s, reflects economic wealth and social change, becoming a huge success by appealing the transformed city boy’s sentiment.

It is a baseball comic which is about the Japanese High School Baseball Championship, which Japanese citizens are very enthusiastic about. However, this is just the crust – in fact, the core story is a typical love story which focuses on three boys and girls. While it is devoted to the detail surrounding baseball matches or baseball itself, the general story itself focuses on the psychology between boys and girls.

Severe physical overwork naturally doesn’t appear, and the characters do not have blood-boiling desperation such as, “I’m finished if I don’t succeed here.” The primary reason the main character Tatsuya Uesugi starts baseball is actually the female main character Minami Asakura.

The Japanese sports comic industry takes on another trend after one special comic appears in the 1990’s. The comic, published on the Weekly Shōnen Jump, holds numerous fans in Korea and can also be said to have greatly influenced the sports industry. The comic is none other than Takehiko Inoue’s ‘Slam Dunk’.

△ ‘Slam Dunk’ describes the matches themselves compared to previous works and becomes one of the best comics produced in Japan.

According to the basic genre formulae established in Japanese sports comics, a sports is structured as following: ‘The main character is an inferior being either physically or socially, than the opponent.’ – ‘This changes with the appearance of a nondaily event (meets and is trained by a genius coach).’ – ‘The transformed main character wins in a match he/she would have lost before, the surrounding relationships also change, and the main character becomes the main character of the altered order.’

However, Slam Dunk is quite different from the formula. The juveniles or youth of the 1990’s are aware that the growth legends of the past generations are not realistic, and know that good results in sports are hard to obtain without giving up daily life such as relationships, studies, or friendship. Furthermore, they grew up seeing foreigners with superior physical conditions succeed in the professional baseball world, as well as high-standard matches in other countries. It was unrealistic to write a story where tears and sweat, friendship and devotion is enough for success in the sports world as they did in the past generations. They know that talent is required, and big devotion is needed to develop the talent.

The biggest talent of Kang Baekho (Japanese name – Hanamichi Sakuragi), the main character of the period’s biggest success Slam Dunk, is not human talent such as endless effort or leadership which attracts other people. His talent is his tall height, great stamina and athleticism – in other words, his physique.

The sports matches themselves also are not full of magical or supernatural techniques like they did in ‘Captain Tsubasa’ (Yōichi Takahashi) or ‘Ring ni Kakero’ (Masami Kurumada). The rivals also do not have acrobatic abilities which surpass professional players. The basketball matches in Slam Dunk are based on actual basketball matches and knowledge, portraying real physical laws and clashes between bodies.

The conclusion is also a realistic hardship which any sports player faces. It ends with a scene where the character starts to rehabilitate from a physical injury. Furthermore, contrary to other Japanese comics, the team of the main character does not win the national competition.

Slam Dunk marked the point of a meaningful era, but this too changed. Slam Dunk has also become a legendary comic to young generations, one often discussed amongst the past generations.

As we enter the 2000’s, the trends of Japanese comic content can be called ‘the end of master narratives’ as per Eiji Ōtsuka’s definition. The readers are also no longer interested in stories of characters who aim to become world champions or elevate national reputation as a national player as previous comics did. This was because the society showed extremely diversifying aspects and national ideologies were no longer convincing to individuals. Accordingly, the aspects in sports comics faced change.

Here we can introduce ‘Asa Higuchi’s’ baseball comic ‘Big Windup!’ and ‘Tsuyoshi Yasuda’s’ ‘DAYS’.

△ Left: Big Windup!; Right: DAYS

 ‘Big Windup!’ was first published in the ‘Monthly Afternoon’ in 2003. It’s publications exceeded a total of 10 million copies and is still being published. This comic is considerably popular amongst the large-scale influx of female fans attracted into the Japanese shonen comics world at the start of the 2000’s. The key to this popularity is simple: it is a little ‘fun’ compared to previous sports comics. The perspectives of female comic styles were reflected in a boys only sports story where only boys acted as the main character – thus the boys love (BL) perspective comic.

The author Asa Higuchi was a female and wanted to produce a BL comic seen from a females perspective, but the editing staff disapproved – and to detour this, she came up with a sports comic with BL components. This piece does not strongly focus on one individual. The main character is a tenderhearted individual who preserve’s himself while relying on his relationship with the catcher. However, it would have been difficult to succeed with just this component.

Asa Higuchi, who drew this comic, majored in sports psychology in university, and is said to have minutely covered Japanese high school baseball team matches hands-on. The author’s such background and effort in reporting is added to the comic to portray greater and realistic details in the baseball matches. Moreover, various baseball rules and tips are introduced in an easy-to-understand way, lowering the entry barrier to baseball.

The other comic ‘DAYS’ truly approaches soccer from a Japanese teenager’s point of view today. The main character has no hint of talent in football. His personality is also not active or confident. He is shy, finds it difficult to maintain human relationships, and weak – almost like Japanese teenagers today. However, he secretly tries not to fall behind talented people. Of course, as he originally lacks talent and physical merit, his ability is not hugely enhanced. However, the surrounding colleagues are touched by the main character, creating a sense of effort, and eventually becoming the motivation behind a team win. He does not ask questions in class because he doesn’t want to be noticed by others, but isn’t a person with no will either. In other words, it is an enjoyable comic which reflects the psychology of young Japanese people today.

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