Welcome back to the series where we put some of anime and manga’s most notable creators under the spotlight. Last time we covered one of Japan’s most prolific horror writers, so today we’re going to take a closer look at an undisputed master of another genre: sports.
We all know anime have the distinct capability to make compelling series out of any particular sport — association football has Captain Tsubasa, basketball has Slam Dunk, tennis has The Prince of Tennis, American football has Eyeshield 21, and even boxing is covered by Hajime no Ippo, just to name a few of the famous ones. The 2010s have also seen a rise in popular sports anime, such as Free! (freestyle swimming), Kuroko no Basuke (basketball), Haikyuu!! (volleyball), and Yuri!!! on Ice (male figure skating). But while writers of sports manga typically focus on one particular sport (for example, the creator of Slam Dunk also made Real, a manga focusing on basketball players on wheelchairs), the man we’re going to take a look at today is responsible for creating multiple influential series featuring different sports. Meet Ikki Kajiwara.
The man himself.
Even from his childhood, his friends and family noted him to have a fighting spirit within him and the temperament to match, which escalated to the extent that even his teacher thought he didn’t have the brains to be in a private school. Later on, he and his family would live through World War II, and even after he would continue to be a problem student in school. He originally wanted to be a novelist, but when a few of the higher ups at a major manga magazine approached him to create a series for them, he came up with his first big hit, Star of the Giants. The rest, as they say, is history… history we’ll be looking at now.
Before we jump in, it is worth mentioning that Kajiwara does not usually do the artwork in his own series, and that he worked with many different artists throughout his career. We’ll mention each of the artists that helped shape his greats. Bear also in mind that these are by no means his only works, as Kajiwara has created a great many more series covering a whole slew of different sports. Be sure to check out the man’s other works!
While it may not have as big of a name recognition today, there is no denying its influence on anime. Not only does its creation in 1966 place it among the first sports manga (thus paving the road for other, more well-known series in later decades), it is also the reason why most other baseball-centric anime focuses on the pitcher instead of other positions. Big Windup? Yes. Ace of Diamond? Yes. The works of Mitsuru Adachi like Touch and Cross Game? Yes and yes.
2. Tiger Mask
While at first it may seem like simply another sports series, Tiger Mask has grown to become so much more. Pro wrestling is quite popular in Japan and there have been no less than five real-life pro wrestlers to wear an actual tiger mask in the ring, patterned of course after Naoto’s own iconic mask. It started in the 1980s with Satoru Sayama wearing the mask, which then went from wrestler to wrestler in a tradition that continues to this day. During Sayama’s tenure in the mask, he even had a memorable rivalry with British pro wrestler The Dynamite Kid.
Satoru Sayama as the first real-life Tiger Mask.
3. Ashita no Joe
While largely unknown outside of its home country, it is unimaginably popular in Japan. It also tackles many societal issues such as poverty, parental abandonment, and youth criminality, told through Joe’s boxing journey. In fact, during Joe’s time in prison a boxing tournament was set up with the help of both the wardens and the prison’s benefactor, which in the long run proves to be a healthy outlet for all the inmates. This also conveniently sets up the rivalries Joe cultivates with various other inmates, which is of course a staple of shonen anime. In this way, Kajiwara demonstrates how unfavourable social conditions could lead young people to a life of crime, and how sports (in this case, boxing) can allow them to reenter society and contribute to it. Moreover, the local neighbourhood in which Joe and Tange eventually open their gym rally behind them, seeing them as the social champions of their people.
Fun fact: a new boxing-focused anime series, Megalo Box, started airing in April of 2018 as a commemoration of Ashita no Joe's 50th anniversary! As well, it is also worth mentioning again just how well-loved this series is in Japan. When a certain significant character dies (we won’t spoil who, or how), the country mourned them so much an actual, real-life funeral was held in their honour! How many other series can claim that level of popularity with the fans?
At the end of the day, Kajiwara’s works stand out from the rest because it is so different from most other offerings out there. Where most sports anime focus on the sport in and of itself (usually by focusing on the rules and techniques of the sport), Kajiwara weaves his stories and characters through real and relatable social issues as told through their progressive careers in whatever sport is central, which helps ground his stories and make us care about his characters all that much more. Whether or not you’re a sports fan, we definitely urge you to give one of his stories a try. It might just help you appreciate the place of sports in our society that little bit more.