Kuroko no Basket: On The Masculinity of the Shounen Hero

ss (2013-10-15 at 04.48.08)Serious Sports Anime ™

I’m fascinated when a shounen sports show touches on themes that go beyond ‘the power of friendship’ and ‘might makes right’. Yes, Kuroko no Basket’s central themes are no different from a lot of shounen manga, but by choosing to take Kuroko’s side of the story, Fujimaki opens up a lot of avenues to explore. Note that I’m not saying this is a direct interpretation of Fujimaki’s work. If anything I’m just breaking down the motifs of the series for my own amusement. Warning: Here be spoilers.

The Shadow Takes Center Stage : A Look at Kuroko no Basket’s Protagonist

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Kuroko is an usual protagonist in the world of Shounen Jump. While most Jump heroes might possess a similar demeanor, they’re usually hiding incredible strength under a facade of incompetency (Read: Gintoki from Gintama). Kuroko is no such protagonist, his passes remain as ‘support’, his strength can be only expressed through the presence of other players much stronger than he is. He’s a subversion of the typical Jump hero, who is more or less embodied by Kagami himself. In any other manga, Kuroko would be used as a foil for the hot blooded hero but as we go on in the series, it’s Kuroko’s calmer demeanor that begins to influence Kagami.

In the Teikou arc, where Kuroko is used as the anchor of stability within a group of rather egoistic middle schoolers. He’s appointed a role he fulfills to the best of his abilities even when some people see it more of a sacrifice than anything else.  But as the manga goes on, Kuroko comes to realize that it’s not enough to merely a fulfill a role others have assigned to you, nor is it alright to hold others on such a high pedestal. During his days with the Generation of Miracles, Kuroko remained hesitant to oppose Akashi and even as he expressed his doubts, his words were left unheard. However, his inability to prevent the events that unfolded during the final match between Meiko and Teikou serves as a cathartic moment for Kuroko. The entire premise of Kuroko no Basket centers around Kuroko’s journey to prove that Teikou Middle School’s philosophy that focuses on winning alone is wrong. 

Masculinity of the Shounen Hero

Kuroko no Basket also provides strong context for how modern Japanese masculinity is observed in shounen manga.

Kuroko is established as physically weak and non-descript. He has no talent for basketball other than his lack of presence and he puts everything into his passes. He’s portrayed as calm, polite and subdued (or deadpan if you prefer), but is both mentally and emotionally strong. Kuroko’s goal is to make Kagami Taiga No.1 in Japan. Kagami becomes a means to express Kuroko’s strength in a world dominated by the Generation of Miracles.

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This might not sound like a big deal but looking at the kind of Shounen Jump heroes that the magazine champions, Kuroko is a huge departure from the norm.

During the Meiji era, two contesting images of Japanese masculinity surfaced. The high collared Japanese gentleman (or shinshi) represented an acceptance of western culture and was considered ‘over-feminized’. The bankara man was a direct response to the emergence of the Shinshi. The bankara man is described as rough, vulgar, rejected the frivolity of western culture and had a thirst for conquest. Boys’ Adventure magazines celebrated the bankara as the ideal Japanese man.

In the first issue of Boken sekai, Oshikawa explained that the purpose of his magazine was “to tell exciting stories from throughout the world that will not only inspire a spirit of daring, courage, and sincerity, but eliminate all those runts who are weak, corrupt,and decadent.” Oshikawa embraced a social Darwinistic view of society and believed that conflict would serve to expel decadence and overcivilized effeminacy. [1]

The image of the bankara man has persisted through the years as a popular shounen icon. It is a celebration of male primitivism and power. Eren Jaeger, the protagonist of the hit anime Attack on Titan is a testament to while the bankara man’s appearances might have changed through the years, his spirit lives on in many modern heroes. His titan form releases his most primitive urges of violence and destruction and the series makes it a point to show that casting one’s humanity is the only way to topple the oppressive forces that have put humanity behind the walls.

In Kuroko no Basket, Kagami and Aomine are the most straightforward depictions of this image. At some point during their match, they reach a certain point where their play is so aggressive that it it can only described as animalistic. 

Obvious lines between the gifted and the unremarkable are frequently drawn. There’s a hierarchy of power present in Kuroko no Basket, from titles like Kings to Uncrowned Generals to the Generation of Miracles, the series makes it quite obvious that this is a recurring theme and Akashi’s ability uses the title ‘Emperor Eye’ to makes it even more apparent.

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Akashi offers his eyes as some form atonement for failure.

Akashi is easily one of the most intimidating presences in the series, he’s wholly unstable but this so-called insanity is rooted in twisted code of honor. A lot of what’s been hammered into the Akashi’s psyche is linked to a traditional view on Japanese masculinity, where a man’s worth is measured by his strength and honor. These elements are far more pronounced in Akashi’s characterization since he is exposed to this thinking within his household and Teikou Middle School. In turn, Akashi applies these principles not only to himself but to his team as well.

This doesn’t end with Akashi though. The Teikou arc chronicles a downward spiral where absolute power and dominance has corrupted the impressionable youths of the GoM. There’s an undercurrent of militarism in Kuroko no Basket and the Teikou arc frequently explores its problematic effects. Teikou heralded them as heroes and convinced them that they were untouchable. While the school has successfully honed their talents, this system has ultimately failed to emotionally and mentally prepare them for the outside world (in this case, the dramatic world that is highschool basketball). The GoM are depicted as emotionally stunted, isolated by their own power and arrogance.

On the other hand, Kuroko seems represent a kind of masculinity that has allegedly surfaced in more recent times: the herbivore male. Kuroko rediscovers the meaning of working as a team and finding his place in a sport that has no real place for those without talent.

Herbivores may lack ambition, but they are driven by a strong sense of community and family, which she believes many of them lacked while growing up. [2]

Kuroko actively challenges the beliefs that were imposed upon him by the men he held in high regard. One could say it’s a clashing of the old and the new but that would be offset by Kagami’s role in the series who is the quintessential bankara man. Instead, it becomes a story that allows the coexistence of these two images and allowing the both of them to be characters worth admiring as heroes.

Shounen Jump is still a manga magazine that a lot of young Japanese kids read and in a world where shounen heroes can only become the strongest or the greatest, Kuroko no Basket  sends out the message that it’s okay to be less than perfect and that there’s a certain hollowness in a life that rejects anything that is seen as a failure. Kuroko no Basket is far from revolutionary but its unique spin on the genre makes it a strong example of the evolving values in shounen manga.

Sources:
[1] The Gender of Nationalism: Competing Masculinities in Meiji Japan, Jason G. Karlin, Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1, (Winter, 2002), pp. 41-77
[2] In Japan, ‘Herbivore’ Boys Subvert Ideas Of Manhood, Louisa Lim

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3 Comments

  1. I watched the first few eps back when it started; I think we’ve discussed it on twitter and how I found it to have funny BL vibes. But here I’m pretty amazed by the sociological analysis of the characters. I put my hat off. Thanks for his post :)

    • You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed reading it! As of the BL vibes, I’m sure this whole entry would’ve been more interesting with the inclusion of how homosexual relationships were the norm among samurai, but that would be opening a whole new can of worms.

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