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Helen McCarthy on anime’s football crazies

Sports have been around in anime from very early in its history, but the first identifiable sports anime, Yasuji Murata’s Animal Olympics in 1928, didn’t feature soccer. In fact, the beautiful game was a latecomer to the anime sports world. Compared with baseball, soccer had few fans.

The Japan Football Association was founded in 1921, but the sport was strictly amateur. Foreshadowing the corporate totalitarianism of Norman Jewison’s 1975 Rollerball, though without the balletic violence, teams were

owned and players employed by major corporations. Top players, however, did little or no pen-pushing or assembly-line work.

Despite this, there was enough interest for NTV to screen an anime series devoted to soccer in 1970. Red-Blooded Eleven put a group of high-school slackers on the pitch to pit their makeshift team against the official squad headed by a sadistic coach. Based on a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Kosei Sonoda, the show ran for a respectable 52 episodes, but it focussed on high school drama off the field rather than action on it.

Japan’s second soccer anime Captain Tsubasa was, and still is, in a different league. Although only 4% of Japanese actually participated in soccer when Yuichi Takahashi‘s manga first appeared in 1981, readers of Shonen Jump magazine rated his series twice as highly as macho slugfest Fist of the North Star, making animation a foregone conclusion. A 128-episode TV series ran from October 1983 to March 1986 alongside four theatrical movies, all directed by Isamu Imakake.

The manga and anime followed the rules which had made baseball anime so successful: dramatic gameplay, realistic football backgrounds (and later, matches against real teams and players, renamed to avoid legal problems,) themes of rivalry and friendship, and constantly renewed challenges. Young hero Tsubasa Ozora moves up from school sports to national youth team, then to youth international level. The manga ended its successful run in 1988, and despite a further video series in 1989 it seemed Captain Tsubasa’s national career was at an end.

In 1992 the first J-League tournament was fought by ten teams. The following year, regular League competition was established. Interest in the very foreign teams that Captain Tsubasa and his team-mates had emulated led young Japanese to take the game to their hearts. Takahashi brought out a new manga in 1994, allowing Tsubasa to turn pro and start a new footballing life in Brazil. Imakake made a new one-shot video, and a TV series, Captain Tsubasa J, ran for a respectable 47 episodes on TV Tokyo.

In 1998 Japan survived the elimination rounds of the World Cup and was chosen to co-host the tournament in 2002. This led to another new Captain Tsubasa manga, Road to 2002, and allowed Barcelona fan Takahashi to transfer his hero to Barca. A new TV anime series helmed by Gisaburo Streetfighter II Sugii was produced at Madhouse. There is currently no new anime on the horizon, but Takahashi has kept the manga going, with several new subtitles, into this year.

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Captain Tsubasa has legions of fans outside Japan. Like much other anime, it’s widely screened in Asia, but it has spread much further afield. Dubbed into Arabic as Captain Majid, Tsubasa became known across the Middle East. Arabic dubbed anime has been aired since the early 1980s: his footballing skills were admired in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule. The show was also dubbed into Farsi, extending its Middle Eastern spread even further. Animax screened Flash Kicker and one of the movies in India in 2007.

Tsubasa’s fictional transfer to Barca made local headlines in Spain, where he already had his own fan base. The show was screened there as Campeones: Oliver y Benji, while in Portugal it was Capitão Falcaõ, playing on the “wing” reference in the hero’s Japanese name. It’s also widely screened in South America. In France it’s known as Olive et Tom, in Italy as Holly e Benji, and in the USA as Flash Kicker. In Germany the show was known as Die tollen fussballstars, and in Poland Captain Hawk.

Juventus captain Alessandro del Piero remembers Holly e Benji as one of his favourite TV shows in childhood, while Spanish international and Liverpool striker Fernando Torres says on his website that Oliver y Benji taught him “what is sportsmanship, (the) concept of values for life and (the) importance of friendship.” He recommends “every kid who wants to be a footballer” to watch the show.

Perhaps Torres’ endorsement will help Captain Tsubasa gain some credibility in Britain. The home of the beautiful game has not taken soccer anime to its heart. Even the more modern incarnations of the show were not likely to appeal to the sci-fi, action-adventure-biased British anime companies of the 90s. They were looking for something with cyberpunk, or irony, or tentacles, ideally all, three, not a series packed with healthy, sporty lads and earnest, do-your-best sentiments.

Yet Captain Tsubasa didn’t exactly kick open the door of domestic or international success to other soccer anime. Ganbare Kickers (Kickers) lasted just 23 episodes on NTV in 1986. Topstriker (Moero Topstriker!) fared better in 1991. Its presentation of the game is more realistic than most of its precursors, and combined with an attractive Italian setting, this may be what earned it a following in France as well as Japan.

1992 was a year of replays. Free Kick for Tomorrow (Ashita e Free Kick) revamped the Japanese-player-abroad premise of Topstriker and Offside reprised the Kickers storyline in a one-shot, later revamped for satellite TV in 2002. Half a dozen more series followed in the decade from the foundation of the J-League to the Asian World Cup, with a couple of 2002 guest appearances in soccer shorts: The Doraemons: Goal! Goal! Goal! and One Piece: Dream Soccer King. In the last ten years we’ve seen another half-dozen titles, none memorable, culminating in April’s new TV series Ginga e Kickoff on NHK.

But Tsubasa Ozora still has the pitch to himself as the world’s top anime soccer superstar.

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