How Manga Changed Basketball in Japan – Anime Explained

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When I think of basketball there’s 2 things
that first pop into my mind. The first is Space Jam… and the close second? Is Slam Dunk. Slam Dunk, one of the biggest sports manga
and anime of all time, and I believe that it changed the scope of basketball in Japan forever.
NOW I’m no basketball guru. And so, thanks to our talented writer and
researcher Rebeca, I can look and sound professional. In America in 1976, the NBA absorbed the smaller
competition league, the ABA, and became the NBA we know today. And in 1980, Magic Johnson led the Los Angeles
Lakers to a championship victory–in his rookie year. It was the beginning of a dramatic new age
for basketball, a decade which saw some of the most internationally acclaimed players
of the game rise to legendary status. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan,
Moses Malone…I could go on. But our story starts halfway across the globe,
in Japan, where basketball wasn’t just unpopular, it was virtually unheard of. Internationally broadcast sports were rare
they still are–how often do you catch international sports events on local TV even today? This is a trick question because I actually
don’t watch sport- Licensing fees for re-broadcasting sports events from abroad were expensive,
and most people in Japan only got public TV channels. This was a world without the internet. Remember watching anime on fansubbed video
cassette tapes, or reading about the latest series in expensive anime news magazines,
or ordering overseas for authentic merchandise only to wait several months and not get the
package cause it got lost by the postal service? You have to imagine that being a fan of a
largely Western sport craze when you were growing up in Japan was kind of like that. However, the sport basketball had been around
in Japan since at least 1930 (when the first japanese basketball league was formed), and
many schools in Japan had indoor gymnasiums that could be used for sports in all seasons,
and basketball was a common team sport for youth. In 1990, millions of kids were already playing
basketball for school teams across Japan. So while not many people followed professional
basketball, quite a few teens in the 80s would have played it. One such kid was Takehiko Inoue, who started
playing basketball in high school purely to impress girls. But he fell in love with the game itself and
became a basketball super-fan. Inoue was a fan of sports manga, and also
liked to draw. His two passions, basketball and manga, would
eventually lead him to create the internationally legendary manga….Slam Dunk. As Inoue was becoming a basketball fan in
Japan, the NBA was thriving in the US. Inoue’s favorite NBA team was the Los Angeles
Lakers–nicknamed “Showtime”–the team of living legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic
Johnson himself. The Lakers played an exceptionally fast-paced,
exciting “run-and-gun” style of basketball, and won 5 championships within a 9-year span
during the 80’s. Inoue was already a working manga artist in
1990, but had not yet drawn his own original series. He started writing a story about a high school
basketball player–a punk who started playing basketball to impress a girl he liked–sound
familiar..? Slam Dunk, the manga, debuted in Weekly Shonen
Jump in October 1990. The hero character, Sakuragi, has striking
red hair and a bad attitude– but really he was just a normal, hot-blooded teenage boy
whose heart’s desire was to date Haruko-san, the cutest girl in school, who loved basketball! To win her heart, Sakuragi declared that he
would become the greatest basketball player. Slam Dunk wasn’t just the first basketball
manga to be popular–it was the very first published manga about basketball–ever. Allegedly, Inoue’s editor even warned him
away from the subject, saying “Basketball was a taboo in this world”. Inoue was charting unknown territory, and
it’s a testament to his skill as an artist that Slam Dunk was given the green light at
all. No one could have predicted that a manga about
basketball would become so popular–so why *was* it popular? Sakuragi is not the typical sports manga hero. He gets into fights, antagonizes everyone
in the world except his beloved Haruko-san, and has no patience or respect for learning
how to actually play basketball. But his chaotic energy and bull-headed stubbornness
endear him to the serious team captain Akagi. Sakuragi’s narrative journey is to go from
thinking basketball is stupid, to loving itwith all his heart. He draws the reader in, as we hope for this
anti-hero to win against all those who would write him off as a useless trouble-maker. To the knowledgeable basketball fan, Slam
Dunk’s characters make many direct and indirect references to the NBA, which Inoue would have
followed closely from magazines and rare broadcasts. Some fans compare Sakuragi’s playing style
and character appearance to the NBA player Dennis Rodman–“a genius with no respect for
the rules”, both play the power forward position, have a flashy appearance, and wear the jersey
number 10. By the same logic, Sakuragi’s “rival”,
Rukawa, can be compared to Michael Jordan–criticized for being arrogant, but undoubtedly a basketball
prodigy (and both wore #23). Both Jordan and Rukawa even wear a black armband
(though, if we want to get technical, Jordan was a shooting guard and Rukawa was a small
forward). The captain Akagi is a dopplegangar for Patrick
Ewing, even wearing his number 4 jersey, and playing the same position (center). Now I and most non basketball fans didn’t
know these facts but Inoue added them anyway–he was creating this story firstly, and most
importantly, for himself. He was also creating a bridge for new fans
to find these connections later, as they waded into basketball, and for basketball fans who
would, later, find Slam Dunk, and become fans of manga through it. Slam Dunk immediately enthralled the Shonen
Jump audience–which already had a weekly readership of over 2 million, thanks to popular
series like DragonBall that were also running in it. Young readers would write to him that they
started playing basketball after reading Slam Dunk. Inoue was inspired and encouraged by this,
to keep pushing himself to make the basketball game details even more realistic and exciting. Even if readers of Slam Dunk had no other
access to news and knowledge about basketball, they could come to love it through Slam Dunk. What set Slam Dunk apart from a lot of previous
sports manga was its anarchic humour–born from a genuine love of the game. Sakuragi is the prototypical fool character–constantly
disrupting gameplay, antagonizing his own teammates, the coaches, and his friends. He actively works to thwart the plot from
moving forward smoothly, which is both frustrating and entertaining. The humor of Slam Dunk also pokes fun at the
hypocrisy of sports culture–the idolization of players as mythological heroes, of the
game itself as a romantic ideal. He perfectly captures the *feeling* of playing
sports as a youth–not just the hard work and dedication, but the freedom, absurdity,
and enjoyment that comes with it. It was this same art style which helped Slam
Dunk appeal to fans of all ages and genders. Slam Dunk sparked a large female following. Its two central characters, Sakuragi and Rukawa,
with their intense and often violent rivalry, were both very handsome and beau tifully drawn. Their story, as much as the story of Sakuragi’s
crush on Haruko-san, kept fans enthralled. Their rivalry burned, slowly, into a subtle
mutual respect and trust. Successful manga artists Chica Umino (creator
of Honey & Clover) and Yamane Ayano (creator of Crimson Spell, Finder, all-around yaoi
queen), among many others, cut their teeth in the 90’s doujinshi scene drawing Slam
Dunk fanbooks. Whether you’re a kid still figuring out
teammate dynamics or a young adult yearning for a relationship built on equal ground,
the story reaches beyond the sport–Slam Dunk is a story about love. Fun fact, Inoue requested in an artist corner
in the 2nd chapter of Slam Dunk for readers to send in “lost love songs” for Sakuragi. It was a fun little joke request for readers
to contact him, but hel wrote later in an afterword in Chapter 10–only 8 weeks later!! –That he received an overwhelming amount
of letters and fan-written songs. While Slam Dunk was just getting started in
Japan, over in America the NBA was revving up for another spectacular decade, on the
backdrop of a global shift towards open communication and commerce. 1990 was the perfect time to come into NBA
fandom. In November of 1990, The NBA became the first
sports league to host any of its regular season games internationally, bringing the Utah Jazz
and Pheonix Suns to Tokyo, Japan for two games. From what I can tell of the packed stadium,
the games went over well with Japanese viewers. During the 90-91 season the Chicago Bulls
with their star shooting guard, Michael Jordan started to really get things going. The Bulls defeated the Lakers in the final
round of the playoffs, and claimed their very first franchise league title in 1991. They would go on to win the championship in
92 and 93 for an unprecedented three-peat, the first in the NBA since 1966. 1991 was also the year Magic Johnson, one
of the greatest basketball players of all time, abruptly retired from the NBA due to
contracting HIV in the midst of the AIDs crisis. The Cold War ended in ‘91, and international
broadcasting began to blossom, the global populations’ curiosity ignited for news
and open communication. And the 1992 Olympics brought American basketball
stars to that hungry global audience. Nicknamed “The Dream Team” by the press,
the USA men’s basketball team was deep–Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick
Ewing…and even Magic Johnson, who came out of retirement to represent his country. Guess who won the gold. Go on. Guess. USA won. The NBA would return to Japan in November
1992 for another pair of games, this time between the Supersonics and the Rockets, to
a sellout crowd of 15,640 at Yokohama Arena. For context, Madison Square Garden and Staples
Center hold around 20,000 seats. I can only imagine that crowd had a number
of manga fans in its seats, eager for a glimpse of the players that inspired Slam Dunk–Perhaps
Inoue himself was there. The NBA would return to Japan in 94, 96, 99,
and finally in 2003, each time to sellout crowds of thousands. Clearly, the NBA saw the potential profits
to be made by selling their product to the Japanese audience–but whether they were aware
it was in large part due to a manga, is unclear. The Slam Dunk anime began airing on TV Asahi
in 1993 and ran until 1996 for a whopping 101 episodes, and spawned 4 made-for-TV movies. The people wanted more basketball. In 1994, “NBA Weekly” a half-hour sports
news show, began airing on TV Tokyo on Sundays. By Spring 1995, NHK-BS showed an average of
2 games per week during the NBA season, and TV Asahi aired 1 game per month as well. It’s difficult to measure Slam Dunk’s
exact impact on the popularity of basketball during its publication, except to say that,
yes, it definitely was changing things. More and more kids were joining their junior
and high school basketball teams. The number of players competing at some level
in the various school and rec leagues grew by 1 million people between 1990 and 1995. Basketball fashion became popular, too–basketball
shoes, jerseys, and hairstyles were becoming ingrained in fashion across the globe, and
“sneakerheads” obsessively collected every newly released pair of shoes on the market. Inoue even parodied sneakerheads in Slam Dunk–the
owner of a shoe store where Sakuragi is shopping exclaims that he’s collecting all the Air
Jordan editions. Sakuragi, of course, immediately bullies him
into giving him a pair for free. Undeniably, it wasn’t just basketball culture
that was popular with Japanese youth, but black & hip-hop culture as well. Though not mutually exclusive, basketball
and hip-hop culture, which both heralded many black American superstars, had a strong impact
on Japanese youth fashion, music, and pop culture in the late 80s and early 90s. Inoue worked this aesthetic into his character
designs. Captain Akagi sports the same signature haircut
as his NBA doppelganger Ewing, an obvious homage, and many of the characters sport hip-hop-style
street clothes and hairstyles. The 90s was the golden age of Japanese street
fashion, and Slam Dunk helped elevate basketball fashion into Japanese popular culture. The traditional sports manga hero comes from
humble beginnings, and often starts playing the game accidentally or unexpectedly. They act as our in-road to understanding the
sport itself. But they almost always have a goodness that
endears them to the team, and sets them apart from selfish or bully-type characters. Their sport is a tool for spreading goodwill,
converting people to be their followers. The choice between playing and quitting is
easy–their life is better, less challenging, more fulfilling, through playing the game. It’s a seductive dream, one that any sports
fan knows too well. If you have talent, your journey to victory
is set in the stars, rising forever, never having to return to solid ground. But the Shohoku team have the odds stacked
against them–despite the team captain Akagi’s dreams of winning a championship, their team
struggles. Yes, they begin to miraculously rise from
obscurity as our protagonist improves his skills, but the characters of Slam Dunk are
often burdened by reality–bad grades, school fights, health concerns and even crippling
injury. Despite it all, the Shohoku team improve in
break neck speed–in one short season, they qualify for the national inter-high championship
for the first time in 6 years. The final anime episode ends with them boarding
the train to the tournament, determined to win. Inoue had been a player, too–and probably
understood the duality of the escapism and over-simplification of the sports narrative
and the realities of the sacrifice that goes into training and holding a team together. He weaves this question into his story–the
question becomes the climax of the manga series–even if the game takes everything from you, and
gives you nothing back–Do you love basketball? In the 95-96 NBA season, the Chicago Bulls,
with a freshly un-retired Michael Jordan, traded for the bad boy Dennis Rodman mid-season. Jordan and Rodman, who, notoriously, didn’t
get along off the court (remind you of anyone…), nonetheless played beautifully together, and
the Bulls won an unprecedented 72 games out of 82, the most of any NBA team in history. They claimed the championship after a dramatic
playoff series.. In a way, to a Slam Dunk fan, it must have
seemed like life imitating art. The Bulls hoisted the championship trophy
on June 16th, 1996. Slam Dunk released its final chapter on June
17th. What a coinkidink… Slam Dunk is a “king of manga”. The collected volumes have sold over 170 million
copies in Japan alone. It’s still one of the bestselling manga
in Japanese history, behind only a handful of classics like One Piece, DragonBall, and
Naruto. Many basketball fans today–all over the world–contribute
their first introduction to basketball to reading Slam Dunk. And the manga is still popular among young
readers today, continuing to inspire readers to love both manga and basketball. Love for basketball, in Japan, has grown since
Slam Dunk, but still has far to go. In 2006, Inoue and his publisher founded the
“Slam Dunk Scholarship”, a basketball scholarship that would pay for a Japanese
student to attend school in America & play for an American high school team, opening
up the possibility for them to be drafted to the NCAA, a.k.a. the college basketball
league. Inoue has stated that he hoped this scholarship
would help continue to enrich the basketball culture in Japan, by giving young basketball
players a dream to shoot for. While fandom for the NBA has thrived since
the early 90s, Japan has struggled to form a unified and successful professional basketball
league of its own. The JBL was the only basketball league in
Japan until 2005, when the BJ league was formed as a competitor. FIBA, the international basketball association,
locked Japan out of international competitions in 2012 until it could merge the two leagues. In 2015, the B League was announced, merging
teams from both leagues. The B League launched in 2016, and today hosts
36 teams, with a robust season of 60 games. Their rosters are a mix of local talent and
American immigrants. One such transplant is J.R. Sakuragi of the
Aisin Sea Horses–formerly J.R. Henderson, who changed his name to apply for Japanese
citizenship so he could play for the Japanese national team. But did Sakuragi change his name to emulate
the hero of Slam Dunk? No, he says humbly, it was just a coincidence. But perhaps just such a coincidence that might
entice manga fans to take notice. Basketball is reportedly an especially popular
sport for high school girls. The Japan women’s national basketball team
is one of the best in the world, winning gold at three FIBA Asia championships since 2010,
and a frenzy of other world medals besides. This is a team whose roster would have likely
grown up reading and watching Slam Dunk. Team Japan and the B League may be fledgling,
but they are a world apart from the non-existent basketball culture of Japan in the 80s. And Slam Dunk is still selling copies, drawing
new fans in. In the final game of the manga series, Sakuragi
injures his back, and faces the possibility that he might not be able to play again–ever. But he stubbornly refuses to quit–a fool
to the very end. He re-joins the game, and helps his team to
an upstart victory. The team takes a group photo, before heading
to their final game–which we never see. All we get is a postscript explaining that
after such an exhaustive victory, their team would go on to be defeated in the final game,
and return home without the trophy. The epilogue is a letter written from Haruko-san
to Sakuragi, who is away from school recovering from his injury. Haruko writes that Rukawa has been drafted
into Japan’s “Dream Team”, but besides him, everyone has continued on with ordinary
life. Sakuragi and Haruko do not get together. The ending of Slam Dunk was sudden, and atypical
for such a long-running and beloved series. Basically, we are left unsatisfied. Slam Dunk is, itself, a sports anime. No, i mean, I know, it’s an anime about sports. I mean it’s–it’s like the hero of a sports
anime. Slam Dunk is Sakuragi. It showed up, fresh, irreverent, full of energy,
and with a simple desire–to be loved. Slam Dunk is Akagi–who loved basketball with
all its heart, and that pure love for the sport above all else was its strength. Inoue himself has compared his manga to a
living being–it began as a very personal project, created against the advice of so
many, but kept fighting. It grew along with its characters. The reason Slam Dunk is so popular isn’t because
Inoue accurately presented the game of Basketball–in fact, he stretched a lot of facts (in what
world do high school games sell out full arenas?? And why are his 3-point shots *always* wide
open). But what shone through was his earnest love
for the game. He chose to do something different, something
he, personally, was passionate about. Why did Inoue end the series when he did? Why so suddenly? Captain Akagi graduated without ever winning
a championship, and Sakuragi’s back injury was still healing in the short epilogue. Will he ever play again? That is left up to us, the reader. Do we believe Sakuragi will find his way back
to basketball, and achieve greatness? Or do we accept the final loss, the heartbreak,
and move on? The Slam Dunk anime ends after they defeat
Shoyo-Ryonan, before the inter-high tournament. Inoue has even said he thought about quitting
manga after he finished Slam Dunk. But he did something courageous, by leaving
behind a project that had garnered so much acclaim–setting himself loose when so many
other shonen manga creators would hang on to one series for decades. When Slam Dunk stopped running in ‘96, sales
for Shonen Jump Weekly plummeted. This is in part due to DragonBall ending its
serialization in that same year. Numbers for people playing basketball in school
also dropped by about 200,000 after 96, but would hold remarkably steady through to the
2000s. Despite Inoue forcibly moving his career forward
towards other projects, the impact of Slam Dunk would hold strong. Inoue began travelling around the world, even
living in LA for a year, near his beloved Lakers. He has stated in an interview how impressed
he was with sports culture in the US–that “Top players have responsibilities in the
society and are respected”, and that, in the US, sports fandom was just a way of life,
unlike in Japan, where even in 2006 it was still most common for Japanese youth to only
play sports in high school, and forget about the game after graduating. After Slam Dunk Inoue began drawing Buzzer
Beater, another basketball story but this time with a sci-fi twist. Then he created Vagabond, a critically acclaimed
manga about the legendary samurai, Miyamoto Musashi. And lastly Real, a seinen manga about the
sport of wheelchair basketball and the stories of the people involved. All of them containing the passion that Inoue
has for the exploration of humanity, life, tragedy and for Buzzer Beater and Real, love
of basketball–all themes I believe he began exploring with Slam Dunk. Maybe Slam Dunk turned people on to basketball,
but it was the story of Slam Dunk that people kept coming back for. Without the narrative, sports is just a game. Inoue tells a true story about the love of
sports–to accept the wins with the losses. No victory is set in stone, no star’s rise
guaranteed. To be a true sports fan, one must choose to
love the game anyway.

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