For a bit of synergy with this months episode of the Speakeasy we decided to talk about Giant Killing, our favorite sport anime of the spring season. Plus with the World Cup having just finished yesterday it seems like the best time to talk about a soccer anime. But the reason we are looking at Giant Killing is its unique story telling considering the other sports shows that have come out in English. It is a seinen series with a distinctly adult feeling. All the main characters are professionals trying to revive a floundering J. League Division 1 team. Even most of the side characters are adults with jobs and adult problems. This is not a show about a high school team or some teenagers in a back lot. The cast has the responsibility of the East Tokyo United club on their shoulders with all the burdens that come with playing for a professional team. We see all the pieces that go into a professional sport club.
Giant Killing swept me up in its first episode. And as I am being carried along quite happily, I am here to tell you it isn’t the soccer that is holding my attention so thoroughly. Truth be told I know very little about the sport not being able to recall ever having watched a real match in my lifetime. The key to Giant Killing’s success despite presenting us with a rather familiar, if only by American standards, plot where an unconventional coach embarks to rejuvenate a washed-up team is how it approaches the story from angle after angle.
Normally the main character in a shonen sports anime would be one of the players. In a shonen or shoujo series it would be a young kid with tons of potential but is just learning to play. In other seinen series it might be an amazing player with a past. The main character in Giant Killing is Takeshi Tatsumi, the coach of the team. As Narutaki said the unconventional coach may be a old troupe but he is almost always a side character in anime. With Tatsumi we get a bit of the typical seinen protagonist. He is the legendary player with a past but he is the team’s strategist not the key player. This lets him connect and deal with everyone who is a part of the club or has business with the club giving the show is broad range of perspectives. The story follows various perspectives so when Tatsumi interacts with them the impact is far greater.
The promotional material, the first episode, and his attitude itself tells us that Tatsumi is the main character, for he is the piece around which everything changes. However, don’t be surprised to see him merely in the background of an episode smirking or deep in thought. Giant Killing is attempting to tell a highly encompassing tale with a large and growing cast of characters occupying every role in the world of soccer from player to aging veteran fan, middle-management to reporter, coach to hooligan. Each new perspective builds on the other pieces until you end up with (or is leading up to) a panoramic view of the Japanese soccer scene. It’s ambitious but it’s succeeding. The way Giant Killing presents its characters, in snippets and moments, dives at the heart of the matter succinctly.
After Tatsumi the characters we see the most of are the players for ETU. We see a good deal of Daisuke Tsubaki who has all the earmarks of the shonen hero and Shigeyuki Murakoshi who is the perfect seinen hero. This gives us the perspective of the two most common protagonist types. We also a bit of players like the hot headed Kazuki Kuroda and the egotistical Luigi Yoshida giving us a good insight into the players who are actually on the field. We become invested in the minor victories and failures as well as the overall progress of the team but at the same time try to puzzle out Tatsumi’s plans along side them. But the team is more than the players. We see the assistant coach and upper management try and deal with Tatsumi’s idiosyncrasies while trying to prop up a underdog club and sooth an unruly fan base. The PR manager Yuri Nagata exemplifies this struggle while adding a female perspective to male dominated ETU cast.
Shonen or seinen, Giant Killing’s method to the group dynamic is well thought out. Many times the danger of a large cast, or even a cast where each character plays a pivotal role on a team, is inevitably some characters fall by the wayside and the viewer never really comes to understand them or their thinking; we never really know who they are beyond a specified role on the team. In Giant Killing, character personalities are shown through so many small acts such as a word here or there to a teammate or a facial expression while watching the game that who each is shines through. Murakoshi’s sense of duty to the team but animosity towards Tatsumi clash early in the series but what you learn most about him is he hasn’t been truly playing soccer, taking enjoyment from the game, in years. As we move through the series and onto other characters, Murakoshi’s small appearances begin to show his changing attitude and his commitment to take back control of his own game. Character’s anchor themselves in their few moments in the spotlight and then continue to show growth on the side, they are not mere vessels to move the plot or more prominent characters along.
But the story is not just told from the perspective of just the ETU members. Hajime no Ippo taught me a valuable lesson about sports shows in general. A good sports show will invest you in the player. A great sport show will invest you in the player and his opponent. So we often see a bit of the opposing coaches and players and what is going on in their heads. It adds an extra impact to everything when the other team is made of people instead of just enemies that have to be overcome. But we see more than just the clubs. We get the perspective of the reporters. The female journalist who is assigned to cover the ETU gives us an insight into how the public sees the team. At the same we she to see her frustration with being assigned such a unpopular team. There are also the fans who get as much time as some of the players. There are the hard core Skulls that see the team owning them good performances for their die hard loyalty. In contrast you have the rag tag group of older fans from the shopping arcade who are slowly seeing their fandom revitalized by the new spirit of the team. You even see how the children of the fans are effected and encouraged by their parent’s enthusiasm. If someone is effected by the ETU you see how.
What makes the sports genre of anime and manga so special, and here in Giant Killing too, is taking something very physical and making it into a personal and emotional story. This is done to some extent in American film and literature, but more often than not it is or is based upon a true story. Giant Killing is fictional and it draws you in through the stories of its characters never requiring you to have a love for the game or or a curiosity about its reality. The magic of all these characters and the show itself is that in the world of Giant Killing, for those 30-minutes every week that I visit that world, I am a soccer fan, an ETU fan, and I feel it passionately.
I think all of these perspectives and the choice to make Tatsumi the focal point accumulate to give Giant Killing a mature feeling that many other sport series might not have. Tatsumi as the coach lets him connect with the older audience as they probably dream less of being star players and do more coaching from their couches while watching games. Also the broad range of perspectives makes the story less about one person trying to achieve an individual goal. It is the story of a team with all of Japan watching what these professionals are doing. It makes it seem like the fictional teams in the series could be the real teams you read about in the papers. A story of a team and how they grow into be giant killers. All of this combined with solid writing and rich characters really make Giant Killing stand out in from the pack in anime released this year and from other sports series in general. If you want something different from your sports anime and manga then check out Giant Killing.