In the past I have talked about my theory of the two major categories of shonen fighting protagonists. I call them the Shonen Hero and the Seinen Hero. The Shonen Hero is what you very stereotypically think of with the genre. They are passionate and ambitious but have almost no experience. Therefore everything must be explained to them but they have an endless pool of potential to draw from and so they learn powerful techniques almost instantly. In contrast the Seinen Hero while still in a shonen magazine feels like a character taken from a series for older men. These character usually have years of training under their belt and tend to be more stoic and coldly driven. They are not perfect but they are 80% of the way to maximum. Usually their journey is about perfecting their skills, adding to their already powerful repertoire, or learning to work with a team. Not every shonen fighting protagonists falls into these two categories. There are some notable exceptions or combinations of the two but nine times out of ten your hero will fall into one of these categories. Naruto and Simon are your stereotypical Shonen Heroes while Luffy and Kenshiro are your stereotypical Seinen Hero.
Until recently I would have told you that sports anime pretty much follows that same formula to the T. The main character who joins the team is either the fresh young buck with no skills but an insane potential and a killer move or a cold ace with the crazy skills but with a major flaw. Like the shonen fighting protagonist there is the very rare exception to this rule but overall they are just as easy to divide into the two camps. The thing is the last few shows we have been watching have added a third archetype that I have never really seen be this predominant until now. They are the Super Support Protagonist.
The thing is this character is a mixture of the Shonen Hero and the Seinen Hero but with some added elements that make them more than just a blend of the other two. Usually the protagonist is the star of the team. They are the character who scores the most points, gets all the important points, and draws all the attention, love, and hate to themselves. The Super Support Protagonist might do that on occasion but most of the time they are there so all the other characters can shine or work together better. They usually have some technique or place in the team that helps everyone around them. If the Shonen Hero is the fighter, and the Seinen Hero is the wizard, then the Super Support Protagonist in the bard. In years past they would have usually been secondary or tertiary character on a team. Someone who might get an episode of two in the spotlight but no more than that. But apparently this Super Support Protagonist is appearing more and more as the lead in modern sports shows.
No longer the stoic genius or the hotblooded ace; more recent heroes of sports anime are the guys who would have been side characters in the past. And it isn’t just their personalities that mark them as previous side characters, but their roles on their teams, too.
Kuroko’s central role is passing the ball. Hinata is the decoy of the court. Onoda pulls the other members along so they can conserve their strength. All of these characters act in the best interest for the rest of the team. Each of them is integral to the team succeeding despite them not necessarily having the role that gets the most outside attention or glory. So intentionally or not, all of these titles end up emphasizing how important a cohesive team is maybe more so than when the central figure is the ace.
Kuroko, Onoda, and Hinata all feel like they occupy the same spot in the team: the soul.
Kuroko Tetsuya is probably the first place we noticed this trend. When Kuroko’s Basketball came out it really stood out because Kuroko did not feel like your standard lead. If anything Taiga Kagami feels like he should be the main character. Kagami is the guy who often gets the game winning baskets, he is the one who is crazy powerful and feared by other teams, and is just overwhelming powerhouse. Kagami jumps like a kangaroo while Kuroko could not dunk without the help of a ladder. If anything Kagami seems to be there to fill the desire for a Seinen Hero character in the show for anyone who can’t full jive with a Super Support Protagonist. But in the end while Kagami is certainly a character with a central focus the show’s core is Kuroko. The series is named after him after all.
Kuroko almost never scores any baskets let alone game winning ones. He can’t really shoot. In fact one of the main plot points is him getting to the point where he is merely poor at shooting as opposed to absolutely dreadful. His dribbling, speed, defense, and stamina are equally unremarkable. He really only has two trumps cards. He is near invisible on the court because most people forget to pay attention to him because he lacks presence. To capitalize on that the one skill he really has is passing which he has does remarkably well. That means he can often get the ball to where it needs to go. This lets him ses up other for glory more than directly garnering it for himself.
That said it is not like he is Cat Guy. Kuroko is often one of the keys to victory in most matches. He will set up Kagami or Junpei Hyuga to get the baskets they need to win in a way that only he can do. But his ability not only lets his team score more it also lets him prevent the other team from pulling ahead by the use of vital steals and interceptions. Even more blatant forms of misdirection like the Vanishing Drive or Phantom Shot don’t win games by themselves. They instead usually get the team to a place where they can win using their skills as opposed to being ultimate road to victory. Much like his namesake Kuroko works seemingly invisibly to make everything work despite being in the center stage.
Kuroko’s Basketball was a big surprise to me. I didn’t know what to expect so a quiet, mild character like Kuroko, the nearly invisible “phantom sixth man” of the Generation of Miracles, was a nice change of pace. And Kuroko isn’t just, say, suppressing his true nature in a “he was hiding his past as a devastating monster which led to death and destruction so now he must hold it back except in times of true need” kind of way either.
Still Kuroko is a genius-type, just not the way you’d usually expect, and he is such a genius that many times only the other geniuses can tell how good he is.
Kuroko’s desire is to create a truly united team and prove that that is the pinnacle of the sport; as opposed to relying on individual strong players. In most instances, he doesn’t seem concerned about himself at all which is shocking. And when he does improve or change something in his game, it feels almost altruistic in nature. Kuroko is the character on this list most dedicated to the idea of team.
Yowamushi Pedal is a brilliant example of the Super Support Protagonist phenomenon because you can see all three type of sports stars right next to each other. While Onoda is the primary viewpoint and a Super Support Protagonist you also have Naruko Shoukichi as a stereotypical Shonen Hero and Imaizumi Shunsuke as the quintessential Seinen Hero. But in the end Onoda is the main character. The thing about Yowamushi Pedal is it shows how the Super Support Protagonist can buoy up the Shonen Hero, the Seinen Hero, or even the Sempai.
When Onoda starts the series he has lots of cycling experience it is just that he has never formally trained for competitive racing. This could easily set him up to be Shonen Hero or the Seinen Hero. His raw but self-taught power could make him the Shonen Hero and his years of experience could make him a rough Takumi Fujiwara styled Seinen Hero. But those two positions will eventually be far better filled by his teammates. Instead his perfect cadence lets him pull along other characters so they can shine during their chosen part of the course and rest when they need to reverse their strength. His specialty is uphill climbs which are the perfect place for sprinters and all-rounders to eat up energy so they can’t be at their best during the crucial last leg of the race. Onoda is able to carry everyone during the toughest parts so the whole team can be their best. He is also vital for saving teammates that have fallen behind (even when the person who has fallen behind is himself.)
But he is more than just the physical backbone of the team. He is also the emotional foundation of the team. Often times the Souhoku High School Bicycle Club can be in a mental place where victory seems impossible (especially when Midousuji is involved) but it is always Onoda who has that rock solid optimism that prevents then from falling into despair. Imaizumi is far too stoic and introspective to take that role while Naruko is a bit to brash and selfish to be that anchor as well. It is Onoda’s magnanimous attitude and cheerful smile that allows the rest of the team to take sustenance from his support when they need it. N0 one else on the team could have pulled Tadokoro Jin so far or saved Imaizumi from his demons.
Onoda is not the type to be the first to cross the finish line and grab the glory. He is not even the type to be the first to cross the line during the up hill climb section of the race. He is the one to make sure someone else is poised to be their best mentally and physically when they have the chance to cross that finish line.
Onoda is not a character I really imaged as staring in a sports series: an otaku through and through. And he hangs on to that hobby, too, he isn’t trying to be someone else. It is nice to see a character that can be interested in geekery and sports (it happens, ya’ll!).
Even more importantly, Onoda brings a bit of fan-boy into the team. What I mean by that is, he is enthralled by the talents of the rest of the cycling team and thus believes in each of them wholeheartedly. So when they place responsibility on Onoda or ask something of him, he is moved to push himself that much harder. They then are pushed along by Onoda in this amazing feedback loop.
Onoda is that rare guy who can’t understand or fully acknowledge his own abilities. That humbleness, unfeigned, is really refreshing and never comes off as frustrating.
In any other anime Shouyou Hinata would have the role of ace. The power player position is a great place for a Shonen Hero to shine brighter than everyone else. Conversely the Seinen Hero gets to use the maximum amount of strategy and experience as the team’s main setter. As the decoy Hinata does not really fill any of those roles. He is scoring more than the average Super Support Protagonist but at the same time for every time he scores a point with his insanely fast quick set with Kageyama there are two other times when he is just there to fake out the other team so someone else can score. Also just due to the nature of volleyball and the rotation of players there will be a decent amount of time where Hinata is not on the court and must instead cheer on his teammates while the becomes the stars.
Hinata is probably the character who comes closest to just being a Shonen Hero but in that regard he is clearly outshone by Yu Nishinoya whose position as libero lets him constantly protect the court like a stalwart guardian. Also Nishinoya fits the insanely passionate short spunky guy archetype to the T. Of course with this methodical precision and the need to learn to work with a team Kageyama has the Seinen Hero spot locked down. So Hinata falls into the third position but he can fill the power player spot of Shonen Hero if it is needed.
If nothing else Hinata is the guy who wants to be the Shonen Hero but is equally content to be the Super Support Protagonist if that is what the teams need him to be. He might never be the ace but he will always be a vital piece of the team’s key to victory.
Hinata is a passionate little guy wishing for a starring role and I’d actually vote him “most likely to succeed” among the characters here. He is even chasing after a player called The Little Giant who was also a shorter volleyball player.
What sets Hinata apart is that he doesn’t have the confidence, bravado, that often accompanies that fired up attitude. He gets nervous, even to the point of sickness sometimes. He is always willing to go the extra mile in training without any expectation.
In some ways, Hinata is a little like Kuroko and a little like Onoda. He is a decoy on the court and he is a fan of all the member of his team. But you’d never call Hinata a shy guy. Hinata contains an utterly buoyant personality which he pairs with a big grin that never fails to perk up his teammates.
It is important to note that Super Support Protagonist is not the most versatile type of protagonist. The Shonen Hero and Seinen Hero can be dropped into any type of show. The Super Support Protagonist can only exist in shows that have team sports. That means you can’t have a Super Support Protagonist in a boxing or judo series. The Super Support Protagonist needs a team to play off of. You will even notice that the Super Support Protagonist usually has a secondary protagonist cut from the Shonen and Seinen Hero cloth. But the Super Support Protagonist allow a very different type of story to be told when that team dynamic exists.
All too often when you have the Shonen and Seinen Hero they become the be all and end all of the story. 90% of the story will begin to revolve around the protagonist. Every game is won by the main character and the supporting cast is mostly there to support that one player. Individual characters might get the occasion chance to shine but it is more an unexpected cure ball to the formula than something that happens on a regular basis. The Super Support Protagonist lets everyone have a chance to shine. This lets the rest of the cast step more into the spotlight and have their stories feel more like main chapters as opposed to side story pieces. Each member of the team becomes part of the ensemble cast and not just the chorus of praise for the hero.
Plus, they just change-up the formula a bit in a genre where it is all to easy to feel like you have seen this story before with a different set of actors.
You may also be thinking we have forgotten a big title on this list: Free! And you’d be right, it is certainly a series that has garnered a ton of fans and does emphasize the importance of the team over the individual. However, the lead characters (Haru and Rin), funnily enough, are dead on shonen sports types. Free!’s greatness I think is in how it takes those sports roles and personalities and pushes them to extremes. It probably deserves its own conversation.
With Kuroko, Onoda, and Hinata, they let their teammates shine brighter without diminishing their importance on the team or their role as the main character. And I think that is where the strength of each title lies.
We wouldn’t be foolish enough to suggest there have never been characters like these before. But to have so many new titles which focus on different personalities and positions on teams feels rather like they are ushering in a new era of shonen sports.
As a final note: I do find myself rather curious to know if these new leads are your favorite character in their respective series or not? I am thrilled to have different people taking center stage, but I must admit that other characters are my favorites.