The Weakest Link?

I’m an anime fan, so a friend recommended Kuroko no BasukeThe Basketball which Kuroko Plays, which is based on the manga written by Tadatoshi Fujimaki (a Weekly Shōnen Jump serial). Several episodes of the show, however, were written by Noburo Takagi.

Okay, I sense your eyes glazing over. You aren’t into anime, are you? But to get to the point I’m trying to make about weak heroes, I have mention one show. I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum, but I can’t avoid them all.

You see, there’s this teen—Taiga Kagami—who thinks he’s all that because he played basketball in America and has some skills. After returning to Japan and enrolling at Seirin High, he decides to become the greatest basketball player ever—better than the Generation of Miracles—five prodigies who are the greatest players ever. They played together on the same middle school team and now play for different high schools. In order to reach his goal, Kagami has to beat them. But Kagami soon meets a sixth member of the team, one no one ever talked about—Tetsuya Kuroko.

    kuroko-no-basket-kuroko-no-basket-31371984-900-936 Kagami1

Kuroko and Kagami

In the first episode Kagami is eager to play Kuroko in a game of one on one. He seeks other strong players to hone his skills. But Kagami quickly discovers that Kuroko is a weak player who can’t shoot worth anything! How on earth could this guy be a prodigy?

“He’s so bad I could die,” Kagami moans. “There’s nothing good about him.”

At that point in the show, I was convinced my friend had gone out of his mind. Why would he recommend an anime about basketball that features a guy who is weak at the game? But I kept watching and wondering, as Kuroko and Kagami joined Seirin’s team as starters, if Kuroko would bust out some mad hoop skills—y’know, showy three pointers, that sort of thing. That’s the way I would have written it. But the series writers chose not to do what I would have done. They instead provided a lovely contrast between Kuroko and Kagami: strong/weak; light/dark. Still, disappointment beckoned.

The%20Shadow%20July%2015th%201939%20Death%20from%20NowhereKuroko describes himself as a shadow who stands in the light of other players. I can’t help thinking of Lamont Cranston from the old radio program, The Shadow, which starred Orson Welles and other actors over a period of two decades. The Shadow also was a series of pulp novels, comic books, and graphic novels. In the novels, Kent Allard is the Shadow, but impersonates Lamont Cranston at times. To avoid confusion, I’ll just refer to the radio program.

Cranston is a young, wealthy man about town with a secret. Sound familiar? I’ll save you the trouble with two words: Bruce Wayne. But The Shadow came first. Cranston’s alter ego, the Shadow, has the psychic ability to “cloud men’s minds,” thus becoming invisible. He uses this power as a spy and crime fighter.

Back to Kuroko and his talk of being a shadow, I wondered, How can someone so useless carry the weight of a show? After all, everyone loves a winner, right? We like an underdog, but we like our Clark Kent to turn into Superman at some point.

Turns out there is a bit of Superman in Kuroko. During a game, Kuroko finally exhibits his talent: he can mask his presence through misdirection—almost like clouding someone’s mind. You don’t realize he’s in the game until suddenly, woot, there he is, blocking a shot. Consequently he’s phenomenal at passing. His misdirection enables him to steal the ball and pass it to key players before the other team notices. Amazing!

Still, basketball games are won by points, rather than passes. So, I was a little wary as I watched episode two, especially since Kuroko’s announced strategy in episode one was to help Kagami become the greatest basketball player in Japan. Without his help, he explained, Kagami will never succeed. Doubtful me wondered how much help a weak player could offer a strong player. Yet the series writers refused to jump the shark by making their main character a shooting superstar (as I would have done). Instead, as the episodes rolled by, the stakes were raised higher and higher as Kuroko and the other members of the team, especially their coach Aida Riko, were forced to strategize and restrategize as they played each grueling game. After thirteen episodes, I’ve come to believe that a “weak” main character can be a strong asset, as long as his fundamental weakness does not change, but other strengths become apparent.

136116Another hero who stands in the shadows is Sir Percy Blakeney of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. Blakeney is such a milquetoast his own wife (Marguerite) despises him. Marguerite is described as the “cleverest woman in Europe” while Percy is “that stupid, dull Englishman” or “idiot” (Orczy 43). Ouch. Little did she know that he’s actually (dun-dun-dun-DUN) the Scarlet Pimpernel, infamous swordsman and rescuer of French aristocrats during the dark days of 1792. Cranston and Bruce Wayne, idle rich young men with secret identities, probably owe their existence to Orczy.

Blakeney’s everyday persona of the weak fop fools everyone. The difference between Blakeney and Kuroko, however, is that Blakeney pretends to be weaker than he really is. Kuroko always remains who he is.

Picture65

Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy

My hat is off to the writer who can pull off a hero or heroine who appears weak yet retains a core of strength. There’s such a delicate balance you have to maintain to keep readers interested, rather than frustrated. You also have to resist the temptation to make your character respected. Marguerite and Kagami make no secret of their utter contempt for Blakeney and Kuroko. Their stories are all the richer for it.

Who, if any, are your favorite “weak” heroes or heroines?

Orczy, Baroness Emmuska. The Scarlet Pimpernel. New York: Signet Classics, 1974. First published in 1905.

Kuroko from fanpop.com. Kagami from animekotoh.blogspot.com. Book cover from Goodreads. The Shadow cover from oldradioworld.com. Percy Blakeney photo from oftrimsandfrillsandfurbelows.blogspot.com.

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25 thoughts on “The Weakest Link?

  1. Not sure about weak in that sense-but more in a flawed sense I thought of Anakin Skywalker. It took quite a few cinema minutes, but he came good in the end.

    • Well, he was emotionally stunted. Maybe that counts as weakness? I liked his portrayal, however, in the recent Clones Wars series. He seemed a lot more mature.

  2. Interesting, L.Marie. Your anime character is described as ‘weak’. Is he just different, as he has a skill that is obviously devastating when he uses it? Maybe the whole story is about the ‘showy’ stronger character learning from the ‘weaker’, less ‘popular’ one? If so, that’s something I’d applaud.
    On the subject of heroes… our heroes today (and possibly forever) have been the ‘superman’ type, who doesn’t seem to have a bad bone in his body and only really get going when he has evil bad guys to fight. What are we trying to teach ourselves? That we need evil in our lives, to challenge ourselves? To become ‘good’ we have to defeat ‘evil?’ I find the western view of evil a little bit dull. I prefer the eastern view, that we are all good and evil wrapped up in the same package, it’s just what we choose that’s important? So what sort of hero would that make in a story? I think as Andy mentioned, Anakin Skywalker gets close, at least we get to see the choices that turn him to the dark side.

    • You bring up an interesting point, John, which the series discusses. One of Kuroko’s rivals mentions why he dislikes Kuroko–because Kuroko’s strength is of a different sort. This rival is an ace shooter. Kuroko doesn’t care about winning for the empty sake of winning, which makes him extremely different. Yet the rival mentioned that he respected Kuroko even while disliking him. That’s a different sort of hero.

  3. Interesting stuff! Love this: “After all, everyone loves a winner, right? We like an underdog, but we like our Clark Kent to turn into Superman at some point.” I think a lot of books have protagonists that start out seeming weak but then either emerge as stronger than we thought or come to appreciate that they have different kinds of strengths than others seem to value. Thanks for giving me some ideas to mull over this morning. 🙂

    • Thanks, Laurie. And you’ve given me some ideas for when I return to first-person narration. I started a book for a workshop back in third semester that will fit the fallible narrator nicely. In a way, she’s weak also, because she can no longer shapeshift.

  4. Yes, interesting stuff, this idea of weakness. I think it’s very challenging to pull off. Even most unlikable protagonists are unlikeable in a strong way–because they push too hard or because they are bullies or angry at the world. Weak doesn’t usually rank as an admirable character trait in our society. But perhaps weak is the wrong word? What about just normal, like us characters. That can definitely work.

    • True, Sandra. I used weak because Kagami often referred to Kuroko as weak. But “differently abled” might be a better choice. Kuroko is strong in that he refuses to allow Kagami to bully him. He’s also very blunt in his assessment of Kagami. They have an interesting relationship, which inspires me to explore that aspect in a novel.

  5. Fascinating topic! I wonder what would happen if you overlaid Kuroko’s journey with the Hero’s Journey, because, as Laurie mentioned, don’t we need him to become the team’s star, the only star eventually? Can it truly be satisfying to know the viewpoint character isn’t the top scorer? Would the Shadow be as exciting if they tried to make his trusty friend and companion the lovely Margo Lane the viewpoint character–and could they ever convince us that SHE is the hero of the stories because she helps Lamont out in a very exceptional, help-y way? Maybe, if she were the one with the power to cloud men’s minds. But then she could just dump Lamont and have her own show.

    • Very good point, Carol, about the companion Margo. Right now, Kuroko appears to be the mentor. However, in the last episode I saw, he assumed the hero’s role. Yet his story arc is as hidden as he is at times. He has a motive for promoting Kagami in his goal to defeat the Generation of Miracles. Kuroko is also a dark horse.

      I’m not sure how Kuroko’s story plays out in manga form. In a book, a hero needs an arc. I can’t say I know why Kuroko wants to defeat his former teammates. Yet, he has evinced change.

  6. Interesting topic, L. Marie! This made me think of one of my favorite cartoon when I was a kid, Underdog. Although Shoeshine Boy appears to be weak when confronted by villains, be turned into Underdog and saved the day. I didn’t like Shoeshine Boy when he was scared and weak, but the moment he turned into Underdog, he was my hero.

    • I also remember Underdog, Jill. I remember being frustrated as a kid that he was so mild mannered. I’m not sure why. Probably because of school bullies and needing someone to act heroic, even in a cartoon.

  7. My protag in my current WIP is weak, but I’m trying to make him stronger through the arc. Maybe not in the traditional sense though, but in his own way so that he can still accomplish his goals.

    In fact, I think you summed it up with: “I’ve come to believe that a “weak” main character can be a strong asset, as long as his fundamental weakness does not change, but other strengths become apparent.”

    Nice post!

    • Thanks, Phillip. I find Kuroko’s show fascinating, because the character is “weak.” But the series creators have left him room to grow. Having seen more episodes, I see their strategy in regard to Kuroko and the other players’ growth. So my question to you is, in what way have you left room for your character to grow? I have to ask myself that question, epecially in light of my current novel. I have two characters who are warriors. One is the antagonist. Both need to grow in some capacity. That’s the challenge.

  8. Zorro. The original black and white one. 🙂 The one from waaaaay back in the day (pre-talkies) really was a strong contrast to himself. He literally played the idiot, spending his time learning hankie tricks and playing with childish toys, whenever he wasn’t masked.

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