I’m an anime fan, so a friend recommended Kuroko no Basuke—The 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 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.
Kuroko 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.
Another 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.
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.