Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Japan soccer savior: Captain Tsubasa creator Yoichi Takahashi on the power of manga

Yoichi Takahashi is seen in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 16, 2019. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)
Tsubasa Ozora is seen executing his signature move, the overhead kick, which went on to be imitated in real life. In the story, Tsubasa learns skills shown to him by his mentor Robert Hongo. (C) Yoichi Takahashi/SHUEISHA

TOKYO -- "Captain Tsubasa," the popular serial manga following the trials and tribulations of young soccer players in Japan, kicked off in Shueisha Inc.'s Weekly Shonen Jump magazine in 1981. In the almost 40 years since its first installment began to ignite passion for the sport in this country, Japan has become a regular participant in the FIFA World Cup finals, and the sight of its star players competing in leagues abroad has become commonplace.

Looking back on the success of the manga, its creator Yoichi Takahashi, 59, said, "Reality caught up with the manga, and then surpassed it."

He recalled, "When I was a kid I was into baseball. I didn't know much about soccer then. But when the 1978 World Cup in Argentina was being shown on TV, I ended up really enjoying watching high-level performances and the creativity of the sport. It got me thinking, if I created a manga (about soccer) interesting for readers, they may also come to appreciate the real thing. That's what led me to start the series."

There was no professional soccer league in Japan in the 1980s. It was a desolate time for the sport, with the chances of an appearance at the World Cup or even the Olympic Games seeming distant indeed. But even so, Takahashi made the manga's protagonist, Tsubasa Ozora, strive toward his goal for the Japan team to win the World Cup.

"While drawing it, I was thinking that I wanted the Japan national team to become stronger. I poured into it my feelings of wanting to see them make an appearance in the World Cup and the Olympics. I came up with the protagonist's phrase, 'The ball is my friend,' thinking that having a positive attitude and simply enjoying taking part in any activities were important to accomplish big things," Takahashi said.

Captain Tsubasa is filled with distinctive rivals, and portrayals of the bonds of friendship. Its abundance of signature soccer moves, like the "drive shot" and the "skylab hurricane," were a hit with kids. When the series began, there were around 120,000 elementary school children playing soccer, registered with the Japan Football Association. By the manga's end in 1988, that number had doubled to some 240,000 players. Now, professional soccer player and baseball player jockey for top spot on the list of primary school kids' dream jobs.

But Takahashi is keen to stress the influence of his work is not a unique phenomenon. "It's not just me. For example, 'Star of the Giants' did the same for baseball, and Takehiko Inoue made basketball very popular with 'Slam Dunk.' I think that in Japan, manga has quite an influence as part of the culture."

Among those inspired by Takahashi's work was Hidetoshi Nakata, 42, a former Japan national team player who has competed all over the world. Takahashi feels his work as a manga artist has paid off when seeing children grow up with admiration for such athletes and becoming role models for young people.

Recalling the moment he felt the change, Takahashi said, "I remember realizing that reality had approached my manga and then blown past it when Nakata scored this goal in the Serie A (Italy's top professional league) with an overhead kick. I thought, his performance was what I had wanted to capture in my manga."

Captain Tsubasa was also adapted into an anime series, which helped the story to become globally known. Legendary top-level foreign players including France's Zinedine Zidane and Spain's Andres Iniesta have been unabashed in publicly declaring their love for the series.

But the story isn't over yet. The latest part of the series, "Captain Tsubasa: Rising Sun," sees Tsubasa and other characters competing to win the under-23s tournament at the Olympics. There are also many young players set to take part in next year's Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games who sing the series' praises.

Turning his attention to the present, Takahashi said, "I also get a sense of the way times have changed with the new players. Like Takefusa Kubo (18) and Takuhiro Nakai (16), who are developing in the youth programs with elite clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, kids are now living in a world where they can wish to go to those teams from the start. It's something I didn't draw in the series, but reality has come to seem very much like a manga."

The power of imagination played out through the pages of manga continues to open new possibilities.

(Japanese original by Shohei Oshima, Sports News Department)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media