I haven’t been into basketball for years. It’s certainly been more than two since I last played, and even longer since I actually watched a full game. I’ve never really been into sports anime, either. As a result, I didn’t even give Kuroko’s Basketball a second glance when I saw it on the Spring season chart. I got dragged into watching it by my friends, and decided to take an “until I’m sick of it” approach with watching it. But I never got sick of it. The more I watched, the more it pulled me in. I honestly never thought I’d be so anxiously awaiting the inevitable second season.
To start with, Kuroko is not about basketball. Kuroko is about Magic Shounen Basketball, which is a completely different game. If you want to watch something that realistically portrays the sport, I’d suggest watching an NBA game, because that’s not what Kuroko is about. But if that doesn’t matter to you, the sport of Magic Shounen Basketball is part of the appeal of the show. It takes all the things that make shounen battle series exciting and applies them to basketball. The stupidly huge hangtimes, the backboard-shattering dunks, the cross-court rocket passes, and the bizarre logic behind some of the strategies give the games an extra “oomph” and make them appear more like epic battles than, well, high-school basketball games.
The characters each have a special power that they hone throughout the show – there’s the copycat, the high jumper, the invisible passer, the perfect rebounder, the guy with a birds-eye-view of the court, the normal guy, the guy who can make a shot from anywhere on the court, the team that moves like ninjas, and of course, the guy who’s just inhumanly good at basketball. It’s all there to add extra flair and excitement to the games, and it makes the show’s brand of basketball into a sport of its own. What this allows the show to do is step back and focus on a specific aspect of Magic Shounen Basketball with each game, exploring its limitations and its effects on each team’s play style. It creates an end goal for each game – a specific challenge for Kuroko’s team to overcome – which provides a solid and consistent forward progression for the players’ abilities and teamwork that couldn’t have been there without that degree of focus. It all makes sense within the context of the game of Magic Shounen Basketball, and each small progression in a character’s “power” feels like a natural extension of what they were already able to do. And of course, what matters in the end is that it makes the games more exciting to watch – it’s just the right amount of cheese to improve the flavor without making it stink.
What’s also important is that the focus is primarily on the basketball games themselves. There are training episodes and in-between moments of wacky hijinks, but they are sparsely placed enough that they feel like a nice break from a long string of games rather than an annoyance getting in the way of valuable game time. The story behind the games is largely a typical underdog story, but it’s willing to take the risk of having our underdog team suffer humiliating defeat in a key game, and from that point the series kicks the typical progression and tries some new things.
From a technical perspective, the game of Magic Shounen Basketball is decently, if inconsistently animated, but the show makes what little it has count. Lots of slow motion and close-up stills highlight the important moments and the good use of camera angles gives them the power they need when the framerate can’t keep up, though the movements can be very awkwardly drawn at times. Even when the animation starts to let up, though, the soundtrack keeps the adrenaline high, with a super-cheesy mix of heavy metal guitar and the occasional dubstep-esque bass line. As stupid and overdone as the music is (I recall laughing at it more than once), it does fit well with the goofy cheesiness that is the sport of Magic Shounen Basketball. The OP and ED themes are powerful and upbeat and do a good job hyping you up for the game.
But by far, the biggest draw to Kuroko’s Basketball is the characters. If you actually read my About Page (does anybody actually do that?), you’d know that I’m big on characters that can be larger-than-life while still remaining down-to-earth enough to relate to and understand. Kuroko’s cast fits this bill perfectly. It’s nice that they made the female team member (usually the manager) into the coach this time around, there are some… ahem… undertonesthat are fun to goof around with (my usual name for the show is Kuroko no Basugay), and the show does a decent job giving the non-main characters something to do.
However, there are two things that I find particularly impressive about what the show does with them. First of all, the main character – Kuroko – actually fills a supporting role on the team. He sucks at basketball. Literally all he can do is pass. He has no hope of competing one-on-one with even the worst players in the show, nor does he want to. Not only is this in direct contrast to the typical shounen protagonist whose only goal in life is to be the best ninja/pirate/fighter/chef/whatever, but it also drives both the team’s and the show’s philosophy about the importance of teamwork. It’s a pretty cliche shounen theme, but Kuroko (the show and the character) presents it so much more honestly than other series in that vein. Every team has in the show has one superstar player that carries the rest of the team on their back, and a major point in the show is the idea of “Kuroko’s Basketball,” in which Kuroko’s unusual ability forces his team – Seirin – to focus on the importance of the team as a whole as opposed to banking everything on Kagami, their one superstar. “Kuroko’s Basketball” is the driving force behind Seirin’s ability to overcome stronger teams with players from the so-called “Generation of Miracles.” The show ends about halfway through the development of this idea, just as it hits its biggest roadblock, but I look forward to seeing how it evolves in the second season.
Kuroko’s lack of basketball talent also plays into his relationship with Kagami, as the ways they approach the game are fundamentally different, yet neither can reach his full potential without the other. This is the aspect of the show that perhaps ties in most closely with real basketball – as several other people have pointed out, they resemble a number of real NBA “dynamic duos” like Stockton and Malone.
Kuroko IS real!
The other big strength of the show’s characterization is the Generation of Miracles. Just as Kuroko’s unique role serves to further its primary themes, the Generation of Miracles add several new dimensions of their own to the show. Most readily apparent, the fact that they’re old teammates increases both the rivalry and the camaraderie between them, making their confrontations all the more intense. They also serve as a nice counterpoint to Kuroko’s team-oriented basketball style, being such powerful lone wolves that prefer their teams to just stay out of their way. But what’s really impressive about how the show handles them is that, despite being opponents, they’re given just as much attention as Kuroko and Kagami. Even though they’re not on the underdog team we’re supposed to be rooting for, they’re still just as well-developed, and their relationship to each other and to Kuroko is as important as the outcome of basketball games themselves.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the series’ final game, in which Seirin does not even play. Instead, Kuroko and company sit in the stands and watch as two of the Miracles take each other on. Usually, we would only see these characters as they played against Seirin and then promptly forget about them until the next time they meet, so the willingness of the show to focus the final game of the season on two other teams is quite admirable. Especially because it works so well – the game not only pushes the limits of the Miracles’ abilities by making them play against each other, but it pushes their relationship forward by tying it in with the game’s key turning point, and showing the affect that “Kuroko’s Basketball” is having on even the best of the superstar Miracle players. This is important both for its own ends and because it raises the tensions for future games against Seirin – we can see how much the Miracles have improved and more of the bonds that tie them together, so those games will have that much more weight.
Can Kuroko be slow sometimes? Yes. Is the story pretty simplistic? Yes. Is the basketball itself laughable? Oh yeah. Is the animation always up to snuff? No. Is the show pretty mediocre as a whole? Probably. Is it still a ton of fun to watch? You betcha. If you can look past (or better yet, embrace) the cheese and shounen-ness of it all, Kuroko’s Basketball is a very entertaining show that took me by surprise, and in the end, was the episode I most looked forward to watching every week this summer. Much like Kuroko himself, it just kinda came out of nowhere.