Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"The color of the Earth is... what?"

A long time ago - which is to say, before I came to Japan - I was a fan of a Japanese manga called "The Prince of Tennis." I can't really explain why - I know nothing about the game, am not interested in sports, and only could follow the action because, true to genre, it dumbed down the rules and played up the special tricks. Despite all this points against it, I was entranced through the entire book series as well as the anime of it. And then I learned there was a live-action musical version, and I was lost. It was the blending of the world of musical theatre I had lived in during high school, and the world of Japanese popular culture that I was just dipping my feet into.

"Emily," I hear you say, "A musical... about tennis?"

I understand your misgivings, dear Reader, as my first reaction was the same bogglement. "Are they really dancing with rackets? Did they just spell out V-I-C-T-O-R-Y with their bodies like an all-tennis Village People?" But haven't we in the West also had musicals about soccer and cats and assassins? If you have the suspension of disbelief for that, then what is a little more? And reading manga already requires quite a bit of that, so the two genres are a logical match - in their extreme illogicalness.

The story is of a 1st year in junior high, Ryoma Echizen, who joins the tennis club. 1st years in clubs usually are nothing but menial servants - picking up balls, bringing out the nets - but because this is a manga, Ryoma turns out to be a prodigy, the child of a former champion, who amazes everyone with his skill. The rest, of course, is history. He and the team go on to battle against schools from across the country, increasingly strong and bizarre.

Though I still knew nothing of the sport, I'm always a sucker for the team dynamic as an inveterate solitary creature. So I was crazy about the franchise for a while, but ironically enough it faded away about the same time I came to Japan, much as my interest in manga in general did. I think the structure has something to do with it - Japanese musicals are often based on a graduation system, where one case will perform the parts for a year or so before graduating en masse. Though I appreciate that it gives new young talents an opportunity to shine, I tend to get attached to the individuals. If the first generation hadn't left I wouldn't have gotten to know second generation, etc - but that didn't make me any less disappointed when they did graduate. I think the appeal of the musical groups I like these days is that once they're debuted, they're around forever. Yesterday was the 18th anniversary of Kinki Kids meeting, and they'll probably be around another 18 years, which I find rather comforting.

"Prince of Tennis" wasn't the first manga to become a musical, and it definitely won't be the last. I wouldn't even say it's a good one - the songs are often painfully cheesy, and the cast is selected more for their looks and personality than actual dancing, singing, or acting ability. An adaption of the Sailor Moon series ran for at least 12 years, which doesn't surprise me. The premise of Sailor Moon is a cast of pretty girls twirling and posing and changing into increasingly glittery costumes, and what else are musicals, really? I'm inclined to believe, though, that it makes just as little sense in Japanese as translated into English.

Other ventures boggled me. Such as the rock musical based on Bleach which is about giant monsters that I thought would be untranslatable. Or Air Trek, which is about roller skates that enable the wearers to fly from building to building - roller skates on stage is just asking for accidents.


But if you're wondering about the show I started with:

Obligatory "We rule, you suck" song from one rival team.

Exposition (and Tap!) from the Comedy Relief trio.

The Graduation shows are popular, because fans apparently like to see their actors dissolve into tears.

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