In the same way that I flocked to the Beatles because my brown hair naturally formed a rounded Beatles cut as an elementary school student, I found myself avidly watching the 1970s Japanese TV anime Ace wo Nerae! a few years ago when I lived in my former residence with cable TV, due almost solely to the fact that the female protagonist Oka Hiromi’s short curly hair resembles my post-pubescent wave. The animated series concerns young Hiromi — a first-year student at a Kanagawa-ken high school — who gets up the gumption to join her school’s tennis team in adoration of her idol — third-year campus big-shot Ryuzaki Reika aka O-Chofujin (which should be translated as something like “Mlle Butterfly”). Without any prior tennis experience, Hiromi is mysteriously thrust into the upper ranks of her team by her tough and mysterious coach Munakata. But with lots of hard work and perseverance, Hiromi finally reaches a close level to her hero O-Chofujin. Spoiler alert: the Coach totally dies.
Ace wo Nerae! is so beloved that the original manga has been made into two separate anime serials, and recently, into a cheesy live-action TV drama.
This classic story, however, is not merely about high-school girls playing tennis. The whole narrative acts as an allegory about Japan’s place in the world in the 1970s. The setting for the story resembles Yokohama — the trendy urban city where West most visibly runs up on East. Oka Hiromi represents Japan. She is physically small (a small island country), young (just “discovered” modernity in the 19th century), and inexperienced (yet to know the proper protocols of Western culture). Some may protest this patronizing view of Japan, but this was the way the Japan saw itself coming out of the 1960s. And if the geopolitical scene of the 1970s was a tennis game with specific rules and scoring, Japan was a rookie player with a lot of promise.
With her blond and luscious flowing hair, Ryuzaki Reika perfectly embodies the United States in its idealized form: the central locus of Japanese aspiration during this era. (Ironically, this particular context rewrites “Mme Butterfly” as the beautiful Western object of desire pursued by her Japanese admirers rather than the weak Oriental ready to be colonized.) Reika is tall, talented, rich, and beloved by her classmates. Although the narrative could end with this rich, blond girl getting her comeuppance from the scrappy yet determined protagonist, O-Chofujin never really pans out as a villain. In fact, she is extremely encouraging to Hiromi — a big sister if you will. There is a pleasant sororal bond, but it is inherently hierarchal.
Through very hard work and dedication, Hiromi (Japan) is able to massively improve her standing on the tennis court. While she does not necessarily get to the point of easily beating her idol, she makes massive improvement and can play with the best. And with a clear distinction in social rank and age, there is no implied failure in the younger party being #2. There is competition between the two girls, but the goal is not domination over the other. The players are working together for their school’s victory rather than their own personal glory.
Japanese sports anime and manga are full of “diminutive underdogs” — visually small heroes battling it out against mythically large rivals and ending up as unlikely victors. Some of this is determined by the needs of the main viewers: Children want to imagine themselves fighting the evil forces of the world and identify directly with a tiny protagonist. However, I believe a big reason for the small and young Japanese protagonist comes from a national sympathy with the underdog.
Americans, however, also love the underdog. The “ragtag group of scrappy youth works hard to defeat powerhouse team” is the plot of every single American sports movie: Hoosiers, Bad News Bears, The Karate Kid, etc, etc. We Americans love underdogs so much that we even made a superhero called Underdog.
Japan and the United States may both root for the underdogs, but I think there is a big difference in how each culture approaches and justifies its own identification with the underdog. As a nation, the U.S. came into existence as the impossible rebellious underdog who defeated the world-encompassing British Empire. We still see references to this creation myth in the fact that the non-masked bureaucrats in Star Wars‘ Galactic Empire talk as if they won their Half Blue at Cambridge in the 18th century. Harrison Solo, on the other hand, might as well be using his script from American Graffiti to speak with his Rebel brothers.
Since WWII, however, the U.S. has clearly become the dominant power on the world stage, and now to be an “underdog nation,” American culture must emphasize the triumph of the little guy in society and not the exploits of the nation itself to make a legitimate underdog message. For example, the Iraq War is a whole lot of bullying on the U.S.’s part, but look at the guy who got us into it. I can imagine that Bush II was pretty much exactly like James Spader in Pretty in Pink during high school.
On the other hand, Japan finds its underdog cred at the nation state level. For a country with a long history of military and Confucian hierarchy, autocratic rule, government-condoned cartels, and zero successful popular revolutions, the scrappy little guy with crazy ideas has never really been a source of inspiration. As a nation, however, post-war Japan is the little engine that could. In his book A Genealogy of Japanese Self-Images, Oguma Eiji argues that Japan reinvented its own back story as a “peaceful agrarian island nation” after the War in order to shirk from the bigger questions of imperial aggression. Once this re-branding occurred and 1945 became Year Zero, Japan became the impossible underdog on the world stage, who out of nowhere grew to be the second-largest economy in the free world by 1968. In the 1980s, that little underdog looked like it was going to surpass its big brother the U.S.
Within this specific historical narrative, Japan’s underdog identity resonates most clearly at a nation-state level, but this is not far from a Confucian philosophical underpinning. The sympathetic underdog must be a symbol or representative of the nation-state/society itself rather than an individual actor who “deserves” the justice of victory against the system.
Although a game created mostly for the American market, the classic NES title Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! well illustrates the Japanese nation-based underdog concept. There may have been programming issues that necessitated a tiny protagonist, but the ethnically-generic Little Mac is a itsy-bitsy boxer whom the player pilots through three circuits of enormous and scary villains. I should not have to remind you that all of the other boxers represent a single nation-state. I’ve never been to Hippo Island, but I can imagine that King Hippo also follows the pattern of the boxer embodying the stereotypes of his respective home. The French are weak, the Germans are WWI revivalists (born in 1945!), and Pacific Islanders are grotesquely obese. Indians practice some kind of special magic called “Hindu” that involves twinkling red crystals and teleportation.
Our protagonist may not be explicitly Japanese — the official Japanese guy even threatens to give Little Mac a “TKO from Tokyo (TYO)” — but he fits the Oka Hiromi pattern of going against all odds to make his way up the hierarchy. Not through inherent talent or strength — but through hard work and a good coach. You don’t see Soda Popinski strenuously biking near the Statue of Liberty at dawn, and maybe that’s why the giant pink Russian gets beat so easily by a pipsqueak in street clothes.
Whether with tennis or boxing, the Japanese have a history of creating the underdog within a direct or implied nation-state contexts. Only if the competition is between larger macro units of humanity — society, nation, family — should the underdog win. Compare this with the American narrative of Prefontaine — an athlete who abandons his own “unique” style of front-running to please the “common knowledge” of his coach only to lose the Gold Medal in 1972. The Pre is a tragic underdog in the United States context — he is the individual suppressed by the norm.
These examples basically tell us what we already know about how each society expects its members to relate to society. Japan: the individual pursues betterment of society through hard work and total dedication vs. United States: the individual pursues betterment of society by fighting for justice and innovation at the cost of social harmony. Underdogs may be universally loved, but they are not always the same breed of canine.