Masaya Tsunamoto’s 2010 KMA-winning professional soccer manga Giant Killing is a very unique piece of material. Unlike most sports manga, it follows the development of a team in a professional league over the course of a rather realistic season, where losses and draws are as common as wins. It also stands out for putting the focus of the narrative not just on the athletes and the disgraced ex-player returning from England to coach the team, but also on the team’s fans (from the 40-something fair weather fans who don’t travel well to the 20-something hooligans who cheer loud and riot louder) and its front office (who have to deal with bad press when things aren’t going so well).
Indeed, the story of the manga opens with staff from the front office on a trip to England, trying to lure the team’s former ace Tatsumi back to Japan as the team’s manager. And the very next story deals with the negative light in which the fans view Tatsumi, who quit the team at the prime of his career. Only after these two dynamics are introduced does the manga start playing any kind of soccer. It’s a three-pronged approach to soccer which gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the layers of culture within professional sports.
The series has recently been in the middle of an extensive gaiden arc, telling the real story of why Tatsumi left the team. It turns out that decision was less selfishness and more the fault of a system that forced him, albeit somewhat willingly, to the breaking point.
The gaiden begins with Tatsumi already a superstar, the face of the club and a member of the Japanese international team. However, it quickly becomes apparent that his situation has all the ingredients for a career breakdown. First, the business side of the club is pushing him to play even harder than he already is. While he can deal with that pressure and keep putting on a casual demeanor, it gets to him when he’s practicing alone at night. Second, he’s nursing a foot that might not be in pain, but is definitely in sub-optimal condition and could probably use a day of rest. The manga heavily hints at the foot as the cause of Tatsumi’s retirement with storyboards like this:
I liked this chapter in particular because it features the team’s locker room in the halftime of a big game, a microcosm the subtle dilemma facing Tatsumi. He’s dealing with the above foot troubles, but he’s also got a team and a fanbase behind him that’s very caught up in the moment and wants to win now. So he takes up the leadership mantle, gives a short motivational speech on heroics, and walks back out onto the field to play the game that ultimately shortens his career.
Giant Killing doesn’t just use the flashback to explain Tatsumi’s past and then go back to business as usual; the injury issue is a fairly prevalent theme within the series that comes out in a number of ways before the gaiden begins. His personal history of being broken by one too many hard pushes towards greatness makes a big difference in how he treats his own players; at one point, he gives one of his key starters the game off because the starter in question unconvincingly claims he’s fatigued. Tatsumi’s style is also directly contrasted with that of a rival manager, who lets his star come back from an injury early even when he knows the consequences of that decision may be. Like many other themes in the manga, it’s an issue that shows up all the time in professional sports, adding to the richly realistic feel of the series.