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Are nekketsu shōnen manga sports manga?

The example of Dragon Ball
Les mangas nekketsu shōnen sont-ils des mangas sportifs ? L’exemple de Dragon Ball
Frédéric Ducarme


Les mangas japonais appartenant au sous-genre du shōnen nekketsu comptent parmi les plus célèbres et les plus exportés dans le monde. Ce genre se distingue par une structure narrative particulière plutôt qu’un registre ou un cadre conventionnel, autorisant le mélange d’œuvres fantastiques avec d’autres réalistes. L’hypothèse du présent travail est que l’unité de cette catégorie est à trouver dans le type de valeurs qui y sont développées, et que l’on peut rapprocher de valeurs sportives. Dans cet article, nous analysons les traits principaux du manga Dragon Ball d’Akira Toriyama, en les comparants à d’autres classiques du genre, de manière à mettre en évidence le fait qu’en dépit de la diversité apparente de cet ensemble, tous ces manga concourent à développer un même idéal du sportif visant l’effort et la progression, se battant contre ses propres limites plutôt que contre des ennemis, en contraste marqué avec les justiciers des comics américains ou de la bande dessinée européenne. Ces œuvres proposent donc une émancipation du sport de son cadre classique pour le recontextualiser dans le domaine du fantastique, conservant toutefois ses caractéristiques essentielles, simplement stylisées.

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We warmly thank Sébastien Laffage-Cosnier and Christian Vivier for initiating this work, Isabelle Guillaume for her proof-reading, and the “Sciences Dessinées” lab for support. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for insightful advices and corrections.

1Japanese shōnen manga have become since the 1990s a very popular cultural product worldwide, surpassing the success of American comics or any other type of comic book in many countries throughout the planet, such as France (BOUISSOU 2010), where it constitutes around 40% of the comic book market (BOUCHARD 2006). Shōnen manga are particular types of Japanese comics aimed at male teenagers (as opposed to shōjo), including a wide range of genres, the most famous and widespread one being called nekketsu, centered around the idea of initiation (VINCENT 2009). Dragon Ball is probably the most successful example of Shōnen, being considered as one of the best-selling comic books of all times with over 250 million books sold (VINCENT 2009), and a model of globalized Japanese culture.

2Nekketsu shōnen

3While the category of shōnen manga is defined mostly on the basis of its audience (male teenagers, cf. BOUCHARD 2016), nekketsu is clearly a genre, ruled by strict codes and conventions, like most other manga genres (BOUCHARD 2006). Its history can be traced back to the 1930 when young boys were advised to read nekketsu shôsetsu (“boiling-heart stories”) aimed at instilling a patriotic feeling and a sense of effort and sacrifice (SUVILAY 2018). After the Second World War, similar stories reappeared but free from their original military context, and sports was soon chosen as a major way to teach bravery to the youth. Hence the earliest successful series of nekketsu manga were mostly sports manga (Takamori Asao achieved success in the 1960s with Kyojin no hoshi, focused on baseball, and Ashita no Joe, focused on boxing), and then samurai-related or science-fiction stories became more popular during the 1970s, mostly inspired by the 1950s famous series Astroboy, featuring a super-strong but emotive robot boy helping defending his country against foreign threats. The emergence of several major publishing companies during the 1970s (such as Shonen Jump in 1968) allowed the fixation of some classical standards in the production, due in part to the fast rate of publication. This may be a reason why the plot of nekketsu manga is quite consistent (VINCENT 2009), and usually follows the “hero’s journey” framework as described by Joseph Campbell (Campbell 1949), here influenced by the tradition of samurai novels (jidaigeki): a poor, young, passionate, innocent and insignificant boy gets involved in an adventurous quest, during which he will meet trials, allies and opponents – who often become allies once beaten. This quest can be fantastical (as in Dragon Ball, Naruto, Bleach, One Piece and many others), but also a mere (though epic) career as a sportsman in a realistic world (Slam Dunk, Captain Tsubasa, Touch), but in every case it implies an initiation to a particular discipline (VINCENT 2009). In order to become a hero, the main character will be faced with more and more powerful opponents, and soon face failure; in order to triumph, he will need to train under an old master (sometimes replaced by even wiser masters when he overcomes the master’s level) – these masters most often replace an absent father (DUCARME 2013). His quest soon reveals ontological dimensions and reveals the uniqueness of his destiny, as well as the fact that his quest implies his entire world (be it a small community or the whole universe). At last, facing the absolute enemy, the hero will be dominated at first, and even symbolically nearly killed, but drawing on the power of his rage tears and boiling blood (“nekketsu” in Japanese), he will find inside himself a whole new power, allowing him to finally overcome and prevail, by accessing a new form of existence, as a true hero (VINCENT 2009). This force can be purely metaphorical or at least slightly odd-looking, as in realistic manga, or incarnated in spectacular magic powers or transformations in fantastical manga (COOLS 2011).

4Many cornerstones serve as references for this genre, especially martial arts movies. Even some Western movies such as Georges Lucas’ Star Wars (well known to be based directly on Campbell’s book and Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies), which share many common traits with nekketsu manga and did achieve great success in Japan, can be seen as influences on these artworks, though such influence is probably two-way. Besides samurai novels, some Eastern classics are other major influences, such as Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, which is the basis of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball (MINGUEZ-LOPEZ 2014), which has become the model of the whole nekketsu genre (VINCENT 2009, THOMPSON 2012). Other particular influences in Dragon Ball include Bruce Lee’s and Jackie Chan’s movies, but also Peter Pan (for the first half of the manga) and Superman (for the second half).

5Sports in Japanese youth culture

  • 1 With less than 10% of traditional Japanese sports such as karate or sumo (ibid).

6As early as 1920, Japan experienced a strong influence of Western sports, which was used by the government as a way to educate and control youth (COLLINS 2012). In the wake of Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympism, sports were also considered as a way to provide ethical values to young Japanese, in particular the sense of effort, self-mastery, fair-play, hope in progress and discipline (ANDRIEU 2013), but also the quest for records (GUTTMAN 1978), all of these values being reinfused with Japanese cultural elements, drawing from local philosophy as well as history and religion. From the beginning, this emphasis on sports was accompanied by media and arts, with the publication of many serialized magazines stories and short novels, glorifying hard-working athletes as the metaphor of Japan struggling to become a world power (COLLINS 2012). The rise of manga after the Second World War absorbed this culture, and many sports-themed manga started to be published (starting with Kazuo Inoue’s Batto kun in 1946, BOUCHARD 2016), focusing on explicitly Western sports such as baseball, football, boxing or basketball (LAFFAGE-COSNIER & RIE 2016)1. At the acme of the manga industry in the 1980s-1990s, some of these sports manga achieved colossal success in Japan, such as Slam Dunk (120 million copies sold in Japan alone), or Mitsuru Adachi’s many popular series (over 200 million copies sold in total, BOUCHARD 2016). However, sports manga (sometimes referred to as supotsu manga or supokon, BOUNTHAVY 2018) do not really constitute a proper genre but rather a mere theme or framework, and most of them can be better linked to classical genres – such as nekketsu – and are edited in mainstream anthologies, such as Weekly Shōnen Jump (Captain Tsubasa, Slam Dunk, etc).

  • 2 In manga n° 17, we learn that the hero was sent from another planet while a baby, and belongs to a (...)

7It may seem surprising to Western readers that fantastical comics such as Dragon Ball, whose scenario borrows elements from Superman2, and realistic sports series such as Captain Tsubasa (or even the game of Go in Hikaru no Go), belong to the same generic category. The fact is that such classification is not built on the type of universe depicted, but rather on the narrative structure (the public being considered roughly similar for all shōnen types). Actually, the difference between the balance of the whole universe in Dragon Ball and the simple victory of a junior baseball team in Major is superficial: the stake is still the same for the main character, as his quest is mostly an ontological one, aiming at revealing his real self through ordeal. Only the type of quest varies, as well as the type of power gained, from a title as a starred chef in Mister Ajikko to becoming a true deity in Saint Seiya. And if sports manga often borrow elements from fantastical ones (such as auras surrounding characters and incarnating their power – ki – and will – konjo), fantastical manga also borrow a lot from the rules of sports, as we shall see. We here propose the hypothesis that despite their apparent diversity, most nekketsu manga share some important common traits, one of the main ones being their approach to the body as an object of work in a holistic way, linked to a sports approach to the self. As long as nekketsu fights, be they against evil enemies or teen sports teams, constitute a “physical activity aimed at recreation, health or competition, with a minimal regulatory framework”, they all fit within the classical definition of sports (TERRET 2013). The question is now whether the characters do actually behave like sportsmen and abide by sports values (such as studied by GUTTMAN 1978 or ANDRIEU 2013), even when the framework is not the one of a classical sports federation. This may indicate that fantastical martial arts nekketsu manga such as Dragon Ball could be interpreted as a modern embodiment of the old Japanese tradition of sports novels supporting ethical values, reframed in a more broadly Asian folklore, and contributing to the global broadcasting of a very Japanese outlook on the body, on ethics and on the self.

The body as a raw material to work on

The neutrality of the initial body

8The main characteristic of any good starting nekketsu hero is his lack of characteristics (VINCENT 2009). They are always random, plain characters, with few physical, sociological or even psychological defining traits, except that they are innocent, pure-hearted, and often poor and orphan – Tsubasa, Naruto or Goku all fit this description. This can be explained on the one hand by the need for identification from readers (the less characteristic a character is, the more the reader can project himself (MCCLOUD 1993)), but also by seeing such characters as empty containers, blank pages on which the legend is to be written down. Their only originality usually lies in a discreet symbolic element, predicting their particular destiny usually through a useless-looking magical (or symbolic in realistic manga) object, often some heirloom of mysterious origin, which will later prove decisive. Hence, heroes seem randomly selected among almost average kids – even if upcoming revelations will often shed a new light on their true identity and partly explain their talent. As an example, the beginning of Naruto shows the future hero as a mischievous and reckless brat, and so is Tsubasa in Captain Tsubasa. At the beginning of Dragon Ball, Goku is as the same time the archetype and an exception to this rule. An archetype, because he is a pure-hearted orphan living a simple life in the woods, waiting for adventure to call him, his innocence being a recurrent pun, often made obvious by his recurring and childish nudity (emphasized by his companion the sexy and naughty Bulma, who is always trying not to been seen naked unless she can take advantage of it). But he is also an exception because he has got a magical stick and a monkey tail (his symbolic elements signifying his origins and destiny, which are here emphasized and obviously strange, contrary to anecdotical objects usually present in other nekketsu, such as the basement key in Attack on Titan), and mostly because of his already incredible strength, making him stronger than any of his monstrous enemies from the very beginning. This gap is probably due to the fact that in its early pages, Dragon Ball was not intended at being a nekketsu: it began as a parodic comics, mocking the Journey to the west, in the spirit of Toriyama’s other parodic series such as Dr. Slump (a parody of Astroboy), and only later on became (under the name of Dragon Ball Z for its anime version) the true symbol of classical nekketsu manga (THOMPSON 2011). However, despite his strength, the young and passionate Goku still looks like a weak kid, obviously naïve, not showing any muscle or threatening face, hence fooling his enemies into underestimating him (the main character in Dr. Slump, Arale, was also a nerdy little girl with incredible strength).

Training as an imperative

  • 3 The cyborg saga begins with the arrival of Trunks from the future, where the cyborgs have destroyed (...)

9A huge difference between Goku and Superman, to whom he has often been compared, is that even if Goku seems naturally incredibly strong, he is always training to become stronger. Such a difference can easily be extended to all nekketsu heroes and American comic-books super-heroes: super-heroes’strength is usually stable, whereas these Japanese heroes are involved in a process of becoming stronger. The very first sequence of Dragon Ball shows Goku’s daily routine in the woods, where he has to hunt, cut wood, and escape from monsters nearly bare-handed for his living, with great discipline and martial arts moves. Training hence represents a major part of Dragon Ball, and all other nekketsu manga: whole chapters are dedicated to Goku’s ever-harder training, which represents his main activity and passion – to the great displeasure of his wife, once married and with a family, which completes the analogy between such a fighter and any professional sportsman. All the fighting characters hence spend most of their time trying to get stronger, and training is presented by them as an imperative: in manga number 36, while Gohan has taken advantage of the peace to give up his training in order to become a scientist, Vegeta tells him “Even if the world is at peace, if you neglect your training you are going to rust. […] Last time you were the stronger, but now who knows? While you were resting I’ve been training hard!” (plate n°34). Hence, even in the absence of an objective reason to get stronger, there is some kind of moral imperative to keep training. In the same vein, at the beginning of the series Master Roshi participates in disguise at the world martial arts championship in order to beat his own pupils, just because “if they win, they will give up their training. And I want them to become even stronger!” (volume number 4, plate n°146). Even at death’s door after his fight with Goku, antagonist Vegeta’s only wish is “I won’t give up! I’ll come back even stronger!”, and Goku lets him live even though he killed most of his friends, just because he wants to fight with him again later. Hence, even death fights with super-villains seem to be a part of the training for Goku, and this strange passion often threatens the world, as in many instances the trouble could have been avoided without a fight (for example the whole cyborg saga, manga 283), but Goku never avoids it, and nearly always pardons his adversaries.

10Every four years in Dragon Ball’s world, the world martial arts championship gathers all of the world’s fighters to compare the results of their training, all bragging about their brand new power, and even evil villains such as Piccolo or Cell will participate, considering such a championship as a part of their plan to dominate the world. This also justifies a setting resembling a sports championship, and the presence of strict rules and a code of honor even when those death fights influence the destiny of the world: when Goku defeats the devil Piccolo in volume n°17, saving the world from a dreadful threat, he asks the championship referee to validate his official victory (which is his first in this championship, after 3 finals), saying that his adversary is out of the ring, while the ring and whole arena have been destroyed and everybody else had forgotten that the fight had begun in the context of a martial arts competition.

Increasing power and an evolving body

11Hence, contrary to many Western fighting comic characters, nekketsu heroes have an evolving strength, which is the result of their training under wise masters, and constant confrontations with strong enemies. Consequently, in all nekketsu manga, the hero’s power at the end of the series has nothing in common with his starting strength as a young and feeble boy, and it is always a challenge for the mangaka to carry on inventing new illustrations of this super-human power and of its effects. This ever-increasing power is even quantified in some parts of Dragon Ball, for example thanks to Frieza’s army’s “scouters”, small high-tech devices which allow for calculating an opponent’s battle force, which reveal that in only a couple of books Goku jumps from 334 (manga volume 17) to far over 60000 (volume 24), and will carry on his progress at a similar pace throughout the whole series. Moreover, this evolution is also depicted in the drawing: whereas Goku starts as a funny kid with disheveled dark hair, he ends up as a tall family father, able to transform himself in a series of stages called “super-saiyan”, with blond spiked hair and blue eyes. His face and clothes also evolve with him, his kimono being marked by the name of his current master, and at the end by his own.

12Whereas American comics’ superheroes seem frozen in time (Eco 1972), Superman having not grown much older since his creation back in 1933, nekketsu heroes are bound to grow up and evolve – consequently they also come to an end, and no manga can last as long as these American myths, even if Dragon Ball had many TV spin-offs (not designed by Akira Toriyama), tapping into artificial tricks such as Goku’s magical rejuvenation (Dragon Ball GT). If Goku can appear quite extreme in regards to his evolution (aging over 30 years and doubling in height from 1984 to 1995, ending with grandchildren), this aspect remains true for most of his fellow heroes, such as Ichigo in Bleach, or Tsubasa in Captain Tsubasa – much classical fan-art even consists in putting into one picture the different visual stages of these heroes. This visual evolution is linked to their personal initiation, from innocent kids to responsible heroes, accumulating visual symbols of their new strength (such as new armor in Saint Seiya) and also goes along with the growth of the reading public itself (just like the Harry Potter series, which, as an initiatory series, shares many elements with nekketsu manga).

Initiation: between training, teaching and educating

Fathers and masters

13A previous paper (DUCARME 2013) showed how the absence of the father is a central element in Dragon Ball, which is also a systematic characteristic in most nekketsu manga – be the father dead or just gone away. Hence, Goku is an orphan, but so will be his son Gohan, as Goku dies in volume 17. Goku’s second son Goten is also an orphan and meets his father only at the age of 6, during Goku’s one-day visit to the world of the living. Goku’s rival Vegeta is an orphan as well, and so too is his son Trunks, back from a future where all the other characters are dead (and where he was educated and trained by Gohan before his death).

14This absence of the father in nekketsu manga has many roles: first, it can justify the quest if there is anything mysterious in the departure of the father, or if his death is to be avenged: for example, in Attack on Titan, the hero must avenge his mother’s death as well as solve the mystery of his father’s disappearance. At least, this absence of family (as there is often no mother either) justifies the fact of venturing away without particular ties. Secondly, in many of these manga, the quest reveals major information about the father – here the similarity with Star Wars is at its maximum – which constitutes a useful plot element, involving prophecies, legacies or revenge. Last but not least, the absence of the father justifies his replacement by a substitute figure that fits the quest: the master. The figure of the master is an indispensable element in any nekketsu: every knight in Saint Seiya has his particular master in knighthood, Tsubasa is trained at football by Roberto, Naruto learns to fight with Kakashi, Monkey (in One Piece) becomes an accomplished pirate thanks to Shanks, etc. These masters are often supposed to be only instructors in one discipline, such as the particular sport in sports manga, or martial arts in combat manga. But they always develop a far more intimate relationship with their pupil, who often lives with them – especially in martial arts manga – and, more importantly, aims at fulfilling the old quest they have abandoned (which can be winning a championship or defeating the devil himself): sport is always the vehicle for an ontological challenge, and for the fulfillment of a symbolic quest. When the pupil overcomes the master, new and higher masters can enter the field to carry on their training.

15In Dragon Ball, this element is extremely important: if training represents Goku’s main occupation, it is nearly always under the generous yet intransigent eye of a master in martial arts. At the beginning of the story, Goku does not even have a father at all: he was a mysterious orphan, adopted as a baby by an old man who was already a master of martial arts. Already in the first manga, he meets master Kame-Sen'nin, who will be his mentor during the first part of his training. But after the finals of the world martial arts championship, Kame-Sen'nin admits he has nothing further to teach to Goku, who needs to go back to wandering and finding new ways to train. This wandering brings him to master Karin in volume n°8, who used to train Kame-Sen'nin, and makes him even stronger. But Goku discovers in volume n°14 that above master Karin’s tower lies the temple of god (god being called Kami-sama). He then becomes the martial arts pupil of god himself for three years, eventually becoming stronger than him in the end, and able to defeat the devil, Piccolo. After Goku’s death in volume n°18, he gets trained in heaven by Kaioh, the master of gods, while his own son, now fatherless as well, gets trained by the demon Piccolo (forced to do so by the arrival of extra-terrestrial super-warriors he cannot beat alone). Only after this will Goku become his own master, but his son Gohan then takes over the role of the young nekketsu hero – this transmission of the nekketsu embodiment is very specific to Dragon Ball, linked to its long-running story and aging characters. This relationship is symbolized by clothes: since the beginning of his training by Kame-Sen'nin, Goku (and all other Kame school pupils) has been wearing the distinctive orange kimono of the Kame school, with a “Kame” kanji over the heart. After his training at Kaioh’s, he gets a “Kaioh” kanji on the back, and only in volume n°23 he finally gets his own name on his kimono (which is still the orange one). On the other hand, the young Gohan gets the demon’s name on the back of his kimono during his training under Piccolo (who says “I’m going to give you a gift… Clothes like your father’s ones. But the label is slightly different”, volume n°17 plate 30), and later, as a teenager, he will ask for Piccolo’s battle suit before fighting Cell in volume n°33, while he could get a high-tech battle suit: symbols of apprenticeship seem more important than basic survival. Furthermore, despite being Goku’s son, he explicitly considers Piccolo as his second father, as stated in volume n°21 “you have great respect for Piccolo, don’t you? – Yes, as much as for my father” (plate 51). In a similar vein, while Vegeta and his son Trunks (back in time from the future) are hostile to each other when they meet, after they have been training for one year in the “Room of Spirit and Time”, Trunks starts wearing Vegeta’s characteristic battle suit, and they eventually call each other father and son, showing how only training has managed to build a family link between these two characters.

Physical and metaphysical strengths

16If masters are so important and intimately influencial, it is also because they are never mere teachers or instructors: teaching in nekketsu manga is not limited to the transmission of particular skills and knowledge, but consists in a complete education, in the whole building of body and soul according to a holistic ideal. Sports (or fighting) therefore appear as the justification and support for education, raising, building and enlightening a man to full capacity, explaining the confusion between paternal and coaching figures. Moreover, whereas most of the disciplines taught in nekketsu manga are physical activities (despite some exceptions such as cooking (Mister Ajikko), the game of Go (Hikaru no Go) or even spinning tops (with Metal Fight Beyblade)), the training is always at least as much spiritual as it is physical. Masters are always also wise sages, who alternate physical exercises with meditation, philosophy and spiritual elevation – this is especially obvious in Saint Seiya, where training is mostly spiritual while the aim is physical-looking fights. In Dragon Ball, a double-plate illustrates this aspect very well in volume 36 (plates 134-135), when all the characters are finishing their training for the world fighting championship: four of them are drawn giving a punch, but the one in the middle, Piccolo, is shown in deep meditation and levitation, setting explicitly spiritual training on an equal footing with martial training, and even at its heart. There is actually no difference between strength and wisdom in Dragon Ball: all the truly wise people in the manga, including all the (numerous) gods, are also martial arts experts, and Earth’s god even says he became so because he was a great fighter (volume n°14) – for the same reason he asks Goku to become god in his place in volume n°17, when he has proven he could defeat the devil and become world champion in martial arts. If some enemies can be naturally strong, such as most of the super-villains (keeping in mind that after Frieza they are all artificial creatures), they will always be surpassed because they do not train and are never wise enough to win.

17As “true” strength lies in the mind, it is often hidden. In nekketsu manga, the most powerful characters are never the most physically impressive, and “in Toriyama's universe, the strongest fighters are often the littlest and wimpiest-looking” (THOMPSON 2011). In Dragon Ball, Goku is a small disheveled boy, but can beat any dragon, dinosaur or big monster he meets from the very beginning. His masters all look like old, feeble and venerable people: Kame-Sen'nin is a grotesque old man wearing sunglasses, the great master Karine is a talking cat, and master Kaioh looks like a fat bug. Even the strongest villains are always small humanoids rather than big monsters: in the saiyans saga, the strongest of the three saiyans is Vegeta, who looks like a short boy, and in Frieza’s saga, the final form of Frieza is also the smallest and least fierce-looking, as noted by the characters themselves (volume n°26, Kuririn says “So this is Frieza’s true appearance? He looks smaller and far less impressive”, plate n°55). Likewise, the final enemy, Boo, is nothing but a fat pink baby, and his ultimate and most powerful form is also the smallest. All these old or childlike champions are often shown defeating big enemies with just one hit, especially in the qualifying rounds of martial arts championships or while fighting with simple henchmen. As a consequence, muscle bulging is always discredited in nekketsu manga, where heroes are super-strong thin boys. Here, Dragon Ball appears as an exception, as it is one of the rare manga to show muscular heroes (though only from volume 17, when Goku is an adult). However, this trend remains brief in Dragon Ball, with a clear peak at the end of the Frieza saga (volumes 27-28). In the following saga, strength building implying big muscles is clearly discredited, through the defeat of a super-strong Trunks against the evil Cell (volume n°33), while Goku comments “a huge strength is useless if you can’t touch your opponent! Moreover, it wastes too much energy” (plate n°28). Since then, the power increase will not result in muscle gain any more, but in transformations, indicating a superior mental state (VINCENT 2009) rather than just more physical strength, and for the rest of the manga Goku will remain quite muscular but far less than in volume n°17. An anti-model even emerges in volume 33 to confirm this idea: Hercules Satan appears as a hairy (hence European) and pretentious though weak wrestler, with big muscles but a feeble spirit, and will remain a funny anti-hero until the end, being a champion of the least spiritual martial arts, and using cheating and secret weapons in order to win his fights – which never happens.

  • 4 We here take the liberty of not considering Fist of the North Star as a true nekketsu: the hero is (...)

18Strength rather proceeds from the harmony between body and soul, or more precisely a physical embodiment of a moral will. This is the essence and true meaning of nekketsu: the “boiling blood” comes when courage, hope and the sense of justice emerge from failure, giving new strength to the hero. This happens identically in a young football player exhausted and suffering on the ground and in baby Gohan seeing the evil Radditz killing his father before his eyes. A classical topos in nekketsu is the incredulous audience impressed by a symbolically dead hero rising again with a whole new strength, even stronger than before, and defeating his enemies in a blasting last strike as if he was inhabited by a divine power – in this way, nekketsu may be translated by inspiration in Latin, or enthusiasm in Greek, evoking biblical heroes such as Samson, inhabited by supernatural power. If this idea is most often metaphorical, in some manga such as Saint Seiya characters are actually being encouraged by a goddess, and some of them do come back from the dead to rise again with new powers. This mental strength is made visible in Dragon Ball and other fantastical manga by the presence of an aura, which is also present though only metaphorically in more realistic manga. In Dragon Ball, this aura of vital strength (“ki”) plays a major role in the scenario, as it becomes the main fighting tool, when concentrated in powerful energy balls. Hence, fights in Dragon Ball appear less like martial arts battles than confrontations between mental forces. Such strength emerges from the mental control of a holistic energy, and does not need any more muscles or fighting techniques, but only willpower, explaining why Dragon Ball fights are only percussive and practically never imply true fighting techniques. As such, winning a fight is no longer about physically subduing the enemy (fights never end with fighting locks or disabling as in realistic fights), but defeating a whole spiritual power by surpassing its spiritual energy. Moreover, there are only two possible outcomes to a fight: either the defeated villain admits his defeat and becomes an ally (in Dragon Ball, these are Yamcha, Kurinin, Tenshinhan, Piccolo, Vegeta…) or he gets totally annihilated to the last cell, because there is no good in him at all (Frieza, Cell, Boo, most robots or artificial creatures). The presence of enemies capable of regenerating themselves or returning from death justifies their annihilation by total melting in massive energy balls, as a kind of purification by fire. This is why violence in such manga is actually mostly symbolic: “Nobody understood that violence within the fights in Dragon Ball or Fist of the North Star4 is symbolic, and only represents violence but does not encourage it” (VINCENT 2009).

The sportsman and the avenger

  • 5 In this regard, in Dragon Ball the character of Gohan is a counter-example of the nekketsu hero: de (...)
  • 6 The only exception is in volume n°21, where Goku, trapped in his spaceship for six days trains usin (...)

19Whatever the activity at the heart of a nekketsu manga, it most often fits with classical definitions of sports, making its heroes characteristic models of sportsmen. We here use as a definition of sports the one provided by Terret (2013): a “physical activity aimed at recreation, health or competition, with a minimal regulatory framework”. First of all, it is needless to say that the numerous fights at the heart of Dragon Ball constitute a physical activity, as well as in any other sport or combat nekketsu; we also saw before that even in manga not directly related to any accredited sport (such as the game of Go, spinning tops or card games), the training contains a physical part, and the activity provokes obvious tiredness, sweating, sometimes pain, and can even lead to total exhaustion (even in some cases death, such as in the card game manga Yu-Gi-Oh!). Secondly, in Dragon Ball the recreational aspect is obvious in Goku’s mind, for whom fights are always fun before anything else. As an example, when he learns about Frieza being the most powerful being in the galaxy, threatening his defenseless friends and son on a remote planet, his main thought is not about saving them but about his excitement at the idea of fighting such a great warrior: “[Kame Sen’in:] this is probably the saiyan nature… He wants to save his friends but his greatest desire is about fighting against very strong enemies. […] [Goku, smiling:] Incredible! There is somebody stronger than Vegeta…” (volume n°21 plate 149) This aspect is probably very specific to Dragon Ball, where fighting is taken by the hero as a fun activity, but in most other nekketsu, the main character is also animated in the first place by passion (BOUCHARD 2016), even when it also constitutes a mission (such as in Saint Seiya) or a job (Mister Ajikko)5. Third, health is also emphasized in these manga. In Dragon Ball, training is deeply linked with the direct contact with wild nature, and Goku is never seen using body-building or fighting machines6 – contrary to Vegeta. Either does he use any artificial way of gaining strength, such as medicine, weapons or witchcraft, but finds in his own body, in its vigorous health (and copious traditional meals), all of his strength. Though the body often suffers from the activity in many manga (including sports manga, such as Captain Tsubasa where the hero suffers from an old wound), it is always in order to better reveal how good mental health can give power, and how the body must accept pain to improve. Competition is the fourth element of the definition: it may also be the most obvious element in all of these manga, where there is always some kind of championship, even when the setting is not a conventional sport (BOUCHARD 2016). We have already said that in Dragon Ball, villains participate in martial arts championships (and even create some, such as the “Cell game” in volume n°33), and most often accept (or propose) some rules even in death fights – though they can also break them, contrary to heroes. We have already referred to Goku’s victory against the devil Piccolo (volume n°17), where the most important thing for him is less to have freed the world from evil than winning the world martial arts championship. Saint Seiya also begins with a tournament in an arena, and the whole manga is shaped like a championship, with pool matches and finals. Naruto or One Piece are also built on a group of people practicing the same activity and following similar rules, all aiming at becoming “the best” – even when the most evil also aim at becoming rich, conquering the world or destroying the universe. Competitiveness is perhaps the most striking element in nekketsu manga for laymen, as it is an on-going goal through all of these series, whereas virtually no American comics or Franco-Belgian “bande dessinée” hero seems to be animated by a similar quest (except in some explicitly competitive sports series such as Michel Vaillant). Last but not least, the idea of a regulatory framework is essential in the highly formal world of Japanese nekketsu shōnen. Once again, this aspect is obvious in sports series such as Slam Dunk or Touch. But even in fantasy manga like Dragon Ball, Naruto or Saint Seiya, death battles always constitute a discipline and not just free fights, and there is always a regulatory authority ruling over these (though such authorities are not always powerful enough to intervene, such as gods in Dragon Ball).

20As seen before, strength and wisdom are not separated in nekketsu manga, and opponents who only train their body (or upgrade their gear) and neglect their spiritual training will never win. This is also why sports manga have such a low documentary value, compared to Western sports comics (any volume of Captain Tsubasa can illustrate well enough how little of football its readers learn while reading it): they are not intended to explain a sport’s rules or techniques, but rather at illustrating what a sport’s ethics are. There is no suspense about who will win in a sports manga, but all the interest is on how and why they will win, which justifies that a football match can spread over hundreds of pages (BOUCHARD 2016) – an extreme example is the final volume of Slam Dunk, describing throughout 200 pages the last minute of a finals match.

  • 7 Between the first Piccolo and Boo (the series’ final enemy), Goku’s only kill is the demonic monste (...)

21But spirit is not even enough: morality counts as well. Here lies a major difference between nekketsu heroes – and especially Goku – and classical American comic books heroes. Goku is not a vigilante or an avenger, but a sportsman. Even when he fights dreadful villains, it is less in order to punish them for their crimes than to compare his strength to theirs. He does not even consider them as enemies but opponents, in such a way that they can easily become friends after their defeat and redemption (be they the devil himself, like Piccolo). Just for the love of fighting, Goku jeopardizes many times the future of the world, especially when healing his enemies after defeating them rather than killing them or keeping them disabled (Piccolo in volume n°16, Vegeta in volume n°21, or Frieza in volume n ° 28). While he is a fighter, Goku is not a killer, and actually kills almost none of the super-villains he fights throughout the whole series7.

22Deep down, Goku can be seen as nothing more than a sportsman trying to overcome his own limits, hence a sportsman among warriors; and this is the reason why he is better than any warrior, because he does not fight in the same way. Goku does not try to beat adversaries, he just tries to become always better by confronting strong opponents, without any hate. This is made explicit by the final comment of his rival Vegeta during his last fight against Boo:

I think I have understood… Why I, the genius fighter, can’t beat you. For a long time I thought it was because you had things to protect, and I thought it gave you a gigantic strength… It may be one of the reasons, but now I have these as well. But I used to fight in order to dominate, for my pleasure! In order to kill my enemies and for my pride! But you are not like me… You don’t fight to win, you fight against your limits. This is the reason why you don’t kill your adversaries! (volume n°42, plate n°99)

23That is also why, as highlighted by Frédéric Vincent (VINCENT 2009), Dragon Ball cannot be truly seen as a “violent” manga, because there is no hate and no will to hurt in most of its fights, but just the dramatic staging of socialization, the staging of a character’s mental development, with only superficial and metaphorical differences with baseball manga. Nekketsu manga are hence all about a boy discovering, learning to control and testing his own strength, and trying to canalize it in a particular discipline. We find in such stories, even in the most fantastical ones, all the constituents of sports ethics as defined by Allen Guttmann (GUTTMAN 1978) or Bernard Andrieu, drawing on Pierre de Coubertin: fair-play, respect of rules, respect of the opponent, dignity of persons, self-control, sense of individual and collective effort, and enjoyment of the game (ANDRIEU 2013). A strict sports ethic hence dominates and is being advocated in nekketsu manga, with a deep sense of fair-play even in death fights with evil enemies, and the only motivation for fighting is the taste for adventure and the will to become better. In a rather Taoist way, villains will either come closer to the Way by following the example of the hero and recognizing their error – hence the often massive crowd of friends following the hero – or get annihilated, in combat manga. But this is secondary, and such heroes are not here to punish people other than by showing them that they use their talent in a bad way, and cannot be the best in such conditions.


24As a conclusion, we hope to have demonstrated that sports may constitute a central key for the interpretation of most nekketsu shōnen, be the sporting element explicit or implicit. In this regard, the biggest shōnen publisher, Shōnen Jump, bears an explicit motto: “friendship, effort, victory” (BOUCHARD 2016). Even the most violent-looking fantastical manga constitute only metaphors of sports as teenagers’ initiation to adulthood through effort and self-building. Hence and despite appearances or historical disputes, there appears to be no more violence in these comics than in any sports championship, meaning that confrontation is not an end but a means for individual performance, a test match for comparing the result of a whole training and educational process, culminating in a gigantic effort of self-surpassing. As a consequence, there seems to be hardly any incentive for violence in these comic books, but rather an incentive to discipline, respect, hard work and self-confidence, which are all very classical values in education, here embodied in scenarios that may look strange for audiences unfamiliar with them, but remain quite consistent with very familiar pedagogical principles, as developed in sports ethics research (such as ANDRIEU 2013). Such stylization offers to creators an opportunity to escape the classical settings and norms of sports fictions and to make the most of their imagination and creative freedom, while keeping a classical framework of values and representations as a basis for perpetual recreation and variations on a common theme.

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1 With less than 10% of traditional Japanese sports such as karate or sumo (ibid).

2 In manga n° 17, we learn that the hero was sent from another planet while a baby, and belongs to a now-extinct super-strong alien people.

3 The cyborg saga begins with the arrival of Trunks from the future, where the cyborgs have destroyed almost every trace of human civilization. Whereas the heroes could easily destroy the cyborgs before they are ready, they prefer waiting for them in order to fight them.

4 We here take the liberty of not considering Fist of the North Star as a true nekketsu: the hero is not young, does not make much progress, and is a true punisher of cruel villains, with hardly any sports element and very different ethics.

5 In this regard, in Dragon Ball the character of Gohan is a counter-example of the nekketsu hero: despite his obvious talent, he explicitly hates fighting, and does so only because he has to (in order to help saving the world from evil monsters), in contrast to his father who has always been inhabited by an infinite love of fighting.

6 The only exception is in volume n°21, where Goku, trapped in his spaceship for six days trains using an artificial gravity machine. He does not use such gear anymore after this, while Vegeta does.

7 Between the first Piccolo and Boo (the series’ final enemy), Goku’s only kill is the demonic monster Yakon in volume n°38, and it is an indirect kill as Yakon just absorbs too much of Goku’s energy and explodes. Most kills before Piccolo are monsters or machines, but never human fighters.

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Frédéric Ducarme, « Are nekketsu shōnen manga sports manga? »Comicalités [En ligne], Bande dessinée et sport : stylisation, émancipation, contestation d'un univers normé ?, mis en ligne le 17 novembre 2018, consulté le 25 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Frédéric Ducarme

Dr. Frédéric Ducarme (CESCO, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris)

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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