Comic strip hero who inspired Nakata and Del Piero
TOKYO: Ohzora Tsubasa is 20 years old and has just become a professional footballer. But his is not a name to look out for in Japan’s World Cup squad this summer.
Tsubasa is the eponynous hero of a Japanese manga (comic strip) which helped instill a love of the beautiful game in young readers who went on to professional stardom including Japan’s Hidetoshi Nakata and Italy’s Alessandro Del Piero.In Japan, each issue of the current series of Captain Tsubasa, ‘The Road to WC2002’, sells 630,000 copies on average and a new installment now comes out after two months rather than every three months.
Created by Yoichi Takahashi in 1981, the animated cartoon version of Tsubasa, has been sold to more than 100 countries, including most of Asia, and the manga is read now in Europe’s leading football nations: France, Italy, Germany and Spain.Only in Britain, which has had its own comic strip football hero, Roy of the Rovers, since 1954, does Captain Tsubasa remain virtually unknown.
The first issue sold more than a million copies, in Japan, an enormous figure given that thousands of manga titles are published every year.“In 1978 I saw the Argentina World Cup on television and fell in love with the tournament,” Takahashi told AFP.
“At the time, football was semi-professional in Japan and the teams were really poor,” said the 40-year-old artist who is still an ardent fan of the world’s biggest sporting event but admits he does not have the same enthusiasm for Japan’s own J-League.
Tsubasa’s footballing adventures begin while he is at elementary school. After college, he goes to Brazil and then returns to Japan. In June 2001 in the Japanese editions, he turned professional.
“Tsubasa is a very positive and generous kid, a commanding midfield presence like Nakata or (Francesco) Totti (captain of AS Roma). His dream is for Japan to carry off the World Cup this year,” said the strip’s author, who professes to share the same wish.
The hero’s father was the captain of a ship which sank on a voyage to a far-off foreign land and his mother is a housewife. Although never very motivated by academic study, the young Tsubasa learns Portuguese prior to his Brazilian adventure.
“There are many of today’s professional players in the J-League (Japan’s professional football league, set up in 1993), who became what they are because they read the manga series,” said Shisei Uchida from Young Jump, Tsubasa’s publisher.Whether from modesty or shyness, the bespectacled Takahashi leaves it to his publishing agent to recount the author’s several meetings with Nakata and Japan’s goalkeeper, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, 26.
“Nakata and Kawaguchi have said that they read Tsubasa when they were young and that they had tried several of the skills featured in the manga, especially the overhead kick,” Uchida said.
Takahashi has often visited Europe, mainly France and Italy, where, among others, in the autumn of 2000 he met French international Zinedine Zidane, who was playing for Juventus of Turin at the time.“When I saw (Juventus striker) Del Piero and (FC Barcelona defender, Francesco) Cocco, they told me that they had read ‘Holly e Benji’ (Captain Tsubasa’s Italian title) from an early age,” said a visibly pleased Takahashi.
The manga artist saw two matches during the 1998 World Cup in France and is going to try to get in to see as many as possible of the 2002 tournament, co-hosted by Japan and South Korea which kicks off in under three weeks.
“I think that the technical foundation of the Japanese team has improved greatly (since 1998), and the players are going to get even better as a result of taking part in this World Cup. Football is developing fast in Japan,” Takahashi said.Today, more than 20 years after Tsubasa’s first appearance, Takahashi enjoys a large following, receiving a “mountain of letters and emails from children and salarymen,” everyday, according to Uchida.
But despite the fame and wealth that Captain Tsubasa’s success has undoubtedly brought him, Takahashi still lives in a modest three-room apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo.
There, cramped by draughtsmen’s tables, bunkbeds for his collaborators, footballs and photographs of stadiums, Takahashi says he wants “to keep the pure soul of a child.”—AFP