Prince of Tennis or Tenisu no Ōjisama or テニスの王子様 (2006)
When growing up, I played what approximated to tennis. Even with a tall wooden fence built around two sides of the court, the effects of the prevailing winds were sufficiently strong and inconsistent that players needed supernatural abilities to predict where balls in flight would land. These were the days before climate change. The wind blew from the North Pole keeping us cool during the summer and under six feet of snow during the winters. This means a special place in my heart for the anime series Prince of Tennis or Tenisu no Ōjisama or テニスの王子様. I think I managed to sit through all the episodes up to Seishun Academy winning the National Middle School Tennis Championship. I showed such fortitude not because I’m a fairweather fan of tennis as a game, but because I find the fusion of fantasy and sport fascinating. The manga and subsequent anime adaptation were written in the days before Kei Nishikori managed to get into the top ten of the world ranking. Were people sitting down to write a tennis-based story today, there would be no need to show players developing and relying on supernatural abilities to win. Local players would simply be the best in the world.
Except, of course, Prince of Tennis is not alone in suggesting the top exponents in any activity do not rely on skill alone to excel. In one way or another, all winning players or fighters have inner physical and psychological strengths that enable them to outperform all opponents. That’s why we have the thread of wish-fulfillment running through this art form in which the young are shown defending the world, Japan, and their homes through the strength of their willpower as manifested through the machines they use or the sporting paraphernalia they play with. If passion was the only requirement, these young adults would win at everything whether it was a card-based game or battles against monsters.
So here’s me sitting down to watch the live action version of Prince of Tennis (2006). It’s one thing to watch fantasy when it’s line drawings filling the screen, but quite a different kettle of fish when it’s portrayed as “real”. The moment a camera shows an actual human being doing stuff, the credibility problem rears its ugly head and I start looking for some level of plausibility. As in the manga and anime, this version of Ryoma Echizen (Kanata Hongô) starts off with the inherent advantage of being ambidextrous. Because he can switch hands, he has a better coverage of the court without having to run as much. In the anime, his father is distinctly odd in a not very pleasant way. The film version has him almost human but nevertheless intensely lazy, being able to win without seeming to exert himself. This is a source of intense frustration for Ryoma and, to a degree, explains why he has such an arrogant approach to the social world as a deliberate loner. He’s far better than most other tennis players regardless of gender and age. He doesn’t have to like anyone else to beat them at the one game in which he wants to excel. Except he can’t beat his father. This gives him a major chip on his shoulder (big clue as to the theme of this series and film: he can never beat his father at his own game, he has to develop his own playing style and strategies, and play that game against his father).
The film version is remarkably faithful to the anime in the set-up with Ryoma feeling betrayed by being called back to Japan by his father, contemptuous of most other tennis players, but slowly coming to realise there can be advantages to being a team player. This is symbolised by Kunimitsu Tezuka (Yû Shirota), the school team captain, who beats Ryoma in a private game and later plays on in a key match even though he has a seriously damaged elbow. Sacrifice of oneself for the benefit of individuals or the team is one of the messages of this series.
To produce a two-hour film out of hours of manga and anime plot requires selectivity, so we watch Ryoma arrive at the school, beat a few of the top players without breaking sweat, and then playing his first match. The match the film director picks has Ryoma damage his eye. He then has to win “in ten minutes” or forfeit the match (don’t ask, it’s just a silly plot contrivance). This is also physically absurd. Monocular vision does not a good tennis player make, no matter which hand he uses to hold the racket. Anyway, he’s sufficiently impressive to be accepted as first reserve on the full team and this brings us to the “big match” where he has to play the bully. In the anime, there’s a big lead-up to this match which is won on the final shot where, after an interminable exchange of ground shots, each one more ferocious than the last, Ryoma produces a drop shot that leaves his opponent humiliated and defeated. This real world match is hilarious.
The arrogance of the bully is wonderful and, when Ryoma shows he’s not an opponent to be easily dismissed, the bully shows his supernatural talent. Now whereas others have trick shots which bend the ball in the air like an arctic gale suddenly appears or the ball disappears once it bounces (it’s the spin that takes the ball in an unexpected direction), this guy controls the solar system. Yes, when he gets angry, he produces a solar eclipse. Fortunately, the competition organisers have seen him do this before, so they are ready to switch on the massive lighting arrays to permit the players to continue the game. The bully now targets Ryoma’s leg, consistently hitting it with high-powered shots. Our hero’s head drops. His leg is bruised and hurts. More importantly, his understanding of astronomy has been seriously disturbed. Can he reset the celestial machine and rebuild his self-confidence? You betcha! He hates to lose so, with a contemptuous flick of his racket, he swats the moon away from the sun, the match organisers can turn off the lights before the money in the power budget runs out, and our hero outhits the young professional to win the match. Yeah!
The film’s attempt to be original with the subplot element of the dumb girl is rather wasted, and the token appearances of the other team members underwhelms. I suppose there could be sensible films in which magic or supernatural powers of one sort or another could be interwoven into a gaming format. Although I always thought the film version of quidditch rather confused and some of the wizard battles in other films have been distinctly silly, there’s probably room for a Tomorrow People type show in which individuals with telekinetic powers play each other at various ball sports. Until that day arrives, you should stick with the anime version of Prince of Tennis. Once you see human beings using magic to play tennis, it just gets too absurd to be watchable.