One of the things that’s fascinated me about the Kuroko’s Basketball franchise (hereafter abbreviated as Kurobas) since even before I saddled up and watched the entirety of the 25-episode first season over the weekend has been the show’s alternate English title,The Basketball Which Kuroko Plays. Besides being hilariously awkward while also technically correct English grammar, the longer title actually contains, I think, a slightly different implication than that of the more commonly accepted translation. The Basketball Which Kuroko Plays externalizes and differentiates “basketball” from the titular protagonist, Kuroko—basketball is something he does. However, Kuroko’s Basketball uses the possessive form of Kuroko’s name, which implies that “basketball” belongs to Kuroko.
And that’s the most important thematic pillar I feel Kurobas revolves around—owning the way you play basketball. Of course, that’s just the way it’s expressed within the show’s internal thematic vocabulary. At an external level—that is, a level applicable to those of us watching the show from the outside—this show is really about finding your own identity as a person, about seperating yourself from those around you and becoming your own individual (and the challenges that lie within that quest). Kurobas isn’t particularly subtle with this theme, but it’s hidden under enough layers of dunks, dexterous dribbles, and dangerously debonair dudes that it can be a bit difficult to pull out of basketball jargon into a realm of non-sports understanding. Starting with the first (and sneakiest) instance, the dispersal of the Generation of Miracles to different high schools is the initial manifestation of this theme, although it’s only really visible in retrospect.
The Generation of Miracles, whether they like it or not, are bound together by a name. Despite their unique and powerful talents, they are captive to a single collective identity—born of their time as a team, a unit which makes use of the individual’s skill for the benefit of the group. And so, having won three consectutive championships and experiencing a yet-to-be-disclosed internal crisis, the five prodigies and the phantom man go their seperate ways. Like teens (um, which they all are) as they enter the self-aware years of high school, they strike out on their own, distancing themselves from each other and their collective identity by creating literal physical space between each other.
Kuroko’s slump after Seirin is destroyed by Aomine and Touou is not just a crisis in confidence over his basketball skills. It’s also a crisis of identity. Having faced his former light and failing to even come close to overcoming his former teammate, Kuroko is forced to reevaluate whether or not the basketball which he plays really belongs to him. Kuroko’s shadow grows stronger the brighter his light is, but if he always requires a light to play his basketball, is it even his basketball? Kagami’s line to Kuroko after the game—”In the face of overwhelming power, I don’t think we can win by just working together.”—basically says, “In the face of such a certain identity, we can’t compete without each of us having our identities.” Kagami isn’t asking Kuroko to forget teamwork—he’s arguing that, to truly be a team, they have to be different individuals able to pool the full extent of their respective selves.
It sounds super abstract, but think of it this way. Do you know two friends who are so close to each other all the time that they sometimes seem like they’re the same person? Contrast people like that with the most self-confident, even arrogant, person you know. I’m not saying any of these types of people are better than the other—after all, both have their own attractions and drawbacks—but the truth of the friends who are so close they might as well be one person is that if you take away on of them, the other seems somehow less full. This is exactly what has played out between Aomine and Kagami/Kuroko. Kuroko and Kagami, without the other, aren’t self-contained enough to battle the preternaturally indvidualistic Aomine on even terms and, in fact, by relying so much on the other, both of them have limited themselves from truly growing into being their own person, into playing their own basketball.
Kise, on the other hand, offers a different perspective on the nature of forging ones own identity. Unlike Kuroko and Kagami’s mutual dependency, Kise has formed his identity by following in the footsteps of his idol. Thus, Kise’s struggle is in the duality of his own identity versus that of Aomine. Aomine inspiring Kise to play basketball and Kise’s natural talent of copying the skills of others brings the issue of identity into sharp relief—can a boy who copies others ever have his own identity, play his own basketball?
I’d argue yes. As Kise’s teammates point out, his talent for copying is really a talent for learning, and as he learns, he perfects and makes the things he learns his own. When his copy is so perfect that there’s effectively no difference between him and Aomine, can one really be said to be the original and the other the copy? (It’s the old Nisemonogatari question—”Which has more value? The fake or the original?”) But, as we see at the end of the Kise-Aomine showdown, Kise’s copy isn’t exactly the same as Aoimine’s. He tries to pass the ball, to break free of the copy, to assert his own identity.
And sure, he’s defeated by Aomine, but he does so while being himself, thus changing his defeat from a question of identity into one of simple strength. “If there’s any reason I lost, it’s simply I wasn’t strong enough yet,” he tells Aomine as his idol destroys him with a monster dunk. And that’s something Kise can figure out on his own. Having gone through the painful experience of giving up his idol (I mean, seriously, did you see his face?), he’s liberated himself from having to become Aomine and is free to seek his own way of playing basketball, his own identity. It’s painful, but it’s also incredibly exciting. Just like, you know, growing up.
This post was originally published under the title of “How Do You Play Kuroko’s Basketball?” as part of the Aniwords column on Crunchyroll. The original article can be found here.