Playing Your Own Way: Kuroko’s Basketball and the Quest for Identity

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.

Kuroko's Basketball

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 Basketball

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.

Kuroko's 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.

Kuroko's Basketball

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.

11 thoughts on “Playing Your Own Way: Kuroko’s Basketball and the Quest for Identity

  1. Perhaps the few comments are because (atm) the article isn’t showing up on the Feature articles widget thingy on CR? That’s where I first looked for it. Didn’t find it until I scrolled way down on the news page.

    I tried an episode, but I really just hate sports. I realize there’s more to it than sports, but the sports just makes the whole thing boring to me. I wonder if that’s why I didn’t care much for Chihayafuru as well. The whole competitive game aspect just bored me.

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    • That could be, although I think most of the traffic comes from the front page of the website. Oh, poop, somehow it got categorized as new… >_> Annyoing…

      Anyways, sports anime definitely aren’t for anyone. To be honest, for the longest time I swore I’d never watch Kuroko because it “wasn’t real sports” aka the superpowers thing…man, that was dumb haha.

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  2. I gave this a shot a while back, buuut the unrealistic and watered-down b-ball really soured me. It’s personal quirk; I’ve no problem stomaching most fantastical and over-the-top anime, but as far as sports drama goes, I gravitate a lot toward the realistic (or, at least, visibly more grounded) variant. It doesn’t help matter that in my head I kept comparing it unfavorably and unfairly to Slam Dunk.

    I do enjoy reading your analysis itself, tho. There’s still a stigma that sports drama has no thematic substance beyond the “let’s be the best” schtick and can only be enjoyed by people who actually like sports themselves, but the nature of competition brings out a lot of interesting things in human nature and it’s a fertile ground to be pondered, imo.

    “Single-handedly made me totally want a genuine girls’ sport anime. Not a moegirls sports anime, a straight sports anime, just with girls instead of guys. ”

    Mm, yeah, I wish there were more of them. There’s already plenty of real life inspiration out there; the Japanese women football/soccer team is the defending champions of the current World Cup after an awesome triumph as underdog 4 years ago, but I haven’t seen any football girls manga yet, let alone anime.

    You should check out Princess Nine (baseball) if you haven’t… and another baseball girls anime whose title escaped me atm. A friend of mine recently mentioned his childhood favorite Attack No.1, probably the most iconic volleyball manga and anime ever. For individual sports, Naoki Urasawa’s Yawara (judo) is fun stuff, and Angelic Layer I guess, if “Pokemon with dress-up dolls” counts as sports. Anyhow, ANN made a feature list about this topic somewhat recently, and I remember seeing many good recommendations from the discussion forum.

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    • I mean, sports are a huge opportunity for growth for tons of kids, all over the world! I guess it only makes sense that it would have some thematic substance that could be easily infused into it.

      Thanks for the recommendations! Angelic Layer has actually been recommended to me before, and it’s one I’m really interested in checking out. I’ll look up Attack No.1, too.

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  3. I enjoy Kuroko’s Basketball. It’s a fun show to binge. I’ve actually put Season 3 on hold, so I can finish it in one go after it’s done. Also, the first or second arc in season 3 is really good. An almost -Shakespearian tragedy (well, as tragic as high school basketball gets, anyways).

    About a girls’ sport show, I haven’t seen any that’s focused on a female team. But I’ll recommend Cross Game (yet again). One of the female characters, Tsukishima Aoba, is a very good baseball player, and her struggles and dreams are an important part of the show.

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    • Shakespeare! You have my attention. And yeah, it’s easy to binge. I’ll have to get another free weekend to get through season 2, I’m sure…

      More points for Cross Game, huh? Maybe I should resist diving into Symphogear after all…

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  4. “Single-handedly made me totally want a genuine girls’ sport anime. Not a moegirls sports anime, a straight sports anime, just with girls instead of guys.”

    These are a few I’m aware of.

    Bamboo Blade (girls’ kendo – the girls are a bit moe looking, but they take the sport seriously and the show gives their ambitions appropriate weight; no knowledge of kendo is needed to enjoy it)
    Taisho Baseball Girls (baseball, obviously – and set in the 1920s when girls weren’t supposed to play sports at all, which adds another interesting wrinkle to the story)
    Yawara (judo – old series from the 80s)
    Ace wo Nerae (tennis – even older series from the 70s; in fact, it was the first series ever animated by Madhouse)

    Out of this group I’ve only seen part of Bamboo Blade, which I like, but I’ve read good reviews on all of them.

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    • Bamboo Blade sounds good! I don’t mind if they look moe, as long as it’s not just them derping around with a few sports thrown in here and there just for flavor.

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      • The sport is definitely more than just flavoring, although it takes about 10 episodes before you start seeing them compete in any official matches (much of the first half focuses on putting the team together, getting to know all of the main characters, and training the rookies). There’s much more comedy than drama (though not the kind of comedy I’d classify as “derping around”), but it still follows the classic template of good sports stuff like Karate Kid and Remember the Titans, where if you find yourself caring about the sports scenes even though you don’t know anything about the sport, it’s because it succeeded in making you care about the characters as people. There’s also, it’s worth noting, virtually no fanservice at all, unless Kirino’s ponytail counts.

        Anyway, if you find a gap in your schedule and want to try Bamboo Blade in the future, it’s streaming on Funimation.

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      • Of course, my observations only apply to the portion of the show I’ve actually seen, although talking about it is inspiring me to go back and finish it now that the spring season’s about over.

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