On the ball with manga soccer hero Captain Tsubasa

This week I had an encounter with one of Japan’s best known illustrators of manga books, Yōichi Takahashi.

He’s the author of a highly successful manga about soccer called Captain Tsubasa.

Mr Takahashi started drawing the character in 1981 and it has gone on to sell more than seven million copies, as well as being turned into a hugely popular television series, which appeals across the generations in Japan.

It is even a hit in China – something of a surprise, given the rivalry between the countries in many fields, including the football pitch.

On the ball

“I wanted to tell a story about a boy who has great ambition and achieves his goals,” Mr Takahashi says of his manga’s hero, Tsubasa Ozora. “Soccer is a team sport but the rules are quite flexible so that allows for a certain freedom of expression,” he says.

The pictures portray the boy in athletic poses as he plays passionate football. The manga helped spread the popularity of the sport in Japan, leading to the formation of the J-League in 1992.

Captain Tsubasa has been published in French, Spanish and Italian. The French player Zinedine Zidane – who now plays at Real Madrid – claims that as a boy, he was inspired to play football because of the comic.

Rather surprisingly, though, the manga has not been published in English yet – although you can buy a quite cool T-shirt showing its hero!

Hope in Syria

An Arabic version of the manga was recently distributed to children living in refugee camps in Syria, as part of an effort to lift their spirits.

“The situation in Syria is terrible – so terrible that I think it stops kids from dreaming. But it’s their dreams that one day will make Syria good again,” says Obada Kassoumah, who translated the manga into Arabic.

“I wish I could just give them a little bit of hope and make them believe that yes, they can have dreams,” Mr Obada told the BBC.

Wings of desire

But why is the boy called Tsubasa?

“In Japanese tsubasa means wings – so it’s a way to show children they can grown their own wings and chase their dreams,” explains Mr Takahashi.

In the many years since he started drawing the series, he has sometimes considered bringing it to a close and moving onto other projects. “But then Captain Tsubasa comes to me in my dreams and asks me if I can give him another chance to let him play again. How can I let him down when he makes such a request?” he laughs.

British Museum

Yōichi Takahashi was speaking at the British Museum, which is currently showing the largest exhibition of manga ever held outside Japan.

The pictures include a number of works by Takahashi, as well as drawings by many other illustrators, alongside the older works of art which inspired them.

As I mentioned in my blog last week, stepping into the British Museum to see the pictures enables one to appreciate them in a deep way and to share one’s pleasure with others.

The Citi exhibition Manga will run from 23 May to 26 August 2019 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum.