The Tournament Plot-line: The Most Tiresome Cliché in Anime

Naruto- Chunin Exama

Clichés are a necessary (and inevitable) part of entertainment. By this point in human history, every conceivable idea has already been done to some degree. Any movie or book you love for its “originality” can find traces of itself in stories like The Iliad or The Epic of Gilgamesh. Nothing is truly original anymore. However, just because an idea has been done doesn’t mean it can’t be used again. Clichés are an important tool of inspiration and innovation for artists. Used well, clichés don’t have to be tiresome or boring. Just look at what Christopher Nolan’s Memento did with the “amnesia” cliché. That was a stunning film and the film’s reverse linear sequence that told the story from end to beginning that kept you as confused and oblivious as the amnesiac protagonist was praised for its originality, but the amnesia story-line cliché was so old it could probably be traced back to an old Edison film clip of a guy scratching his head.

The "high school student lost in thought sitting next to the window" is a particularly favorite cliché in anime.
The “high school student lost in thought sitting next to the window” is a particularly favorite cliché in anime.

Just like every other form of entertainment, anime has its fair share of clichés. Many often go unnoticed because they are so ingrained into the mythos of anime (ex. the high school setting). However, there is one anime cliché that has been so predominant in anime, particularly in certain genres, that it is only a matter of time before it will pass as another standard anime practice associated with the art form. That cliché is the tournament plot-line.

Certain clichés are a lock with certain anime genres. A mecha anime without giant robots or a ecchi anime without fan service would make as much sense as a football game without a football (or a more timely metaphor, an Academy Awards show without an acting nomination for Meryl Streep). These clichés are understandable because they are expected by the audience. With the abundance of tournament plot-lines in shōnen anime, it will only be a matter of time before the cliché is associated with the shōnen genre, but unlike giant robots and unnecessary nudity, this is a cliché that isn’t a neccesity to the genre and shouldn’t be a common sight in anime.

When was the last time you were submitted to one? Could it be The Hunter Exam in Hunter x Hunter, The Chunin Exam in Naruto, The Dark Tournament in Yu Yu Hakusho, the Shaman Fight in Shaman King, The Grand Magic Games in Fairy Tail or the entirety of Fate/Stay Night? The history of the tournament plot-line stretches far back into the 80s with the Tenkaichi Budōkai in Dragon Ball, a martial arts tournament that had a number of appearances in the anime that was used as a setting to advance the story’s plot and settle disputes between rivals, and probably even before that.

The Chunin Exam in Naruto.
Example #1: The Chunin Exam in Naruto.

It is now an overused cliché often utilized by the shōnen genre, or better defined as the anime watched by teenage boys. Some popular shōnen anime include One Piece, Bleach, Fairy Tail, and Naruto. When you think of a popular anime, you are often thinking of a shōnen anime. The shōnen genre achieves its success by relying on great action sequences and incredibly popular male leads. These anime display creativity by taking the standard action sequences and male characters and taking their own unique direction with it.

That is why seeing a tournament plot-line in a shōnen anime is so disheartening. There is nothing unique about a tournament plot-line. It is both overused and a cheap way to further the plot. These plot arcs always follow the same predictable path. The main characters are thrust into a tournament, with little to no buildup that this tournament even existed, where their progress through the tournament rankings also serves as the progress through the overall storyline. It is lazy writing.

Of course, just because the tournament plot-line has been seen more frequently than The Shawkshank Redemption on TNT, it doesn’t mean there is no need for one. Sometimes, a tournament plot-line is the best way to handle the series questions and overarching stories. This is abundantly clear in sports anime like Kuroko no Basket and Hajime No Ippo. As series that revolve around organized sports, it would be unnatural for disputes between rivals to be settled anywhere off the field/court/pool. While an arc in Hajime No Ippo following Ippo’s assault charges brought against him following his attack on a bitter rival in the middle of broad daylight would be an interesting read, it wouldn’t fit with the overall content of the series.

One of many necessary tournament battles in Kuroko no Basket.
One of many necessary tournament battles in Kuroko no Basket.

Like most anime genres, sports anime often have longstanding rivals and rivalries that need to be settled. Since all disputes in sports anime must take place on the series respective field or court or whatever, what better way to exhibit the heated rivalry than by setting it on a grand scale, a sports tournament, which is the best way to exhibit grandeur and seriousness in the sports genre.

While the tournament scenario is not out-of-place in a sports anime anymore than giant robots are in a mecha anime, finding tournament plot-lines in shōnen anime is cheap. If that is the case, then why is it the tournament plot-line is so consistently used, and will probably be used for many years to come?

Earlier, I said that the shōnen genre exhibits creativity by taking the standard action/battle scenes and giving them their own unique twist to it. That is also true with the tournament plot-line. Yes, while using a tournament setting as a plot device to further the story is unoriginal and cheap, it gives the series creator’s a perfect setting for battles and a new chance for creators to introduce some unique flavor to the plain plot. Who can forget the fantastic battle between Yusuke and Togoro in Yu Yu Hakusho? What about the Erza’s incredibly powerful and emotionally moving performance in the Pandemonium event in the Grand Magic Games in Fairy Tail?

Erza's performance in the Pandemonium event was one of Fairy Tail's most moving moments.
Erza’s performance in the Pandemonium event was one of Fairy Tail’s most moving moments.

So yes, while the overall tournament plot may be clichéd, the unique substance in each series that makes up the plot is often great and creative. When it is great, it can be a solid arc despite the lack of creativity in the story. A good example of this is the Grand Magic Games in Fairy Tail. The games had a variety of challenges and events that didn’t solely focus on battle, but a multitude of other subjects that managed to capture the awe of magic through different creative outlets.

When the substance that makes up the tournament plot-line is unoriginal and dull, it leads to a boring and predictable arc. The best example of this would be the Demon World Tournament in Yu Yu Hakusho. The Demon World Tournament was the third tournament in the series, and it offered nothing new except the standard “beat this guy to move up in the bracket,” which is what we saw with the other two tournaments.

A feud between three god-class demons and their subjects are resolved by a tournament in Yu Yu Hakusho. Not only lazy, but also uninteresting.
A feud between three god-class demons and their subjects are resolved by a tournament in Yu Yu Hakusho. Not only lazy, but uninteresting.

The tournament cliché is the epitome of a “hit or miss” arc. If done poorly, it is a messy, uninteresting, and clichéd arc. If done well, it still is a cliché, but it is engaging and a satisfying action-packed story. Considering the volume of these kinds of stories, it is clear that the risk is worth it to these series creators. Tiresome though the tournament story may be to a regular anime viewer, there is no doubt a viewer can’t help but get their hopes up for what may be an exciting story. Their hopes only slightly diminished with their fears of the tournament arc being a long, drawn-out affair with little to distinguish itself. Nevertheless, the anime fanbase can be loyal to a fault, and we can only hope that this delicate cliché be handled with care.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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16 Comments

  1. I would argue that to find good anime you actually have to work at it. I immediately turn it off as soon as the first girl in a sailor school uniform shows up, or if the entire cast turns out to be kids.

    • Manga/anime are commonly classified by age of their intended audience. Generally:

      * Kodomo: children under 10, e.g. Hello Kitty. Pokemon’s kind of borderline, but usually considered shounen.

      * Shounen: boys 10 -15. Most grappler/fighting anime, harem anime, some super robot anime, sports manga, etc. Dragonball Z, Bleach, Tenchi Muyo, Evangelion, etc.

      * Shoujo: girls 10-15. Most magical girl anime, romance anime/manga, etc. Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Ouran High School Host Club, Vampire Knight, etc.

      * Seinen: young men, generally 18-30. Crime stories, real robot, or more mature takes on shounen genres, e.g. Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Hellsing, Elfen Lied, Gantz, etc.

      * Josei: young women, generally 15-40. Mostly manga, not often anime. Usually “day in the life” stories of adult women, romances.

      * Yaoi/Boys’ Love/BL: Stories of romance/sex between attractive young men, usually aimed at the josei demographic.

      * Hentai: Pornographic anime and manga aimed at adult men.

      Note that Japanese culture has different standards of sex, violence, and other mature subject matter than most Western cultures, so for example, shoujo and shounen might be racier than North American programs aimed at preteens.

      • considering i was a part time anime club member thats more specific well written breakdown than i’ve ever seen. thanks

    • Jermaine Saunders
      0

      There is plenty of good anime if you know where to look – it is just not the majority of it (but again, most of the movies/books/comics released are not that good either).

      Also, having kids or teens as the cast isn’t always a bad thing – they are not always saving the world or fighting monsters, nor is it always school comedy/romance/drama. Take anime from Studio Ghibli or things like Serial Experiments Lain or Mawaru Penguindrum for example.

      Also, kids as heroes isn’t exclusive from anime either… all those teen superheroes or fantasy works like The Chronicles of Narnia are the same.

      • Thing is, I’m looking to be provoked, or at least be given something that is at least trying to take itself at least a bit seriously. It’s always seemed to me that very little anime is done for the love of the medium. I can only think of maybe 10 titles off the top of my head, almost all movies, that actually tried. Too much of it strikes of commercialism, and if it works I guess that’s fine for the business, but it demeans the form.

        • Justin Wu

          ‘Done for the love of the medium’ is very hard to judge. When you realize that each season 30-50 (or even more) anime series come out, you have to be commercialized in order to survive in this industry. I believe many, if not all, people in the industry are in it because they love anime, but they still need to be able to put food on the table no matter what.

          I can think of plenty that are really provoking, with some being experimental and some being commercial without losing the provoking element: Shinsekai Yori, Mawaru Penguindrum, EVA, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Serial Experiments Lain, to name a few.

  2. Son Elias
    0

    Honestly, some of the most groundbreaking imaginative art direction and storytelling I’ll ever seen has been from anime and/or manga. I’ll agree that a lot of anime is cliche and that its own tired conventions ultimately bloat the genre, but there are decades of amazing stuff in there as long as you have the right tour guide. People like to whine that the last few years have been especially bad but actually there have been some amazing titles that even though they might not appeal to you as a consumer, I think most people would be hard pressed to debate their artistic merits overall.

  3. Toccara
    0

    Everyone goes through a phase with anime: When you first get into it, it’s all fresh and new. After a few years, the cracks begin to show, and you see things getting repeated. After a while you realize that truly unique anime are few and far between.

    However, this isn’t even slightly different from pretty much every other medium and genre. American TV comedy comes to mind. We may be in a golden age with Archer, Community and Always Sunny, but for every one of those there’s five 2 1/2 Men, Big Bang Theory, and other generic sitcoms. It’s the nature of the beast.

  4. I love that high pitched “SHINGGGG” sound when somebody produces a sword or a lens flare! That’s classic!

  5. Austin

    Great article, though I have to say, a little too subjective for the comments you make. A tournament isn’t lazy; it’s a useful plot device that organizes new characters and new stories. You can’t have all your fights out in the open world. Doing that consistently requires a lot of setting up and background. A tournament can have the depth of whatever else can substitute for it, and I don’t think you acknowledge that as well as you could have. And though certain aspects of tournaments may be cliche, tournaments as a whole aren’t cliche. The combination of overused components may lead one to believe that a certain type of tournament following a certain progression as trite, but tournaments themselves are multi-faceted. It’s illogical to group the entire thing into a convenient little package because that completely misses out on the complexity that a such a plot device wields.

  6. Michael
    0

    I always preferred “american” cartoons but lately I’ve been checking out all the Anime “classics” and some of them have been great other not so much. I still hate DragonballZ!!! Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll, Devilman, Macross and Gundam have been pretty awesome… not perfect, I can see why people like them and they have some great ideas and amazing animation but still have some stuff that would have made me turn it off in fear that my father would beat me up because of.

    • Jordan

      You sound like you could enjoy Mamoru Hosada’s films due to your interest in sci fi. Check out “The Girl who Leapt Through Time” and “Summer Wars’ if you haven’t already.
      Fullmetal Alchemist is very famous too.
      “Serial Experiments Lain” is sci fi, bit slow moving, but you may like it.
      Lol hope that helps!

  7. DeadlyDiva

    Tournaments, when done properly, can advance plot and character development. However, my issue with the tournament cliche is that it often isn’t realistic. There are too many random power ups to give the “underdog” the advantage. How often have we seen a character that should have been destroyed pull a win out at the last minute. There is nothing wrong with letting lead or beloved characters lose. Sometimes the bad/unlikeable guy is simply better. I would rather the character lose and come back stronger than for a random power up to come out of the sky and save them.

  8. Just recently “One Piece” had its first and only true tournament arc to date (unless you count the Foxy arc, which had much more in common with Mario Party than a shōnen tournament) and that’s impressive when you consider how long it is. I wasn’t too happy to see a tournament since I feel this is a pretty lazy device. It’s so bare-bones… I mean, ultimately a shōnen story is largely about beating tough enemies and advancing higher up the ranks anyway, so the actual story arcs themselves should seek to add more to that formula rather than confine it within labeled tournament brackets.

  9. Terry Adams

    I’ve always been a huge fan of the tournaments within fighting animes, so I have to say I disagree with you. The tournaments are good plot devices that showcase a lot of characters, especially those who cannot normally be seen fighting, such as Tenten or the Sound Team in the Chunin Exams.

  10. Silverbean
    0

    I don’t mind the tournament arc cliche all too much. I personally like the tournament set up because of the possible match ups especially when they’re more creative about the battles like the Grand Magic Games.

    The thing I hate about the Tournament Arc cliche is that the tournament always has to be interrupted by some significant occurrence that either interferes with character participation, or completely halts or stops the tournament entirely.

    For once I would like to sit down and watch a tournament arc that doesn’t have some baddy plotting something underground that gets in the way of the tournament, either interfering with the match ups, or outcome of the tournament. Especially when some characters build up to their big moment against one of their rivals

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