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