Kuroko’s Basketball & the Uniquely Understated Homage to Kabuki Theatre – Anime Review

Kuroko’s Basketball (黒子のバスケ) is the anime adaptation of Tadatoshi Fujimaki’s shōnen, sports (basketball) manga series. The first season initially aired during Spring 2012 with a total of 25 episodes. Since then, there have been two more seasons and quite a few films (this review will be solely for the anime series). It was produced by Production I.G. and directed by Shunsuke Tada. I originally watched the first season while it was simulcasting, and I recalled having an excellent time with it. Unfortunately, due to my ADHD and life just becoming super hectic, I never finished the series in its entirety. So, I made the decision to begin re-watching the first two seasons with the intent of finishing-up the entire serial this time around. While watching it, I noticed many little details about the show that blew my mind because it occurred to me that Kuroko’s Basketball is an homage to the beautiful art of Kabuki theatre. Hell, it’s even in the title with the name “Kuroko.”

Kuroko’s Basketball is about two freshmen at Seirin High School who have been newly recruited into the basketball club who are determined to prove that they aren’t just your average-Joe b-ball players. There’s Taiga Kagami, a guy with tons of raw talent who’s recently returned from the United States, and then there is Tetsuya Kuroko, a boy who is about as basic and average as you can possibly get, which gives him an edge during basketball games. The series follows them as they strive to be the best Japanese high school basketball team around, which means going head-to-head with nation’s most-talented group of players, known only as the Generation of Miracles, or players attributed to having almost God-like playing powers.

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Many years ago, I remember studying Kabuki Theatre in quite a bit of depth because I love it so much, not only as a form of artistic expression, but also as a major influential aspect of Japanese culture, and its importance historically as well. My best friend, who is a Japanese person living in Japan, majored in the study of Kabuki and we have some of the best conversations about how Kabuki has influenced Japanese culture and its entertainment scene in ways that are so subtle that if you didn’t know what to look for, it’d be quite easy to miss the references and minute connections. Of course, this anime was a recent part of that discussion. As I sat there binge-watching Kuroko’s Basketball, it all came flooding back to me and I was astonished. It helped me appreciate and respect the series from a brand-new perspective.

For people who may not know what Kabuki is, please allow me to briefly go over it. Kabuki is a classical Japanese dance-drama performing art. It’s mostly known for its exquisitely stylised execution of dramatic acting and for the remarkably intricate make-up that adorns most of the performers. Every part of Kabuki is essentially grandiose and a statement in and of itself, which is exhibited throughout Kuroko’s Basketball in numerous ways, all starting with the most vital element of Kabuki—a lesser known one—that is called the kuroko, or sometimes regarded as kurogo.

kabuki 01

[via The Japan Times]

The kuroko is an individual who assists actors onstage, usually adorned in all black to be invisible to everyone around them. These individuals usually have many tasks that they charged with, but their fundamental duty is to help the actors with playing their respective roles. They will enter the stage unnoticed and keep entirely to themselves—being utterly inconspicuous—while doing their work. In most cases, it’s highly imperative for the actors and the kuroko to maintain a delicately timed balance in order to keep up with the flow of the performance, or play, without any disruptions whatsoever. So, in its most simplified form, a kuroko is an underdog whose sole presence is invaluable to the successful execution of Kabuki performances. Hmm… sounds like someone in an anime I watched recently. Don’t you think?

Culturally, Kabuki performances tend to be laced with multiple meanings. There is a lot of dialogue and commentary about being superior, oft times in a subtler scale, and pertain to dramatic references of certain parts of history, depending on the specific type of Kabuki performance, which I won’t go into detail because the specifics aren’t too relevant to my basic point here.

In Kuroko’s Basketball, we have characters who are always throwing out puns and phrases swathed in double entendres. The wordplay consists of commentary and dialogue about being the superior player or getting sensationally excited for “worthy” competitions—all of it just dripping in innuendo, and if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that most of it begins with or revolves around Kuroko Tetsuya (at the very least his presence).

Kuroko Tetsuya

The secret to Kuroko’s Basketball’s charm, and even the intermittently ambiguous humour, is how the story uses basketball to shine a spotlight on something from Japanese culture that is rather unique to the country; something not many people know about, either they’ve never heard of it, or they don’t comprehend it with much depth. The main character’s name is the first—and most obvious—clue to this revelation. Kuroko is 100% an embodiment of his name. Even though he is the protagonist, the invaluable member that holds the series together, the narrative isn’t truly about him at all. It’s about the other performers, or in this case the players, and the issues they all have as individuals. Kuroko is simply there to assist everyone, whether to become a successful arse-kicking player, or to overcome their unique bullshit so that they can be better people. He helps them fulfil their individually assigned roles to their perfection.

Aomine Daiki (bless his blue-haired soul, I love this bastard so much) is one of the fiercest players in the series. When we learn about his time playing with Teiko as a part of the Generation of Miracles, we see how his love for the sport spirals into depression and then apathy. The only person who has ever helped him achieve a sense of accomplishment and joy from his love of basketball was Kuroko, then and now, though in different ways.

aomine daiki

Kise (ah, the womaniser of my heart) is not really the best of the best, but he’s damn pretty to look at and he’s got enough skill to keep up with the others with his very special ability. Kuroko helps him achieve his potential and motivates him to look outside of his substandard mould as an individual. People don’t expect much beyond the obvious from Kise, but it’s Kuroko’s carefully placed comments—unbelievably simple, no less—that truly helps Kise realise that he doesn’t have to be this cookie cut-out of what people want from him.

The second protagonist, Kagami, is initially shown as being an average guy with amazing playing potential. He’s far more normalised than the other players, at least during the first season. The more that he plays with Kuroko and the more that he engages with the Generation of Miracles, the more he starts to see that he has a near-genius level talent that others can only dream of. Through his evolution as a player, Kuroko has been the shadow to his light. This is actually stated throughout the anime, which is a direct reference to Kabuki kuroko as they always wear black, hiding in the shadows and becoming one with those shadows to help the play be a wonder.

Kuroko isn’t the only similarity between Kabuki and Kuroko’s Basketball. Other commonalities include how exaggerated and unreasonably stylised the series is. That is the aesthetic essence of everything the show does. The ridiculous over-the-top skillsets that each Generation of Miracles player has (including Kuroko and Kagami) are extremely lively and superbly dramatic. Midorima (or as my friend refers to him, the tsundere carrot) is a superstitious dude, and I mean superstitious as fuck. He checks the daily zodiac predictions and carries around a lucky item relative to that day as well. His entire nature when it comes to good luck, bad luck, and overall superstitions are so hilariously melodramatic. Yet, the series not only makes it work, it makes it work well, particularly when you consider how his unique abilities can be challenged.

Each character encapsulates a precise trait and exhibits those traits in a full-bodied and theatrical means. This is a reference to very meaning of “Kabuki” itself as the meaning pertains to supremely embellished and stylised performances. It’s supposed to go beyond realism; an eccentric and extraordinary outstep of common sense.

The overwhelming ludicrousness isn’t limited to the characters but is also exhibited in the animation style, which still holds up rather well when you consider the serial is about six to seven years old. There’s lots of super showy shots (ha-ha, pun mildly intended) of players dunking the ball or throwing three-pointers. When someone’s expression changes as they become “totally serious” about the game, it’s usually accompanied with zooming onto their face and focusing on the intensity of their eyes. Their moves are revealed in slow-motion to emphasise that they’re going into battle, so to speak. The music consists of various forms of rock and digital score and songs to turn up the suspense and force of the basketball matches.

I know that this is a characteristic that was off-putting to many folks who tried to watch Kuroko’s Basketball, but when I saw it recently, I adored every ounce of it. Maybe it’s because I have an appreciation for the spectacular overstated (campy) shenanigans that take place here, especially if you toss in sarcasm and fun wit, or maybe it’s because it’s all about that motherfucking Kabuki.

If you haven’t seen Kuroko’s Basketball, but have any bit of interest in it, I recommend that you go watch it and pay attention to the design of everything—from the characters’ looks, to their mannerism, to their playing abilities, and finally the relationship they have with Kuroko Tetsuya. There’s also the animation and music, and sporadic use of English via Kagami to illustrate his shock at things (oh, yes, you read that correctly). If you have seen it, and wouldn’t mind a re-watching it, do it. Let me know what you think about my over-active analytical nonsense. Do you see the stunningly understated homage to Kabuki Theatre?

8 fluffy Kuroko puppies outta 10!

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14 thoughts on “Kuroko’s Basketball & the Uniquely Understated Homage to Kabuki Theatre – Anime Review

  1. I like the parallels you draw here, I love when shows use something unrelated to kind of pay homage or indirectly portray part of their culture. This was a neat read thank you for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your comment! I also LOVE it when it show does that. Another excellent example is Sakura Quest, although the parallels there are a bit more direct.

      Looking forward to spending a brand-new year of laughs and cat chases with you, mi amore. ♥


  2. I’ve only seen 3 eps of the anime, but this homage is super interesting! I’ve always been pretty interested in (though clueless about) kabuki, so thanks for pointing that out!

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. You know, KnB hit it’s 10 year anniversary last year so it was still stock piled on the shelves of most bookstores when I was in Tokyo. I can’t believe how well, as you said it’s held up for nearly 10 years it’s still pretty wild to me that I was there for most of it.

    And for all my studies in Japanese culture, I absolutely never noticed the influence of kabuki in the series. Not once, aside from the being hit over the head with the idea of light and shadow. So seeing this post and your explanation really clarifies why I loved KnB as much as I did. Aside from the fact I’m a sucker for sports series lol. Thanks for the lovely and thought provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh wow, it really has been over 10 years!! That is truly mind-blowing. When I think about watching it while it was simulcasting, it does feel pretty wild.

      I missed it my first time watching the series as well! it wasn’t until the re-watch that those small details truly began to stand out. It’s probably why I also fell in love with the series when I initially watched it, haha. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! ♥

      Liked by 1 person

      • Honestly, same! It’s been quite the journey for KnB and us as fans!

        For these types of posts, I’m really glad that people re-watch series. I rarely (if ever) do so I feel like I miss a lot of these things. And of course no problem!

        Liked by 1 person

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