Harsh Lessons in Teamwork: Eyeshield 21‘s Kongo Agon

One of my favorite characters to think about is Kongo Agon from the football manga Eyeshield 21. He’s not a favorite in the sense that I would put him on a top 10 or even top 100 best characters list, but what he does provide is an entertaining and exciting role as an antagonist whose presence allows a more complicated story about what it means to be a successful teammate.

In Eyeshield 21, Kongo Agon is the undisputed best high school American-football player in Japan. His reaction time is unmatched. While others might be stronger or faster, no one has the optimized combination of both like him. Anything you can do, he can probably do better. Agon isn’t even one of those characters who is strong individually but is especially bad at teamwork. He knows how to work within a group, at least to a certain extent. The fact that he’s so superior to everyone else, however, lands him into a classic trap for someone of such extraordinary talent: he finds less worth in those who can’t keep up with him.

When mentioning what his ideal team would be, Agon describes a hypothetical team that’s 21 of himself + one teammate who has a few unique skills. And in a way, he’s right. An All-Star All-Agon team would probably beat every other team around. However, that team fundamentally cannot exist (Eyeshield 21 is not a science fiction series), and this is where Agon begins to falter. He may be perfect, but no one else is, and his inability to truly accept that is what opens up the cracks in his armor and leads him on the road to defeat.

One of the most famous athletes in history, Michael Jordan, ran into a similar problem. Jordan in his rookie days was a once-in-a-generation talent, but felt he couldn’t trust his teammates. What turned it around was his coach, Phil Jackson, who pushed Jordan to assume the role of a true leader, and to motivate his teammates into believing that Jordan trusted them. No small part of this was Scottie Pippen, who could mediate between Jordan and the rest of the bulls and lead by example in the process.

A lot of what made Jordan able to overcome his over-reliance on himself are the very things that Agon ends up failing to learn for a long time. Agon, despite being the best player around, is not an effective leader for a team; he’s closer to a tyrant than a captain. Moreover, the man who could be his Pippen, his brother Kongo Unsui, is shown little if any respect by Agon. Because he views everyone else as so beneath him in talent, he can’t even fathom the relatively minuscule accomplishments of opposing teams as matter at all—only for such an “insignificant” change to hand him a devastating, skin-of-his-teeth loss. Agon is decent at teamwork, but if only he respected his teammates and his opponents more, he could have been invincible.

Perhaps the biggest character development moment for Agon in Eyeshield 21 is the day that he finally bothers to train. Much like Frieza in Dragon Ball: Resurrection F, Agon is begrudgingly pushed to the point that he has to actually try, only Agon’s storyline predates Frieza’s in this particular sense. That realization by Agon, that he has to work at maintaining his dominance, is the ultimate blow to his being. He’s forever transformed, unable to ever go back to thinking that he, by simple virtue of being himself, is enough to defeat everyone.

What to Do Against the Superior Race?

Anime and manga that focus on competition often have a far-away goal for their protagonists, and in many cases that final obstacle is something or someone foreign to Japan. In American football, it’s African-Americans. In Go it’s Koreans. And in multiple instances of boxing, it’s  guys from Latin American countries.

Takamura in Ippo and Yamato Takeru in Eyeshield 21 are both said to be unusually large for Japanese men, as if to use the exception to make the rule. According to Hikaru no Go, Go is treated much more seriously in Korea than Japan. Like in the case of Starcraft, Korea apparently has a more robust infrastructure which allows it to create superior players. While not always strictly a matter of genetics, these masters are often portrayed as having some sort of amazing inherent advantage over their Japanese counterparts. The Japanese characters often have to either realize their disadvantage or use something inherently “Japanese” in them to try and make up for the skill gap, though keep in mind again that Japanese-ness is usually not genetic but rather a learned trait from growing up in Japanese society. At times the Japanese X-Factor will be family, friends, perseverence, hard work, all things that probably anyone Japanese or otherwise can relate to, though they seem to have a strong place in Asian cultures in general.

Rooting for the underdog is something that’s been spoken about by countless people since long before any of us were born, and I think that certainly plays a factor, but I get the feeling that this specific method of portrayal of an underdog while not strictly Japanese is also something that is not surprisingly a product of Japanese entertainment, especially Japanese entertainment geared towards boys. While I do not think Japan as a society enjoys being the victim, would it be a stretch to say that Japan has wanted these stories since Commodore Perry arrived and perhaps even before?

Good Slow Power Creep

Hajime no Ippo is getting a new anime this winter. Eyeshield 21 just finished what one might call its “Part 1.” Both have gone on for many chapters, and both are excellent examples of how to properly show the progress in skill of their characters. There are many reasons why I call this Good Slow Power Creep, and much of it has to do with making the increasing skill levels feel as natural as possible.

In both Hajime no Ippo and Eyeshield 21, the natural progression of their main characters’ abilities in their respective endeavors are tied to the natural progress of the art by their creators. Both start off weak and dumpy-looking, visually the art styles are decent but could stand for major improvement. As the series have progressed over the years, both Sena and Ippo begin to look better and better, gaining maturity and confidence just as the artists have as well. As the artists’ techniques become more sophisticated, Sena and Ippo make leaps and bounds over their former selves. It’s as if the effort of these heroes is a direct result of the effort put forth by their creators.

The best thing about the gradual and almost-unnoticeable power creep is that neither series feels like it’s jumped any sharks. Quite the opposite, they feel like they’ve only just begun. If ever either series begins to falter, I think it’ll be evident in how (un)natural the skill progression will feel.