Tragic Hero Archetype – Tezuka Kunimitsu

Tezuka lost 3 matches; against Atobe in Kantou Tournament, against Sanada in National Finals Tournament and against Echizen Ryoma in unofficial match.

Tezuka vs Atobe is one of the most moving matches in the series.  It was a battle between captains. Atobe started the match with the intention of winning it at all cost. This includes exploiting his insight into the fact that Tezuka’s, although given a clean bill of health by his doctor, had an old injury on his left arm joint. Tezuka was warned against playing long matches or use his signature Zero-shiki dropshots.

Atobe, at the beginning of the match, declared that he will destroy Tezuka’s shoulder, ending his ability to play tennis and thereby, removed his rival from the competition. However, during the match, Atobe, with his challenging and provocative nature, revealed his ulterior motive, to peel away Tezuka’s mask and get an emotional response from the stoic and reserved rival. Atobe does not simply want a win. He wants to ruffle feathers; make his opponents angry, despair, insulted or shamed. (As shown in his appearance in street court and his satisfaction after getting Momoshiro and Kamio riled up). In this match, he was casted as cruel and merciless antagonist, intent on destroying Tezuka and consequently, the morale of his team.

However, he underestimated Tezuka’s stubbornness and strength of character. This is a good counter plot without turning it into the usual standard male ego clash, overt aggression or an angry shouting match. (Yes, yes, I always prefer unexpected subtle understated plot to showy ones.) However, this is a difficult plot device to execute properly. Tezuka, rather than getting angry, quietly accepted the challenge head on. He allowed Atobe to prolong the match. He even prolonged it further than Atobe had intended. It became a battle of skill, stamina, endurance and willpower.

Here is where there are problems with Tezuka’s rationalisation. First of all, that match against Hyotei was a crucial one. Whomever loses will not be able to enter the National Tournament. It was an unlucky placement for both Seigaku (Tokyo Prefecture Champions) and Hyotei (previous year’s Kantou runner-up). Losing to Rikkai would not have been as disastrous as losing to Hyotei. As semifinalist and finalist, they still qualify for Nationals Tournament.

Secondly, with 2 wins, 1 no game and 1 loss, and Tezuka playing the final match in Singles 1, if Tezuka wins, it would give them the 3 wins required. Okay, so this gives Tezuka’s character motivation to win. However, if he lost, Hyotei and Seigaku will be tied at 2 wins, 2 loss, 1 no game. Most probably, the reserve players have to play the tie-breaker match. Tezuka didn’t have to literally martyr himself for the win, which weakens the character’s ‘intelligent’ attribute. Especially when this match is only the first round in the Kantou Tournament and they still have 3-4 rounds to go.

Thirdly, with the strongest players in Seigaku being Fuji, Echizen and Tezuka, why does the lineup put Echizen in reserve? Especially when Hyotei will give Seigaku a bigger challenge than the other schools (except Rikkai) and the loss to Hyotei is even more disasterous than the loss to Rikkaidai (see first reason above). Is it to keep Echizen as wildcard so that Rikkai would not be able to gauge Seigaku’s unknown player? This is unlikely given Seigaku’s normal strategy. Plot device-wise, it was intended to bring the climax to and the final final fight to Echizen as main character. However, the whole setup doesn’t work so well simply because it feels forced.

The fourth reason, Tezuka’s character is touted as one of the top players of his time. Well, so was Atobe. But for someone of Tezuka’s caliber, why is he not wise enough to overturn Atobe’s plan? Surely he is capable enough to change the pace or flow to end the match in reasonable time. Why is Tezuka stupid enough to let Atobe take him beyond his limit? Plot-wise, it weakens Tezuka’s character. Could it be deliberate, so as not to allow a supporting character (Tezuka) to outshine the main character (Echizen) and steal the show from the climatic reserved players’ match? Or maybe this whole thing is a clash of male ego after all.

Well, at least, for this plot device, it is slightly salvaged with some insight (revelation) into Tezuka’s reasoning. One, making Tezuka deliberately prolong the match because he needs to prove something, either to himself or to the rest of the team. Perhaps Tezuka was using Atobe to test himself on his readiness to play at Nationals, which would be as gruelling and tougher than Kantou. After all, Atobe is one of the few National-class players. In return, Tezuka was also pushing Atobe to his limits. Second, it can be speculated that Tezuka is making Atobe push him to the limits to help Tezuka reopen one of the Doors to Self-Actualisation that he had sealed for unrevealed reasons.

On the other hand, we get Atobe’s side of the story. As the match progresses, Atobe realised he had underestimated Tezuka. His respect for Tezuka grew. What works well is that Atobe’s character is not degraded into a template crass brag and bully. Instead we see Atobe’s other side. He acknowledges Tezuka as a worthy opponent, re-evaluate his own psyche and even helped Tezuka train Seigaku for the Nationals after their defeat. I wonder how much of that was planned by the author and how much of it was due to Atobe’s popularity with fans. It is a good character development. The schoolyard bully motif have been repeated too often in PoT and getting too tiresome. This motif is also why I initially don’t see much originality in the series.

The middle match was one of the best piece of story telling. This match is probably one of the few times we see a crack in Tezuka’s mask. Perhaps Atobe got what he wanted after all, but not quite what he had expected. Atobe wanted an emotional, passionate response. Something along the lines of anger, despair or being overwhelmed. Instead, he got an unmasked Tezuka, composure intact, proud, passionate and determined. It was Atobe himself who felt overwhelmed.

Atobe later told Sanada that although he had won the match, he felt that he had not surpassed Tezuka. In some sense, he could be referring to Tezuka’s will power, passion, determination or noble spirit rather than pure skill. Tezuka had been playing with high skill and control in spite of his exhaustion, handicapped by the pain of his injury. He also realised that in the final long tiebreaker could have gone either way and he was lucky to have won due to Tezuka’s mistake. This is also why I like PoT, a winner today does not mean a winner tomorrow. Most characters are driven to better themselves, not giving up or giving in; which is inspiring, fun and interesting.

Perhaps what had been harder for Atobe to swallow is that Tezuka had never blamed him for the incident. It was not what Atobe expected and not what people will normally do or feel. However, true to Tezuka’s character, he held himself responsible for his own choices and actions.

There are few times the plot exposes Tezuka underneath his mask. Mostly when he was alone with Oishi as his confidante. As Tezuka have to maintain a facade of upright, strong and confident leader in front of his team members, he depended on Oishi to provide the occasional support for him to lean on. The first time we see Tezuka under the mask is when he was told by his doctor (Oishi’s uncle) that his injury was completely healed. Actually, contrary to popular belief, this is the first time we see a smiling Tezuka, hopeful and relieved. Another instance is when Tezuka was contemplating his future after his match with Atobe. As Tezuka and Inui walked around the park, we see a Tezuka, struggling with doubts about his ability to play again, his ambition to become pro and his promise to the team to lead them to National Championship.

Leadership style like Tezuka’s tends to leave him isolated. While he occasionally gets moral support from Oishi, Tezuka tends to take care of his problems on his own, without eliciting help from other members. It’s interesting to note that while Tezuka tends to provide the necessary help/mentorship to his team, Tezuka himself received help from the coaches of rival schools; Tachibana (Fudoumine), Sakaki (Hyotei) and Banda (Yamabuki). So, when Tezuka deals with his problem with yips on his own, we get a rare glimpse into Tezuka’s mind and Tezuka outside his captain persona.

In Tezuka related arcs, Tezuka’s character is always casted as the archetypal Tragic Hero. His plot characteristics includes element where the hero sees and understands his doom and his fate is revealed by his own actions (Tezuka vs Atobe where Tezuka fought to the point of severely injuring his shoulder and doom himself to missing the rest of Kantou Tournament and both Junior Selection Training Camp, Tezuka vs Sanada where Tezuka again risk permanent injury).  The match between Tezuka and Atobe is the most obvious of the Tragic Hero template, where the hero (Tezuka) is physically (shoulder) and spiritually (the confident and optimistic Tezuka was suddenly faced with doubts, the pain of the injury causes a psychological condition called yips that he had to overcome) wounded by his experiences. The other instance where this theme is repeated is the flashback to first year Tezuka being hit with tennis racket by a spiteful senior student which later resulted in his loss to his match against Fuji. In the Tragic Hero story, these wounds usually result in death. In Tezuka’s case, it resulted in his complete inability to play tennis. His death and downfalls are plot devices to arouse sympathy, pity and fear from the readers/audience, another typical characteristic of Tragic Hero.

However, I do feel that there is an over use of the Tragic Hero theme for Tezuka’s character. The National finals match between Tezuka and Sanada is played out almost in the same format as Tezuka vs Atobe match. This repeat or reuse of plot device, too much focus on yet another flashy finishing move and other internal inconsistencies in that match (that I’ve mentioned elsewhere) weakens the whole National Finals arc in terms of plotline.

The fall of the Tragic Hero also allows for the rise of the Epic Hero, in the form of the main protagonist, Echizen Ryoma. In both instances, the final winning match is won by Echizen after a great and epic battle, thereby, saving the day and claiming the final victory.

With the arrival of Echizen in the Tennis Club, there are now nine regular-eligible members competing for the eight available regular slots in tournaments with seven players and one reserve. Tezuka’s downfall is also part of several events in the subplots to allow all regular-level members to participate in the Kantou and National matches. Other events includes Oishi’s wrist injury, and Kawamura’s injury in fighting Ishida and Kabaji.

The theme of Tragic Hero for Tezuka’s character works partially well, but not completely for me. It is well executed in that the character is not melodramatic or whinning. And the stoic trait of the character creates a noble deed rather than a foolish one. It creates good suspense and tension at key moments, leading to the climax. It only works partially for me because of the irrational decisions and internal inconsistency that I have highlighted above. However, if one does not look too closely, it is a well executed theme over all.



  1. once again, very insightful. i had more or less thought of these before, but never seen them to read, and never applied the device of ‘Tragic Hero’ to them.

    nice one!

  2. Anonymous said

    note: in the anime, coach ryuzaki said that if echizen play in singles 3 he will have to face kabaji. although echizen is a great player, he would be at disadvantage against kabaji because of its power. so echizen was put in reserve

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