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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Trope Talk: Tournament Arcs

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This episode is being brought to you by Crunchyroll,

because I just can't get enough of that sweet, sweet anime juice.

Tournament arcs are kind of boring.

But... they're not actually inherently bad.

So for those of you not in the know, the tournament arc is an anime staple,

most commonly found in shonen anime,

which is anime designed to appeal to young men and also me.

Shonen anime tends to put a hefty focus on action, heroics, friendship, having to get stronger, stuff like that.

Shonen anime protagonists are frequently modeled on the original Shonen hero, Sun Goku,

who is in turn modeled directly off the monkey king himself, Sun Wu-kong.

So the archetypical Shonen hero is correspondingly an impulsive goofball with ludicrous power

and an admirable devotion to their friends.

Dragon Ball Z is a shonen anime, as is Naruto,

Fairy Tale,

Yu Yu Hakusho,

My Hero Academia,

Hunter x Hunter,


and a whole bunch of other shows.

Now, there's a lot of tropes associated with shonen anime,

but today, we're gonna be talking specifically about the tournament arc,

a staple trope wherein our protagonists spend the better part of a season competing in a tournament.

Frequently this is a fighting tournament of some kind,

but sometimes it's more specialized and non-combat, like a game tournament.

The hero (or heroes) fight through a series of matches that amount to mini bosses,

before they almost always make it to the finals and face off against some kind of final boss.

And if that sounds really simple and kind of vague,

That's because it is. This is a very, very simple trope.

And it's a surprisingly controversial one.

See, tournament arcs have a bunch of benefits we'll explore shortly, and one big problem.

They can get really boring to watch, and they can drag on for ages.

The final season of Dragon Ball Super is one long tournament arc, and it's 55 episodes long.

That's 20 hours of tournament.

That's a lot of time to spend on a very simple premise.

So fans of shonen anime are kind of divided on whether or not tournament arcs are a good idea.

Tournament arcs, along with risking being drawn-out and boring, suffer from predictability.

I've talked about how presenting stakes to your audience can be kind of hard;

if you make the stakes too high, the audience knows the heroes can't afford to fail,

but if you make them too low, the audience doesn't have a reason to care if the heroes succeed or not.

Tournament arcs have the same problem.

Basically, if the audience can tell who's gonna win the tournament before the arc even gets going,

and that specific conflict is the main focus of the arc instead of a secondary plot,

the audience is going to be pretty checked out for most of that story,

since there's no real uncertainty keeping them invested.

For example, if your heroes are participating in the tournament because the big bad is forcing them to, by

I don't know, kidnapping one of their loved ones,

the stakes are high, but the audience investment is low, because of course the heroes are gonna win.

Similarly, if the prize of the tournament is some MacGuffin our heroes need,

we know they're gonna get it.

Now that actually ties into another trait of the tournament arc,

that can sometimes make it frustrating to watch,

and that's the artificiality of the whole situation.

'Cause like, if the plot of an arc is,

"Crazy bad guy wants to do crazy bad guy thing, and we have to do whatever it takes to stop them",

That's not artificial.

That's a dynamic, organic situation

where you expect the heroes to do everything in their power to succeed,

adapting and surprising us in the process.

But a tournament arc is a completely artificial dynamic.

It's got rules, parameters... it's like a game.

And our heroes have to advance by winning the game within the constraints of the rules.

That's an artificial situation.

It can get frustrating if the stakes of victory are crazy high,

or if the tournament prize is something they really need,

and they just... go along with the tournament rules instead of, I dunno,

stealing the prize? Teaming up against the bad guy? Cheating a little? In short,

"Either loosen your moral code,

or stop hinging the fate of the world on death matches!"

Yeah, this is a biggie.

If the tournament stakes are too high,

high enough the heroes really can't afford to lose,

you have to explain to the audience why the heroes are even playing along.

It's fine if the artificial constraints of the situation frustrate the characters,

but if it frustrates the audience, you start having problems.

The best example of this issue is Yu-Gi-Oh!, where the narrative

gymnastics required to hinge the fate of the world on a card game over and over again get kind of...


So tournaments can be predictable and artificial, and they can drag on way too long.

Part of the problem here is that it's very easy to stretch a tournament out

pretty much as long as you want, and that's very appealing to anime producers,

specifically if the manga the anime is based on is running out of content.

Tournament arcs make very easy filler arcs.

They basically write themselves:

drag your protagonist into a tournament,

show off an enormous secondary cast of characters competing in the tournament against them,

and depending on how long you drag on the individual matches

or how many matches between secondary characters you show,

you can draw it out basically as long as you want.

And this is a big part of why so many tournament arcs are boring.

They're just designed to fill space.

But this is only one reason to do a tournament arc, and most of the other reasons are pretty good.

So let's get positive and start talking about the benefits.

One huge benefit of a tournament arc is it lets you demo a bunch of new characters all at once.

I mean, the tournament can't just be our heroes and one main bad guy.

You need a lot of other participants, too.

So, if you want to shake up your cast and intro some new potential secondary protagonists

(and antagonists),

A tournament arc is a very easy way to organically introduce a new crop of weirdos to your main cast.

A related benefit is that the tournament arc lets you focus on characters

that haven't been fully fleshed out yet.

This is because every round in the tournament generally follows the same formula:

an introductory period of "What's this guy's deal?",

followed by the actual fight, in which the guy's deal is revealed.

But this "What's this guy's deal" thing can apply to your heroes, as well.

A good example of this is from Fairy Tale,

which had a short, seven-episode tournament arc at the end of the first season.

Unusually for tournament arcs, it wasn't very structured.

There weren't any brackets or official matchups; it was more of an impromptu battle royale,

where the bad guy of the arc used some magic to coerce everyone into fighting each other.

This did have one major benefit, though:

The show has an enormous supporting cast, since the guild has a lot of members,

but the first season mostly puts the focus on the four main characters,

so up until this point, we haven't really gotten to see what everyone else can do.

Getting them all to fight each other does a lot to show off their unique abilities.

The most notable example is probably the character Mirajane,

a sweet, friendly lady, whose main abilities seem to be looking cute and being nice.

But we've had little hints throughout the first season that there's a lot more to her than that.

Like, she's ranked as one of the strongest wizards in the guild,

which puts her on par with the main villain of the tournament arc,

and significantly stronger than three out of the four protagonists.

But we've never seen her use her powers for anything really impressive, or even fight.

They've been dropping hints all season that Mirajane

isn't the smiling, perky, pushover Team Mom she appears to be,

so by now, 40 episodes in, everyone's basically thinking,

"What's this lady's deal?"

And we get to see what her deal is when one of the arc antagonists tries to kill her brother,

and she freaks out and turns into this...

lingerie model from hell.


So, turns out Mirajane's deal is being terrifyingly strong.

Now, since this is a shonen anime, this was kind of a given,

but it's still gnarly to watch play out.

So, tournament arcs let you show off your heroes,

and they're good framing sequences for fun character reveals.

The trade-off is that plot-wise, they're not very interes ting on their own.

But that can be counterbalanced by loading up on character arcs.

So let's take a minute and talk about two tournament arcs I really like:

Yu Yu Hakusho's Dark Tournament arc, and My Hero Academia's School Festival arc.

Now these two shows are both shonen anime, but they're very different in a lot of ways.

Most relevant, Yu Yu Hakusho came out in the early 90s,

and is one of the first and most iconic shonen anime that helped define the genre in the first place.

Whereas My Hero Academia is currently airing in 2019,

and is specifically framed as sort of a next-generation examination of shonen tropes.

The main cast, both heroes and villains, are explicitly the students, children, and protégés

of a previous generation that matched the shonen tropes much more clearly.

Most notably, the main character's mentor, All Might, who was very clearly

the archetypical shonen protagonist when he was younger.

So here we have two tournament arcs to look at:

one from the beginning of the era, and one from the current state of the genre.

This will help us see what's changed and what's stayed the same.

So let's start with Yu Yu Hakusho.

Yu Yu Hakusho's first season was 25 episodes long,

and in that time, our main character Yusuke...


Got hit by a car and died,

smooched his best friend/rival in a dream,

fulfilled some trials to come back to life,

befriended this cute death god,

ended up with superpowers,

got conscripted by the prince of the spirit world to work for them as a demon-hunting detective,

fought a trio of artifact-stealing demons

(except one of them wasn't evil and was actually really cute and nice so they became friends),

fought through a mini-tournament to earn the right to get trained by this tiny old lady voiced by Frieza,

went to hell to fight this quirky squad of more demons

that were using an evil woodwind instrument to bring about a zombie apocalypse,

made friends with one of the other evil artifact-stealing demons in the process,

put his shoes on his hands so he could punch the lightning demon without getting zapped,


nearly watched his girlfriend die like four times,

and rescued this cute little ice demon from an evil rich guy harvesting her tears for money.

This is a lot.

A lot happens in 25 episodes.

In contrast, the second season, the Dark Tournament arc, is 40 episodes and covers a lot less.

That said, in that season,

there are major character arcs for basically every main character,

and the end result is, it's very rewarding to watch.

I went through the episodes to see how many of them are, like, necessary viewing, and it's over half of them.

That's really impressive for a tournament arc, you guys.

So the premise of the season is that this spooky bad guy from season one is like,

"Oh man, this Yusuke kid has a lot of potential. I want to fight him again."

So he tells Yusuke he was only at 20% power when they fought.

You know, that old story. But he wants to fight him for real,

so Yusuke needs to compete in this demon tournament called the Dark Tournament, which is this, like,

no-holds-barred murder fest run by a bunch of demons and mafia dudes or whatever,

and if Yusuke doesn't compete he'll just kill him and all of his friends.

So Yusuke gets his buddies assembled for the tournament:

Kuwabara, his friend/rival from school who also

randomly developed superpowers in season one,

and two of the demons he had to fight, Kurama and Hiei.

Now, Kurama is the cute, nice demon guy who's basically only ever been on Yusuke's side.

He's also an ancient trickster fox demon in the body of a 15 year old human dude

for slightly complicated reasons.

And his character arc is mostly about finding a balance between his new humanity and his demonic nature.

Hiei, meanwhile, is all demon and he spent his introduction

monologuing and trying to kill Yusuke and turn his girlfriend into a demon.

He's kind of a jerk, but unsurprisingly, he's also got a heart of gold in there,

and his arc is mostly centered on that little ice demon girl they rescued in season one,

because she's actually his sister, and he's pretty hell-bent on keeping her safe,

even though she doesn't actually know about their relationship.

He's also kind of a Vegeta figure but mostly just of the "I must get stronger" variety

since he used to be crazy super strong, but sacrificed a lot of that to undergo...

...and I'm not joking...

...demon plastic-surgery to get his gnarly third eye implanted.

So while Yusuke and Kuwabara are set up to be the fish-out-of-water for this arc,

dealing with this scary new world of demons and stuff,

Kurama and Hiei are both set up for very interesting character arcs.

And they get explored! Before I go into detail there,

there's a fifth protagonist for this arc:

Yusuke's cranky mentor, Genkai, who appears in the arc initially disguised,

then looking about 60 years younger than she did in the first season.

This is because she's preparing to transfer all her power to Yusuke,

and a side effect of that is Botox, I guess.

Anyway, her deal is that she and the main villain of this arc used to be, like... *A Thing*.

And that's a pretty juicy character arc, especially since he kills her.

She- she does get better, but still, right?

I mean, wow.

So all through this tournament arc, Yusuke and company

are facing off against these teams of demons.

And some of them are pretty personable,

but most of them are garden-variety sadists.

There's all kinds of cool flashy fights,

but the arc itself focuses almost entirely on the characters.

Yusuke and Kuwabara kind of have the arcs you expect them to have:

Yusuke wants to get stronger to help protect his friends and beat the bad guy,

and undergo some very dangerous training to power himself up,

while Kuwabara's defining characteristics are basically loyal, honorable, kinda dumb, and super determined.

So he spends most of his fights getting the crap kicked out of him

until the power of friendship and/or love gives him a boost. Stuff like that.

The real interesting character development happens with Kurama and Hiei.

Hiei's arc centers on his struggle to get stronger.

Specifically, he manages to get this crazy strong legendary fire power

called the Dragon of the Darkness Flame,

but he's not at all ready to use it,

and even though it's incredibly strong and could easily carry him through the tournament

if he could get it under control,

it nearly costs him an arm the first time he fires it off

and continues to give him trouble for the rest of the arc.

Throughout the arc, he struggles to keep up with his opponents,

often having to resort to his ultimate move,

even though it's horribly damaging and he doesn't know how to control it yet.

But he's a prideful guy so he doesn't speak up about it,

even as we do gradually see him soften to his friends.

Hiei's aloof personality puts him in contrast with the other heroes, Yusuke especially,

who's almost aggressively friendly.

But Hiei's in the rare position of being a cranky loner character

who actually seems to appreciate his friendlier companions.

In fact, it's Yusuke's completely honored faith in him that puts him on his side in the first place.

By the end of the arc, Hiei manages to gain control of the dragon by consuming it,

giving him all of its power and officially making him

ridiculously scary in universe, closing his power centered character arc

by making him as strong as he needs to be.

Kurama's personal character arc, meanwhile, takes an unexpected turn

when a weird attack one of his opponents uses temporarily and accidentally

reverts him to his original demon form,

which is way more powerful than his normal, mostly human form,

and also significantly meaner.

This obviously plays into his greater character arc of personal identity.

Who he is, how human he is, and how demonic he should strive to be

all get confused when he's abruptly restored to his original state

and gets to re-experience what he used to be like.

What's interesting is, while Kurama is a really nice dude,

he does have a noticeable tendency to get scarily efficient in combat,

coming across as kind of cold and ruthless when he needs to be.

When we see his original personality, it becomes clear that this is

a very toned down version of the sadistic kind of ruthless efficiency he used to have.

His return to his original personality seems to scare him a little,

but he recognizes the power he has in that form,

and willingly transforms in a later match, though it wears off before he can win,

and he nearly dies.

By the end of the arc, he seems to have decided that his human side is more appealing,

as his demon personality never really reasserts itself after this.

Though those two are the standouts in the arc, there's one fantastic scene I have to at least mention,

and that's when Kuwabara fakes his own death in the final match,

so Yusuke gets a final tragic rage powerup to beat the bad guy.

It's amazing. Not the kind of trope savvy move you expect from the dumb rival character.

Anyway, in this show, the tournament arc is a framing sequence that facilitates

all these complicated character arcs.

There are fights, and they're flashy, but they're basically there to encourage character development.

Without the non-stop one-plot-after-the-other pace of the first season,

the characters can slow down and stretch out.

But even then, it's 40 whole episodes. That's like, 13 and a half hours

I was considering rewatching it for this Trope Talk, and I realized I couldn't do it.

I'm sorry. I don't have the attention span for that.

In contrast, My Hero Academia's tournament arc is 11 episodes long,

and if you cut out the preamble when they determine who gets to compete in the tournament part,

it's only seven episodes long. That's a leisurely two and a half hours.

And that's not the only change from the archetypical tournament arc.

For one thing, our hero, Midoriya doesn't even make it past the quarterfinals

So here's the quick and easy rundown of the setup in My Hero Academia.

In the world of My Hero Academia, almost everybody has superpowers

of one kind or another, and being a superhero is a job you can get by going to a special school for heroes.

We've got this kid, Midoriya, who didn't have any superpowers

until the world's number one hero, All Might, gave him his powers.

Now Midoriya has this super-strength power, but he can't control it yet,

and every time he uses it, he breaks all his bones.

He's going to the super special school for heroes, and his goal is to be the Hokage

I mean the greatest hero of all time.

We've also got this asshole, Bakugo, who was born with this cool superpower

to shoot explosions out of his hands.

Bakugo has built his entire ego on the premise that he's the best,

and that he's specifically better than Midoriya,

which gets awkward when Midoriya spontaneously develops rad awesome powers

and starts winning at everything.

Dude's got a complex.

And, coming to the center stage in this arc specifically,

is this Zuko lookin' dude, Shoto Todoroki, whose dad, Endeavor, is the number two hero.

Now, remember how I said this show is a next generation shonen?

Well, in the previous generation, All Might was the shonen hero. The best of the best. The number one.

And Endeavor was the rival. The Lancer. Number two.

And he hated it, and they never resolved it.

So he decided to handcraft an heir who would be powerful enough

to defeat All Might and become the real strongest hero.

In pursuit of this goal, Endeavor sought out a wife with an ice power to compliment his fire powers,

cranked out a bunch of kids until he finally got the one he wanted,

and put this poor kid, Shoto, through training from hell,

and was a horrible abusive husband and father until his wife had a mental breakdown,

couldn't stand the sight of Shoto because half of him looked like Endeavor,

and poured boiling water on his face.

Dude's got a complex.

See, this is what happens when dickhead shonen rivals don't get closure.

Now, throughout season one, the focus is mostly on Midoriya getting

into the superhero school and finding his footing

We don't see much of Shoto. He's around in the background, but we only really see him

using his ice powers, and he doesn't talk much.

But just before the tournament arc starts, he tells Midoriya,

"Hey, hey, listen, you're like All Might's favorite, right?

Well, I'm going to destroy you.

'Kay, bye."

And everyone's like, "Eh, what?"

After some other Sports Festival shenanigans happen,

Shoto tracks down Midoriya and explains his tragic backstory, and basically says,

"Listen. You're All Might's protégé, and you have suspiciously similar powers to him.

So symbolically, if I beat you using only my ice powers,

it'll be like I beat All Might without using any of my dad's power.

I'll be disowning my dad by rejecting his power, and giving him the ultimate middle finger

by doing exactly what he wanted me to do, but wrong."

And Midoriya's like, "This sounds like you need therapy... Ooh I have an idea."

And then when they fight each other in the tournament, Midoriya fights like crazy,

breaks all the bones in his fingers to get his powers working,

and goads Shoto into fighting for real, so he can finally confront his self-loathing

and recognize that he doesn't need to define himself opposite his father's expectations.

Because there's no better therapy than combat therapy.

Anyway, during the fight, Midoriya's passionate words and flagrant disregard for his own well-being

move Shoto to his very core, and he stops holding back.

And immediately destroys Midoriya, and wins the match.

Which is awkward, because Bakugo was on track to be in the final match,

because he just beat Midoriya's best friend/love interest.

And the proper shonen thing to do would've been to send Midoriya to the final match of the tournament,

so he could duel his ultimate rival all hopped up on "how dare you hurt my friend" juice.

Instead, Bakugo gets stuck with his leftovers, and it's hilarious how angry this makes him.

*in a low, gruff voice* "Why don't you fight me like that? Am I not good enough for you, Deku?!"

*cough* Oh, god. How does his actor do that?

Even more awkward, when Shoto and Bakugo face off in the final match,

Shoto starts to go all out, but then he remembers that therapy doesn't work like that,

and he isn't quite ready to use his fire power again,

so instead he lets Bakugo KO him with his big, flashy, final move,

and Bakugo is so angry that they need to literally chain him to the podium

when they're handing out the medals.

Hell, if you look for it, there's a very entertaining running theme through the show

where Bakugo's frustration's almost entirely stemmed from the fact that Midoriya has better things to do

than cater to his rivalry complex.

He's busy doing school, and trying not to break all his fingers and stuff.

Bakugo is very much the hero of his own story, and he's so frustrated that nobody else sees him that way.

It's rough being the rival when you think you're the protagonist.

But again, like Yu Yu Hakusho, this tournament arc only exists to faciliate crazy character development.

In fact, I'd say it's also something of a deliberate fakeout.

We all know how these tournaments are supposed to go:

If My Hero Academia went by the numbers, then Midoriya would've beaten Shoto in the quarterfinals,

and then won him over, because defeat means friendship, spent the semifinals

sparring with his speedster buddy,

and faced off in the finals against his super villainous rival Bakugo, who'd riled him up earlier

by kicking his sweet faced bestie/future girlfriend around like a football.

They would've fought, and maybe Midoriya would've won, or maybe he wouldn't have,

it doesn't really matter at that point, since the only stakes were popularity.

But nothing plays out like we expect.

Hell, even the love interest versus jerk faced rival thing doesn't go how you'd think.

It's actually a really close fight, and when the audience starts getting all pissy that Bakugo's fighting her so hard,

because "look, she's just a sweet delicate girl, how dare you fight her for real,"

Their homeroom teacher calls them out for being sexist, patronizing dicks,

and mistaking acknowledging a worthy opponent who nearly wiped him out with a meteor storm

for battering a helpless little girl around.

Seriously, My Hero Academia takes no prisoners when it comes to trope subversion.

Man, I hope it stays good.

So basically, tournament arcs have a bit of an iffy reputation for being poorly paced and predictable,

which is, honestly, pretty earned,

but they're an excellent tool for facilitating all kinds of character arcs,

and if you do that, they can be incredibly interesting to watch-- as long as you don't spend too much time

lingering on the actual fights.

So, if you like listening to me ramble about anime I liked and maybe you wanted to check some of it out,

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So yeah.

The Description of Trope Talk: Tournament Arcs