Written by Muneyuki Kaneshiro. Art by Yusuke Nomura. Translated by Nate Derr. Lettered by Chris Burgener. Published Kondansha.
Football is a sport that can unite or divide, it draws a line that forms friendships and creates enemies. Whether it’s the teams or their fans, many people come together with a shared goal of gaining victory.
So, what happens when you flip the script, and a team sport turns into a fight of one versus all?
This is the premise of the manga Blue Lock by Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Yusuke Nomura. The battle begins when the eccentric coach Ego Jinpachi invites 300 players to compete in Blue Lock, a facility with the purpose of creating Japan’s next top striker. Each football hopeful must come out on top or face the chopping block, as any player who gets kicked out the programme will be banned from playing for the national team forever. This high-stake environment forces each participant to cultivate their unique skills to up their chances of making it to the top.
Here is where the main character, Yoichi Isagi, finds himself. Dissatisfied with having to shrink himself as a member of his high school’s failing football team, he gladly leaps at this opportunity for the chance of something more.
Going for individualism over collectivism is something that sets Blue Lock apart from a lot of sports series. In one of Isagi’s first scenes, he’s at a critical point in a match where he could have scored if he took the opportunity himself, but instead he follows the coach’s instruction of putting the team above all else.
Ultimately the striker Isagi passes to misses the goal and his team loses. This is when we first see him question whether staying in the crowd and blending in with the team is always the right thing.
Usually in sports series like the volleyball-focused Haikyu!!, the characters who rate themselves above the pack are usually humbled and made to learn the importance of teamwork. However, in Blue Lock, everyone is encouraged to grow their egos and selfishness is greatly rewarded as long as you have the skills to back it up.
Each player’s individual strengths and weaknesses are portrayed excellently through storytelling and the use of visual metaphors within the series. Isagi is observant and calculating, so these aspects of his playstyle are portrayed to the reader with images of moving puzzle pieces, symbolising how he can piece together the field to understand what’s going on around him and find the best path to succeed.
Then there’s Barou, a player who takes ego to the max. He’s convinced he’s the best and no one can tell him otherwise. He’s not satisfied by just being on the winning side, he must be the one that claims victory directly through his actions. When he’s in the zone, he’s portrayed like a lion ripping through the field. Engulfed in flames with winning being the only thing on his mind, there’s not many players brave enough to stand in his way.
While the art is excellent at showing off the skills and personalities of each character through their play, it also excels in showing the drama and tension of each match. A game with so many pieces can quickly become overwhelming so illustrator Kōta Sannomiya takes time to map out each movement so the reader can understand the flow of the game. The use of panels with jagged uneven borders helps portray the intensity of each match.
You can feel the weight of every kick, the speed in which one player navigates to a critical point on the pitch and the drop in Isagi’s heart when he’s been bested and there’s nothing he can do. All of this is only possible because of the art, with techniques like using sharp thin lines to illustrate the speed at which they’re running or thick, rough lines when a player uses a powerful move. Seemingly simple things like this help portray the movements and personalities of each character.
Things like the characters’ placement in the ranking or training routines aresometimes shown with little chibi versions of them, a cute touch that clearly explains what’s going on with each character.
The copious amounts of trash talking in this series is a hilarious method of character development. Yet, they also remind us that this isn’t just a game to these people, Blue Lock and football in general are deathly serious to them. This could be their chance to escape poverty or the life that was already assigned to them. A golden ticket to make the most of their youth before it’s too late. For some, it’s their first time being around people who take the sport seriously. So, while this environment is gruelling and unpredictable, it’s not something they’re willing to give up without a fight.
While understandably fans of football will fall into the world of Blue Lock quite easily, the series can also be exciting for those who aren’t familiar with the sport. Despite not knowing much about football myself, I gave the series a go and was pleasantly surprised. Throughout my life, I’ve never really understood the appeal of football compared to sports that seemed much more exciting in comparison like gymnastics. However, this manga gave me an idea of all the effort that goes into the sport, it’s not just as simple as kicking a ball into a goal.
Like gymnasts, these players go through demanding training regiments to push their bodies to limit. Similarly, every movement they make, no matter how small, can be make or break to the final outcome.
The duality of Blue Lock is that while it can serve as a love letter to football, it presents the sport in a way no other medium could. It’s your typical battle manga with power scaling, rivalries, and training arcs, except instead of swinging swords or using otherworldly powers, blows are thrown through the football. Carefully calculated kicks and passes, secure successes for some while sealing the fate of others.
As I read through this series, for the first time I understood how people can get so excited over football. I now understand how it gets people pumped up to maximum excitement or brings them to tears. You get a glimpse of the culture that surrounds football, the stories of each participant and the years of dedication that led up to the critical points in make-or-break matches. It makes you empathise with everyone involved and go through the same highs and lows they do as if you’re the one on that field.
But ultimately, Blue Lock is still a battleground with winners and losers. In the end, only one person can come out on top.