So Teppu is Finally Over

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After seven years, eight volumes, a one-and-a-half-year-long hiatus, and seven scanlation teams that have taken over the task time and again, the last chapter of Teppu has just been released by Waterflame Scanlations. Not the awesome satisfying finale I hoped for, but Natsuo’s story goes on beyond the pages and in a way that is enough for me.

An Anti-Sports-Manga Sports Manga

Perhaps the most common aspect of Teppu that you will hear about is its defiance of conventional sports manga tropes, which finds its most obvious expression in Teppu’s protagonist, Natsuo Ishido. Not an underdog, but an acknowledged genius, and one who is petty, envious of others, and committed to bringing down an innocent girl at that, Natsuo is everything the average sports protagonist is not. On the other hand, Natsuo’s rival, Mawatari Yuzuko, possesses no talent except a frightening tenacity, rises to the top on that strength alone, and has incredible fun in the process. In fact, when the author (mangaka) Oota Moare-sensei explained his vision of Teppu in an interview, he characterized Natsuo as an A-blood-type getting her revenge on B-blood-types (blood type is apparently a thing in Japan) — that is, Teppu is a rebellion of sorts.

Given the limitations of mainstream sports manga, especially martial arts manga such as All Rounder Meguru and Holyland, it is easy to understand the need for alternative narratives such as Teppu. It’s boring and predictable to read about a male “good guy” supposed underdog rising to prominence in the martial arts world through simple hard work in increasingly unimaginative and improbable fights. The hard work doctrine not only makes little sense at best and comes off as insulting as worst, it tyrannically papers over reality with a false utopian meritocratic fiction, because these manga are often nothing more than power fantasies. Thus Natsuo fights a two-front insurrection: against the establishment in her own reality which she perceives is antagonistic to her personal expression — that which makes her human, and against a meta-enemy: the hard work doctrine. These entities coalesce into the figure of Mawatari Yuzuko, who fights incredible odds, being the same age as her, less gifted than her, and more hated than her, using a method which is denied to her, to the heights of martial arts and inexplicably remains well-adjusted all the meanwhile.

Indeed.

Indeed.

What is perhaps mentioned less often is that Teppu is in a way one of the best sports manga. Each fight is unique, exciting, with awesome moments that are surprising and genuinely clever and fitting for the psychologies and styles of the characters involved — especially if one of those characters is Natsuo because she is badass. My favorite fight is the final (?) showdown between Natsuo and her childhood friend Sanae, but I should not really spoil any part of it. Instead, I will briefly paint one of Natsuo’s first official matches, which is against a rival, Kirie, from her own gym who has been consistently beating her in their daily spars: just six months after Natsuo started MMA (a much more realistic timeline than other sports manga, but it is a big deal), she gets revenge on Kirie by enacting all the holds Kirie had used against her to perfection and then letting Kirie escape, scoring points over and over… It seems slightly less mean-spirited if you know that they never got along from the start. In any case, the fight is an awesome and perfect clash of personalities, with all the histories entailed, which is incredible given that pure grappling matches are not traditionally the most exciting.

Well okay, just a little something from that match.

Well okay, just a little something from that match.

More Than an Archetype

So Natsuo has an ugly and flawed side. Part of being an atypical sports manga like Teppu, far from being just a limited antithesis, is that such a personality as hers can take center stage. Teppu is as much about meta-narratives as it is about Natsuo’s personal struggle to accept herself, to express herself, to see herself more honestly, and to put to rest her past. In fact, when she indulges in acting out against Kirie, Sanae, and Mawatari, she knows that it is because she is insecure and envious. In a way, as much as she hates them and desires to pound their heads to the ground, she is also infatuated with their brilliance, and wants them to beat her and tell her she is wrong — for which she has alternatively been called both a sadist and a masochist. In fact, one of the things I have always found so real and relatable in Natsuo and which makes Teppu my favorite manga is these painful contradictions: to know deep down that one is wrong and messed up in some ways, yet still wanting to be validated and to forcefully, violently assert even at the expense of others: I am here, I exist in spite of rather than because of.

I don’t think it has to be Natsuo’s talent that causes her isolation, at least, it isn’t necessary to explain her state, because dwelling in such a starting point might lead to self-serving elitist narratives which I don’t think Oota-sensei intended, e.g. society hammers down the gifted. Instead, I think it is more accurate to say that people, exemplified by her brother and fellow club members, deny and shun a fundamental and ultimately innocent aspect of her. That is, when she used to ask people if they couldn’t do what she could, incredulous, she had already committed a grave social sin and before she knows it, everyone has turned against her. Instead of changing herself and hiding herself, she conforms on the surface while flaunting her talent in the face of those who shunned her — asserting her right to exist in other words — and takes her frustration out on those that, unlike her, have the inner strength to survive that system and even shine.

And the thing that she wants to hear, the question that she wants to settle, is this: that despite having the fucked up personality that I do, despite the terrible things that I have done, despite all the mistakes I have committed and especially the social sins that alienated me from everyone: I wasn’t wrong. Despite my later contrivances to treat people badly, and to taunt them and beat them, I wasn’t guilty then or now or ever… And at least when generalized in this sense, I really relate with her struggle through these questions.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In a way, Watamote and Oyasumi Punpun, similarly about working out from under painful loneliness, face the same dilemma as Teppu: to what extent will their protagonists escape and improve? Will they be relatable any longer? But what kind of manga doesn’t at least provide some hope? The ending of Teppu itself is ambiguous: Natsuo in many ways remains the same person, still trapped in her unreasonable hatred of Mawatari, still weirdly infatuated with her brother, and still full of envy and feelings of inferiority. It couldn’t be helped: Oota-sensei has health issues that forced him to end Teppu at this very premature stage, and I am just grateful that we got some sort of satisfaction while keeping the same Natsuo that we know, and Oota-sensei got a well-deserved rest. At the same time some things have certainly changed: Natsuo finally got her sound and utter defeat, which I think humanizes her a bit, lets her understand the feelings of the majority of people who couldn’t do what she could. Because I think she actually does want to understand empathize, which is what makes her different from Mawatari, but she couldn’t just get over her bitterness to go about it in a less roundabout way.

Oyasumi Punpun ended in kind of a mess, with incredible hope but that hope is so fantastic and questionable that you realize that Asano Inio-sensei doesn’t know his way out of despair any more than you do. Perhaps then, you have to write your own ending after all: crawl out of your own mess, and live to tell the tale. I too have to find my own way, but I hope we meet each other again in the light.

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