Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 30th 2012
Episodes 1-7 Streaming
In middle school basketball, the Teika Middle School Basketball Team was a legend. It went three years undefeated and was renowned for its five star players, collectively known as the Miracle Generation. There was a sixth player though, unknown to the public but respected by his genius teammates. And now that he's in high school he's set to join a new team. The team of his choice is new and has a sort of journeyman reputation, but Tetsuya Kuroko, the invisible member of the Miracle Generation, finds in it a reason to continue playing the game. That reason's name is Kagami. He's huge and rude and just awash in raw talent, and Kuroko instantly decides that he's a perfect match for his own self-effacing skills. See, Kuroko is a master passer, and a master passer is only complete when he has a master scorer to pass to.
In a later episode one character points out that most of a good team's power is just good fundamentals. The same could be said for a good anime. Kuroko's Basketball gets some help from an interesting core concept, but the main reason it works well is simply because it knows its basics: good characters, exciting action, and the occasional good chuckle. It isn't as sexy as brilliant mind games or crushing emotions, but it gets the job done: every episode is over before you know it, leaving you looking forward to the next.
Sports series don't necessarily need something unique to set them apart, but Kuroko has one anyway. Most athletes, especially the ones in TV shows, are doing their best to stand out. Kuroko on the other hand is an athlete whose godlike skills are only apparent when he's part of a team, blending in and helping everyone else to stand out. It makes him a very interesting character. He's like a beneficial parasite, feeding off of Kagami while helping him to fulfill his potential. Or perhaps more accurately given his stealthy invisibility, a ninja: living in the shadows while helping his master conquer the world (of basketball). His nature also makes him a lot of fun to watch. The series gets a lot of comic mileage out of his total lack of presence and deadpan inexpressiveness. He's always popping out of nowhere at inopportune times. He's constantly startling people or disappearing or in one case picking a fight before anyone can notice him. His muted emotional responses are also a kick—it isn't until he tells people that he's mad or excited or restless that anyone can tell that he is. Despite being a still, quiet, colorless boy—or perhaps because of it—he's easily the most likeable character in the show.
And that isn't slight praise. The rest of the cast is plenty easy to like. There's cute, happily sadistic teen coach Riko, who is so pleased at getting her team into an impossible match against a perennial inter-high contender that she literally skips into the room. There's the team's bespectacled captain, who is meek as a lamb normally but turns into a trash-talking egomaniac when the pressure's on. Kagami is a bit of a problem at first, coming across as an uninteresting brute, but he eventually takes on a certain bullheaded charm. He's the kind of athlete whose drive to win is so strong that losing only fires him up. In time even the faceless place-fillers on Kuroko and Kagami's team take on amusing personalities; nothing spectacular, mind you, but enough to tell them apart and even root for them on occasion. Heck, even its antagonists are written well enough that you both want them crushed and feel kind of bad for them when they are. There's a princely but incredibly skilled copycat, a foreign exchange student whose level of maturity is inversely proportional to his size, and a scientific shooter whose scientific mind does not extend to horoscopes and magical totems—all of them surprisingly interesting and all of them in dire need of an ego-adjusting basketball spanking.
Which is a pretty standard way of establishing the proper stakes for a game. But standards are standards because they work. Kuroko doesn't do anything revolutionary with its sports action, but the action works and works well. The stakes are right: with pride, a tournament, and the need to seriously school some overinflated egos all on the line. They're high, but not so high that they aren't believable or that the series can't let the team fail. The action is fast-paced yet lucid enough that you always know what's happening and where things stand. Speedy editing, a big obvious guitar score, and frequent swapping of the advantage keep the pressure on throughout. Each match presents a different challenge: a copycat player whose natural skills are so high that his copies are always better than the original; a player who is so huge that his shots are impossible to block; an outside shooter who never misses a shot. The challenges that the team gets to in these episodes are resolved in inventive ways, with strategy and psychology as much as raw skill. Aside from the visual hook of Kuroko's razor-sharp passing game and Kuroko himself, there's nothing that the series does during a game that hasn't been done before. And yet the action sucks you right in and keeps you pinned 'til the end. Good fundamentals; they aren't to be underestimated.
The same philosophy holds for the series' general look. It's sharp and attractive, with nice bright colors and good detail throughout. The character designs are particularly handsome, with good clean lines and good use of cross-hatched shadows. They're easy to distinguish from each other but never outlandish; expressive but not cartoonish. Riko, with her tomboyish good looks and wide array of cutely nasty expressions, is a standout, as is Kuroko of course. He's a cool, pointedly colorless boy who manages to be arresting and quietly effacing at the same time. His poker face is probably the show's most formidable comic weapon. Kagami again isn't too impressive, conforming to the feral natural-athlete look you'd expect from him, but the series makes good use of his intense eyes, for both humorous and serious purposes.
Both the score and Production I.G.'s animation follow the art's lead. The score is generally invisible while remaining quite effective, only really making itself known when it breaks out those big obvious guitars. The animation focuses mainly on the characters, paying greater than usual attention to the movement of muscles, but also proving surprisingly good at goofy physical humor. It can be quite impressive when slow-motion impact is called for, or when highlighting the showboating skills of an opponent, or even when animating the net as an important shot passes through it, but mostly prefers to do its work without calling attention to itself. Kind of like the show as a whole.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Sports action that does what it needs to be continually fun and involving; Kuroko and his peculiar basketball skill-set.
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