The Mike Toole Show
What's "Teekyu" Anyway?

by Mike Toole,

It's been a banner year for short anime series, to the point that you could make a pretty creditable top 5 just using shorts that range from three to twelve minutes per episode. My personal favorite is a toss-up between Please tell me! Galko-chan and Space Patrol Luluco, but I've also devoted plenty of time to the likes of Miss Bernard Says, Tonkatsu DJ Agetarō, Gakuen Handsome, and of course, Bananya. There's something compelling about the format, isn't there? You can chain a bunch of shorts together to create your own little variety pack of shows, you can marathon them, or you can just use one or two as a chaser for more serious, involved half-hour shows.

In the world of anime shorts, one particular series looms large, a pop culture juggernaut that spans eight seasons, with multiple spinoffs, bizarre product tie-ins, and even its own stage play. It's ostensibly about tennis, but it's really about jokes smashing you in the face with the force and frequency of a thousand tennis balls – balls launched by a quartet of girls who don't seem to give a crap about tennis at all. Let's talk about Teekyū!

Almost every discussion of Teekyū I have these days starts with “Hey, what the hell is the deal with Teekyū, anyway?! Explain Teekyū.” I was fortunate enough to be in the room when someone posed a variant of this question to Mr Masao Maruyama, the legendary anime producer who was one of MAPPA's chief officers when Teekyū was launched in 2012. The question was asked at Otakon 2013, so by this point, a lot of people had been exposed to the show's chaotic approach to jokes, storytelling, and animation itself. What made the question funnier is the fact that it was asked in between really nuanced, substantive talk of ambitious projects like The Tibetan Dog and Kids on the Slope, but Teekyū wasn't even a series that Maruyama oversaw directly! Maruyama still obligingly chatted about how interesting of a production it was, and how its director, Shin Itagaki, was uniquely suited to churning out its brief episodes in between other projects.

By this point, I'd sampled Teekyū a few times, mainly as a joke. “Aw crap,” my friends and I would say to each other, “I missed a couple of weeks of Teekyū, I gotta get caught up!” knowing full well that doing so would take six minutes. But the show had a weird kind of magic—someone would ask Maruyama about it every year at Otakon, even after the series and its director shifted to another studio (sadly, Maruyama was absent from this year's show, but he damn well would've fielded a question about Teekyū if he'd been there). I think the show's hook starts with its unique visual style – not only does director Itagaki carefully manage the production by keeping each episode limited to about 30 cuts of animation (a relatively easy task, since he's also the animation director and draws the storyboards…!), the show is also done almost entirely with keyframes only – it's not 100% free of in-between animation, but it's deliberately produced in a style that keeps it looking fast-paced, sloppy, and weird.

As for Teekyū's story and characters, the show goes with the usual “4 girls in an afterschool club” formula, with tennis being a reliable choice (the title is a play on “teikyuu,” the actual word for tennis, kinda like how “haikyuu” is the word for volleyball and “yakyuu” means baseball). Creator Roots introduces weird stuff immediately – every story is titled [name of movie] with Sempai, starting with Forrest Gump with Sempai. The movies are rarely referenced during the episodes, which concern the antics of Yuri (ponytail; occasionally expresses interest in playing tennis), Kanae (the pink-haired sempai of the series; kinda shrimpy, has a running gag where she messily eats sports equipment), Nasuno (pretty and wealthy; serves as the group's financial muscle) and Marimo (huge perv; looks the oldest, but is often even less mature than Kanae). Teekyū is a gag comedy – it has the narrative structure of something like Nichijou, with seemingly normal situations that take bizarre left turns, but it's way dumber. For example, right from the start Kanae takes to the tennis court with no understanding of the game. She can't use a tennis racket, but she's pretty handy with a toilet plunger, which she later uses to rescue a choking victim, in much the same way that you'd use a plunger to unclog a toilet.

Part of the key to understanding Teekyū is understanding where it came from. Creator Roots got into the entertainment business while still in high school, establishing himself as a popular videogame guide on Nico Nico Douga – yep, back in the late 2000s, he was making “let's play” type videos. He started dabbling in 4-panel gag comics and web animation, and eventually cooked up the idea for Teekyū (“tennis manga… without the tennis!”) for Comic Earth Star, the flagship manga magazine for a giant entertainment concern that also runs the Tsutaya video rental chain. In that sense, Teekyū is a series that came forth from the stew of online culture, before being seized and refined by a big entertainment concern. It still works, though—the director does a great job of preserving the ambient weirdness of the comics, which Roots creates in partnership with an artist called Piyo.

It's gratifying that Shin Itagaki has stayed on to direct the entire run of Teekyū, because it's hard to imagine another director stepping in—the series really is a firehose of jokes and banter, but its brief episodes have a remarkably consistent tone and tempo. Even after Teekyū left MAPPA, Maruyama would revert to a stock answer when asked about it, saying “We don't produce Teekyū anymore, but as long as Mr Itagaki is directing it, I'm sure it's great!” I had the exact same “As long as Itagaki is in charge, it'll be great!” thought when I heard he'd been tapped to direct the new Berserk TV series.

I'm not actually being facetious. Earlier, I touched on how you could make a “best-of” list that relied on shorts, but Itagaki's Berserk would make my “real” best-of list for this year. It was something of a scapegoat when it aired, because there's a lot of pent-up demand for Berserk animation (also: Berserk manga) and a lot of fans found its reliance on CG to be underwhelming. Itagaki's approach is certainly idiosyncratic, clumsily melding the uncanny CG approach of a studio like Polygon Pictures with brief, refined blasts of traditional 2D animation. I still think that he fundamentally does a good job of preserving the best parts of the original manga, and that the CG approach serves the action scenes well. I'd also contend that the series owes its snappy action and high tempo to Itagaki's experience working on Teekyū. He stepped away from Berserk after the first 12 episodes season was finished, however, because he had to hurry up and get back to directing Teekyū. That's how important Teekyū is.

Itagaki strikes me as a chameleon, in terms of being a director. He doesn't have an immediately-identifiable visual style, and he doesn't seem to have a preference for the types of show he directs. This may be because he came up as a key animator for a million different shows, before abruptly busting through and becoming a director in the mid-2000s. One of his first TV series projects was the Devil May Cry anime. Who remembers that? He also directed Ben-To, a quirky and fun show about people fighting over bargain lunches, and that Black Cat shonen series that was hot for about a minute. Looking at his CV, you'd be tempted to peg Itagaki as one of Hiroyuki Imaishi's merry men, kinda like Akira Amemiya, but while both men worked on Re: Cutie Honey and Panty & Stocking and Dead Leaves, one of them went on to direct Ninja Slayer: From Animation, and the other went with Teekyū. Also, Queen's Blade: Vanquished Queens. See what I mean about not having an obvious visual style?!

As Teekyū goes from strength to strength—from Mars Attacks! with Sempai to Coach Carter with Sempai-- the characters don't change, such that there are a couple of episodes about how creepy it is that they don't change. Eventually, some new girls are brought in freshen things up, only to be exposed as the cheap gimmicks they are. The series, in general, is a manzai comedy routine at a million miles an hour, with Yuri the sole tsukkomi, surrounded by bokes. Nowhere is this more evident than in a special variant of the episode Stand By me with Sempai, which is dubbed in Osaka dialect, both to heighten the verbal comedy and to celebrate the show's debut on a Kansai TV network.

Yet another thing I dig about Teekyū is its sheer, swaggering confidence. This frame above was the final scene of season 3, which wrapped up before season 4 was confirmed or announced. It honestly would've been a great way to end the series—dangle the teaser for a new season that never arrives-- but instead, we got five more seasons, plus two spinoffs. Oh my god, the spinoffs! They're also directed by Itagaki, and based on comics by Roots and his artist Piyo. Both of them are worth checking out, much closer in terms of quality to Frasier than The Tortellis. I like the Teekyū character Nasuno, who strikes me as a young and pretty Lucille Bluth (she's mean, and has no concept of how ordinary people live or how much things cost), but her solo rich-girl-adventure series, Takamiya Nasuno Desu!, is upstaged by the other spinoff, Usakame, which is about a rival school's tennis club. Here, the viewer is thrown for a loop with a show that is actually sometimes about tennis, presented in a softer, more artistically accomplished style.

Of course, we're all still in it for the jokes, and Usakame doesn't keep us waiting long before the surly club advisor is baldly quoting that Deus Ex internet meme. Consider this: Teekyū has, as of this writing, eight TV seasons and two spinoffs, so you'd have to call it a success by any measure. After all, people might clamor to see Attack on Titan, but has it been running for eight seasons?! No, it has not. There's also a Teekyū stage play (see the cast photo below!), which left me fuming after I read about it, because it only ran for a couple of weeks so I can't see it when I'm in Japan at the end of the month. I like to think that this stage play is about eight or nine minutes long, with a ninety-second intermission.

Just remember to be careful with Teekyū. It might seem tempting to just watch the entire oeuvre in a couple of hours and become an expert, but if you watch too many episodes of it in a row, you'll not only fail to absorb the nuanced dialogue and rich storyline, you're liable to forget everything else you did for the entire day. When I first saw the series, I kept thinking of “blipverts,” an idea presented by the old Max Headroom TV series – they're hyper-compressed commercials, TV ads which cram so much content into a second or two that they sometimes cause viewers' heads to explode. Yeah, Teekyū is kinda like that! So, you should go watch it.

You'd figure that, once Itagaki finishes the back half of Berserk next year, he'll once again go right back to Teekyū, but apparently he'll be lending his talents to some sort of Wake Up, Girls! project instead. That probably just means that the Teekyū anime is all caught up with the manga, and that they'd rather take a hiatus than cheapen the blockbuster, compelling Teekyū brand by creating filler storylines. I'm all for this – Teekyū's strength is something that should never be diluted. It's a strong enough show that even an episode or two can leave the viewer exhausted, and it's powerful enough that I've spent two thousand words writing about something that lasts for three minutes. What's your take on the Teekyū phenomenon? Do you get it, or do you find the show's rapid pace exhausting? Is Shin Itagaki a hardworking hack or one of the most accomplished directors going? Sound off in the comments!

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