Fandom: Prince of Tennis
Spoilers: Spoilers for a lot of the anime/manga, particularly the Rikkai Arc.
Prince of Tennis, or Tennis no Ohjisama in the Japanese, is the story of one team’s quest to rule the world of Japanese junior high tennis. Specifically, Tennis no Ohjisama follows the meteoric rise of American-born Echizen Ryoma as he begins his career at Seishun Gakuen, henceforth referred to as Seigaku.
This is neither about Echizen or his teammates at Seigaku.
Along their journey to number one, Echizen at Seigaku must do battle with many opponents, teams composed of insanely talented teenaged athletes. Many of these characters are very well developed for a series that features dozens of boys – one of the mangaka’s gifts is for creating likeable, multi-dimensional characters in surplus, making it frankly difficult to always root for the main team. Many of these teams are skillfully foreshadowed, with characters from them appearing many matches before Seigaku is due to meet up with them on the court.
One of the most anticipated rival teams in the manga was Rikkai Dai Fuzoku, national champions for two years in a row, Kanto Regional champions for far more, and peopled by a team of legendarily ruthless players. At the same time, these undeniably cocky boys are also equally quirky – from Marui Bunta’s pre-match cake to Niou Masaharu and Yagyuu Hiroshi’s now infamous switch in the manga, each player on the team has rituals or ideas that wouldn’t even occur to most of their opponents, even in the rather rarified world of superhuman junior high tennis.
The first Rikkai team member that we meet is the lone second year on the team, Kirihara Akaya. He appears in the most adorable of ways: having fallen asleep on his bus, Kirihara not only went past the Rikkai stop, but managed to sleep all the way to Tokyo and wake up only at the end of the line, conveniently near Seigaku. Aftering calling the team, he receives a blisteringly annoyed commentary from Sanada Genichirou, the team fukubuchou, and then decides to “scout” Seigaku, and tick off the generally stoic Tezuka Kunimitsu in the process.
With a head of thick black curls and avid bright green eyes, Kirihara brings to mind nothing quite so much as a mischievous elf. Kirihara is good and he knows it; it’s the rare player that can best him on the court, and only those who manage that, or at the very least manage to give him a tough match, can earn his respect.
Kirihara’s particular brand of pride has a distinctly violent edge to it; he doesn’t merely defeat his opponents, he destroys them. His style of play injures Echizen Ryoma’s knees, puts Tachibana Kippei in the hospital, and temporarily blinds Fuji Syuusuke during their match in the Kanto finals. Kirihara only respects the opponent who is able to overcome the bold violence and either defeat him or nearly defeat him.
The number of tennis players on the junior high circuit that can manage this can almost be counted on one hand.
Kirihara isn’t all about the violence, however; there’s an undeniably cute, impish side to his personality as well. He has an interesting sort of camaraderie with his teammates, like that of the perpetually younger brother doing his best to irritate his elders. This is particularly evident in his relationship with Jackal Kuwahara – often the assigned babysitter for Rikkai’s generally untrustworthy second year – as well as his relationships with both the team fukubuchou, Sanada Genichirou and its strategist, Yanagi Renji.
Yanagi Renji first makes the scene in chapter 40 of the manga, after the news of Rikkai’s apparently easy victory in the Kanagawa district tournament. He’s a bit of a mysterious figure in his initial appearance, and we don’t even learn his name – our attention is focused on the confident and ruthless fukubuchou of Rikkai who is snarking at Inoue, the series resident sports writer and general Seigaku fanboy. Later, he appears during the Hyoutei Arc, when he, Sanada, and Kirihara stand at the top of the stands watching the final match between Atobe Keigo and Tezuka Kunimitsu.
It’s difficult to discern Yanagi’s inward personality and thoughts from his outward actions; Yanagi Renji is a quiet, serene boy, his eyes almost always shuttered by his eyelids and eyelashes and his expression always still and neutral. His backstory unfolds slowly; it is not until Rikkai meets Seigaku in the Kanto finals that we learn about his past and his role on the Rikkai team: that Yanagi is a data tennis player, like Seigaku’s Inui, and in fact taught Inui Sadaharu the ways of data tennis, that he and Inui were a decorated doubles team in Tokyo before they went off to their respective junior highs in different prefectures, and that there is unfinished business between them.
Yanagi’s match against Inui’s is one of the most exciting and revealing of the entire Tennis no Ohjisama run, in my opinion, and it provides not only great insight into Yanagi’s past, but also insight into his character. Yanagi Renji is, it is revealed, just as proud and confident as his teammates in his skills and strategies, and it is quite possibly this pride and confidence that ultimately costs him the match and allows this previously undefeated player to lose.
Yanagi & Kirihara: Canon and Fanon, All Mixed Up in a Yummy Fanshake
Despite Kirihara’s unabashed brashness, and Yanagi’s lack thereof, the two of them seem to relate to each other as if they had always known each other, instead of only being acquainted for a year. The reason for this is simple yet complicated at the very same time; Kirihara and Yanagi mesh, their personalities compliment each other instead of clashing against each other, and the result is a relationship that manages to be both comfortable and yet crackle with the possibility of tension at the same time.
It was not always this way. Yanagi is one of those rare players that Kirihara has not yet managed to defeat, and on the occasion of Kirihara’s first defeat at Yanagi’s hands, he threw a rather spectacularly violent temper tantrum. Part of this was because of Kirihara’s triple defeat that day – the previously unbeatable twelve year old had not only lost to Yanagi Renji, but also to Sanada Genichirou and Yukimura Seiichi, the player that would become Rikkai’s buchou. But his match with Yanagi was particularly infuriating for Kirihara, something that has a lot to do with the clash of their styles and the subsequent clash of their personalities.
Kirihara Akaya is an instinctive tennis player, and an instinctive personality. While he can be calculating when pursuing the destruction of an opponent, his style is far from the often clinical data tennis of Yanagi Renji. Yanagi, on the other hand, approaches every match and many areas of his life calmly and coolly. He collects data. He plans. He makes all of his decisions based on what the data and his serene analytical skills tell him will be the optimal situation. Such precise strategy is undoubtedly exasperating, particularly to someone of Kirihara’s nature, and initially their relationship is hardly a friendly one.
This changes at some point; when we see Kirihara and Yanagi again, their relationship is considerably more amenable and agreeable, and there’s certainly an affection of sorts between them – Kirihara even stops Sanada-fukubuchou from slapping Yanagi after Yanagi's loss to Inui, putting his tennis racket between them - but how their relationship changed is never truly explored in the canon. It becomes the province of imaginative fans, like me, to explore how it may have changed.
There are some things that seem clear to me about the growth of their relationship, and foremost among them is that Yanagi would have been the first to acknowledge the shift of his feelings for Kirihara from platonic to romantic, and he would have calmly planned and strategized and embarked on a specific quest that would have a specific result. But equally clear is this: the journey might have the ending Yanagi anticipated, but there would be a number of twists and turns that would catch him of guard, surprise him, and Kirihara, with his somewhat unpredictable and rash nature, would be responsible for those unexpected eventualities.
That potential situation explains why their relationship is both comfortable and interesting: Yanagi’s calm nature provides balance to Kirihara’s wild one, giving the younger boy a steadying influence. But this very wildness is equally necessary to Yanagi; it keeps him from becoming complacent or stuck in a rut – because of Kirihara, there will always be a thread of excitement in Yanagi Renji’s life, a thrill of the unexpected. And this is why I truly love the two of them together, because Yanagi Renji and Kirihara Akaya are really essential to one another.
There are a number of authors in the fandom that I believe really manage to nail what YanaKiri is about, and I’ll highlight a few of their works here:
“Clarify” by MorphailEffect (http://yanakiri.renji.org/fanworks.php?id=2)
MorphailEffect manages to capture the sense of surprise that Yanagi must feel when Kirihara tugs him down an unexpected curve in the road. Also, it uses the popular “tutoring Akaya” scenario, which I always find so cute.
“For You” by Tongari (http://yanakiri.renji.org/fanworks.php?id=4)
I love Tongari’s Kirihara; he’s a nearly perfect representation of the Kirihara that lives in my head, both childlike and intuitive, and this story is a nearly perfect representation of a calm in his relationship with Yanagi.
“The Art of Letter Writing” by Midorino Mizu (http://lemon.renji.org/?p=66#cut-1)
Yes. This is mine, and it’s one of my favorite YanaKiri fics that I’ve written. I’m fond of future fics, and this one takes place during a year that Yanagi and Kirihara spend apart – when Yanagi goes off to university in Kyoto and Kirihara is left behind in high school in Kanagawa. It is a year of letters between them, and of growing closer through the letters.
And finally, a plug for my Yanagi & Kirihara fanlisting, Love Bites. Visit, look around, join!