Sometimes, the only way to sell a toy to a kid is if everyone else already has one, and he wants in on the action. This can be a real, circular conundrum for a manufacturer, but if the child in question at least sees this line of toys as the gateway to a world of EXPLOSIVE fun over which friendships will be forged, there is an opportunity for a sale. Anime can be a great way to achieve that, and perhaps the most blatant example is Beyblade. I recently watched the first season, 2001’s Bakuten Shoot Beyblade (Explosive Shoot Beyblade). Commonly described as a 51-episode infomercial for the toys manufactured by Tomy and distributed by Hasbro, it’s gotten panned by a lot of viewers (check out its ratings over at ANN), but still has some goofy shonen drama and a premise that gets better and better for laughs as it grows more over-the-top (pun intended).
Based on an equally mercenary manga by Takao Aoki (not the most famous manga-ka, he hasn’t enjoyed the renown of the toys he helped to sell), Beyblade, like Pokémon, takes place in a world very much like our own, save that all social activity is focused around this one hobby. Takao Kinomiya and his grade schooler friends are a close-knit bunch, and whether at a public park or on a random rooftop, love to clash in friendly BeyBattles, whether using an official BeyStadium arena, or simply the surroundings for their ripcord-powered spinning top clashes (look out for concave rock formations or tree stumps as hints of an upcoming contest). Then, a malefactor shows up from the Shell Killers, a blader gang (they meet in an abandoned warehouse), collecting everyone’s defeated beys in a sack like marbles. Even using the expertise of the Professor (actually, just another elementary schooler famed for his skill in crunching Beyblade stats on his laptop), Takao is despairing of what to do until, seated in his grandfather’s kendo dojo that evening, a spirit within a sword said to have slain a dragon enters his Beyblade: a Sacred Beast giving him new powers and abilities, and he puts the troublemaker in his place.
But no sooner than he recovers everyone’s beys, the leader of the gang, Kai Hiwatari, shows himself. The Sasuke Uchiha of the show, Kai’s cool looks, and philosophy devaluing friendship and teamwork, mark him as a destined rival, soon to be frenemy for Takao.
Already farfetched? One of the interesting things about Beyblade is how anime makes so much out of so little. Watching a real BeyBattle—a representative video featuring tops modeled after beys from the show is BeybladeGeek’s “1ST GEN PLASTIC BATTLE: Black Dranzer VS Draciel”—it hardly looks like the stuffs of a 51-episode ”explosive” anime. One way the series adds variety is quickly taking things international. Overcoming foes in Japan is just the beginning, and early in their journeys Takao and Kai team up with half-American blader Max Mizuhara and Chinese blader Rei Kon to form the BBA team to compete around the world, always with the Professor in tow providing advice (despite the lengthy Japanese academic year, they never seem be missed by the school system back home, and have little trouble traveling overseas with minimal adult supervision).
The real spectacle, though, is the battles. For the first ten minutes or so, the physics are likely enough, but after that BeyBattles become magical affairs. The Sacred Beasts, shown as neon-colored monsters emanating from the Beyblade’s “bit” (in real life, a little piece in the center with a sticker on it), inhabit the principal beys, giving them supernatural powers; tournament audiences and the entertaining Blader DJ who narrates every event are excited by, but always ready to accept, that these spinning tops can: change directions and attack as their bladers bark instructions, cause whirlwinds, whirlpools, spew fire, fly straight up into the air, break through meter-thick ice, and even (yes) transport their players into an alternate dimension. The reason these beasts all choose to inhabit these mostly plastic tops wasn’t clearly explained, but here their power is such that they are even the stuffs of federally-funded research facilities, and plots to take over the world. The standard shonen protocol for sports anime, of remaking everything in the image of Dragon Ball Z (see also Kuroko’s Basketball), is faithfully followed. And this is very much a boy’s anime, with nary a girl to be seen in the first few episodes, with even tournament audiences near all male; they seem to have thought better of it after a few episodes, adding a few females, perhaps to better appeal to that demographic, or at least enable blader shipping.
As I watched this, I often worried: were the kids who bought these happy with their toys, or not? What they saw in the anime was not what they got, that is, tops that only seem to fight because of a curved playing field drawing them close. Following the launch, players have no further input by speaking to their bey’s Sacred Beast. Were they given false hopes? I hope they were, at least, happy with the anime. While this may be a too-obvious advertisement-as-anime, functionally it is little different than long-standing otaku favorites. Gundam has ever been reliant on sales of plastic models, or “Gunpla” or “plamo” for short, while Pretty Cure visibly animates certain items differently, clearly so they will look as much like the toys the girls watching are supposed to buy as possible. Let the buyer beware; but let him at least know every purchase in real life made it possible for them to say “3, 2, 1: Go, SHOOT!” on screen.