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).