Friendship fascinates and amazes me at every stage. Actually, most types of relationships fascinate me, because I don’t completely understand them. Still, I understand at least two things better than the Generation of Miracles: First, relationships should never be purely utilitarian. Even if we’re on a team with specific goal—whether in a sport or at work—we must recognize each other as human beings, not tools. Second, the “strong” often need the “weak” at least as much as the “weak” need the “strong.”
Over the past 65 episodes of Kuroko’s Basketball, we’ve met Kuroko’s former teammates, powerful athletes who lost perspective about they game they love and the teammates they play with. In the current flashback arc, we watch these young teens transform from eager team players to prideful, despondent, solo players. The Teiko Middle School basketball team falls apart. Their friendships are damaged in the process.
This season’s fifteenth episode is titled “‘We’ no Longer,” and it’s one of the most painful episodes so far. The main five athletes, the ones known as the Generation of Miracles, are too strong. No opponent provides good competition, and no teammate outside those five (and occasionally Kuroko) can keep up with them. These kids are only twelve or thirteen years old; this kind of power is a lot to handle. To make it worse, the new head coach doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the administration and put his athletes’ overall development above their winning streak. As a result, they develop a utilitarian approach to their team: so long as they win, nothing else matters.
Aomine is the first affected. He used to love basketball more than anyone else, but there’s no longer any competition. His opponents don’t even try anymore. He doesn’t need his teammates in order to win, and most of them just slow him down. So he stops coming to practice. His coach forgets that his primary duty is to mentor these kids, not to serve the school’s media agenda, and he tells Aomine he doesn’t have to come anymore. Message: I don’t care enough about your long term athletic development, let alone your emotional and social needs, to try to help you. Practice is pointless anyway. Just help us win. The coach regrets his words later, but the damage is done.
It’s bad enough that the school treats them like tools. But their captain, Akashi Seijuro, does the same. Even before he switches completely to Emperor Akashi mode, he tells his teammates: “We’re strong when the separate individuals engage with each other. There’s only one thing we need to share!” So long as they play well and share victory, he’ll be satisfied. Yikes.
Akashi’s words become even more toxic later in the episode, after he wins a power struggle with Murasakibara. Kuroko is worried about Aomine in particular, but Akashi tells him not to pursue it. “A plate can never be restored once it has a crack,” he says, “but if it is still usable, what we have now will suffice.” I’m not sure if the “plate” is Aomine, the team, or both, but Akashi’s words are cold regardless. He adds, “For the Generation of Miracles, team play is nothing more than a hindrance.”
We saw Akashi with his father earlier in this episode, so we know where his utilitarian approach came from: he is expected to excel in both school and “arms.” He is not praised for his success; it is simply expected. No wonder he treats his teammates like tableware. If family members are only worth their achievements, then why should friends or teammates be any different?
Newsflash, Akashi family: sons are not trophies, and friends are not plates. They are human beings. Cracks can not only be restored, but made beautiful. Every human being has countless wonderful qualities. If you only draw out physical talent, and don’t care about their mental or emotional wellbeing, you’re not just hurting them. When you treat them like machines, you deprive yourself and others of a chance to see God’s most precious creation flourish. Stop worrying about your own success, and start caring about the people around you in a multidimensional way.
Kuroko tries to fight his teammates’ change. He understand that this victory-centered approach isn’t good. But Akashi shuts him down: “Obscure ideals are powerless, and nothing else.”
Sweetie, no. Friendship, love, honor, mercy, justice… these “obscure ideals” are part of what make us human. It’s about so much more than concrete power. Physical domination, material success—this “power” only uses and builds your exterior, and nothing else. It leaves you hollow and alone.
Here’s the other thing that not all the characters understand: the strong need the weak just as much as the weak need to strong.
This is clear in Aomine and Kuroko’s conversation. Aomine discounts Kuroko’s advice to keep hoping for competition, to keep trying his best, because “How could someone who can’t do anything by himself understand this?” Both the weak and the strong—whether in basketball, social skills, academics, or current emotional state—can easily fall into that trap: unless you’ve experience the same struggle and pain as I have, you can’t understand me, so your advice is not valid. But wisdom can come from the most unexpected places. And the weak (or strong) can offer other things you need: empathy, kindness, acceptance.
Even as Aomine rejects Kuroko’s help, his face shows his grief. We aren’t made to live, work, and play alone. Part of Aomine knows that Kuroko’s ideals are right. He longs to rely on him, to enjoy basketball with him again. But he doesn’t know how. So he decides it’s impossible.
I haven’t seen the latest episode of Kurobas, but since it’s the flashback arc, I know Kuroko doesn’t give up on his middle school teammates. In high school, he faces his old friends one by one, determined to beat them as much for their sake as for his own team’s. If they only understand victory as a demonstration of power, then Kuroko will use that to show them that his “obscure ideals” are, in fact, more powerful than their selfish and utilitarian approaches.
As a Christian, I believe so-called “obscure ideals” aren’t only a powerful, but a necessary part of every relationship—whether with a housemate, friend, or passing acquaintance. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to love your neighbor. Note that he had a very broad, counter-cultural definition of “neighbor.” When asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the story about a Samaritan rescuing a Jewish robbery-and-assault victim. As a rule, Jews didn’t get along with Samaritans too well. They even had religious laws they could twist to justify their racism. But the Samaritan (not the two religious Jews who passed by first) helped the bloody man to an inn and paid for his treatment. So “neighbor” includes “complete stranger who would probably treat you poorly if he wasn’t dying.” If that’s true, then “neighbor” definitely includes teammates, friends, coworkers, and, as Jesus confirms in Luke 6:35, enemies.
There are a whole lot of specifics about how to love in the Bible. Much of it goes back to imitating Jesus Christ. But my point is that it’s a priority. Caring about each other is more important than grades, victory, money… And, of course, it reaches another level in the Church—we are members of one body. Actively, humbling, caring for each other’s needs isn’t just about obeying a command; it is how we should be identified (John 13:34-35).
Why did Jesus emphasize the command to love? I believe it’s because, as both Creator and Man, he knows what we need. We are made for fellowship with God and with each other. When we forget the importance of “we,” we end up hurting, like Aomine clearly hurts in this episode.
By the end of this episode, “‘We’ No Longer,” I wanted to scoop these kids up and hug them better. I haven’t felt this strongly since Gon’s transformation in Hunter x Hunter. But I have more hope than I did in HxH, because I’ve seen Kuroko and his high school team at work. Kuroko endures insults, rigorous practice, and much more, all in order to beat his old teammates and bring them back to the light. He’s already convinced four of them that “we” is an important part of the game, and that their personal skill isn’t enough. Only the emperor remains. I admit; I’m a little worried. Akashi needs defeat the most, and he will be the most difficult opponent yet. But I have faith in Kuroko. His love for his friends and for the game will triumph in the end.