A Japanese manga series about a disparate group of high school students that find purpose and camaraderie through road cycling has captured the minds of its readers to such an extent that many are now replicating their heroes in real life.
Across continents and generations, comics and cartoons have been a source of escapism and entertainment for many. With no physical constraints other than the creator’s imagination, unique characters can be conceived and effortlessly transported across visual mediums as their appeal broadens.
In Japan, the popularity of manga (comics) and anime (animated productions) is so deeply rooted that evidence of its influence can be seen everywhere; though smartphones have now made some forms of consumption less conspicuous to the casual visitor. Popular manga series may eventually make their way onto television, merchandise and, ultimately, cinema screens.
Yowamushi Pedal, first serialized in 2008 by artist Watanabe Wataru, has certainly followed this conventional path. The series follows main protaganist Sakamichi Onoda, an obsessive fan of manga and anime entering his first year of high school as the archetypal awkward and geeky student. On discovering the high school anime club he wants to join no longer exists, he nonetheless goes on to inadvertently impress members of the school’s cycling team. Yowamushi Pedal follows Onoda and his unlikely cohort as they train, race and compete against teams from other high schools.
With millions of copies now sold, Yowamushi Pedal has created a legion of fans in the same way that western comics such as the Amazing Spider-Man and Batman have. Altogether different though, is the way in which that fan base is seeking to emulate the characters of the series. Not content just to buy merchandise and attend meet-ups in full costume, some Yowamushi pedal fans are actually becoming cyclists themselves.
Japan’s public broadcaster NHK recently attended a road cycling event near Tokyo which more than 1’000 fans gathered to celebrate the series – on their bicycles. As the reporter notes, Yowamushi Pedal has changed the lives of some who attended:
“I read the comics through the night,” says fan Sayano Miyazaki. “They are very moving. I can’t stop crying…I used over a box of tissues.” Miyazaki says she used to spend most of her time reading comics, and dressing up as her favorite characters in a hobby known as cosplay.
Her routine changed last year when she bought a road bike the same brand as in the comics. Now, most weekdays after finishing work, she spends two hours in the saddle. On weekends she meets up with friends to take on rides 100 kilometers or more. “I go wherever I can by bicycle,” Miyazaki says of her new lifestyle. “My priority now is riding somewhere to enjoy a really good meal.”
She says she has joined an amateur cycling club that includes people from a range of backgrounds and age groups. Miyazaki is one of the newest members, but the other cyclists say she already holds her own. “She’s amazing. She’s always breaking away. It’s only at the end that I’m able to catch her. She has a heart of steel,” says club member Takashi Ito. “I’ve changed a lot as a person,” says Miyazaki. “My relationship with people, whole world have expanded. I’m just so glad I discovered cycling.”
As well as being popular in Chinese-speaking countries, the series is spreading further. Earlier in December, film distributor Madman Entertainment brought Yowamushi Pedal: The Movie to Oceania, though only in selected cinemas for one weekend (the full movie can be found on YouTube for those who wish to find it.)
Understandably, this is creating more demand for the high-end road bikes featured underneath the characters, with brands such as Giant, Specialized, BMC and Time all getting a free publicity ride on the back of this immensely popular series. Yowamushi Pedal is proving to be the most unlikely catalyst for inspiring people onto road bikes and it will be fascinating to watch how this phenomenon manifests in the years ahead; not only in Japan.
More information on Yowamushi Pedal: