[Manga Review] Robot x Laserbeam: A Rollercoaster of Sports Tropes and Writing Pivots

Hatohara Robato, nicknamed “Robo” by his classmates due to being as methodical and expressionless as a robot, is seemingly friendless until entering Eiai Academy, where he meets Tomoya Nakata, an extremely friendly fellow first-year. Nakata instantly attaches himself to Robo, and in the process, recruits Robo into the high school golf club. While highly reluctant in the beginning, Robo soon develops an interest in the sport (likely his first interest in anything…) after meeting prodigy golfer Youzan Miura.

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Before Reading…

As a avid consumer of sports manga, I was quite excited to start a new series, especially about a less covered sport like golf. New sports titles have become rare recently. The few that make it into publication seem to get axed after a few weeks (i.e. Ole Golazo in Shounen Jump). I began reading this manga with high hopes for it to last though. Regardless of actual quality, this manga is the newest work of Tadatoshi Fujimaki, whose last sports title Kuroko no Basketball was incredibly popular and likely to give him much more time and benefit of doubt with Shounen Jump editors.

Initial expectations aside, let’s jump into my thoughts about the manga after actually reading it:

(Disclaimer: 38 chapters has been published this point, and this review includes spoilers up to that chapter.)

Storyline

Robot x Laserbeam is about Robo’s journey in uncovering and developing his talent and passion for golf. The manga starts off super cliche, using many tropes from other sports series.

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Cliche “cool” shot with sports equipment

However, that doesn’t mean using these tropes are bad. Authors do recycle common themes in sports series, in part because backstories, i.e. why characters are so passionate about their sport of choice, don’t really matter that much. What matters is that these characters are super passionate. They care so much that they would train hours and hours just to get better. They care so much that they would lie about injuries just to stand on the field and be able to play. And everything is determined in a single moment — all your past efforts can be rewarded if you win, or “wasted” if you lose.

Best-friend Nakata in fact, summarizes the quintessential attraction of sports (and sports manga) in the first chapter:

“Sports just get you pumped up, don’t they? You practice, get stronger, and then put it all on the line in a match…”
Robo, however, doesn’t get it at all. He says:
“Wanting to win a match, wanting to defeat your rivals…I don’t understand the feelings behind those desires. It’s all well and good to do what you enjoy, but I’ve never felt like I wanted to compete with others to establish which of us is superior.”

This dialogue in Chapter 1 hit home with me. I really felt like the author / mangaka was not just writing the story in question, but also commentating on the bigger picture of sports manga as a whole, and perhaps even the recent decline in readership interest in sports series. Many audiences, like Robo at this moment, may not understand the attraction of sports.

How can these kids be so serious about a ball game? But they are, and the thing is, you don’t need to understand the feelings behind those desires to have those desires. As the series progresses in the first 30 chapters, Robo gains those desires. He wants to win matches. He wants to defeat his rivals.

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The manga never really explains why he suddenly developed those feelings. Sure, a rival appeared and was super passionate about the game, so he in turn became really passionate? Does that make any sense really? No. But does it matter? I don’t think so. They care, and as a result, the game is high tension. The game is high stakes. The game becomes worth watching.

In the same way, for readers, “origin stories” don’t really have to be fresh and original for the manga to be entertaining.

But after that nuanced first chapter, the manga starts to break down a bit for me…

Too. Many. Tropes.

Because of the sheer amount of re-used concepts in Robot x Laserbeam. Why are there so many? Kuroko no Basketball had such a simple design in comparison. Reading Robot x Laserbeam made me feel like I was recycling from all the major super popular sports series. To name a few of the more obvious ones:

1. One main rival who is leagues above you, and is the main reason you’re even doing the sport at all.

Done really well in Hikaru no Go, this concept is actually not often used in sports series, where main characters tend to have many different rivals of almost equal importance. And these rivals are usually only short-term motivators for 1-2 arcs, until they are defeated or their relevance is decreased.

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However, in Robot x Laserbeam, Youzan Miura is not only a rival, he’s THE rival. Youzan serves as a primary motivation for Robo’s entry into the golf world, and his subsequent desire to climb to the top. The origin story here is almost a mirror of Hikaru no Go, where Touya Akira, who was already pro-level, meets Shindou Hikaru, who doesn’t even know how to play Go. Similarly, Youzan is about to become a professional golfer, and meets Robo, who doesn’t even know the rules of golf. Like how Hikaru chased Akira into the pro league, so too is Robo chasing Youzan into the pros for their “destined” match.

2. Protagonist knows nothing about the game but his dad is a legend who has secretly been training him for years.

Robo’s dad is apparently some awesome amateur golfer back in the day who then disappeared from the game for the “normal” family life. He never actually taught Robo golf, but has set Robo to practicing the basic drive in the form of hitting golf balls into a faraway basket, over and over again, since Robo was a wee toddler. Through years of driving balls into a basket (probably exactly 300 yards away), Robo has secretly developed amazing golfing fundamentals and precision, just in time for him to fumble into the sport.

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I have been doing this 5000x every day since childhood for funsies.

Again, this idea is not commonly seen in most sports series — it’s kind of hard to practice dribbling or shooting, for example, without actually knowing you’re training for basketball. But the one famous series that did pioneer this storyline is Initial D, a manga about mountain racing in Japan. In Initial D, Fujiwara Takumi is a high school student who secretly has amazing drifting skills because his dad (epic amateur mountain racer back in the day) has been forcing him to deliver tofu up and down the mountain at 4am every day since he was in middle school. Replace driving cars with driving in golf, and you have the foundation for Robo’s “laserbeam” shot.

3. More superpower than sport.

Golf is actually an insanely technical game. This article articulates why golf is so difficult, namely that unlike most sports, just being athletic won’t make you adequate at golf. Take American football or baseball, for example. Being physically stronger or faster will instantly make you a better hitter, running back, etc. But taking performance enhancing drugs won’t really do much for your golfing capabilities. It’s about picking the right golf club (out of 12) that suits the right terrain (grass, hill, dirt, water), taking into consideration all the weather conditions, and making the exact precise swing that you’ve drilled into muscle memory. And all these factors change with every hole (there are 18 in a tournament).

I had looked forward to learning more golf through watching Robo learning all the technicalities of the game, but in the first semi-serious team match against a nationals-level high school team, the game devolved largely into superpower showdown. In the first match?! Come on, Fujimaki-sensei. Even in Prince of Tennis, Echizen Ryoma’s first few matches were semi-realistic with groundings in real tennis terminology. And to be honest, do flashy superpower shots really make sense in golf? It’s not as if you’re trying to trick an opponent so they have difficulty returning the ball back to you.

Take “Crimson Flame” which has the ball going way over the hole and then rolling backwards (for Prince of Tennis fans, think Fuji’s Tsubame Gaeshi) while being on fire… like why? Why can’t you just make it go straight to the hole rather than attempt this fancy, frivolous move? And what is the point of being on fire?

And that’s just one of this guy’s Seven Rainbow Moves. He has six other probably equally pointless tricks. Except “Azure Bead.” Azure Bead is cool. (In fact, here’s a link to see Azure Bead in real life.)

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Azure Bead aside, most of the moves are kind of superfluous.

Don’t get me wrong, I like flashiness just as much as any other sports manga fan, but these “moves” seem flashy just for the sake of being flashy.

In Kuroko no Basketball, the author’s previous super flashy work, that wasn’t the case. Kuroko, the main character, is basically Invisible Man. Great! That’s really useful in basketball because the enemy can’t guard you if they can’t see you. Another character’s power was to copy moves, which is also really useful in a basketball game. However, the superpowers unveiled thus far in Robot x Laserbeam just aren’t clicking for me.

The Super Strange Time Skip

But more than the irrational flashy moves, the really strange part of the manga so far is the three year time skip in Chapter 31.

Here’s a step by step process about the buildup prior to the timeskip:

  1. Since chapter 7 and getting interested in golf, Robo joins the golf club at Eiai Academy and declares he wants to be a regular
  2. The whole club is offended at this egotistic declaration and says “no way” to his request
  3. Robo makes a basically impossible bet, that if he wins, he can join the regulars
  4. As Robo frantically trains, he almost wins the impossible bet, except for one last step: he has to participate (and win) in a team match against Touhoku High, a nationals-level super team.
  5. In this practice match, all the regulars at Eiai (and Touhoku) show off their unique, flashy moves. We get introduced to all the main supporting characters, which is great.
  6. Eiai pulled off a miraculous win, and Robo presumably makes the regulars?

BUT WE DON’T KNOW. Because then the manga skips ALL OF HIGH SCHOOL. And shocks EVERYBODY.

I include even the mangaka Fujimaki in “Everybody” because this definitely didn’t seem like his plan when he was drawing the previous 30 chapters before that. After the time skip, Robo is on the verge of turning pro. But pretty much the rest of his high school team is retiring from golf as turning professional isn’t really a realistic goal.

So all these new characters in the last 20 chapters? Erased. 

All the lead-up into a manga about high school golf teams battling each other? Gone. 

All the potential for team strategies and team bonding? Nonexistent, as Robo is not playing for a team anymore, just for himself as a pro.

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In addition, many of us will disappear!

Even more proof that the time skip is an unexpected turn for the mangaka, we get to see Robo’s character development over this time skip when he reappears for his first amateur-pro match. Which is *surprise, surprise* nonexistent as well.

In the first match after the time skip, Robo becomes friends with another golfer he’s competing with, and his golf game starts to suffer because he’s never had any friends before and unconsciously doesn’t want to defeat and possibly lose his friend. Like seriously? I would’ve expected this to happen during Robo’s first year on Eiai’s golf team. But in three years, many, many golf tournaments and friendships / frenemy-ships with Eiai’s golf team and that of rival high schools, how can he still have such a strong friend complex? This is just unbelievable. Robo can’t conveniently suddenly gain all this golf experience from the three year time skip without also gaining some personal development from his high school years as well.

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Really Robo?! You couldn’t have figured this out in your 3 (missing) years of playing golf?

Maybe Fujimaki should’ve taken more time to plan out Robot x Laserbeam after finishing Kuroko no Basketball, because both the over-use of common sports tropes and the surprise timeskip showcase some terrible planning and writing. Either that, or Shounen Jump axed the series so he needed to end it fast. But so far, it doesn’t seem like the manga has been cancelled. I’ve heard that the manga is selling well, and post-timeskip, the author seems to be setting up for a decent-length arc.

Assuming the manga is still continuing, I can only explain all the storyline inconsistencies with the idea that somewhere between Chapter 20 and 30, Fujimaki realized that casting the vastly superior Youzan as Robo’s rival was a huge mistake. Youzan was already turning pro when Robo was just a baby in golf. Youzan wasn’t going to play in any high school matches, so if Robo had to go through all of high school, he’d never ever meet up with Youzan in a competitive scenario and their rivalry would just go stale as a plot device. Realizing this, Fujimaki only has 2 choices: throw Youzan away as the main rival motivating Robo, or suddenly accelerate Robo’s growth so that he’s actually semi-relevant as a feasible competitor to Youzan. Obviously, Fujimaki chose the latter, resulting in the timeskip.

The best choice actually would have been to decrease Youzan’s level from the very beginning so that he’s very good, but not yet pro-level. However, Fujimaki can’t go back in time, so his about-face in Chapter 31 is likely the only option to save the story from breaking down even more.

Overall Thoughts

Despite all the negativity in this review, I am still excited to read more of Robot x Laserbeam. I feel like the timeskip, while painful and inconsistent to begin with, is the right choice and has to be done to save the manga. Professional competition is more suited to writing about the technicalities of golf than high school tournaments anyways.

And there are some intriguing developments with the timeskip, one of which is the emergence of Nakata (token “normal” best friend) as a key character. At first, as the loud but clueless best friend, Nakata’s role was an “audience surrogate.” He watches Robo play, but his puzzlement about what is actually going on leads the more experienced golf club members to explain the game to him (and the manga readers). I had thus written Nakata off as a minor character whose only purpose is prompt explanations about cool moves and strategies.

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Robo + Nakata = super duo?

 

After the timeskip though, Nakata has become Robo’s caddy and seems to be Robo’s in-game tactician as well, which is awesome. He has a deep understanding of Robo’s golf game and abilities, and in several instances thus far, Robo has discussed how he should approach a hole or a certain shot with Nakata. Hopefully, this means Nakata is developing into a three dimensional character rather than just an advanced version of an audience surrogate. We shall see…  I’m excited about the potential of the Robo-Nakata duo.

Read Robot x Laserbeam here.

Please leave a comment about your thoughts on Robot x Laserbeam or this review below!

Rating: 6.5/10

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