Tournaments have long been a staple of anime, with some legendary arcs conducted in shonen classics like Dragon Ball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Yu-Gi-Oh (which is kind of only tournament arcs, but Duelist Kingdom is still the best). It’s one of the few times that allies and enemies alike can battle each other without it being a training session or an end of the world fight to the death.
The broad nature of tournament arcs, usually including at least 16 participants, allows for the creative minds of mangaka to go wild. New characters can be introduced, or those who have languished in the background can receive some much needed development. Considering the primary course in any battle anime is light-hearted action, the tournament arc is uniquely suited to providing this all important aspect of the genre.
To get a better perspective of what makes a tournament arc tick, I will be examining three different series that explore the tourney format in distinct ways: Fate/Zero, Hunter X Hunter (2011), and My Hero Academia. Spoilers for the first season of Fate/Zero, the hunter exam arc of Hunter X Hunter, and the second season of My Hero Academia.
To start with the least conventional of these, Fate always applies a battle royale method of combat. Seven mages summon seven historical figures to do battle in order to claim the Holy Grail, and this free for all allows for a lot of variation in the scale and manner that the Heroic Spirits fight. Each Servant has their own individual powers that incorporate elements of their mythos, as well as being one of seven classes that lends itself to a different fighting style. Top that off with their ultimate move, their Noble Phantasm, which feels like if Fate characters had Final Smashes.
Where the tournament style of the Holy Grail War shines is when multiple Servants are allowed to fight all at once. For all the variation that takes place in tournament arcs, it rarely strays from that one-on-one fight. However, most Holy Grail Wars allow at least for one battle where multiple participants are all involved and not allied with anyone else. The best example of this would be the first fight in Fate/Zero between Saber and Lancer, which is interrupted by the pompous arrival of Rider.
This both stops the conflict to move the story along, while amping up the tension for when Saber and Lancer can finish their first fight. This also allows the series to take advantage of the inconsistent power rankings of servants, especially when Servants have to ally with one another to defeat a Servant gone rogue, like Lancer, Rider, and Saber vs. Caster at the end of Fate/Zero season one.
Hunter X Hunter, both 2011 and 1999, begins with the hunter exam arc, essentially a huge tournament arc to start off the series. The hunter exam is a creative use of multiple stages in a tournament, allowing different characters and aspects of those characters to shine. A lot of development is given to the main cast and to their various antagonists through each stage of the exam.
The first test is a simple stamina test, they must run a marathon until they’ve sufficiently weeded out the weakest of the testers. Stages after that include a trick tower where Gon and his friends have to fight convicts to the death in order to escape, or a deserted island where each applicant has to find a badge that one of the other applicants possesses. This variety means that a 20+ episode arc doesn’t get dry, as no two stages of the exam are even similar.
The hunter exam also ends in a bracket style fighting tournament, but with the caveat that it is not a single elimination tourney like most, but rather each participant only has to win once, while being given multiple chances to lose. This doesn’t drain the tension from the story, but rather amplifies it, as the uncertainty in when our heroes will inevitably win is now present, and the punishment for their failure is severe. Gon goes through absolute hell in the tournament because he refuses to give up, despite the option to yield and bide his time for another match.
And finally, My Hero Academia, which really sets the standard for what your typical tournament arc should be. It has multiple stages like Hunter X Hunter, with two preliminary rounds to narrow the field: an obstacle course, and a cavalry battle where students team up. As MHA has such a large supporting cast, it is only in big events like these where they’re given the chance to show off.
The cavalry battle is the best example of this, where students can use their different powers to create wild effects, like Uraraka’s Zero Gravity with the rocket boots developed by Hatsume. Then there’s the cohesion between Bakugo’s explosive attacks that can only be performed if he has someone sturdy enough to take the blowback at the front of the horse. Naturally Kirishima with his hardening power would be suited to play defense to Bakugo’s overwhelming offense.
But the main attraction is the tournament, where the two biggest draws are Bakugo vs. Uraraka, and Deku vs. Todoroki. Both of these fights have figured out what makes shonen battle compelling, the emotion and character development behind both of them is immaculate. They incorporate all four of these characters’ motivations for becoming a hero, as well as the individual Quirks that get used in so many different ways. Both Uraraka and Todoroki would be defeated easily if their opponents were allowed to get one all-out attack on them, so they have to use their unique trump cards to stand a chance.
These strategies go different ways. Uraraka manages to stay low as Bakugo flings explosions at her, allowing her to create a field of floating debris to bring on top of him. If not for Bakugo’s quick reflexes and outstanding power ceiling, she would have won. Unfortunately for best girl, Bakugo never lets his guard down while fighting her, in addition to having the natural talents that have gotten him this far.
Todoroki, at the climax of his fight with Deku, finally manifests both his ice and fire powers in defiance of his abusive father, Endeavor. As Deku prepares to unleash a devastating 100% punch, he uses the rapid heat expansion and cold condensation to create an explosion that blows Deku away. It’s one of the best parts of My Hero Academia, where the author really sat down and thought, “what would be the natural consequences of someone who could control both fire and ice?” It is why quirks don’t feel like gimmicks, because they usually are fully fleshed out.
And these big fights enable some of the biggest emotional moments in the series. Media usually has a hard time getting me to choke up, but I cannot help myself every time Uraraka calls her father after she loses to Bakugo. Todoroki’s declaration that he wants to be a hero, even after everything his father has done to him, is one of the most climactic moments in the series, and it wouldn’t be possible if this character development hadn’t been tied to a really well done battle.
Tournament arcs aren’t just popular in anime because it’s easy fan service, allowing creative teams to show which characters are stronger, or as an excuse for a cool fight that might not have enough reason to happen. When they’re done well, they can be real clashes of ideology. Some series could really learn from that, like Seven Deadly Sins, which usually uses all of its tournament arcs as quick filler to pad out the runtime, or The God of High School, which forgot that you need stories and characters in your tournament arc. But I’m just salty about both of those shows, and have written about them at length, so I need not get into them here.
If you’re a big fan of shonen battle and tournament arcs (I hope you are, since you got this far), it’s a good thing that Jujutsu Kaisen is set to kick off its own tournament arc soon, with the goodwill event between the sister schools in Tokyo and Kyoto. It’s sure to show off the talents of the second-years who haven’t gotten much of the spotlight, and I will always pay respect to Panda-senpai.