Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on April 2010

©許斐 剛/集英社・NAS ・テニスの王子様プロジェクト; ©許斐 剛/集英社・マーベラスエンターテイメント・ネルケプランニング

“In order to grasp victory, we will become strong.”

And become strong they have. Although you may never have heard of them, the pretty boys that speak that line are—with their cool dance moves and immaculately groomed hair—making thousands of girls swoon all across Japan.

The story begins in Golden Week 2003, when a musical based on one of the most popular sports manga of the day, Tennis no Oujisama (“The Prince of Tennis”), made its debut. The story concerns a 12-year-old prodigy’s struggle to enter his new junior high’s sports club. The musical adaptation was simple at first, with stage time divided between mimed tennis matches, dance numbers and rousing fight songs. It had a five-day run at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in Ikebukuro.

Seven years later, after 23 runs and more than 100 cast members, the lights-and-music spectacular that is Musical Tennis no Oujisama, or Tenimyu, is finally reaching the end. Of its first season, that is. The “final” show, after which the series will be taken in a new direction, is being staged next month and promises to be a treat for anyone who likes sports, hot boys, Japanese comedy, the absurd, or just lively music and energetic crowds. Even if you just want to meet a cute girl, here’s your chance: the audience is almost exclusively female.

The success of Tenimyu is all the more surprising because the show began as a kind of experiment. Tickets to the first musical didn’t sell out, but the young female audience lined up dutifully to purchase photos of the cast members (which included topless as well as in-costume shots). Demand was so high that a set of four photos originally costing ¥600 would go on to fetch upward of ¥10,000 in secondhand shops. Just three months later, production company MMV Entertainment staged a rerun of the musical to sold-out crowds.

Subsequent musicals also played to packed theaters, despite being staged in increasingly large venues. Goods flew off the shelves, and in December 2004, the sixth installment sold out within five minutes. The demand for tickets was so great that on the final day, MMV rented a separate theater and broadcast the last two shows live.

Tennis no Oujisama follows a fairly simple story of pre-teen Ryoma Echizen’s attempt to enter the best junior high tennis club in Japan, and his team’s journey to reach—and eventually win—the national championship. Although the original manga ended its 42-volume run in March 2008, its wide cast of male characters and quirky humor solidified its popularity with female fans. A year later, Takeshi Konomi, the 39-year-old creator, began work on a sequel that brings back a majority of the characters from the original.

Brimming with the support of thousands of girls, Tenimyu has launched the careers of some of the hottest names in Japanese show business. Singers like Kimeru and actors like Yuu Shirota (Heat Island) and Kazuki Kato (Wangan Midnight) have gone on to snag numerous TV and movie roles. Watanabe Entertainment’s acting troupe D-Boys was established with members from Tenimyu. Whereas in the past, sales of idol photos were largely limited to Johnny’s stars like Smap or girl groups like Morning Musume, Tenimyu has prompted a major shift in ikemen culture.

Nowadays, the shops along Ikebukuro’s Otome road that were formerly filled with anime-related goods are brimming with men’s idol DVDs and photo books featuring Tenimyu cast members. Doujinshi, or fan-made comics that often have homosexual themes, abound. Fans have created such demand that manga-based musicals starring all-male casts have become commonplace.

And the success keeps growing. The latest show, titled Musical Tennis no Oujisama: Dream Live 7th, has 57 members in its all-male cast. If this version remains true to its predecessors, it will feature jokes, short skits, extravagantly produced song-and-dance numbers, complicated dancing, lights, confetti, fog, fire and thousands of screaming female fans. And, possibly, even tennis.

Musical The Prince of Tennis 
Adapted from the popular manga about boys in a prestigious junior high tennis club. May 20-23, various times, ¥6,000. Yokohama Arena. Tel: 0570-02-9922. For more information see www.tennimu.com (PC) or www.m-tenimyu.jp (mobile).