[Editorial Tuesday] The Origin and Appeal of Sports in Anime

Anime contains numerous unique genres you do not see in other forms of animation in a majority of other countries. Within anime, it has a diverse selection of categories ranging from sci-fi, action, adventure, hentai, yaoi, and yuri. However, if there is one genre that has captivated the hearts of Japanese fans and Western audiences, it has to be the sports genre.

Name a sport and there is a likely chance that there is an anime based on it. If not, there are higher chances that there is a manga about it. So why has the genre managed to take off in its native land? Well, let’s explore those reasons in today’s Editorial Tuesday.

School Based Sports Anime

For a good portion of the sports genre, they tend to take place in either junior or senior high school There are numerous examples from all generations with tennis (Ace wo Nerae and Prince of Tennis), basketball (Slam Dunk and Kuroko’s Basketball), volleyball (Attack No. 1 and Haikyuu), soccer (Captain Tsubasa, Days, Inazuma Eleven), rugby (with All Out!!!) and baseball (Battery, Diamond no Ace, and Major). So how do these anime connect with Japanese audiences? They tend to relate to these animes more than Western audiences because, in Japanese education, students are more encouraged to join a sports team compared to let's say an American student.

In Japan, 85% of junior high students are likely to be part of a school sports club, while it is between 70%-75% in high school. For the North American school culture, joining a sports team isn’t really emphatically encouraged on students and students who do sports are labeled as jocks.

In Japanese education, being part of a sports team is intended to prep the youth for the real world. It allows Japanese students to understand the hierarchy of the real world and understanding how the relationships between senpai and kouhai work.

In addition, it teaches audiences how people work together to accomplish a common goal (such as winning the national championship) and how players must improve themselves individually and within the team in order to achieve that. These qualities are portrayed rather realistically in school related sports anime. Some notable examples that demonstrate these hierarchies are in Prince of Tennis and pretty much every school related baseball anime you can think of.

In Prince of Tennis, the 9th graders tend to have the most influence and power and use their positions to boss around the younger students. With Momoshiro as an 8th grader, he tends to be a great demonstration of that in between with the 9th and 7th graders. He may have a higher position from the 7th graders, but the series demonstrates that he is subjected to the power of the 9th graders from time to time and though he can be bossy with Ryoma and his friends, he still has a balanced connection within the team.

In high school, sports teams are likely to have girls as “managers.” Managers aren’t exactly what you would call as a sports agent, but they are something of a glorified cheerleader with domesticated roles. One example of a manager in anime is Takako from Diamond no Ace. She makes sure the team is following the rules in practice, helps clean the field and washes the uniforms. This role may likely prepare a girl to be a typical OL, or office lady, a common form of employment in Japanese society for young women.

Reflection of the Times

In some instances, some animes are made to capitalize on current events. With All Out!!!, it is a great response to Japan’s upset victory over South Africa in the opening match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. In addition, Japan is going to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and what better way to exploit that by making an anime about rugby. Though rugby may be a popular sport in the pacific, it is largely non-existent in America. In fact, a good number of boys’ schools in Japan happen to have rugby teams. And for some of you who may be uneducated about the sport of rugby and want to understand why the Japanese are crazy about it, maybe this anime can help.

In Japan, with the rise of Mao Asada and Yuzuru Hanyu coming to dominate the world of figure skating, the world of anime has Yuri Katsuki from Yuri on Ice (or Yuri!!! On Ice). What’s also interesting to add is that the figure skating of the series happens to be choreographed by Hanyu’s trainer himself, Kenji Miyamoto, a former accomplished figure skater himself. Like many real-life Japanese figure skaters, Yuri has overseas experience with his training and education. The series also demonstrates that the world of figure skating is a young person’s sport and that anybody as young as 15 can be considered the greatest.

Realism vs. Imagination Part 1

One helpful quality in sports anime is that it can be very educational to viewers who may not have had any prior exposure or knowledge of the featured sport. For those who didn’t know anything about tennis, Prince of Tennis can teach viewers how the scoring system works and what a smash or volley is. With basketball anime such as Slam Dunk and/or Kuroko’s Basketball, you learn the concept of boxing out to set yourself up to get the rebound.

Yuri on Ice does a great job of not only demonstrating the techniques of figure skating but the coordination and momentum necessary to do them. For All Out!!!, it shows what kind of body that is necessary to play rugby, the rhythm of a game, and the positions and their functions which will be naturally foreign to North American audiences. Thanks to this anime, some of us viewers finally know what a flanker is.

One example of sports anime that goes beyond the imagination is in Prince of Tennis. If there is one scene that has to stand out amongst those who have seen this hit series, it is when one of Tezuka’s victories was equated to that of a meteor causing the dinosaur extinction. Though it was a visual metaphor, audiences thought it was too much. In fact, even Konomi-sensei, the original manga author, has criticized the anime for going too far with how they exaggerate the abilities of the characters as if it were a typical Shounen series.

Another comparison of reality vs. imagination can naturally be seen between Slam Dunk and Kuroko’s Basketball. Slam Dunk still continues to receive praise after 20 years for its realistic portrayal of basketball by taking inspiration of the superstars of the NBA from the 1990s. Though Kuroko’s Basketball is the king of modern basketball anime, it has received criticism for over-exaggerating the abilities of the characters to almost the same extremities as Prince of Tennis by giving the characters a glowing aura to set up their moves on the board. Another common example is using a wind effect whenever a character throws the ball, and many viewers whether they are familiar with basketball or not tend to view this quality as excessively unnecessary.

Realism Vs. Imagination (Plus, The Changing of the Times) Part 2

If there is one anime that sets the rest of sports anime apart in the realistic vs. exaggerated portrayal department, it has to be Tiger Mask W (with the W pronounced as “double”). Tiger Mask W serves as a sequel to the original Tiger Mask series that premiered in the late 1960s, when the world of professional wrestling was shrouded in mystery and the promotions wanted the audiences to believe it was real, and Tiger Mask W continues the original tradition of kayfabe (a wrestling term of trying to make the audience think what they see is truly legit).

This leads to the main question, even with wrestling proven to be just entertainment since the broadcast of the original Tiger Mask, some viewers who may be fans of pro wrestling may ask themselves why does the present series still portray wrestling as real? Considering the interesting stories that still happen within the industry with the backstage politics and how wrestlers have to pay their dues in order to succeed, they can still excellently transition those qualities in the storytelling of anime.

Life Imitating Art or Art Imitating Life?

Thanks to some sports already having popularity through anime and manga, sometimes an athlete from a certain sport may catch an artist and that artist could honor them and their sport. One notable example is Japanese tennis superstar, Kei Nishikori. After winning a tournament and getting endorsed by luxury car brand Jaguar, Takeshi Konomi, the creator of Prince of Tennis awarded him his own fan art of the player in the style of the original series.

「Be The HERO」 / Cheers to all para-athletes from Tokyo

Earlier this year, a group of manga artists who made their names in sports titles got together and drew portraits of Paralympic athletes to help promote the campaign called “Be the Hero.” With the Olympics and Paralympics coming in 2020, what better way to promote your athletes by promoting them as manga characters? Contributing artists were Tetsuya Chiba (creator of Ashita no Joe and Kyojin no Hoshi), Naoki Urasawa (of H2, Yawara and 20th Century Boys fame), and Yoichi Takahashi (Captain Tsubasa). Thanks to the contributions of these artists, it is nice to see that their fame can cross into the mainstream and help spread awareness to such causes and events.

And last, Tiger Mask itself would later pave the way for a handful of wrestlers to take on the name and the mask. In 1981, Satoru Sayama would be the first wrestler to step into the ring assuming that identity. At first, Japanese wrestling fans thought the idea of turning an anime/manga character into a real wrestler was ridiculous, but thanks to the in-ring ability and talent of Sayama, he quickly won fans over.

Though casual WWE fans may not know him, WWE legend Bret Hart calls him the Bruce Lee of pro wrestling and probably one of the best in the business. Sayama would not only become a wrestling legend but also a pioneer for mixed martial arts in Japan long before the UFC debuted in 1993. Another wrestler that took the mantle was Mitsuhara Misawa, who actually died due to an in-ring injury back in 2009, and his death would later be used as a call for improvements in regulations. And with the recent release of Tiger Mask W, WWE superstar Kota Ibushi has taken the mantle.

Final Thoughts

So what’s next? A tennis player pulling off the Tezuka zone? Passes like we see in Kuroko’s Basketball? Who really knows but sports anime do have their own unique charms that may or may not be for everyone. Some may be rather educational, relatable, and just for pure entertainment. Either way, that anime may spark our interest in that sport, or be the gateway to anime.

You got a friend that loves the physical style of the NBA? Show them Slam Dunk! You have a friend that loves drifting? Look no further than Initial D. For anime and sports fans alike, such titles can be the gateway to one or the other and we can learn something from them beyond the basics of the game with some new knowledge and enlightenment.

ALL-OUT-dvd-700x600 [Editorial Tuesday] The Origin and Appeal of Sports in Anime


Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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