We all have a basic idea of sports anime. A plucky high school boy equipped with nothing but a do-or-die attitude and a strange talent enters into a hot-blooded world of fiery competition where everyone competes for the national championship. Every match is determined by last-minute, last-second, or even last-millisecond actions that throw the entire high school sports scene into chaos due to this plucky youngster’s gumption. Along the way, our hero will make new friends, including but not limited to a wise senior player who can see the true potential of the hero, an arrogant and contentious rival that they seem irresistibly attracted to, and a best friend who will always be there to cheer them on.
In the Western world, sports anime are a relatively recent phenomenon but they’ve been a mainstay in Japan for much longer. But why is that? Until Kuroko no Basket, Americans were perfectly content with sports stories that took place in real life and most Europeans got their fill with Captain Tsubasa. In Japan, though? They’ve never stopped being a big deal. Why is that? Let’s break down what makes up a sports anime!
1. The Shounen Battle Story Brought Into Reality
While there are anime that tell stories about sports back in the wild west days of the 60s and 70s, 1983’s Captain Tsubasa is what you can consider the prototype for sports anime. It was a unique spin on the very concept of flashy wrestling shounen like Tiger Mask and Kinnikuman that were popular in the mid-to-late 70s, which followed the “rule of cool”; it didn’t matter how ridiculous or improbable a move was, just so long as the characters looked awesome doing it.
These series were also about as real as live-action wrestling. They existed in pure fantasy. Captain Tsubasa, however, struck a chord with young viewers. Kids were never going to be able to pull off crazy wrestling moves like their superheroes that fought crazy elastic men and, um, toilet people (Kinnikuman is weird). They could always attempt Tsubasa’s crazy soccer shots, though! They were just as cool and wild as what wrestlers used!
But we call Captain Tsubasa a “prototype” for a reason. Within the context of Captain Tsubasa, our titular hero is essentially a superhero himself. Right from the beginning of the story, kid Tsubasa is practically on the level of professional adult players. His teammates rely on him to carry the entire team. His abilities are completely beyond what any child could hope to achieve. He’s not actually the kind of hero you could ever see yourself being and, more importantly, playing as. This is an important distinction, as much of the appeal of sports stories would move away from Dragonball-style pure exchanges of power and move towards a more Yu Yu Hakusho-style approach, seeing how player’s talents interact with one another, which lends itself better to a more realistic narrative. For a modern example, there’s no better series than…
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: April 2014 - September 2014
Shoyo Hinata is a small boy with big dreams! He wants nothing more than to be just like Karasuno High’s Little Giant: a volleyball player who manages to be the ace of the team despite being so short. However, in junior high, he could only ever bribe his friends into helping him practicing while he hung out with the girls’ team. Now he’s in high school and he’s finally ready to make his grand debut!
Haikyuu is about as close to the essence of a traditional sports battle anime as you can get. Volleyball is a perfect backdrop for a “little guy vs the world” story, with Hinata being less Goku and more a Monkey D. Luffy who’s forced to struggle against much larger opponents with more experience. Each game is about how different players’ talents work against each other, and they become more and more elaborate games of live action chess. Even better, Haikyuu features the classic shounen story trope of the hero’s special technique that continues to have diminishing returns before the team has to rethink their own strategy.
Haikyuu is also very solidly about the team itself and uses Hinata to frame our view into this world, rather than it being solely about Hinata’s struggles to master his own abilities. This makes it more true to reality, as it’s the exact sort of team that we could feasibly see ourselves in, adding a tantalizing desire to make Haikyuu our reality rather than just something we view from the sidelines.
Haikyuu Official Trailer:
2. Escape from Monotony
If you’ve followed anything related to anime in recent years, you’ve probably heard the terms “hikikomori” and “NEET”. Basically, these are people who want to escape Japan’s notoriously overworked corporate lifestyle by resigning themselves to living off their parents or family while they stay in their rooms all day.
While shut-ins are probably the last kinds of people you’d think of in relation to sports anime, they serve as an important framework for a Western mindset to understand the unspoken sense of dread that permeates throughout the Japanese youth population. People are dying due to social pressure to work an extra 60 hours of overtime. Your social network comes solely down to getting drunk with your co-workers a couple of times a week. Frequently, you’ll find yourself not doing anything at your desk but staring at your computer because your company cares more about the image of looking busy than letting you go home for the day when you have nothing left to do.
This is why the key difference of reality is so important for the distinction between sports anime and battle shounen. Sports anime serve a unique purpose within the Japanese youth culture because they offer an alternative future. All you have to do is devote yourself to a game that you really love to become a professional athlete and then you too can forever enjoy the halcyon days of your youth. Your life can be just like a shounen manga! They are still selling a fantasy, but one that you could use to improve your life.
Hajime no Ippo (Fighting Spirit)
- Episodes: 75
- Aired: October 2000 - March 2002
Makunouchi Ippo was a down on his luck high school student with no real prospects for his future. His grades aren’t the best, he’s constantly bullied, and his only real career option seems to be to keep working at his mom’s fishing shop. However, a chance encounter with the potential global middleweight boxing champion Mamoru Takamura completely changes the course of Ippo’s future. Now, Ippo’s training to be Japan’s national featherweight champion!
While Ippo is often the classic example of the sports anime battle formula, its set-up and how it introduces us to the world Ippo lives in cannot be ignored. It’s not like with Tsubasa or Shoyo Hinata where their reason for playing their sport has always just “been”: Ippo had to discover boxing in order to give his life purpose. This is vital, as it’s exactly what gives the story its power. Any high school kid could be just like Ippo, with no talent or drive to improve himself. It does not matter that they may not have any experience with it either, as Ippo was already about ready to graduate. Hajime no Ippo would later focus on Ippo’s rise and forget about his humble beginnings, but later series like All-Out and Baby Steps would use this teenage angst towards adulthood as the driving force of their plots.
3. Can Be About Any Game, So Long As it’s Focused on an Actual Game
Of course, as sports anime have been created, authors have realized that there’s a finite number of sports they can write about. As a result, authors began to reach into other subject manner that is told in a sports shounen-type fashion. One of the earliest examples of this was 2001’s Hikaru no Go, which was centered around the Japanese board game “Go”. When you ignored the fact that the main character was possessed by a ghost, it was otherwise a fairly realistic depiction of the game. Because of this, its adherence to the tropes of battle anime, and the fact that there was nothing else quite like it, Hikaru no Go was quickly classified as a sports anime. However, as time went on, more and more battle shounen anime based on actual games that follow the exact same traditions as sports anime have sprung up, leading to the creation of the sports sub-genre “game anime”.
However, because of this, the difference between what constitutes a sports or game anime and what is just a regular battle shounen has become a little unclear. For example, Shokugeki no Soma uses cooking competitions to drive its characters to greater heights, and cooking competitions are a real event that one could take part in, so there is a case for it to be considered a game anime. That being said, it is in general considered a battle shounen due to the subjective nature in judging dishes, as even the best chefs in the world will tell you that taste is based on cultural background and there’s no true objective means of measure. However, 2016’s Keijo does not use a sport that anyone could ever pursue to a professional level. Due to its satirical nature and that Keijo is, in fact, a real game that (extremely young) Japanese children play, Keijo is generally classified as a pure sports series. There is no series that blurs these lines more than…
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: October 2011 - March 2012
Ayase Chihaya isn’t a terribly complex girl. All she ever wants to do is play karuta with her friends. However, her best friend Arata has moved out to the country, and her other buddy Mashima has gone to a separate school. She’s been all alone fighting in junior high to get a karuta club set up only for it to be wasted. Now she’s in high school, but as luck would have it, Mashima’s going to the same school now! He’s a bit out of practice, but all they need to do is find 3 other members to get their club set up, and then set out to win Meiji Jingu!
Chihayafuru is a series that defies traditional classification. Its setup is pure shoujo; Chihaya is stuck in a love triangle between two handsome boys who are both vying for her attention. Yet the way that the plot progresses is closer to that of a battle shounen, with Chihaya having her own set of rivals and challenges to overcome as her karuta team’s ace. But then it frequently defies these traditional plot beats to drive home the reality of the plot, putting it more firmly in josei territory. It’s this sort of demographic mixing and matching that gives Chihayafuru so much of its power.
In fact, if you didn’t have to swipe your hand in karuta, Chihayafuru would not ever be considered a sports series. But then, that’s also not to diminish the necessity of physical activity in karuta, where a split second can make all the difference for if you’re able to grab the card. It’s less about actual poetry memorization and more a contest of who can react faster. It’s not quite a sport, but you can’t just quite call it a game either, and it’s this meshing of ideas that makes Chihayafuru such a notable entry into the genre. It’s not straddling the line of “sports anime” and “game anime”; it is the line.
There is so much more that could be discussed regarding sports anime that we simply do not have space here to write about, such as the ever prevalent boys-love subtext, the adult viewpoint of longing for days past, and the Iyashikei subversion of sports anime of “Cute Girls Doing Cute Things” into “Cute Girls Doing Sports Things” (see: Long Riders, Two Car). However, these are the very basics of the genre that best sum up what actually makes up what we know as the sports anime genre.
Is there anything you’d like to add? Disagree with any of the points we made here? Please let us know in the comments below!