Brain Diving This Sporting Life
by Brian Ruh, Jan 18th 2011
Not only is it the name of the only Huey Lewis and the News album I've ever owned (I had the tape in elementary school, so sue me) but it's also the one genre in anime and manga that just doesn't seem to get much traction in English. This seems pretty strange on the face of it. After all, in the US we love our sports and pay our top athletes and coaches millions of dollars. There are multiple 24-hour cable stations devoted to covering all kinds of sporting events. Certainly it would seem like comics devoted to sports could do well in such a market, but that hasn't been the case.
I've been pretty late coming around with my own appreciation of sports anime and manga, but I'd certainly consider myself a convert. I think that part of it has to do with how I became a fan in general. I grew up in the ‘80s in the shadow of Star Wars, when space and science fiction colored a lot of the entertainment choices out there. Even when I got older I considered myself a science fiction fan, and in high school I discovered William Gibson and other cyberpunk writers. My quest for similar material to watch led me to Bubblegum Crisis and a rediscovery of anime. (After all, I had watched things like Robotech, Voltron, and Star Blazers when I was growing up.) Even as anime led me to manga, I was still mainly focused on “escaping” daily life through SF and fantasy. This isn't to say that I was wholly uninterested in sports in general – I had played a number of different sports as a kid and I was on the varsity swimming team in high school. (I did, however, have an aversion to baseball that was probably due to trauma in my youth. WGN, a station out of Chicago, would often preempt afternoon cartoons for Cubs games in the summer.) It wasn't until I started reading a bit more that I realized how engaging and thought provoking manga that center around sports could be, though.
It's a bit of a truism that movies, television shows, and comics about sports aren't just about the actual act of playing a sport. After all, we have ESPN and the like if we want to see sports in action. It's not that such entertainment is supposed to replicate a sporting event, but is supposed to bring the audience closer to the players, to let us see how their private lives and public performances intersect and play off one another. I mean, would Melissa Leo and Christian Bale have won Golden Globes for their performances in The Fighter if the film had just been about a pair of guys beating the crap out of one another in the boxing ring for two hours? No, and that's because films like that with an emphasis on sports are generally about so much more. Well, the same can be said for sports manga and anime. Although titles may emphasize the actual playing of the sport to greater or lesser degrees, they are generally about how the main characters persevere through their losses and grow as people.
Along these lines, “Slam Dunk, Sports Manga, and Japanese Culture” by Jefferson Peters is my choice for Read This! article this week. (Many thanks to Ron Stewart from the Anime Manga Research Circle mailing list for bringing it to my attention.) It's a fairly succinct article that briefly covers the plot of the Slam Dunk manga by Takehiko Inoue (there are some spoilers) and then goes on to discuss why and how the manga became so popular and well-known. I have to say, the choice of article was a pretty easy one this time around – in fact, it's the only article I've come across in English that focuses on sports manga. Yes, that's it. Although sports manga and anime are mentioned every so often in various books, there has yet to be a single book and almost no articles that discuss them. Sports manga and anime have been around for decades, and there are hundreds of titles covering all manner of sports, but nobody has written much about them in an academic way. This is an area where we still need to do a lot of work in order to get a better handle on the culture and history of manga.
Even if you're not particularly interested in sports in general, sports anime and manga are often quite influential on other, more well-known shows and fan culture in general. One such example is the 1970s manga Aim for the Ace!, which had elements that were later incorporated into anime OVA series Aim for the Top!, better known to most fans as Gunbuster. Another example is the development of yaoi manga, since it would be impossible to discuss doujinshi culture in Japan without mentioning the prevalent parodies of the Captain Tsubasa soccer manga that began in the 1980s. Additionally, when the main character's rival died in the ring in the manga Tomorrow's Joe, the manga's publisher even went so far as to conduct an actual funeral service for him because he had been so beloved by fans. We should keep in mind that this took place in 1970, long before people the term otaku had been coined, but even back then fans could be extremely devoted and emotionally invested in their favorite manga. And according to Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements in their book The Anime Encyclopedia, the baseball anime Star of the Giants (which was adapted from a manga of the same name) “pioneered techniques that have become mandatory in modern anime—framing a sporting contest with the zooms and freeze-frames of martial arts combat.”
I think that the relative lack of success that sports anime and manga have had in English is a symptom of the fact that anime / manga fans are in general still in a fairly niche subculture. Granted, we've grown by leaps and bounds in the last few decades, but we're still far from the cultural center. However, when we see that it's not that way in Japan we see how different things could be. One of the common defenses of the non-Japanese manga fan is that manga is mainstream culture in Japan. Which it is, to a certain extent. (Of course, it's just a small jump from there to an assumption that Japan is a paradise waiting to welcome back its long-lost otaku brethren with open arms.) However, just because it works that way in Japan doesn't mean it'll work that way over here. Or, at least it doesn't yet.
I think a stronger promotion of sports comics (and not just sports manga) could open up our little world of fandom to more people. Now, I could see some fans being up in arms against the idea. It would be a mainstreaming of something we think is ours, a refuge from the world around us. Bringing in more people would require a shift in how we think about manga fandom, but it could also be a chance for comics to become the medium that it's always had the potential to become – a method of mass communication accessible to and read by all. Of course, I may just be going off on a utopian trip here. It's not like sports comics are necessarily the panacea to the woes of the anime and manga industry, and even if it was we're dealing with a real chicken-or-egg situation here. (Forgetting for a moment that the age old question was recently solved in favor of the chicken.) To get more people interested in sports manga, we need to have more sports manga available to read and buy. However, before companies will invest in translating and publishing more sports manga, they need to think that it will sell and that there is a large enough audience for it.
This isn't to say that a long-running sports manga can't successfully be brought over into the English-language market. Take the manga Eyeshield 21, for example, which is about American football (i.e. not soccer). Volume 34 of this 37 volume manga just came out earlier this month, so it seems like it will be able to be completely translated. And honestly, in this economic climate any time a lengthy manga series like this is published in its entirety in English, I think it should count as some sort of victory. Similarly, all 24 volumes of the Whistle! soccer manga have been translated and the last of the 42 volumes of the Prince of Tennis manga is slated for publication in English later this year. However, given the vast array of sports manga there are to choose from, these few titles are just a drop in the proverbial bucket.
I think the most exciting development in sports manga in the last few months has been the publication of Mitsuru Adachi's Cross Game manga. Until last year, none of Adachi's manga had been published in English other than a handful of short stories in a pair of volumes titled Short Program in 2000 and 2004, and even few of these stories had sports-related content (although it's often there in the background). Since the early 1980s, Adachi has been known as a master manga creator who weaves together sports with coming of age stories. He is probably best known for his early ‘80s manga Touch, which was adapted into an anime series, multiple anime films, and, more recently, a live action film. (The anime recently made the list of top ten anime of all time by ANN's own Justin Sevakis.)
Adachi is commonly mentioned alongside Rumiko Takahashi because they entered the manga world at around the same time, they became very successful artists, and they both contributed some of their most famous stories to the magazine Shounen Sunday. However, unlike Takahashi, who has seen even some of her more minor works brought out in English, Adachi has had very few of his works published over here. Although Adachi creates great characters and has a wonderful sense of pacing, the main reason for this is probably that nearly all of his noteworthy works deal with sports in one way or another (usually baseball or boxing, and sometimes both).
Last year I was really glad to see, then, that Viz began bringing out Cross Game, Adachi's most recent completed series. Although this is a baseball manga, it deals with issues of growing up trying to succeed while still trying to come to terms with a tragedy that will stick with the main characters for their entire lives. As someone who tends to blow through volumes of manga, I really like the fact that the manga is being published in larger volumes that the original Japanese release – the first volume in English contains the equivalent of the first three volumes in Japanese, and each subsequent book will contain two volumes apiece. In this way, the 17 volume series will be published in a total of eight books. If Cross Game does well for Viz, I really hope they consider bringing over other Adachi works. I certainly wouldn't hold my breath for some of his older works like Touch or H2, but I think a manga like Katsu! could work. Admittedly, it is a boxing manga, which is not something that's been tried over here before, but it has such a great story and convincing characters that even if you don't know anything about the sport of boxing (like me) you can follow along and enjoy it with no problem.
If you take anything away from my column this week, I hope it's a bit of encouragement to go out and try some sports manga. It can be some of the best manga out there, and it's a shame that we're not seeing more of it brought over into English. (In contrast, most of Adachi's manga is available translated in France, where baseball tends to be a marginal sport.) More sports manga could also mean bringing new fans into the anime / manga fold, which I think would not only be good for the industry but for fandom as a whole.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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