Shelf Life S P O R T S
by Bamboo Dong, Jun 16th 2014
In honor of the World Cup, which is currently taking place in Brazil, I wanted to dedicate an entire column to soccer anime. However, I also wanted people to be able to watch the shows without having to track down old, out-of-print DVDs, or otherwise resort to sordid, illegal means. So instead, I decided to focus on anime that was currently available streaming, which knocked out the fantastic Giant Killing, which was available on Crunchyroll back in 2012. In fact, the only thing that's really available now is The Knight in the Area, which I am solidly "Meh" on. Plus, anything that I write about soccer can only pale in comparison to Mike Toole's incredible column from four years back (almost exactly four years ago, as he was writing from the South Africa World Cup, and I'm currently writing from an airport in Natal, at the Brazil World Cup).
So instead, I'll just be focusing on sports anime in general. Specifically, sports anime with first seasons that are still currently streaming, that I personally recommend for those who don't like sports.
One of the greatest things about a good sports anime is that you don't have to like that sport to be able to enjoy it. In fact, you don't even need to like sports at all. By virtue of the characters alone, their quest to become the best at [insert sport here] with the help of their [teammates/friends/coach/guts], and their journey towards the [Ultimate Sporting Event], it should be enough to enrapture even the most sports-loathing of viewers. That's not always the case, though, and many of these shows have a tendency to drag, follow formulas too closely, or last for an eternity.
Admittedly, most sports anime are pretty formulaic, whether they're about basketball or baseball or judo wrestling. You almost always have an underdog player or team, who doesn't always have the best facilities or the best genetic advantages, but they always have a ton of passion and heart. Whether by themselves or with a team, they try and they try, until they make it over one hurdle to the next, and find themselves looking up at the big white lights of Koshien Stadium… or whatever the national/international match they're gunning for is being held.
But done well, and with the right variables tweaked, it can be one of the most pleasant and enjoyable 22 minutes to spend every week. Successful series have characters that are generally likeable, the story is generally packed with action, and every match leaks so much tension that you can't help but tune in week after week.
At the end of the day, it's more about what each show is able to do with that formula. As long as it's good, that's all that matters.
If you watch only one sports anime this year, it should be Ping Pong the Animation, which is less about Ping Pong, and more about two friends who just happen to play Ping Pong very well. The first is the cocky and self-assured Peco, whose attitude doesn't quite stack up to his actual ability, but his playing is good enough to hoist him above the rest of the players at his high school and local club. The other is Smile, a quiet, emotionless player whose nickname is a jab at the fact that he never actually smiles. For that matter, he never even gets angry, preferring instead to withdraw inside his mental locker whenever he feels tested. It's from that response that you see why his relationship with Peco works so well. Together, their personalities are a perfect match, glued together only superficially by the sport of Ping Pong.
It's Smile that really excels at Ping Pong, even though he has zero competitive drive, and can't be bothered to fight back when he gets down. We see the exception later, when he locks away his ennui and mentally transforms a robot, letting his reflexes take over. Early on, Peco and Smile go over to a neighboring school where they meet Wenge, a Chinese player whose past mistakes earned him a ticket to Japan, a personal Hell where all the players are inferior to him (according to him, anyway). The lone exception is Smile, whom he sees as a worthy adversary.
The most noticeable thing about Ping Pong the Animation is its animation style, spearheaded by visionary director Masaaki Yuasa. It looks rough and ungainly, despite its fluid character movements and beautiful action shots. Part of it is the character designs, with the characters' gangly llama teeth and flat lips. The faces are two-dimensional and cartoonish, giving flashbacks to Flowers of Evil or perhaps even King of the Hill. It's made all the more apparent against the stark backdrops, more often than not populated only by hastily sketched backgrounds or splotches of muted color.
In a way, it's perfect. The series simply wouldn't be the same with a more traditionally modern aesthetic. The current look adds to the cloud of despair that lingers around Smile, his deliberate refusal to emote almost palpable. It gives extra gravitas to the flashback scenes as well, where we seem him barricaded in a locker, terrified of the outside world. It's eerily beautiful, once you get past the strange, horse-like faces and string bean limbs.
Unlike many sports anime, though, the Ping Pong in Ping Pong the Animation feels more ancillary. Obviously it's perpetually in the foreground, and also the topic of most of the conversations, but it feels more like something that the characters do, rather than something that simply defines them. At the same time, it still contains some of the over-the-top cheese that one would typically see in a sports anime, like Wenge's ability to discern the nature of a match (and its players' styles) just by hearing it from several stories away.
As a sidenote, Wenge and his coach speak terrific Mandarin, perhaps because both are ethnically Chinese—Wenge's voice actor, Yosei Bun, is from China originally, while the coach is voiced by Chinese actor Tei Ha. It's not terribly surprising, given the sizable population of Chinese speakers living in Japan, but it's notable if only because I'm so accustomed to wonky English in Japanese-language media, and likewise used to hearing wonky, off-tone Mandarin in most non-Chinese entertainment. It's an appreciated touch, for sure, especially for viewers who are familiar with Mandarin.
The animation style can be a little difficult to get used to, especially for viewers who prefer their anime shiny and cute, but don't let that deter you. Ping Pong the Animation is a fantastic series, and even those who don't like sports will have an incredible time.
Another series that I'm really digging from this season is Haikyu!!, a series that's so excited about volleyball, teenage youth, and spiking balls that it necessitates two exclamation marks. And in fact, that enthusiasm extends beyond just the title—the characters are legitimately excited about volleyball, especially main character Shoyo, a short kid who refuses to let his diminished height get in the way of being an incredible volleyball player. His role model is a volleyball player nicknamed the Little Giant who shares his short stature, and since childhood, it's been fuel for his dreams. His enthusiasm is infectious, convincing even the most apathetic of viewers (in this case, this category includes myself, as I can never seem to force myself to sit through an entire volleyball match) to care about him and his team.
Sadly, Shoyo doesn't have much of a chance to play volleyball earlier on. His junior high doesn't have a team, so he has to practice with the girls squad, and when he does finally cobble together a ragtag team of friends, they absolutely suck. Luckily, high school is right around the corner, and he finds himself trying out for their team alongside his already-nemesis Kageyama, an aloof, dark-haired boy who's as serious as Shoyo is excitable.
Their rivalry is so strong that the captain of the team refuses to let them join, saying that they must first learn to get along. So they do what any hot-headed anime characters would do—challenge the seniors to a match, under the condition that they'll be allowed to join the team if they win, or resign forever if they lose.
Somehow, this takes a whole three episodes, but it doesn't really feel that way. It's one of the great things about Haikyu!!. The series stretches out even the shortest of matches, and yet once the characters figure out whatever secret element it is they're missing, the tension once again kicks into high gear. It's what allows each match to stay interesting, which is pretty incredible considering the entire game is just literally a ball being hit from side to side. The fact that Haikyu!! can make volleyball exciting deserves a medal.
Haikyu!! is also just exceedingly fun to look at. The animation is beautiful, and Production I.G does a fantastic job of making the action really move. With every sneaker re-position, or with every weight shift, you can practically sense the characters tensing their muscles and getting ready to pounce. Even the opening of the series is wonderful, with characters poised in action-intense poses that convey momentum. You could potentially freeze the video at any point during a match, and still feel like the characters are moving. Whether it's the characters lunging for a ball, or getting ready to spike a ball, each frame is heavy with potential energy. It's beautiful and thrilling, and loads each action with an importance that would otherwise be too easy to ignore.
It also helps distract viewers from mangaka Haruichi Furudate's character designs a bit, which take some getting used to. The character have buggy eyes and strange, stiff hair that looks like strands of pasta. It's especially noticeable when the characters are engaged in simple dialogue, but once they get moving, all of that melts away.
Admittedly, I think that Haikyu!! is best loved by folks who love sports anime, but I don't think an affinity for sports itself is necessary to enjoy it. The characters are incredibly likeable, and the series has a magical way of handling tension that I think many sports shows would be envious of. If you can move past the bizarre, wide-spread eyes, it's worth checking out.
Of course, if it's aesthetics you're chasing, it doesn't really get any better than Free! - Iwatobi Swim Club, whose firmly chiseled boys are as easy on the eyes as their faces are disturbingly young (or at least, too young to think too much about their rock-hard abs and their muscled calves). Luckily, the series never bothers taking itself too seriously, lacing the episodes with a fine dusting of goofiness (and obvious homoeroticism). Even main character Haruka is little more than a caricature, loving water so much that at the beginning of the series, he tries to strip off his pants and climb into a fish tank. (The fact that he wears his swimsuit under his pants at all times—including at school—is weird enough.)
But it's so blatant in its fanservice that all of this just works. It diverts attention away from stereotypical sports anime formulas, directing it instead onto ridiculous, over-blown, and completely tongue-in-cheek fanservice—the kind that reduces women to squeals and titters, simply at the sheer audacity of it all. It happens when the cameras do a slow pan up each boy's glistening abs, or when the boys lean in to talk to each other just a little too closely and slowly. It happens when they whisper about how much they need each other (for their relay teams, obviously), or when they model Speedos (and butterfly suits).
It's just cheesy. One of the lasting memories I have of the series is a scene from the end of the first season, when the boys are literally drawn as their aquatic spirit animals as they slice through the pool. It is about as ridiculous as it sounds.
Animated by the talented folks at Kyoto Animation, best known for girl-centric series like K-ON! and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Free! is a visual marvel. When fans asked, "Can KyoAni switch gears and draw fanservice for women?" KyoAni turned around with a thundering "Yes," delivering characters so anatomically precise that typically absent details like calf muscles, biceps, and even well-defined toes are painstakingly included. Of course, abs and thighs aside, the series also just looks good. The swimming sequences are fluid and exciting to watch—notable, because anyone who's ever been to a swim meet knows how tedious the events are to sit through—and it's liberating watching the characters as they power through the water.
Luckily, the characters are all pretty likable, too, even though many of them follow stereotypes—you have the mysterious, aloof one; the chipper, sunny one; the idealistic one… even one with shark teeth, which I guess fulfills a very narrow void in someone's fanservice fantasy.
For those who don't quite get into the sports aspect of sports shows, Free! also has plenty of other elements to please fans. Swim meets aside, it also works well as a school comedy. Even expressionless characters like Haruka are depicted in a manner as to lampoon itself. While the majority of the series is divided between light-hearted humor, melodramatic speeches about swimming, and actual swim meets, the series also saves time for more serious themes every now and again. Amongst the best was the training camp mini-arc, where we finally learn about some of the characters' darker pasts.
While the series is largely enjoyable on many levels, it's not without some problems, though. The pacing is a little clunky throughout the first season, placing too much emphasis on gags and not enough on the character relationships, but the last few episodes provide a good taste of what the series could potentially be, with increased attention on the interaction between Haruka and childhood rival Rin. Even the way that the meet plays out is satisfying, once again placing more importance on the characters than the event.
The second season is slated to premiere on July 2, so if you haven't checked out the series yet, now is the perfect time to jump in.
While I don't typically recommend baseball anime, since there are a billion of them out there, I cannot help but recommend the next one, which is a few years older, but still great.
I know I mentioned that this list would mostly include sports anime that's enjoyable for non-sports fans, but I have to make a brief addendum for Big Windup!. I think it's a little bit more palatable for baseball fans (the game is, after all, very, very slow), but amongst all of the baseball-centric shows, I think Big Windup! is one of the best. Not only does it tackle the sport from a unique angle—the close relationship between pitcher and catcher, and the latter's necessary in-depth knowledge of the game—but it also does a great job of examining the human side of the sport. In a genre where Teamwork and Friendship are king, Big Windup! champions it at every turn.
The series follows a pitcher named Mihashi and a catcher named Abe. As far as main characters go, Mihashi takes some getting used to. He's extremely talented, but he's also very insecure, very nervous, and always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He'd be a good candidate for a punching bag, if it didn't involve breaking your screen in half.
Luckily, catcher Abe does a fine job of coaxing Mihashi out of his shell, although it doesn't come without a fair amount of hand-holding and exasperated wheedling. Strangle-worthy protagonist aside, though, the relationship between the two is incredible to watch, and it only gets better throughout the season.
For those who haven't watched much baseball, it's easy to dismiss the catcher as a throwaway player. By all looks, he appears to just catch balls and point at his crotch. In fact, he's the brains behind the entire team's defensive drive, analyzing the other team's batting lineup and habits, and conveying that information to the pitcher. All the pitcher has to do is follow instructions. In fact, that's what the crotch pointing is about—it's a complex system of communication meant to be understood only by pitcher and catcher, and it's kind of fascinating.
In a real baseball game, none of this is really apparent. Big Windup! is actually one of the very few baseball anime I've seen that places such a heavy emphasis on it, which makes for very interesting viewing. Not only does it open up the detailed game of baseball a little more for new viewers, but it makes the games themselves much more exciting to watch. After all, there's only so much mileage you can get out of smacking the ball or diving for it. With most of the tension built towards the pitch, it changes the entire dynamic of the game.
It's still a little slow at times, but Big Windup! is a great series for those who really like the nuts and bolts behind sports, and enjoy the strategy aspect more than the actual plays. (If someone made an anime series about the strategy aspect of American football from the coach's point of view, I'd watch it in a heartbeat.) The series is obviously made by people who deeply love and respect the game (unsurprising, given Japan's passion for the sport), and it shows. Every last aspect of the game is narrated, from the pitches to the stolen bases, making it double as a perfect introduction to baseball for those who've always found it too dull to follow.
Be forewarned, though, the games can sometimes take forever. It's a wonder that anything progresses at all. It doesn't mean that it's boring—far from it—but if you're expecting a steady stream of games, with all the action stacked towards winning or losing, you won't find that in this series. With its deft handling of suspense, though, each episode feels much shorter than 22 minutes, and you'll be anxiously awaiting the next episode by the time the credits roll.
Sadly, only the first season is available, as sales were too low for Funimation to pick up the rights for the rest of the series, but it's one of the finest baseball anime out there, and seriously underrated.
While I make a big exception for Big Windup!, I tend to gravitate towards sports shows that feature some of the more esoteric, or at least uncommon, sports. They're a lot more interesting to watch, and there are more opportunities for the series to do something different with it. After all, there is only so many times you can watch a baseball team reach for the championships, and only so many times you can watch a basketball player shoot a lay-up. (That having been said, Kuroko's Basketball is pretty fun, but I didn't include it on this list because it's very long, has a billion characters, and is very much a "sports anime" anime.)
Yowamushi Pedal is the perfect combination of cheese, guts, and eccentricity. There are moments of pure cycling talk, but they're largely buffered by scenarios that are so ludicrous and campy that you can't help but laugh out loud.
While some of that ridiculousness is revealed early on in the series, most of it is unleashed during the Inter High race, which introduces some of the wildest characters you'll see in any sports anime or manga. One of my favorites is Touichirou Izumida, a sprinter whose obsession with his perfectly sculpted body has him chanting, "Abs abs abs" as he cycles. He also talks to his pecs, named Andy and Frank. It's the type of characterization you'd find in a series like One Piece or Toriko, where it's mostly style and grandstanding, and only a little bit of substance. Another favorite is the extra-creepy Akira Midousuji, whose snake-like demeanor translates onscreen to literal slithering noises, a constantly protruding tongue, and large, soul-murdering eyes. If I met him on the street, I'd call my parents and tell them I was about to die.
In fact, most of the characters in Yowamushi Pedal are pretty goofy, which makes the series exceptionally fun to watch. Of all of the cast, the most normal are the main three—otaku and newbie cyclist Sakamichi Onoda, aloof and distant Shunsuke Imaizumi, and the fiery Shoukichi Naruko. Even Sakamichi's penchant for singing anime theme songs as he pedals pales in comparison to their teammates' quirks—one's erratic stance gives him the nickname "Peak Spider," while another one's secret weapon is to inflate his chest to carry more oxygen. Their exaggerated personalities and quirks do a good deal to hide some of the deficiencies in animation, which get a little precarious during the Inter High. Already weird-looking faces and lanky bodies get even weirder and lankier, although they sometimes provide for unintentionally hilarious results.
I don't profess to know a single darned think about cycling, but even so, Yowamushi Pedal is a lot of fun. Sports anime can sometimes have a stereotype of being on the boring side, but Yowapeda is anything but. Everything is outlandish, from the training sessions, to even the abilities that the characters have. If anything, it has more of the qualities of a stereotypical Shonen Jump action-adventure property than anything else, only with cycling face-offs instead of fights. If you transported the characters of Yowapeda into a show like Hunter x Hunter, they wouldn't be even a little out of place.
Unlike some of the other series mentioned, though, you won't find too much characterization in Yowamushi Pedal. All of the characters are already freakishly good at their sport, leaving only Sakamichi with any room to learn and grow. Even then, his ability to surpass hundreds of seasoned cyclists in one race is conveniently waved off with a, "he always keeps his promise!" The events are paced unevenly as well, jumping from training race to training camp to the Inter High with barely a break in between to assess team compatibility, personal growth, or strategy. We rarely get to interact with the characters off the road, so if character development is critical to your enjoyment of the series, then you might want to find a different series.
Even with its flaws, though, Yowamushi Pedal has been one of my most recommended series from the past couple of seasons. It is really over-the-top and goofy, but it's one of the most entertaining sports shows out there.
Of course, no sports anime column of mine would be complete without my ringing endorsement of Chihayafuru, which combines several of the things that I mentioned above—it's involves an esoteric sport (karuta), it focuses heavily on character relationships (#TeamTaichi), and it has a fantastic knack for injecting tension into even the most mundane of events. Having spent many seasons waxing poetic about Chihayarufu, though, I'll spare everyone, but it is probably my favorite sports anime of all time. You can check it out on Crunchyroll.
What about you? What are some of your favorite sports anime? Let me know your thoughts in the forums, especially if they're currently streaming, so everyone can check them out!
I'll see you in a couple weeks when I'm back in the States. Go USA!
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