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Ima, kore ga hoshiin da! - Sports Festival

by Allen Divers,

Every month in Japan a whole slew of new Anime series hit the air waves. There are so many new series coming out, that chances are many won't make their way to North America. While many Anime fans would love to see each and every series make it here via legitimate means, the sad truth is the market in its current state simply can't support that option.

This simple fact leads many companies in North America to pick and choose carefully the series they license. For many series, it becomes obvious that they will be bidded on heavily, while others will squeak in through multi license deals. Unfortunately, there are a few genres and unique series that just don't have the appeal in North America that they have in Japan.

One such genre is the sports genre. While there are many shows that have characters that are athletic, or even have scenes of games, a series that centers itself around a particular sport has a hard time finding a distributor willing to take a chance on it. While the audience is there, many solid shows are simply left behind because other, more appealing licenses exist. There are exceptions to this rule. Shows such as Battle Athletes and Princess Nine have made their way to North America and done reasonably well. These shows had a bit of an extra edge, to make them more appealing. With many shoujo elements, both Battle Athletes and Princess Nine had a bit more marketable appeal than a show centering on male athletes. Battle Athletes has another edge in the fact that its sci-fi nature and its look lifted it above simple sports Anime.

Sports shows in general tend not to do well in North America. Most entertainment surrounding sports tend to be one-shot deals like movies and specials. What shows have been made around sports, tend to last no longer than half a season. With this mentality already in place for domestic entertainment, what chance does Sports Anime have? Another deterrent to most Sports Anime is their length. Being quite popular in Japan, these series often go beyond a standard 26 episode length. Anime companies tend to think twice when it comes to a long running series, even if it's popular, why take a chance on something different?

As many have discovered, Sports Anime, while centering on Basketball, Soccer or Baseball, do have the potential to appeal to other tastes. For many, the themes they love in other Anime genres are quite prevalent in Sports Anime, giving them that universal appeal that fans are looking for. Let's take a look at some of the longer running Sports Anime from Japan.

Slam Dunk

Slam Dunk has already been exposed to North America, thanks in part to the Manga running in Raijin Comics. Sakuragi Hanamichi, the hero, is a typical punk who, after falling in love with a girl, joins his High School basketball team to impress her. Never playing the game before, Sakuragi proves he has a lot of natural ability especially when it comes to the pinnacle of basketball ability, the Slam Dunk. This series has the standard clichés of romantic rivalry and comic moments set against the backdrop of basketball. At 101 episodes, there's a lot of story to be told. The Manga is proving to be a staple of Raijin Comics and should go a long way in helping to establish an audience for this show. Slam Dunk dates back to 1993, so it may seem a bit dated in look and style in comparison to many of the newer shows coming out. Considering the popularity of basketball in North America, its surprising this show remains quiet in the halls of licensing.

Prince of Tennis

Prince of Tennis follows a gifted tennis player who is under the heavy shadow of his father, a famous tennis pro. Despite having won 4 consecutive championships, Echizen Ryoma struggles to form his own style and identity. Being a more recent show, the look and style are more consistent with current animation techniques. While featuring many common elements of other genres, Prince of Tennis uses the game of tennis as its setting. In comparison to games such as soccer and basketball, tennis is no where near as popular. A large episode count also acts as a deterrent to this show being licensed.

Hungry HeartWild Striker

Speaking of soccer, there are quite a few shows that center on it. Hungry HeartWild Striker is one of the more recent forays into the sport of football. It follows a young man named Kyosuke, who played the game during junior high, but quit when he got to high school. Much like the hero of Prince of Tennis, Kyosuke is in the shadow of a family member, his older brother. To bring in the drama, Kyosuke becomes the manager of the girls' soccer team. The show has done quite well in Japan, prompting a second season. The sport of soccer has a mixed history in the U.S. and is often viewed as a child's game. Canadians have a much different view, with soccer being seen much more seriously. Things are changing in the U.S. as many professional leagues have appeared, trying to raise the prominence of the game as a serious sport. Hungry Heart features strong animation and a solid contemporary look with a strong story that could make it a popular show in North America.

Hikaru no Go

While not really an athletic sport, Go is a challenging game filled with its own set of drama and tension. Hikaru no Go tells the story of Shindoh Hikaru a young man who comes across an old Go board at his grandfather's house. When Hikaru tries to clean a blood stain from the board, a ghost from the Heian period enters his body. The ghost, named Fujiwara no Sai, was the Go tutor for the emperor of that period. When he was shamed and exiled from the court, Sai committed suicide. As a restless spirit, he inhabited the Go board until he could fully master Go. To aid the drama, Hikaru is not so thrilled at being possessed by the ghost of A.G.O master, and is reluctant to play the game. Hikaru no Go actually takes on the characteristics of a few shows that have done quite well in North America, such as Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!. The overall theme of someone seeking to master a game has sparked the imagination of many fans. Hikaru no Go's major flaw is the fact that it centers on a game that even in Japan has become somewhat outmoded. While many people in Japan still play the game, its mostly older people that take the time to learn it. Hikaru no Go actually has done a lot to bring younger people into the game, but can it do the same for a culture that doesn't even play Go? The strong story could help sway a lot of viewers, but it would still be a risky license, especially with the high episode count.

As more Anime is snatched up by companies in North America, chances are one of them may be a Sports Anime. Despite the backdrop of a sport or game, many have familiar themes that have proven quite popular presented against a different setting. For Sports Anime to really hit it big in North America, it really will only take one Sports Anime to do well. Of the series I looked at this week, Slam Dunk stands the best chance with the exposure its Manga receives in the weekly Raijin Comics. Hikaru no Go already has quite a bit of an underground following on the convention circuit with the original Japanese manga being picked up by the droves. Fans have also begun picking up Go boards and actually learning the game. Go boards in the halls of the hotels at the conventions are starting to become a regular site. The fans are probably ready, its now up to one brave company to make that leap.

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