The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Burning Kabaddi ?
What is this?
First-year high school student Tatsuya Yoigoshi is a former ace soccer player who dislikes sports. He gets invited to join a team for the contact sport kabaddi. He scoffs at the idea at first but becomes interested after watching a kabaddi practice.
How was the first episode?
Add me to the list of people who didn't know what kabaddi was before watching this episode. Kabaddi, I have learned through reading various reviews and comments, is a sport popular in South Asia but little-known in the rest of the world. It's the national sport of Bangladesh, and is played in two styles: standard, as demonstrated in the episode, and circle-style or “Punjabi”. Fascinating stuff!
Well, I hope it's interesting to you, because the novelty of the sport involved is really the main draw for the first episode of Burning Kabbadi. Otherwise, it's mostly characters giving an explanation of the rules of the sport alongside a demonstration, broken up by some moderately typical sports anime beats.
Yoigoshi, as his monologue explains, hates sports, despite being an extremely talented soccer player. He obviously experienced some trauma, based on how he specifically points out a lot of the social aspect of team sports, alongside the more standard complaints about getting sweaty and so on. Now, he just wants the sports teams trying to recruit him to leave him in peace to follow his true passion: streaming online, where he can control his own little world and easily remove anyone he wants with the push of a button! He also wants to keep his online life and school life completely separate from each other, which of course gives the vice-captain of the kabaddi team plenty of leverage over him when he's found out.
The characters seem like nice boys, generally speaking – I developed a soft spot for the bald kid whose name I have already forgotten – but a bit thin on personality. (That's the only thing they're thin on. They're big boys.) They promise little in terms of depth or complexity, and what's more, it's hard to just sit back and accept the way Yoigoshi gets forced into playing. He gets pretty into it once he gets started, but the way they ignore his constant assertions that he doesn't like being touched and force him to play a sport that is 100% about touching just doesn't sit right.
For the first bit of the episode, I was thinking about how nice things looked, with bright colors and sharp, clean lines. But as the episode progressed, I noticed the cracks. The still shots. The too-long pauses in the middle of a game. Characters' eyes looking in different directions. A general lack of motion, when this is a sports series based on speed. It doesn't look terrible, but it doesn't look great either, and I worry how it'll degrade over time.
Kabaddi sounds like a fun sport, though I wouldn't be caught dead playing it at my current fitness level - quite literally, as it might actually kill me. Burning Kabaddi? Not so much.
There are 2 things you absolutely have to achieve if you're going to make a successful sports anime. The first is making whatever your central sport is look super fun and cool. Whether that means artistic embellishment to translate the thrill of competition or capturing the moment-to-moment tension of a match, you need to get the audience invested in whatever physical or mental activity your cast is engaging in. The second is making said cast likable, or failing that, interesting to follow. If you want people to stick around, they have to have somebody or something to root for, same as any real sport.
Burning Kabaddi sadly fails on both fronts. While the narrative of this episode does a solid job explaining the fundamentals of the sport, and exemplifies some of the more tactical approaches to what at first appears to be a very simple competition, it lacks any real impact. Animation is stiff and depends largely on implied motion between key poses. Character designs are indistinct and fade into the malaise of a million other athletic dudes in sports anime. The direction and pacing of the actual kabaddi matches are all over the place as we constantly take asides to have the action explained to us despite being self-evident. It's not terrible, but it's about the bare minimum you'd demand from any kind of sports anime, and that's just not enough to sell me on a sport I'm not already familiar with and invested in.
The bigger issue, however, is the cast. They range anywhere from mildly unpleasant to loudly unpleasant, with a couple of guys with no personality at all thrown in to even out the cast. Yoigoshi is perhaps the most likable, if only because I sympathize with him not wanting to get dragged against his will into a sport he doesn't know anything about. Which is a story approach that seems to keep coming up that I've never understood. If you're trying to convince me your particular pastime is worth caring about, why does your main character have to be coerced into joining against their expressed will? It's another unpleasant aspect of this premiere that kills any interest I might have in it. I'm not opposed to stories about alternative sports – I'd even say I welcome them when they're told well. But that's not the case here.
I'm not going to lie: Kabaddi looks like a hell of a fun sport to play. If there were a team in my high school, I would have gone for it in a heartbeat. I mean, what's not to like? It's basically tag with a few more rules—and the ability to tackle the person who tags you.
The first episode does a great job at explaining the rules of the sport to the uninitiated. After all, our hero Tatsuya is as new to the sport as anyone could be. Little by little, we see the various aspects of the sport and how they are put together. We also learn a bit about the strategy of the game and see that it is a sport that's as mental as it is physical. It's interesting stuff—enough so that I decided to time myself to see how long I could say Kabaddi over and over again in one breath (a pathetic 22 seconds).
Unfortunately the sport itself is about the only thing even slightly interesting about Burning Kabaddi. Tatsuya, despite being our protagonist, is basically a joke character. He's a former sports prodigy who got fed up with locker room politics and has decided to become an anonymous “Just Chatting” streamer. He doesn't really care about his content or anything beyond his viewer numbers (even having nothing but bots is okay with him). The reason he's chosen this as his new hobby is simply because, unlike in the real world, he can ban and block any person who pisses him off. Of course, he also has an ego and is susceptible to both blackmail and bribery which is why he reluctantly finds himself on the Kabaddi team by the end of the episode.
The rest of the cast are just sports anime stereotypes. We have the over-eager first year, the glasses-wearing strategist, and two background lackey characters who can be described in single words (in this case, “cool” and “muscles”).
Frankly, despite the rather fluid animation and interesting subject matter, this is not a series I would likely choose to pick up. I have zero attachment to any of the characters or their problems. The humor isn't cringeworthy, but never managed to get a chuckle out of me either. Perhaps if I viewed the all-male cast as eye candy, it might hold a bit more interest for me. But sadly, that's not my thing. All in all, if this first episode is any indication, Burning Kabaddi looks to be just another in a long line of inoffensive sports anime.
A sports anime has to get two things right in order to have any hope of being successful: The sport, and the players. On the latter front, Burning Kabaddi is doing well enough for itself, so far. Tetsuya makes for an endearingly dweeby protagonist, a sports prodigy who has decided to give up the life of being a high-school soccer star in order to pursue fame and fortune as a mediocre live streamer. When he is literally tackled away from his rig and dragged to the school's run-down old gym to meet the local kabaddi team, we get a rundown of the rest of the boys we'll be spending the season with, and they're pretty okay, too. The team's vice-captain is pretty cunning in how he manipulates Yoigoshi into joining the team, and Azemichi has a likeable rapport that he builds with Yoigoshi during these initial practice games.
Where the show stumbles is in the “sport” half of the equation, and chiefly in how it unfolds on screen. As a game in and of itself, kabaddi is a pretty interesting combination of competitive tag and wrestling, where points are scored based on the attacking team players' ability to tag the defenders without getting tackled down behind enemy lines. To be honest, as someone who has charitably been described as an “inside boy” his whole life, kabaddi looks right up my alley so far as team sports go. No need for pesky hand-eye coordination or expensive equipment here; you just have to run, tag, and tackle, just like it was on the field back in elementary school.
No, the issue is the fact that, if I'm being completely honest, Burning Kabaddi kind of looks like crap, and that's never a good thing for a genre that demands fast, fluid, and impactful animation. Even in the non-kabaddi scenes, the blocking and direction of the character interaction is weak. When the players do hit the mat, though, they don't pick up the slack. The slow-motion cuts are choppy and unconvincing, and I lost count of how many times the show simply cut to a still frame for an impact shot that lasts two or three seconds too long.
I don't really care for watching sports in real-life, but I'm an animation nerd, so I'm more than happy to watch anime teens play sport ball with each other if we can get a glimpse of some of that sweet, sweet sakuga. This doesn't have any of that, which is really a shame when you consider that the entire sport is basically nothing but fast and fluid movement; the approach might have work for an anime about croquet, or chess, or competitive arm-wrestling, but it falls flat, here. It's not a terrible show, but I can't see why any fan of the genre wouldn't seek out any of the hundreds of other anime that have done a better job than what Burning Kabaddi has to offer.
Before the premiere of Burning Kabbadi, all I knew about the sport was that it was the basis for a series of jokes I didn't find funny in Chio's School Road. Now that I've seen the episode, I know that it is my personal nightmare of a sport. It involves touching and tackling (and, if the show is to be believed, occasional dragging) in what the episode is happy to tell us several times is one of the only, if not THE only, team sports not to involve balls, sticks, or any other equipment. To my totally untrained eye, it looks like a combination of wrestling and dodgeball.
But like most sports anime, this one is setting up to also be about the characters as much as it is about the actual sport. Our entry point into both story and kabaddi is Yoigoshi, a high school student who was a middle school soccer star. He's fed up with soccer, sports, and athletic life in general – he's tired of guys who stink of sweat, of the backstabbing that he experienced on his team, and of the general way that soccer was assumed to be his end-all-and-be-all. Now that he's in high school, he's actively repelling all attempts from the soccer team to get him to join in favor of his new love: livestreaming on “Mico Mico” where he goes by the alias Night End.
Also he thinks that wearing a face mask is sufficient to hide his identity, so brilliance is maybe not his strong suit. In fact, he's utterly shocked when someone finds him on Mico Mico mid-stream, and when that coincides with someone hammering on his door, he's convinced that the soccer team has him once and for all. As it turns out, it's the kabaddi team who has set out to recruit him, and their vice-captain is something of a streaming god, which is both how he found Yoigoshi and how he finagles his recruitment to the team in one of those annoyingly bad deals that anime characters seem to love. Fortunately Yoigoshi is at least a little intrigued by the sport – and the idea that it doesn't involve equipment – so things will probably work out.
In all honesty, Burning Kabaddi looks like it's going to be like any other sports anime. They have to get the team up to seven players, they have to learn to play together as a team, the captain has to get out of the hospital (to my surprise, he appears to have Anime Wasting Disease, not a kabaddi-related injury), etc. It'll probably be fine, and the lure of a somewhat unusual sport may be enough of a draw for those on the fence. Personally I can't deal with the fact that one of the guys has no irises in his eyes, but if you can and you like sports shows, this seems perfectly adequate.
Kabaddi is a sport I had zero familiarity with prior to the premiere, but Burning Kabaddi accounted for that. While this sport's primary audience is in India and Pakistan, after having the rules explained and watching a match play out, it seems like it'd be a seriously entertaining viewing experience. Yes, it is like tag but affords way more physicality with the introduction of tackles and grabs (but no punches!). Unfortunately, it isn't an unfamiliar sport that hinders Burning Kabaddi's appeal, it's the animation itself.
Burning Kabaddi is barely animated in a traditional sense. The staff have utilized a number of tricks to mask this and move the story events forward in a way that makes the episode serviceable but far from dynamic. Good sports anime hinge on compelling animation cuts to bring those pulse-pounding moments to the audience and sadly, you won't find any of that in this premiere. All the key moments, be it sports-related or comedic punchlines, are punctuated by still frames. The show could be genuinely funny – the series stars a misanthropic former soccer star who thinks he'll hit it big as a livestreamer under an angsty alias – but the voice acting can only carry the show so far.
Frankly, I have some concerns when a show's premiere looks this way out of the gate, as it can spell of worse things to come five weeks down the line. We've certainly seen much better work come out of TMS Entertainment; they're helming the Megalobox sequel this season, too. Director Kazuya Ichikawa is also heading The World Ends with You the Animation and Seven Knights Revolution this season, albeit at different studios. I can't claim to be privy to the timeline of these productions but if this was all happening simultaneously, it's possible that Burning Kabaddi ended up with the short end of the stick. The artistry does have some similarities to his previous work. It immediately reminded me of Clean Freak! Aoyama kun before I even looked at the staff list.
I want to recommend Burning Kabaddi for its efforts to highlight a unique sport and for its particularly dumb teen protagonist, but I found nothing impressive about this premiere and much of its sports action falls flat.
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