The Mike Toole Show The Anime-lympics
Jul 29th 2012
Man, I love the Olympics. Despite the fact that enjoying the spectacle has become a complicated exercise that involves figuring out which channels and websites are broadcasting which events, trying to ignore heaps of irritating corporate ads, and brushing aside the occasional doping scandal, there's really nothing like it. Something about the international pageantry just appeals to me; the Olympics, and to a similar extent, the World Cup, represent the closest thing we have in the real world to G-Gundam. Sure, we might not have towering mobile suits, but we've got the over-the-top melodrama, all right - I still remember the 2010 Winter Games, and watching Shaun White, already a favorite to win gold, turn the sport of snowboarding on its head with a transcendent performance. The human drama of the games simply never gets old.
Okay, so how am I gonna tie this up to anime? Well, that's easy: there are some 30 events in this iteration of the Summer Olympic Games. I wonder how many of these games have a corresponding anime or manga-- one that's about the same sport? Let's find out!
I'll make it easy for myself by starting with soccer. I covered soccer anime extensively in one of my first columns for Anime News Network, so I can easily go ahead and tip Captain Tsubasa as the standard-bearer for the sport. The thing is, Yoichi Takahashi's sprawling footy epic only covers the men's game, and women's soccer has risen to prominence in the past fifteen years. Don't worry - Takahashi's got us covered with Soccer Girl Kaede, a 2011 one-shot manga all about the life of a girl aspiring to greatness with Japan's women's soccer squad. The book is actually modeled after the real career of the talismanic Homare Sawa, who toiled for years as the country's top player before finally earning her place in history by scoring the goal that forced the final match to penalties, and victory for Japan. The US are favorites heading into the Olympics, but don't count Japan out - they knocked our ladies out of the Algarve Cup and held us to a 1-1 draw in Sendai earlier this year!
As for other team sports, there's basketball and Slam Dunk! Olympic basketball is indelibly linked to the 1992 Dream Team here in the ‘states, but there are a variety of popular basketball anime and manga in Japan. Slam Dunk's the top of the pops, expertly balancing exciting b-ball action with the tried-and-true shonen fighting formula. One thing I admire about Slam Dunk? The way in which manga author Takehiko Inoue chose to end the series. Rather than a straight-up print epilogue, he drew the final chapter on a series of 23 chalkboards at a shuttered high school in Kanagawa, and members of the public were invited to come and read it for 3 days. The stuff was later reprinted in a magazine, but that's a ballsy way to present your artwork!
Volleyball shines bright with Jun Makimura and Shizuo Koizumi's modern shoujo classic, Attacker You! (Thought I was gonna go with Attack no. 1, eh? Think again!) Japan actually has a serious history with the sport; their ladies team famously won gold in 1964, sparking a boom in volleyball manga that continued for decades. Attacker You! chronicles the progress of a high schooler named You Hazuki as she trains for the 1988 Seoul Olympics; in the meantime, she wrestles with a complicated romance, an abusive but inspirational coach, and what happens when she and her best friend turn pro and find themselves on opposing teams. Attacker You!’s anime adaptation wasn't a huge hit in Japan, but interestingly, it was notably popular in Europe, drawing sizable audiences in France and Italy. Twenty years later, Knack would team up with Chinese distributor Darian Cartoon to create a sequel, New Attacker You!; the spirit of volleyball anime and manga is still alive.
Then there's good old field hockey. If you're reading this in North America, you know field hockey as a version of regular hockey, only played on grass, with participation slanted heavily towards ladies in high school and college. But outside of North America, it's just called hockey, (the hockey that's popular here is called “ice hockey”), and participation is much more balanced. Ai Morinaga's My Heavenly Hockey Club takes the field hockey experience to Japan, where female Hana is dragged into the all-boys’ hockey club; the coterie of dudes vie for her attentions, because despite her slight physical form, she's got some sass-- plus, she gains phenomenal athletic ability when she gets shuteye-- and brother, Hana sleeps a lot! Hockey Club isn't top-shelf shoujo, but it's a zippy and fun affair.
That just about covers the competitive head-to-head team sports. The Olympics also features cycling. Nasu: Summer in Andalusia is one of those weird little 50-minute movies; this 2003 film, animated by Madhouse and directed by Ghibli graduate Kitaro Kosaka, hits on aspects of the sport that aren't evident to casual fans. See, in most cases, cycling is still a team sport - your typical team will have a lead rider, who's trying to win, and several support riders, who fight for space on the route, allow the leader to draft, and generally help out. Nasu's protagonist Pepe is a support rider in the Vuelta de Espana with a complicated life - his old flame is marrying his brother, and he's hearing ominous talk about his sponsor dropping him. I'm really happy Madhouse continues to take risks and make movies like Nasu - it's not the best of the 2000s, but it's an unusual and very worthy little anime film.
Oh god, I can't spend an entire paragraph on 30 sports! Okay, let's knock some over quick. Boxing has several contenders, but my favorite boxing anime has to be Hajime no Ippo. As much as I love Tomorrow's Joe, in that story boxing is something the rough-edged hero, Joe Yabuki, struggles against. By contrast, Ippo’s Ippo Makinouchi uses the sport to make his own life better. Table tennis has the aptly-named Ping-Pong Club, a high school gross-out comedy that only uses the idea of a weird ping-pong team as a framing device. And while I couldn't find a suitable anime about dressage (I am 100% certain that there's good shoujo manga about the subject!), the undisputed #1 equestrian anime is Midori no Makibaoh, a shonen tournament saga in the form of horse racing that features a tiny, ugly, and utterly indomitable thoroughbred who uses speed and guts to win races.
Martial arts also get some time at the Olympics, so let's have a good look at judo next! You're all jumping up and down and screaming “Yawara!” but first, I gotta talk about the beautiful beast of a show known as Kurenai Sanshiro. Sanshiro, a.k.a. Judo Boy, is a show from Tatsunoko from 1969, right at the start of a long boom during which the studio was one of the most creative animation forces on the planet. Put aside the fact that our hero, Sanshiro, practices jiujitsu, the true fighting form that the sport of judo is derived from, and watch the opening credits. Style, man, the show oozes style! But the fact is, even Kurenai Sanshiro must stand in the shadow of Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl, Naoki Urasawa's popular 80s manga about a cute, energetic young lady as she haplessly tries to avoid training for a spot in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where women's judo will make its debut-- but her judo coach grandpa has other ideas! My favorite thing about Yawara is the fact that it had some cultural impact-- amazingly, a teen judo-ka named Ryoko Tamura captured the silver medal at the ‘92 Olympics, and the Japanese public couldn't help but call her Yawara-chan. The Olympics’ other martial art is tae kwon do, the national sport of South Korea. Consequently, you'll find way more repping for the sport in Korean animation. However, my favorite fighting game franchise, King of Fighters, features a swift and just master of the art, a guy named Kim Kap-hwan. Kim also appears in the Fatal Fury games, and that's how he makes the jump to anime, with supporting roles in the OVAs and movie.
Gymnastics is one of the summer games’ highlights - in particular, we've long been entranced with women's gymnastics. As a kid I watched the exploits of Mary Lou Retton, the first American gymnast to take gold in the All-Around event, and her win came just one cycle after Nadia Comăneci stunned the world with a perfect 10 performance. Men's gymnastics has its place, but the profile isn't quite as high - which makes it all the more interesting that the most prominent anime about the sport is about the men's game. Gambarist! Shun is from that weird mid-90s period when it seems like Sunrise would animate just about anything, and it's all about one kid's dream to get all the way to the Olympics and compete for the gold. But along with pure gymnastics, there's also rhythm gymnastics, its artistic cousin. If you've seen Ranma ½, you've seen Kodachi, one of the title characters would-be paramours, using the props and moves of the sport as a means of fighting. Rhythm gymanstics is portrayed a bit more accurately in Legend of Hikari, a 1986 Tatsunoko TV series about a young girl who dreams of growing up to be the next rhythm gymanstics world champ, like her idol, real life world champion Diliana Georgieva-- but finds herself caught up in something of a love trapezoid.
Tennis has twin titans in Aim for the Ace and The Prince of Tennis. The former is an archetypical shoujo story about Hiromi, a girl who's so impressed with her upperclassman, the elegant tennis champ Reika, that she joins the club despite her lack of athleticism and experience; a long climb towards excellence awaits her. Prince of Tennis attacks the subject from the other extreme, with established star Ryoma Echizen using his already formidable skills to challenge tougher and tougher opponents. Idea: team these anime tennis pros up for a doubles competition! Then there's track and field, a.k.a. athletics. The pole vault, the shot put, the hundred yard dash, hurdles... all of that good stuff. I can think of no better series to represent most (if not all) of these sports than Battle Athletes. Of course, Battle Athletes gives us wacky, futuristic versions of many of these sports, but at the end of the day, it's all about who can run faster, jump higher, and react quicker in the race to become the next Cosmo Beauty. If you check the cover art, Battle Athletes looks a little formulaic, and in some ways, it is. But here's a pro tip: the TV series, Battle Athletes Victory, is great stuff, a fun and uplifting story about friendship, challenges, and one hell of a twist ending.
Time to hit the water. There are a few anime and manga titles that touch on the various disciplines of swimming. Interestingly, none of them are all that visible here in the west. The most prominent is probably Rough, because it's yet another engaging, artful, and fun sports manga from the great Mitsuru Adachi. In Rough, Adachi applies his golden touch to competitive swimming, depicting a gentle comedy/drama in which a talented but frustrated swimmer falls for a girl on the high-diving team. Of course, she hates his guts! Well, at least at the beginning. A bit more recently we've had Umisho, a harem series about a free-spirited fisherman's daughter from Okinawa, who transfers to an urban school and wows the ragged swim team with her skills. Of course, being a harem comedy, the series spends a bit more time concentrating on the show's various girls in (and sometimes out) of their swimsuits. So there's swimming, diving... and water polo! Actually, fortuitous timing comes in here, because Toshinori Sogabe, the guy who brought us the wholesome and restrained Ah My Buddha, has just launched a manga about water polo, Water Drop Rindo! It just came out in June, so I haven't seen it yet. As for synchronized swimming? Obviously, this is the best example!
Okay, maybe it isn't anime. You watched it anyway, right? And it was awesome, right? ‘Nuff said.
We're actually starting to run out of events. Archery is depicted fairly accurately in Rumiko Takahashi's Laughing Target, though it's all done Japanese style and the man dude ends up using the bow and arrow to murder someone. Triathalon covers three sports fairly well, except the running portion is about distance running. Does Hashire Melos fit the bill? One thing I like about Melos, based on Osamu Dazai's famous short story, is that there were two versions - a rubbish TV movie from the 80s, and a pretty damn good 1992 movie featuring some early work by Satoshi Kon. Guess which one got dubbed and released in the US? Hint: NOT THE GOOD ONE. Rounding off this group is badminton. Yep, badminton, a sport that's actually hugely popular in countries such as Indonesia. The only badminton manga I was able to find good information on is a title called Yamato's Shuttle, a 4-volume series that takes the standard shonen tournament formula and applies it to the sport of racquets and shuttlecocks.
We've got a grab bag to round things off. Let's see: sailing? Well, there are sails and masts and stuff in One Piece, and Treasure Island. But they're not actually about competitive sailing, are they? Shooting... Golgo 13 is clearly the winner in that category. Don't try to tell me he wouldn't score high at shooting skeet! Fencing? Well, Utena features a fencer! Rowing: does Aria count? They don't have coxswains and stuff, but it's still sculling, right? The only manga even remotely related to weight-lifting I can think of is Go Nagai's Iron Virgin Jun, but that one's kinda pervy. As for wrestling, Tiger Mask and Kinnikuman definitely count! They are accurate depictions of the sport, I tell you!
What does that leave us with? Canoeing, pentathalon, and handball. I doubt there's a competitive canoeing anime. Pentathalon is several other events together. As for handball, I'd be willing to bet there's something out there that covers it. The sport looks odd to my American eyes, but it's played all over the world. Anyone got a good handball manga?
So after all that, what's left? These are all anime and manga about sports that feature at the summer Olympics-- but hey now, could there be an anime ABOUT the Olympics? In fact, there is!
Feast your eyes on Eagle Sam. Eagle Sam is, in fact, the mascot of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. The competition commissioned Disney artist Bob Moore to create the character, and starting in late ‘83, TBS broadcast a 51-episode series about his exploits. In the show, Sam is a P.I. who is mysteriously transformed into an anthropomorphic eagle. With the help of his hilariously busty assistant, Canary, Sam has to fight the bad guys and chase down his nemesis, a cockroach riding a skateboard. Sam's hat contains almost everything he needs, and when the going gets tough, he takes out special magical Olympic rings to help save the day! The few clips of Eagle Sam I've seen depict an absurd, distorted, hilarious view of Los Angeles, and I only wish I could see more. Unfortunately, the rights to Sam himself are actually held by the International Olympic Committee, so there's never been a home video release for Sam. I hope someday we get to see it all!
With the London Olympics rushing up, I noticed something that amused me. As I walked into Target, I could only think one thought: Oh look! They're selling anime shirts again.
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