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The Mike Toole Show
Sports Anime Spikes Back

by Mike Toole,

Earlier this year, my convention buddies the Reverse Thieves ran a panel at Otakon called “I Hate Sports,” as a vehicle to introduce fans to sports anime they might have otherwise ignored due to a lack of interest in the sporting activities themselves. It's a clever idea, even though I personally suspect that the overlap between dork media fandom and sports fandom is larger than it might seem (like comedian and deranged millionaire John Hodgman, I believe we are in the process of a reality-destroying jock/nerd convergence, something first heralded by phenomena like fantasy sports and that weird period where NFL stars Brian Bosworth and Howie Long tried to become big-deal movie actors). I've both played sports and watched anime my whole life, so to me the genre seems like a happy and obvious marriage.

But in the west, sports anime has long faced an uphill battle. Passionate fans of fare like Hajime no Ippo and Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl have rallied behind their favorites, only to see them flop. Bandai Entertainment's bizarre mid-2000s experiments (Hoop Days? Dan Doh!!?!) couldn't get any traction, Eyeshield 21 failed to make an impression on Toonami Jetstream, Slam Dunk flamed out both in manga and anime form, and Big Windup!, Funimation's entry into the sports anime race, struck out, leaving the second season stranded at first base. Turns out sports anime was a hard sell-- the fans who liked it loved it, but there didn't seem to be that many of them. But the tide, it seems, has gradually turned, buoyed on by basketball, cycling, swimming, and of all sports, volleyball.

On its face, volleyball might seem a little obscure. In terms of team sports participation and audience, it lags behind traditional favorites like baseball, soccer, and even ice hockey. But in fact, volleyball is a dearly-held part of Japan's sporting identity-- it was introduced before WWII, and even got its own new name (haikyu, just like baseball got dubbed yakyu). These days, folks are more apt to call it volleyball, or simply volley. The game became a permanent part of Japan's sports conversation in the 1960s, when, in the midst of the nation's economic rebirth, the women's team (and to a lesser extent, the men) emerged as a global powerhouse, defeating the favored Soviet Union in both the 1962 World Championships and the 1964 Olympics. Participation surged, books about the sport were written, and of course, there was anime and manga. In the wake of boys' fare like Star of the Giants, Attack No. 1 became shoujo manga and anime's first big sports hit.

I've always liked Attack No. 1's theme song, one of the most recognizable in Japan. It's an urgent ballad about the heroine, Kozue Ayuhara, and her drive to win. “But sometimes I cry,” admits the singer, “...because I'm a girl!” The sheer cheesiness makes me grin every time. The anime chronicles the rise of Ayuhara, a transfer student at her school, who at first seems too shy to join the embattled volleyball team. But when the captain confronts her, Ayuhara doesn't pull her punches. “The team is terrible.” she says. “I want to play, but I hate losing!” This inevitably sets the stage for a confrontation, as the upright and proud captain challenges the newcomer to return her serves. Kozue's teacher has an idea of his own-- her new buddies, the school delinquents, really just need a way to blow off steam. How about volleyball? And thus, the team is formed!

The most striking thing about both Chikako Urano's manga and its anime adaptation, courtesy of TMS, is the pair of humongous doe eyes sported by the heroine. That's a staple of older shoujo manga, but by the time Attack No. 1 hit the pages of Margaret in 1968, it was starting to go out of style. It couldn't stop the series from becoming a breakout hit, thanks largely to the appeal of Kozue herself-- in a subset of manga dominated by earnest good girls, she stood out simply by being a boastful, competitive punk. The anime looked quite good for its time (a recent blu-ray remaster is eye-popping, and gives me hope that the show or its compilation movies will appear on Hulu), featuring eye-catching colors and a simmering, guitar-driven musical score.

Attack No. 1 didn't just boster volleyball's image-- it helped cement now-beloved shoujo manga tropes, such as the absent parental figure, the rich-girl rival,and of course, the dead boyfriend. (A few years later, the even more popular romance Candy Candy would up the ante with two dead boyfriends!) The field of shoujo sports manga also benefited, with both other sporting hits (Aim for the Ace!) and further volleyball yarns, like Ashita e Attack (“Attack on Tomorrow,” not to be confused with Ashita e Free Kick). That series, created directly as a cash-in after Japan's women won Olympic gold again in 1976, is sometimes mistaken for a sequel or spinoff to Attack No. 1, because it has the same key creative staff. It wasn't near as big of a hit, but it aired just as the women's team took gold at the Volleyball World Cup, a competition that would later relocate to Japan permanently.

The next big volleyball anime wouldn't be based on manga, but on a novel, Shizuo Koizumi's Now the White Ball is Alive, a book written in anticipation of the team's great victory at the 1984 Olympics. Naturally, the team failed to win gold, edged out by the surging Chinese team, but they still took home bronze. The book's anime adaptation, Attacker You!, is almost definitely the best thing that Knack Productions ever produced. The studio is better-known for enjoyably weird, bad 70s TV cartoons like Charge Man Ken, Dame Oyaji, and Ninja, the Wonder Boy, but they would periodically get it right, and they did so with Attacker You!.

The show actually uses a lot of Attack No. 1's building blocks-- a transfer student, a snooty and talented captain-- but shies away from the classic show's high drama in favor of energetic situation comedy. The title character (she introduces herself to someone in English, by saying “I am You!” a joke that always works well) is new in town, come to live with her estranged dad and adopted little brother. She runs afoul of the volleyball team after her baby brother takes a whiz on the court, and the captain, Nami, has a challenge for her: return a serve, or lick the dirty part of the court! Gross. You accepts, and in those dizzying opening moments, Nami is struck by a terrible realization-- the new girl might be ignorant of the sport, but she's got a mean jumper, and she's getting closer and closer to every one of the agreed-on ten serves.

I actually like Attacker You! more that Attack No. 1-- it deftly switches between dramatic sporting face-offs, as we follow You's development as a player (she faces a major hurdle when the other girls hit their growth spurts, and she kinda doesn't…!), her tense family life, and her rivalry with Nami, as they compete both on the court and off it, for the affection of the handsome boys' team captain. There are some aspects of the show that haven't aged well (the team's coach, a heavyset male teacher, sometimes smacks his charges around when they aren't getting results, and for a shoujo series, there's an awful lot of fanservice), but I still dig the show's' thumping musical score and the spirited performance by Yūko Kobayashi as You. Decades later, a redux, New Attacker You!, would emerge, co-produced by a Chinese company. There was much ado when Space Dandy got its simultaneous dub and broadcast, but New Attacker You! did the same thing in 2008, recorded in Chinese and Japanese simultaneously and actually airing in China well before it emerged in Japan. In fact, the show never got a wide TV broadcast, and would later be touted as an exclusive for the launch of Amazon's video streaming platform in Japan in 2013.

The notion of sports anime about the wildly successful women's national team makes perfect sense (although I'm still waiting for a shoujo anime about the women's soccer team). But like I noted earlier, the men aren't shrinking violets. Their team made an absolutely epic ascent in the Olympic games, winning bronze in that famous 1964 competition that saw the women take it all, then progressing to silver in '68 before winning their own gold medals at Munich in 1972. But tantalizingly, they never quite reached that summit again-- they're a tough team, but tend to finish just outside the winner's circle at Olympic and World Cup competition, in 5th or 6th place.

That failure to achieve greatness didn't dampen the enthusiasm of a kid named Furudate, who spent his high school years absolutely addicted to volleyball, both playing as a middle blocker and raptly watching his hero, national team wing spiker Shigeru Aoyama. Furudate wasn't a good student, though-- his grades suffered at the expense of volleyball. But he had another talent: he could draw. That would pay off later… actually, kind of a long time later. He went to college for art and graphic design, and at age 25 was tipped as an emerging manga talent by Shonen Jump. But it would be a few more years before the artist, Haruichi Furudate, handed in his breakout hit-- a volleyball manga called Haikyu!!.

The genius of Haikyu!! has many facets. The artist excels at showing and describing the mechanics of the sport, breaking down how a talented spiker still can't achieve much without expert support from a setter. He excellently uses the small squad size-- six court players at a time-- to build his ensemble, seeding it with beloved archetypes (the handsome ace! the arrogant newcomer! the gallant captain!) before mixing those archetypes up. The imposing ace of the team, Azumane, would be the main character in another series, but here, he's burdened by high expectations and is underconfident. Instead, our man character is Shoyo Hinata, a shrimpy freshman who loves the sport, but has never really been good at it. The one thing he's good at? Jumping. His natural foil is fellow newcomer Kageyama, a junior high prodigy with a sour disposition who never really figured out how to work with other players. The setting, Karasuno High, is a school that was once a traditional volleyball power, but has long since fallen from grace. It's impressive how Furudate hits his marks to get the series going.

From there, it's all about taking the sports manga archetypes we know and love and subtly shifting them. The team's senior players, Sawamura and Sugawara, are patient with the newcomers, but starting to age out of it, worrying about when their last games before graduation will come. A middle blocker named Tanaka is a great guy with a mean face, who looks like he walked straight out of a boxing or baseball manga. Nishinoya, the team's libero (a position similar to the soccer one of the same name, who rushes in to thwart the attack), is a ball of fire who's even shorter than Hinata. The team is herded together by their manager, Kiyoko, an attractive girl who you'd think would be pursued relentlessly by the players-- but she remains tantalizingly out of reach. (Tanaka haplessly and repeatedly approaches her, providing some of the title's comic relief.) Just to mix things up, Furudate replaces the typical grizzled old coach with a grizzled young coach, the son of the legendary old man, who's just a few years past his own high school playing days.

Haikyu!! is very popular in both manga and anime form-- it's currently in its second animated season. I'm liking the current story arc a lot, because it touches on something I observe a lot in sports but don't see that often in sports anime and manga-- a point when a new rival emerges, someone big and scary from another team who really pushes the hero to improve... and the two immediately like each other. I see this a lot in soccer, where players, splitting time between club and national duty, get to hang out a lot. On-field rivals are convivial and sometimes become fast friends, even as they're competing. In Haikyu!!, Hinata is stopped in his tracks by Lev Haiba, a towering newcomer at rival school Nekoma. Lev is the opposite of Hinata-- he's got all of the physical gifts a volleyball player needs, but is brand new to the sport. Bumping into each other in a hallway at a travel competition in Tokyo, the pair square up-- and grin broadly. Lev claims that he's going to be the one to beat Hinata's blindingly fast quick attack. Hinata dares him to try it. That's the kind of magic that puts Haikyu!! over the top.

What's also interesting is comparing the volleyball hits of yesteryear with Haikyu!!. In many ways, they're quite similar, focusing on a talented newcomer struggling to establish themselves. What's also interesting is the fact that, while Attack No. 1 was crafted to run in a shoujo magazine for a female audience, Haikyu!! was created to run in a shonen magazine… also pretty much for a female audience. Alright, maybe it wasn't made specifically for women, but the series' following certainly seems largely female, with expansive doujinshi circles, fanfic writers, and cosplayers championing the manga and anime. My friend and colleague Daryl Surat has a theory about this demographic shift-- at some point, shonen manga became less focused on violence and spectacle, and more on story and character. When that happened, female readership for titles like Rurouni Kenshin and One Piece started to tick upwards. The publisher, not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, simply started taking this audience into account when seeking out new titles. The influence of this audience has made itself known with more story-driven titles, featuring more attractive and nuanced characters. Hence, a magazine that once published naughty, violent fare like Harenchi Gakuen and Fist of the North Star now pushes the slightly kinder, gentler World Trigger and Nisekoi. The shonen sports manga of old, Star of the Giants and Ashita no Joe, look quite different from Haikyu!! and Kuroko's Basketball.

Of course, that very inclusiveness has helped keep Shonen Jump at the top of the heap, in a time when magazine readership is on the ropes. Viz is bringing out Haikyu!! in English, but it's definitely the kind of series that I wish would show up in the pages of the English edition of Shonen Jump. Watching Haikyu!! brings me back to my high school intramural volleyball days, when I had a pretty mean underhand serve and my side beat the entire field of teams made up of kids who were bad at sports but wanted something to do. Does your interest in sports fuel your interest in sports manga? Does reading sports manga and watching sports anime make you wish you competed in sports, or better yet, driven you to take that first step and start playing? Did they ever make one of those Air Bud movies where the other team had their own Air Bud? Chime in in the comments!

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