ANIME & MANGA - Article
15:00 - 2nd July 2016, by NEO Staff

Anime athletes!

It seems like series that revolve around sporting endeavours are becoming ever more popular, especially in the shonen category. It’s not difficult to see why either – with close-knit groups of passionate characters (and the right kind of joyfully melodramatic art direction) even a high-school volleyball game can seem as crucial as a battle to determine the fate of the world. Here’s a rundown of the past, present and future of sporting anime, by Jacob Boniface.

The Origins

Although many of the most popular sporting series have come into play within the last few years, the genre actually has a history that dates back to the very beginnings of anime. Perhaps the first mainstream sporting anime series was 1967’s brilliantly-named Mach GoGoGo. It told the story of a young teen who drives in a new experimental race car (designed by his scientist father) with the hopes of one day uncovering the fate of his older brother, who left the family years ago and adopted the secret identity of ‘Racer X’. Mach GoGoGo was a hit both in Japan and the west, although English-speaking audiences will know the series better as Saturday morning cartoon Speed Racer. Speed Racer was one of the earliest examples of a dubbed anime becoming a hit outside of Japan, and paved the way for its descendants in a variety of genres, as well as spawning a live-action movie adaptation – which divided critics and viewers alike, in that way that live-action movie adaptations tend to do.

After this success, it wasn’t long until a series about baseball (Japan’s national sport!) came onto the screens. A few years after Mach GoGoGo’s release, Kyojin no Hoshi, or Star of the Giants, became one of the most popular series airing at the time, and arguably invented a lot of the format and tropes that sporting anime series use to this day. Running for decades over several different series and movie adaptations, Kyojin no Hoshi is the story of Hyuuma Hoshi, a pitcher in the real-life baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, who undertakes gruelling training to achieve his goal of defeating his rival.

Naturally, most anime and manga fanatics simply can’t resist a good old-fashioned fight scene, and it wasn’t long before the sporting genre combined the two: creating series based on more martial sporting events, such as Ashita no Joe, the classic story about a young man from the wrong side of the tracks who rises from his downtrodden beginnings to become a champion boxer – with the help of an older mentor, and lots of training montages, of course.

However, it wasn’t just the guys getting in on the animated sporting action! Now known for recent series such as Nisekoi and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the animation studio Shaft cut their teeth on their first major series, Attacker You!, the story of a girls’ volleyball team which mixed sports action with a shoujo-style romance story, and laid the groundwork for a 2008 sequel series 30 years later.

Anime All-Stars!

Of course, even with such high-profile series as Haikyu! being released, the sports anime revolution might have passed you by. Well fear not, because here’s a primer for some of the most popular series of recent times to pique your interest.

Kuroko no Basuke, or Kuroko’s Basketball, begins just after the members of the Teiko middle-school basketball team start their various high-school careers. Unstoppable throughout their legendary years at the school, the Teiko team earned the nickname “The Generation of Miracles”. But now that they have gone their separate ways, they will find themselves clashing against each other – and against the so-called ‘phantom sixth man’ of the Teiko lineup, Tetsuya Kuroko. Though Kuroko lacks the unstoppable physical prowess of the rest of his former team, he recognizes the value of camaraderie and co-operation within a game, and he has a few cunning tricks on the court as well! Together with Kagami Taiga, a new basketball prodigy on the scene, and the rest of the Seirin High team, Kuroko and his newfound friends might just stand a chance at winning the day against the godlike talents of the Generation of Miracles!

The hugely popular Free! first made waves in March of 2013, when Kyoto Animation released a 30-second promotional video for the studio. Featuring four teenage boys swimming in their high-school pool, the ad – and the teen heartthrobs depicted – took the anime world by storm within 48 hours, with an instantly-loyal fanbase of fans clamouring for what they dubbed ‘the swimming anime’. It didn’t take long for the studio to turn the series into a reality, creating the immediate hit Free! Iwatobi Swim Club. Following the friendships and rivalries of the four recently re-united members of the eponymous swim club as they strive to keep their newly-formed team afloat, Free! has since made as big a splash as the original promo did, growing to encompass a sequel series and a recently-released prequel movie, not to mention an ever-growing fanbase!

Yowamushi Pedal, from the same studio that animated Kyojin no Hoshi all those years ago, is a fast-paced tale that follows first-year high-schooler Sakamichi Onoda, who is the last person anyone – himself included – would expect to take up a sporting challenge. An otaku intending to join his new school’s anime club, the unlikely protagonist is crushed when he discovers that the club has been disbanded. However, it’s not long before his latent bike-riding abilities are discovered by a member of the cycling club. Despite his reluctance, Onoda joins the club, but will he be able to keep up with the more experienced cyclists and their brutal training regimens? With two seasons of the anime, games, movies, and a manga that’s been ongoing since 2008, this series is definitely putting the pedal to the metal!

Weird and wonderful

It’s not just your run of the mill everyday sports that end up getting turned into action-packed and dramatic series either! The recently released Tsuritama is all about the sport of deep-sea fishing, combined with a comical sci-fi plot about saving the world, naturally. Chihayafuru is a long-running manga series and anime adaptation, about Chihaya Ayase, a high-school girl with the dream of becoming the best Karuta (a Japanese card game) player in the world. And UK audiences might be familiar with Inazuma Eleven, from the series of games and the anime that followed close after. Although the story of an upstart new football team might not seem all that unusual at first glance, the series’ sequels see the young underdogs dealing with time-travelling antagonists from the future, and competing in a galactic football tournament against a host of alien squads!

As you can see, there’s a huge amount of support and affection for sporting anime series, so much so that it seems surprising that we haven’t seen more series being released in the UK before now. While shows like the ones mentioned previously, and many more besides, have a lot of fans, they’ve mostly been overlooked for release in the west in general, most probably because more traditionally action-oriented series are seen as a safe bet for publication in a relatively niche audience. However, while the last decade’s biggest hits have mainly been battle-focused series, don’t be too surprised if the sports genre starts to score a few more points – with a small but loyal cast of dedicated comrades with relatable struggles as seen in Haikyu! and other sporting series, it’s no surprise that such shows can gain huge popularity. Will the next decade is dominated by these teen teams and their dreams of sporting greatness? We can’t wait to find out!

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