Guys, let me tell you, I’ve got absolutely no clue what makes me pop off for almost two thousand words like I did in this column. I was just planning for it to be regular length and by the time I’d finished chasing down all the threads I’d started out with I ended up with this monster of a post—although, to be fair, I think it’s a rather good one. I hope you guys like it! I think it explores some interested ideas.
8 thoughts on “Aniwords – What We Want When We Watch Sports Anime”
When you mentioned Dezaki in the article, I was hyped to see some examples of his work but then you just linked to Haikyuu sakuga :((
My dirty secret is that the only Dezaki I’ve seen is Rose of Versailles, so I didn’t have any screenshots to draw on. Don’t tell.
Here’s a fact about me: I don’t like watching sports. I find Olympia annoying, especially when it comes on heels of some soccer championship or another. I have many frustrated memories of sports shows kicking my favourite weekly shows from TV, which makes ignoring sports even harder. I stare at the screen and try to see the game, but all I see is people run back and forth. Or jump. Or swim. Or whatever. As a result, I don’t want sports in my anime. Adding sports to any anime doesn’t make me like it. Sports is something you do (you, not me), and it’s not something you watch (me, not you – isn’t the second person pronoun versatile?).
So usually, if I like sports anime, I like them despite including sports. Some of them have good characterisation, and that’s what makes me like them (e.g. Cross Game). Some are stylised and over the top, and have the same typical narratives other anime genres (mostly it’s shounen fighters) have (e.g. Bamboo Blade). I have a fondness for huge casts, too, and sports anime often oblige (e.g. Saki – I don’t even fully understand how Mahjong works).
This season has Battery, which scores with characterisation (and I thought it would score with visuals, too, expecting something like Kids on the Slope, but sadly it didn’t – it looks functional), and Cheerdanshi which works on charm. We also have Days, but that doesn’t work for me at all, so…
I still wonder why Haikyuu works so well for me. Part of it is obvious: it does the “huge cast” thing excellently – all the characters have their own personality and are very distinguishable. There’s also the fact, that I like its style. Haikyuu has this slightly deranged edge to it that’s just fun to watch. But ultimately Haikyuu is only ever really good when they’re playing volley ball (which the second season amply demonstrated, at least to me). So why, when sports bore me to tears, do I like Haikyuu the most when it’s about actually playing sports?
I have this theory: I think, sports bores me because I don’t really get it. But Haikyuu‘s cheerleaderlike hyperbole and running commentary makes it easy to understand and engage with. It’s, basically, sports for dummies. Distilled down to the essence, and with slow motion and focus and close ups, placed precisely where the tension should be. It’s a guided experience, and I think that’s what’s drawing me in (aided by the stuff I love regardless of sport, which I mentioned in the previous paragraph).
I think that might be it.
Yeah, DAYS feel pretty flat for me after a few episodes—but I was in it for the sport, because I love soccer!
Haikyuu!! is good drama (when it’s clicking on all cylinders, that is) during the matches. I remember being super pumped up to watch it every Sunday during the first season—it was masterful and hotblooded and super easy to watch. So it kind of makes sense to me that people who don’t really like sports could still find the sport in it to be fun to watch.
Some interesting food for thought, there. I’m a huge real-life sports fan – it’s pretty much the only thing I watch on over-the-air TV anymore, these days – and what you said about narratives is really spot-on. WWE has been doing that for decades, of course (it’s famously been referred to as “Soap Opera for guys”), but true sports like the NFL and NBA do the same thing, with the help of sports-talk radio platforms and TV partner networks like ESPN, where media members are constantly giving their opinions on the day’s sports news and thereby shaping the narrative for the fans. Case in point: just look at the talking points that the media have created around Kevin Durant over the last six weeks. He wouldn’t be some hard-working people’s champion if he’d stayed in OKC and he’s not the antichrist because he left, but the media love to perpetuate those kind of absolutist narratives because it’s good for business and gets more people watching and talking about the games.
As far as anime itself goes, though, here’s the entire* list of sports anime (TV series) that I have watched more than three episodes of: Angelic Layer, Aokana, Girls und Panzer, and Bamboo Blade. That’s three completely fictional sports, and one real sport that I know nothing about beyond what I learned from the anime. And I enjoyed all four of them, whereas I’ve tried a few episodes of other shows over the years involving real sports I know quite well, like Slam Dunk and Prince of Tennis, and haven’t been able to get into them. I think the problem for me is that I watch so many real sports that I don’t need anime sports to satisfy that itch, plus there’s that whole “deep familiarity with the real thing” hurdle that you mentioned – and TBH, that’s even sometimes an issue for me with live action western sports movies too. If I see the sports team in a Hollywood movie running plays or strategies that wouldn’t work or are flat-out against the rules in real life, it breaks my immersion immediately. That’s where I think anime based around foreign and fictional sports have an advantage (at least for serious sports fans like me). You don’t have any real-life action to compare it to in your mind, so it’s easier to suspend disbelief, and the show’s writers don’t have to know the finer points of a 400-page rulebook to keep hardcore fans happy, they just have to lay out enough of the ground rules that the audience gets the basic idea of how the game’s played so they can follow along.
*Technically I could also list Encouragement of Climb since climbing is generally considered a sport, but I don’t consider that a “sports anime” since there’s no competitive element to it
The next sports anime I’m planning to watch is 3-Gatsu no Lion when it comes out this fall. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the manga and I know nothing about Shogi besides that it’s a variant of chess, so I’m expecting to enjoy it.
3-Gatsu no Lion is awesome, it has a story beyond Shogi matches and it will be done by Shaft, so I have high hopes for it too.
That’s an interesting point about fictional sports or sports you’re unfamiliar with. What it actually gets me thinking about is Kuroko’s Basketball, which to me is more of a story about the existential crisis of high school boys than it is about basketball, which introduces this air of unnaturalness to the sport itself because of the weird complexes the players have about playing the game and playing against each other. So, in a way, all the “superpowers” and stuff in Kurobas help it achieve that sort of unfamiliar feel. Or something like that.
I think sports provides a low-stakes conflict where there has to be a winner. Romance can be similar, the stakes are relatively low, but only one pairing wins. In contrast, in a non-sports, non-romance show, it’s very hard to set up a meaningful conflict where both sides are admirable. The win-win outcome is too strong, and so deliberating snubbing that option makes the viewer dislike one side. As another side, the stakes in non-sports, non-romance usually get raised very high, so it becomes supremely important that one side wins, rather than both sides splitting the pie.
I think this is especially true for war stories. I think it is almost all but impossible to make a war story where both sides are “good”. I wrote a bit about it in the context of videogames here: The Nature of War.
To sum up, sports provides a setting for conflict between two potentially admirable sides, where only one side can win. This is actually really hard to do for non-sports genres, with only romance coming close. But in romance, the competition is indirect, and there is a third-party which actually determines victory.