Sports have never been my forte either in real life or in my viewing preferences, but I do tend to have one or two a year that I end up enjoying. That’s how I’ve found some favorites like the baseball anime Cross Game. This year, however, there was a torrential downpour of sports anime. I ended up watching much more than I have ever before within a year. Below are my choices, some of which are still airing.
There aren’t too many bicycle shows out there; another that jumps to mind is Over Drive which came out back in 2007. Yowamushi Pedal starts deceptively like some kind of slice-of-life school show, with the anime-loving Onoda as the centerpiece. He rides a too-small bicycle with a basket in front that perfectly holds his Akihabara purchases. He makes the trek to otaku paradise regularly–distance and elevation are no roadblocks. Then comes his immersion into the cycling club and all its road racing glory, and we leap from relaxing school life to stereotypical sports anime. Every yard seemingly takes forever on the screen, and the same race can go on for half a cours, or even the entire season. The first season, which started in 2013 and overlapped into the summer of 2014, spent much more time focusing on the main team’s characters and histories, both individually and as a group. The second, currently airing, season, focuses solely on the Inter-High, specifically days 2 and 3. The anime stretches out each phase by dramatizing the cyclists’ decisions and throwing in flashbacks and back stories for Sohoku’s rivals.
As great as it has been to keep up with Onoda and watch him grow stronger, it has also been incredibly frustrating dealing with the usual setbacks of sports anime. Each race is plagued with back story and colorful new rivals–some of whom have pathetic motivation (Machimiya) and others whose sympathetic reasons come much too late (Midosuji). Watching the teamwork and rivalry between Sohoku and Hakone is always a treat, and I’ve found a new favorite in Arakita. His reluctant hero role makes for a great mix with that yankee personality and inner tsundere. I was sad to see his role fulfilled on day three of Inter-high, but am pumped to see who will roll through the finish line first.
Diamond no Ace
Another long-running show, Diamond no Ace, features Japan’s favorite past time: baseball. Sawamura Eijun is a freshman drafted into Seidou’s team, a giant among giants biting at the bit to once again play at the Koshien, the national pinnacle of high school baseball. He imagines himself as one day wearing the ace’s jersey on the pitcher’s mound, but he has quite the distance to go before that dream is realized. What I love about this show is that it takes the slow and steady route to Eijun’s growth without dropping in non-relevant back stories and recaps. Eijun is appropriately surrounded by a mixture of talent. However, he never loses his determination and positive outlook–characteristics that have repeatedly helped keep up the spirits of his teammates in the most stifling of situations.
I’m always amused by how wrapped up I get in anime baseball when the real sport itself bores me like none other (besides maybe curling). Each pitch, each glance between players, each drop of sweat rolling down a cheek has me on the edge of my seat and anticipating the next upset. Of particular interest is Eijun’s evolution as a pitcher. With his strengthened stance and endurance, along with his natural flexibility, he has some amazing weapons to use against other Koshien contenders. The recent acquisition of the crossfire pitch to his breaking ball and “fast ball” is an awesome development at Seidou’s current standing as runner-ups to Nationals. I can’t imagine them not winning given the build up of the episodes thus far, but also wouldn’t put it past Inashiro and their ace pitcher Narumiya to throw me for a loop and send Seidou back to the drawing board.
This spring-fall show was probably the most surprising addition to my sports anime this year given the sport and title. I’ve never been well versed in tennis–no one really plays it in Alaska where I grew up, and I don’t recall ever being taught it in gym as a kid. Sure, I watched it on television occasionally, and know of the Williams sisters, but wasn’t interested in watching robust players bouncing across a court and grunting with each swing. When I first noticed Baby Steps, I imagined the pacing to reflect the title–extremely slow and full of trips and falls. But I gave it a try since a blogger I respect was excited for it given his familiarity with the manga, and I ended up really “getting” the main character, Maruo Eiichirou. Like him, I was diligent in my studies and took copious and detailed notes. Unlike him, I had plenty of hobbies to distract me outside of school. When he discovers tennis and becomes impassioned in pursuing it, he ends up applying his school note habit to tennis as well. Notebooks certainly have their place among athletes; I’m accustomed to seeing people in the gym with mini notepads scribbling out their goals, routines, and numbers. Maruo takes it further with actual paragraph entries describing his practices and matches, and draws diagrams of his ball’s movements, as well as those of his opponents. I never realized how much of a treasure excellent eye sight is for tennis. Once Maruo’s physical strength catches up to his eyesight, he becomes a formidable foe in a short amount of time. The title may be “Baby Steps”, but the truth is that Maruo’s studious nature and persistence have pushed him leaps and bounds beyond the progress of the average person.
I wasn’t all too surprised when the main character made the decision to try becoming a professional athlete, despite his short time playing the sport. As is pointed out in the show, it’s not uncommon for some of the top athletes to have started later than others who had started training from childhood. Beginning at an older age, players already see a mountain ahead. By overcoming it along with their own inferiority complexes from longer-running rivals, they are more mentally prepared to do whatever it takes to stay at the top. I would really like to see a sequel for this show as rumored, where Maruo graduates high school and travels internationally as a professional tennis player.
Of all the ones on this list, Haikyuu!! had the most consistent and pleasurable art and animation, which isn’t a surprise due to the company who produced it, Production IG. The set up and characters were simple, and the story stereotypical to high school sports shows, but it was easy to tell from a glance the time and attention that were heaped upon the anime. What could have easily been a mediocre sports show turned into one of the best and the most visually engaging of the year. Another contribution to the fun of this show is its main duo, Hinata and Kageyama (picture above). They’re strong characters on their own, who can clash easily with others in both personality and skill. Hinata’s speed is hampered by his simple attacks and lack of overall volleyball knowledge. Kageyama’s god-like setting fails to assess the needs of the teammates around him. Tossing the two together makes for an obvious crash of flavors. But as is wont with these types of series, Hinata and Kageyama come to an understanding and are able to adapt and combine their specialties for some truly deadly attacks.
Another aspect about this show was its equal time spent on the other team members of Karasuno. All too often, sports shows blur out the faces of teammates other than the main handful of players. Haikyuu!! chooses to elaborate upon the personalities and positions of not only the main team, but also of the second string, coach, manager, and mentors. Karasuno became more of a family than a team, and their losses resounded more strongly with me than they might have otherwise. Unfortunately, I do not believe a continuation has been announced as of yet.
Free!: Eternal Summer
This second season of Free! began airing shortly after my Japan trip last summer. I had also visited Kyoto Animation during my stay, where I saw plenty of merchandise promoting the show and hyping me up for the follow-up of everyone’s favorite swimmers. Once I was back home and finally watching the sequel, my excitement abated a bit and I was reminded of how non-competitive the series actually is. Instead of focusing mostly on rivals and battles, our characters instead have worries like graduation and future careers or colleges. The seemingly unbeatable Haruka stumbles both in his definition of “free” and his performance in the water. The painful protest looks like a bird whose wings are clipped, only it’s Haruka himself who has thrown up the barrier that prevents him from taking flight.
Free! would rival Haikyuu!! for art if only our swimmers were actually swimming, since the water scenes were beautifully drawn and stylized. However, we spent more time out of water agonizing over dreams and poor grades than swimming laps. While I appreciated the development of some of my preferred characters, like Makoto and Rei, I could have gone without Sousuke’s role in the series, as well as Haruka’s early mid-life crisis. They actually detracted from the movement of the story and swim scenes. Give me muscles! Give me water!
Kuroko no Basket 2
They might look more like college students than high schoolers, but Kuroko and his teammates always promise a thrilling ride on the basketball court. This sequel was no exception, as we were treated to further head-on collisions with other members of the Generation of Miracles and in-the-zone feats of impossibility. See those funny bright lines coming out of Aomine and Kagami’s eyes? That’s them being in the zone and surpassing all barriers of normalcy. Forget realism; Kuroko no Basket has never been about honestly portraying basketball. It’s about teamwork, competition, and defeating the undefeatable. It’s about ridiculously high walls, and the equally ridiculous measures taken to jump, climb, or break down those walls. Kuroko no Basket is all about entertaining its players and viewers, and succeeds in doing so.
Whereas many of the yards in YowaPeda drag on depending on the character under spotlight at a specific moment, I can’t recall any minute of Seirin’s matches frustrating me where I’d wish we could just skip to the end of the game. There are plenty of back stories told, but I found them smartly placed in the grand scheme of the Winter Cup’s progression. I am disappointed that we don’t actually get to see the result of this inter-high, but there’s already a third season slotted for the audience to look forward to.
I’m quite the avid sportswoman when watching anime, and each of the six shows above had me deluded for a short time that I actually understood and cared about the displayed sports. I now have no hesitation in trying out these types of shows, so if you have some suggestions for others that I should try, please do throw them down!