Breaking into the zone

The shonen genre has always been one with the greatest impact; of the &ldquo;Big Three&rdquo; (<em>Bleach</em>, <em>Naruto</em>, <em>One Piece</em>), all three are of the same genre that is aimed at boys and has stayed in the fandom consciousness for years. There&rsquo;s clearly a winning formula when you combine that with sports. Told through characters that rely on strength, friendship, and the fighting spirit, the shonen (and shoujo) sports sub-genre is what really shows each sport off to a wider audience. Dream, train, fight!

Why bother with sports anime when you can watch &ldquo;real sports&rdquo;? There are clearly some similarities in teamwork and strategy, but anime allows for several other aspects of sports to come through. Friendships, rivalries, and training are just as important as the &ldquo;winning&rdquo; aspect, but there&rsquo;s so much to be learned in the anime of the show. There&rsquo;s a long history of sports stories over the years that have influenced the actual sport&rsquo;s popularity.

It sure won&rsquo;t replace you watching the NBA at home, but as a way to introduce anime to a uninitiated sports-minded audience, sports anime is great. <em>Captain Tsubasa</em> is one significant cultural anime, which inspired a number of future soccer stars (ex. Hidetoshi Nakata, Fernando Torres). The creator, Takahashi Yoichi, grew up with <em>Star of the Giants</em> and <em>Tomorrow&rsquo;s Joe</em>; the creator&rsquo;s love and interest in soccer was born after watching the 1978 Argentina World Cup.

It&rsquo;s nearly impossible to think about basketball anime without mentioning the game-changing <em>Slam Dunk</em>, but I&rsquo;m here to recommend <em>Kuroko&rsquo;s Basketball</em>. <em>KnB </em>follows Kuroko Tetsuya, known as the phantom sixth man, who joins a little known high school team in order to beat his former teammates in his &ldquo;teamwork&rdquo; style of basketball. There are some techniques you might think are completely OP and implausible, but people have actually have made mash-up up vids comparing Taiga&rsquo;s Meteor Jam to Dwight Howard&rsquo;s Superman dunk, Jason Williams&rsquo; passing skills to Kuroko&rsquo;s abilities, and &ldquo;in the zone&rdquo; face-offs. Basketball is about testing human limits, and <em>KnB</em> really does show this off, though you&rsquo;ll need a healthy amount of &ldquo;suspension of disbelief,&rdquo; and to be prepared for lots of mid-play internal monologues. This has the strongest &ldquo;shonen formula&rdquo; feeling to it, but it&rsquo;s by far my favourite because of good pacing and depiction of action.

What happens when Tobio &ldquo;King of the Court&rdquo; Kageyama and Shoyo Hinata end up at the same high school, despite declaring their rivalry the year before? If you don&rsquo;t understand a lot about volleyball strategy, <em>Haikyuu!!</em> is a great show that shows different techniques and what each position is for without making it into a giant info-dump. It avoids long matches and having episodes drag just to hit the cliffhanger at the end. <em>Haikyuu!! </em>strikes the balance between team-building and volleyball action, and stands somewhere in the middle, as &ldquo;winning&rdquo; is important, but it&rsquo;s not the ultimate emphasis of the show. It, too, follows the shonen sports formula, but it&rsquo;s well hidden, and you get really attached to each character.

One show that doesn&rsquo;t have the shonen sports formula as the strongest thread is <em>Free! Iwatobi Swim Club</em>. <em>Free!</em> came crashing into the anime fandom in the form of a commercial, and later emerged a full two seasons of beautifully animated and feel-inducing competitive swimming. The difference is that <em>Free! </em>doesn&rsquo;t even try to be a shonen series &mdash; it&rsquo;s a sports show with more emphasis on the relationships built through swimming. Training and competition seem secondary to the friend drama/rivalries, as well as one of the few shows in recent memory that went all in for fanservice aimed at girls and women. The final race in the first season definitely fit with the theme of <em>Free!</em>, as the ultimate winner was secondary to resolving the conflict. <em>KnB</em>, <em>Haikyuu!!</em>, and <em>Free!</em> are all a lot more accessible, as some older sports shows tend to drag or the animation style hasn&rsquo;t aged well.

Shoujo does have its share of sports series, from the <em>Crimson Hero </em>manga and the intense karuta competitions of <em>Chihayafuru</em>. Wataru Watanabe, of <em>Yowapeda</em>, in one of his extra comics had originally envisioned a female lead for his cycling comic, but changed it based on his editor&rsquo;s suggestion. There&rsquo;s a huge shortage of sports anime with female leads that get localized...there&rsquo;s definitely a variety of sports: <em>Gokuraku Seishun Hockey Club</em>, <em>Yawara!</em> (judo) and no shortage of stories based on figure skating (<em>Sugar Princess</em>, <em>Ginban Kaleidoscope</em>), but none really reach the same popularity as any of shonen sports shows mentioned before. Not every show with a female lead needs to include romantic elements as the main scaffold, like <em>Bamboo Blade</em>, or even airsoft-centred <em>Stella Women&rsquo;s Academy</em>, <em>High School Division Class C&sup3;</em>. SJ Alpha recently brought over lacrosse title <em>Cross Manage</em>, though I have yet to check that out.

I&rsquo;m sure I won&rsquo;t sway you if pure sports are your thing, but the best thing about sports anime is catching a glimpse of the &ldquo;heart&rdquo; of an athlete; why people play the game they love and what drives them to be better. Animation and comics are two mediums that lend themselves really well to show speed, action, and mental processing of athletes. The build-up from character motivations, training, and setbacks is equal to the amount of time spent on depicting animated on-screen matches.