March 10, 2016

Play ball!

Hollywood cranks out a big sports movie every year or two, Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid starring in about half of them. But sports is less commonly the primary focus of U.S. television series, Friday Night Lights being an exception that proves the rule.

In Japan, though, the sports drama is a hugely popular manga and anime genre (often adapted to live action). And no athletic endeavor or game gets left out.

From Captain Tsubasa (soccer) to Yawara! (judo) to Hikaru no Go (go) to Kuroko's Basketball to Free! (swimming) to Ashita no Joe (boxing) to Haikyu!! (volleyball) to Prince of Tennis to Princess Nine (baseball) to Over Drive (bicycling) and Initial D (street racing), and even Chihayafuru (the poetry-based card game of karuta).

We're barely grazing the surface. The My Anime List website dug up over 500 titles in anime alone. These series are certainly products of their times, both reflecting and arousing interest in their area of interest. As a case in point, each broadcast episode of Yawara! included a countdown to the Barcelona Olympics

Ashita no Joe debuted in 1968 and defined the boxing drama in the public imagination eight years before Rocky. In 1981, Captain Tsubasa presaged the huge popularity of soccer today. Basketball is interesting, in that Japan remains noncompetitive at the professional level outside Japan. But Kuroko's Basketball (2008) is a massive hit.

"Even if it's just for a moment,
I'm gonna burn so bright it'll dazzle everyone.
And all that'll be left is pure white ash."

If real sports don't strike your fancy, there's always Angelic Layer, a futuristic version of Rock'em Sock'em Robots. And Eureka 7, in which jet-powered hoverboarders save the planet. Bizarrely enough, Girls und Panzer somehow manages to turn armored war games into a high school extracurricular activity.

And yet no sport can match the enduring popularity of baseball. The roots of baseball's appeal in Japan go deeper than the simple cinematic appeal. Even more than home-grown sports like judo and sumo, baseball is woven into the fabric of modern Japanese society. The reason is high school. More about this next week.

Related links

Chihayafuru (CR)
Free! (Yahoo CR)
Girls und Panzer (Yahoo CR)
Hikaru no Go (Yahoo)
Haikyu!! (Yahoo CR)
Kuroko's Basketball (CR)
Princess Nine (CR)

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