The worlds of sports and anime couldn’t seem farther apart.
Sports are high-intensity, filled with emotion and praised for the camaraderie between teammates. Fans form connections with their favourite athletes, forever enshrining them as icons of the game.
On the other hand, anime is fast-paced. Whether it’s players in Kuroko’s Basketball entering “The Zone,” a state where players reach their max potential, or Hinata and Kageyama’s rapidly fast set and spike combination in the quick attack from Haikyuu!!, there’s always a move or moment that gets you jumping out of your seat. In sports-themed anime, characters experience hardships from devastating losses, continuous bumps in the road and form bonds with their teammates as they strive for glory. Lessons that run deeper than the sport itself are prevalent in these types of shows.
Maybe the worlds of sports and anime aren’t that different.
There was increase in popularity especially during the pandemic. Over 100 million households streamed at least one of Netflix’s anime titles in 2020 alone, a 50 per cent increase from 2019, according to The Economist. With the popularity of anime constantly growing, sports anime hasn’t taken a back seat either.
Comic Book Resources reported that out of the most popular mangas, Slam Dunk—a basketball manga created by Takehiro Inoue in 1990—ranks in the top 10 all-time, with over 157 million copies sold worldwide. Sports anime are remembered not only for the story, but for the characters that leave a mark on the audience.
Justin Gilbert, a third-year chemistry student at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, has been watching anime since he was in elementary school. While he started off with shonen anime, which is a genre usually catered to young males, like One Piece and Dragon Ball, he quickly moved on to the sports genre.
Gilbert says he’s watched over eight sports anime series, but the one that takes the top spot on his list is the long-time classic boxing anime Hajime no Ippo. The series follows a shy high school student named Ippo Mauknouchi who breaks out of his shell thanks to boxing.
Published in 1989, Hajime no Ippo’s manga has 133 volumes and is one of the longest ongoing series in Japan. In 2000, the manga was made into an anime. Gilbert says he enjoyed the show so much, he felt as if he could be one of the characters.
“The fights were so well drawn and animated, it had me doing the moves after each episode,” says Gilbert. “I was doing the Dempsey Roll, I thought I could do boxing [and] I thought I was Ippo.”
Gilbert also expressed his appreciation for the development of characters throughout sports anime. “[In Haikyuu!!,] Tsukishima didn’t really love volleyball, he just played it. But as the show progressed, you learned about his backstory,” explains Gilbert.
Kei Tsukishima wasn’t the type to show emotions when he was first introduced as a character, but one defining moment that came later in the anime showed how the character development in sports anime can move an audience.
In the third season of Haikyuu!!, Tsukishima and his team are playing against one of the best players in the country, Wakatoshi Ushijima. Tsukishima jumps to try and block a hit from Ushijima; which he does. It’s only one block, but immediately after, flashbacks are shown from earlier in the series which foreshadowed a moment where he’d find his passion for volleyball. In this pivotal moment, Tsukishima clenches his fists and screams “ALL RIGHT!” as he celebrates the point and his love for volleyball.
“I won’t lie, I cried when he got that block. I got emotional,” Gilbert recounts. To this day, over seven million people have watched Tsukishima’s block on Youtube.
While Gilbert isn’t an athlete himself, he was still able to find love for sports anime because of the excitement and emotions displayed within the genre. On the flip side, a pair of Rams athletes who have spent their whole lives on the court also found a connection with anime.
Liam O’Leary-Orange and Jaren Jones are both on the Rams men’s basketball team. While they’re high level athletes on the court, when they step off the hardwood, the pair can be found binge-watching anime.
“I remember when I was a little kid we had this little TV in the room and Naruto used to play on the TV,” laughs O’Leary-Orange.
O’Leary-Orange’s love for anime carried over into his adult life. Before every game, he watches an AMV, or Anime music video, to get hyped up before he gets on the court. His favourite is a fight scene from Naruto in which Guy Sensei takes on the most powerful villain in the show: Madara. Guy Sensei has to put his life on the line and open his “eight inner gates” to take on Madara. Despite being heavily overmatched, Guy Sensei risks everything for this battle.
“It shows me no matter what fight I get into on this court, no matter what battle’s in front of me, there’s a way through it,” O’Leary-Orange says.
While he admits he hasn’t watched any sports anime, he sees himself getting into the genre in the future.
“Kuroko Basketball, that's one on my watchlist,” he says. “I’ve heard so many good things about that. That’s something I love to do and love to watch mixed into one.”
“I love the concept of sports anime because it mixes two cultures together. It gives a common ground for two people that are different to share a similar passion,” O’Leary-Orange adds.
Jones says he is a huge One Piece fan. The third-year Rams guard says he is “waiting to start” watching sports anime and has Haikyuu!!, Kuroko’s Basketball and Blue Lock on his list.
“I feel with sports animes you get the fun side of competition [and] making friends, but instead of it being an adventure of fighting, it’s all [channelled] into a sport,” said Jones. “With a great storyline, good action and unpredictable twists, it makes for a fantastic story.”
Jones says that he and O’Leary-Orange aren’t the only players on the basketball team who like to watch anime. In the dressing room, some of them talk about anime for so long they end up losing track of time.
“We will get into a conversation about a show, which leads into a conversation about another show and another show—next thing you know one hour and 30 minutes go by,” Jones says. “We could’ve been home by now but the conversations were just so good.”
Since student athletes at Ryerson are in the gym or on the court for hours at a time, they don’t always get a lot of free time away from the sport. Jones enjoys having anime conversations with his teammates and not always having to talk about basketball.
“[You wouldn’t think] someone who is 6’10, a basketball player, getting all the rebounds…watches anime,” says Jones. “Anime has so many different types of fans.”