Over the past few months we’ve seen a lot of major sports events come and go such as the World Cup and the Pyeongchang Olympics, both of which saw some really incredible results! As I watched these events, I started to wonder how sports are treated in anime. What makes it tick? How does each show differ? Let’s find out! This post has been a long time in the making and will definitely result in more articles like it focusing on other sports anime, but for now I want to look at two giants of the genre: Kuroko no Basuke and Haikyuu!!
I feel like sports anime gets a ton of hype but not a lot of analysis, which is too bad since it has so much to look at. To start off, let me address some basics of sports anime. In shows like these, the protagonist will usually be a talented individual who joins a sports club (usually competitive) and through the sport, develops skills that help them become a better person, develop friendships, and ultimately achieve their goals. Most sports anime revolve around the concept of a high school first year working their way up the ranks in their team while the team competes against other schools in order to make it to nationals. Very few team sports anime stray from this basic structure, so that is why team sports is a good thing to talk about first! Sports anime uses hype to a degree that is almost absurd, and it has its own set of tropes like the tragic injury, the transfer student, the distant senpai, the foreign student that’s better than everyone else, and of course, a healthy amount of dramatic tension in the team’s friendships. (As well as a strange fixation with cold treats and convenience stores!).
Haikyuu!!: Reaching for the Future
As a sports anime, Haikyuu!! does something that I rarely see in shows of its type; it really stresses the training required for the characters to improve. The progression of characters getting better and better at their sport is a great strategy to track the characters’ development on a physical and emotional level. Several training camps are used as arcs in the show and this allows the characters to not only grow as a team, but also to grow in their relationships with other schools. Character becomes extremely important in Haikyuu!!, since it is these relationships they develop that lead to their knowledge of their opponent’s playing style.
Sports anime tends to over-analyze each move, setting up stories and stakes for a game that exceed their importance in real life. Many of Haikyuu!!’s episodes are entirely backstory to a single move or event in a game. Because the audience can track Karasuno’s progress as a team in real time through each episode, the stakes build and the payoff becomes more rewarding. Interestingly, having characters start from rock bottom and building them up makes the earlier episodes harder to rewatch because of just how inexperienced the team is at the start. In a way, using a formula that encourages characters to climb the power ladder also encourages viewers to continue watching the show.
As a sports anime, Haikyuu!! uses its characters as extensions of the positions they play in volleyball. For example, Nishinoya is the libero not only in the game, but as a character as well. He is flexible, aware, and a quick thinker. This defines his personality as well as his athletic abilities. Likewise, Kageyama is a setter both in and outside of volleyball due to his drive and perfectionist attitude. And Tsukishima is a good blocker not only because of his height and how he uses it on the court, but also how he struggles to let his guard down and open up to others. How the characters are handled helps extend the world of volleyball into Karasuno’s everyday lives. Of course, daily life is not the focus of Haikyuu!!, but their team dynamic is shown to exist in a form that is not restricted to playing volleyball.
Another thing to note about how Haikyuu!! structures itself is through the actual gameplay of volleyball, which is a part of this article that I am most interested in for both this show and KNB. In volleyball, teams are divided by a net. The most contact they will have with each other is through the ball, and occasional physical contact at the net while blocking spikes and serves. I find this interesting because in creating a gap in how the characters interact, the volleyball court also changes how the characters demonstrate strength, how they overcome obstacles, and how they perceive success. Because the net separates the two teams, volleyball told by Haikyuu!! involves the characters predicting and incorporating combination moves to secure a point. Each of the techniques they use on the court are designed to hit from a longer range. This impacts the hierarchy of characters since contact from far away (such as the aces’ serves) are seen as supernatural. The animation even illustrates power in this sense! Extremely powerful moves are animated in a streaky, heavier style which places more power in the player.
KNB: Reconciling the Past
KNB is one of the shows that helped sports anime gain mass popularity in recent years. Its hype and incredible drive mixed with distinct characters made it a huge success. The show focuses on a group of basketball-playing prodigies who were nicknamed the Generation of Miracles in middle school. Rather than following their games and adventures, KNB follows the story of Kuroko, an invisible but key player in the Generation of Miracles’ success. Each member of the group went to a different high school and pursued their own path. Right away, Kuroko’s journey in basketball is attached to the chance to play against his former teammates, creating an opportunity for Kuroko to develop friendships with them rather than continue to treat them as rivals or simply players in a game.
Right away, there is a difference between how KNB and Haikyuu!! introduce their protagonists. Hinata and Kageyama are looking to build up their experiences to succeed in volleyball, while Kuroko and Kagami aim to reconcile their pasts through playing basketball. In both instances, the sport is what connects the players to each other and helps them vent their emotional frustrations. The sport can be seen as a vessel through which characters can interact. There is no bonding in sports anime that doesn’t involve the sport in question. Whether emotional (such as characters experiencing a strain in friendships) or physical (characters facing the strength of their opponent), the sport in question ties all of the narrative together. KNB uses this weaving more literally since Kuroko is defined by his seamless passing on the court, which brings his team closer and makes his rivals even more determined to win.
Another thing that KNB does differently from Haikyuu!! is how it views power and success in the game. While Haikyuu!! focused on characters improving over time, KNB on the other hand, does the exact opposite. The protagonist is an already confirmed prodigy with unexplained skills, surrounded by teammates who are similarly proportioned. The Generation of Miracles is an impossible threshold to cross from the start, and as more characters are introduced, the level of hype seems to lose the characters in its noise. I found KNB difficult to watch because of how overpowered characters became with no room to breathe. Although sports anime does exaggerate abilities for effect, I found that the talent of the Generation of Miracles pushed too far and broke immersion. I couldn’t find myself rooting for any of the characters because they seemed impossibly perfect. There was no challenge that they could not handle.
KNB’s overpowered characters may also have something to do with how the sport is mapped out in its narrative. Haikyuu!! used volleyball’s setup to introduce techniques and talent in a way that made breaching the net the ultimate show of power. In KNB, there is nothing separating players from each other. As a more aggressive, contact sport, basketball relies on physical strength more than mind games, though KNB does have its fair share of those too. The overpowered talents of the Generation of Miracles can be slightly understood here, though I would argue a more effective way of displaying the need for strength would be showing weakness occasionally in those that seemed untouchable. Kuroko is an interesting exception in this strategy because he is smaller and quicker than the average player, allowing him to weave between players almost invisibly and mastering the art of passing the ball instead of commanding it. Unfortunately, KNB does not always use this unique character to its advantage and prefers to ramp up the stakes to a ridiculous height. Most of the characters in KNB are only tropes and don’t get much opportunity for be more fleshed out. Although a character’s personality should reflect their position in their sport, KNB seems to use that as the only source of personality.
Wrapping it Up
I hope that I was able to raise some good points in this article as well as bring attention to some ways of looking at the sports anime. For such a booming genre, it really could stand to have some critical eyes on it! By looking at Haikyuu!! and KNB, it’s possible to see how character, power dynamics and sport structure differ depending on what the sport is and how the show accommodates that. Of course, I only scratched the surface of these shows since it’s extremely difficult to do a detailed post about multiple shows with over 3 seasons each.
While these two shows are by no means the only sports anime out there, comparing them was a helpful way for me to make a bit more sense of the genre. Hopefully I can continue talking about sports anime using other shows in the future, such as individual or performance sports, and get a bit more out of this hype-filled, melodramatic genre!