flonnebonne (flonnebonne) wrote,

Sports anime meta

I've been having a lot of meta thoughts about sports anime lately, thanks to Haikyuu!! and Yuri!!! On Ice (what is it with exclamation points in anime titles nowadays). Also Chihayafuru, which feels like a really underappreciated series grumble grumble.

Anyway, today I want to talk about the idea of "Real Life" in sports anime and manga. Ha ha. I'm going to identify some series that are so focused on sports that they are almost escapist, and then sports series that have a lot of Life in them, and then I'm going to talk about how some sports series let you escape for a while and then inject a dose of Life in them through what I call "Life Intrusion Moments." And then I'm going to relate this to other genres, and to writing in general. 

Note: I haven't done enough research to write a real essay here, and I'm going to only cut out the worst spoilers, so yeah, this bit of meta will mainly be for me me me me me. Also, I've never seen some of the really important sports series out there (like most of Eyeshield 21, Hajime no Ippo, and pretty much all of the baseball and soccer ones, yikes), and I haven't seen any series with female stars, so this is going to necessarily be a limited analysis of whatever I feel like and know. Wah. 

Series That Are All About "Sports"

I put "sports" in quotation marks because the degree of sportistic (lol not a real word) realism is often quite low haha. 
If we take Inoue Takehiko's Slam Dunk to be the prototypical (and indeed seminal) sports manga/anime series, the main focus should be on the sport itself, and usually on (a) taking the team to nationals, and (b) maybe actually winning at nationals, if the mangaka doesn't keel over by the time the series gets itself that far. Haikyuu!! so far hews to this model to a tee. (Hell, the whole Nishinoya/Asahi introduction sequence sure feels like an homage to Slam Dunk's Miyagi/Mitsui intro sequence, down to the broken mop.) 

The prototypical sports series makes sure to focus on sports action, with lots of practice, games, and just the right amount of technical explanation to make me feel like I'm learning something. (And I am! Learning something! But if I talk to someone who actually plays the sport I realize I know very little.) The goal of winning at the chosen sport is paramount--there is very little talk of, say, trying to balance all those hours and hours of sports practice with, you know, homework and studying. There's often a one-off cram-for-tests panic-attack episode ("AAAHHH WE ARE FAILING ALL OUR SUBJECTS BECAUSE WE ARE DUMB JOCKS!!!"), but it's only one episode and the main reason the dumb jocks want to pass their tests is so they can play in the upcoming tournament anyway. Lololol those silly kids. 

In a sense, the prototypical sports series is almost pure escapism, especially if you are a couch potato who doesn't play sports like me. The goal is simple and measurable (WIN!!!), and there is very little to distract from that goal. "Life" stuff is downplayed, or only thrown in there as a catalyst for sports development. Best example of this that I know is Haruko in Slam Dunk; she is there to give Sakuragi an entry into basketball, more a symbol than a truly fleshed-out character, and the way she hangs around without developing much as her own character is kind of painfully obvious after a while and a little sad. Females in general usually get about this much to do in male-oriented sports series. What can I say, except "Thanks a lot, Inoue" *cough*. I'm sure there are plenty of hardworking Soccer Moms in Japan, and they are making mega-awesome bentou boxes and driving their kids to games at 6:00am and stuff, but they are just not very important in anime. It is the male' protagonist's hard work and suffering that are emphasized; look at how Hinata in Haikyuu!! and Onoda in Yowamushi Pedal bike themselves so far to school (or Akibahara) themselves every day, so amazing! And while it's true kids do get around themselves a lot in Japan based on what I've seen, the sheer lack of parental presence at games and whatnot seems pretty unreal. It's a kids' world, and adults who aren't coaches would be an uncomfortable reminder of the annoying aspects of sports, like logistics, money, clashes about priorities...homework.  

I may sound like I am totally slamming (lol) the Slam Dunkian (lol) formula, but honestly I love it to death *more coughing*. I have to confess, even the erasure of females doesn't bother me as much as it should because it means I don't have to deal with badly done romantic subplots very often. It's not that I dislike romance, but I don't trust most shounen sports writers to handle it well (the author of Chihayafuru though? Go for it.) And it's not as if sports-myopic series are completely unrelated to life; rather, the sport just becomes an implicit metaphor for life. Try hard, believe in yourself, believe in your friends, etc. are all good lessons for life in general, right?  

I should mention Prince of Tennis here, which takes the idea of sports as escape and absolutely nails it...to a magical rainbow Jesus cross. It's as if Konomi and especially the writers of the anime realize that the sports series formula doesn't actually rely on sports so much as it relies on simplicity, fantasy, and escape. Ridiculous escape. Even the goal of winning at Nationals becomes secondary to just messing around with magical tennis whatsit. The only future that exists is a beautiful tennis future. What more could a young man want? Even Yukimura's deathly disease and Tezuka's tennis elbow and the various minor injuries that everyone else gets are really just minor distractions from tennis that can (and must!!) be overcome so that Seigaku can eventually win at Nationals and fight bears and dinosaurs and stuff. There's a life lesson in there too...somewhere...about the idea of joy being more important than anything else, and maybe that's really the best thing about PoT. I think. Maybe. 

Man, any kind of discussion of anything just goes absolutely off the rails as soon as PoT gets introduced. Let's move on before I start yelling out random fake tennis moves and pooh-poohing poor Leyton Hewitt. 

A Mix of Sports & Life

On the flip side of the sports series equation are series in which Life features heavily.

There are some series, like Yuri!!! On Ice and Free!, which are an almost equal blend of sports and life stuff--career decisions and (sublimated) love and such weigh heavily on the characters. While sports are primary and important to the series, it's clear that there is a scary Real World out there that the characters will have to face once their current sport dream is done with. These are the kind of series that my male cousins all go "bleagh!" at because the characters get all "emotional" about...stuff. Not just about life, but about sports too, because sports=part of the grand fabric of life. We see Katsuki Yuuri in Yuri!!! On Ice depressed and anxious and in love, and it severely impacts his skating--in fact, "love" is explicitly the theme of his skating. We see Nanase Haruka in Free! freaking out and refusing to swim because he is overwhelmed by thoughts of the future. Instead of sports being a vague metaphor for life, Life itself takes centre stage, and dealing with it is absolutely necessary for success in sports. 

I'm going to call these kinds of shows "Life/Sports series," and I hope there are more of them in the future, and more kinds. I'll name a few that I know below: 

Ping Pong the Animation veers in that direction; like Yuri!!! On Ice, the main characters are older, and while the ostensible goal is still winning winning winning, the end point is not actually just about winning winning winning. The emotional wavelength is still kind of narrow, however; and by that I mean "macho."  

Rumiko Takahashi's boxing manga One-Pound Gospel is definitely in this category; it's got sport, romance, comedy, and a bit of religion in there too. Never really got popular though, and like many of Takahashi's series it arguably never drills quite deep enough for a lot of people. 

Kuroko no Basket sure looks a lot like it wants to be Slam Dunk, and it does follow the road-to-Nationals model very closely, but beneath that it is actually a redemption/revenge story. Which is why, I think, my male cousins complain about it being too "emotional." Besides that, apparently Fujimaki doesn't actually understand basketball all that well, which I can see pissing a lot of people off XD KnB is clearly the successor to PoT in many ways (i.e. it's a magical girl series disguised as a sports series), and it does mostly belong in the "Sports-obsessed" genre rather than the "Life/Sports" genre, but it has just enough "life stuff" (Kuroko's depression) to make me mention it down here.

Hikaru no Go and Chihayafuru, which are both based on games rather than sports, both have a beautiful doses of life problems in them. Parents feature heavily, and homework, entrance exams, and graduation are major events. The kids grow up and mature like crazy. In Chihayafuru, romance impacts sports performance heavily. In fact, Life generally impacts sports heavily. I'll talk more about this below. 

In some (but not all) series like these, the actual nitty-gritty of sports is glossed over: there's some practice, a few games, some minor technical explanations--but these are not focussed on as heavily as in other series (Hikaru no Go and Chihayafuru are definitely exceptions). After watching Yuri!!! On Ice and Free!, I felt like I actually learned only a little about figure skating and swimming, but I learned a lot more about love and depression and anxiety and other "soft" themes like that. In a way, these kind of series don't interest me as much because, well, there are other places to learn about love and depression and anxiety, and I'm here for sports, ain't I? Not that there's anything wrong with the life/sport model of Yuri!!! On Ice and Free!, which are, in a way, more emotionally healthy and instructive than the escapist pure-sport model. I do kind of wish my male cousins wouldn't be such guys about life/sports series like these (they don't even complain to me about the female-oriented fan service--they complain about the emotions! Geez). But at the same time I understand why they get annoyed. It's as if...the creators didn't do quite enough research on the sports themselves, or don't have enough firsthand knowledge to feel comfortable with focusing heavily on the technical stuff. Kuroko no Basket sure seems like that at times because of the way it rips off scenes from Slam Dunk. (see also https://matome.naver.jp/odai/2142102965932416001 for reference, which is in Japanese but you can understand a lot just by looking at the screenshots). 

One way, I think, for Sports/Life series becoming more popular is to do make sure to a good job with the technical details of sport; it's hard for me to really enjoy Yuri!!! On Ice and Free! in the same way I enjoy the pure-sports series when I don't feel like I'm learning much about actual sports from them. Also, more budget would help. I would also like to see Yuuri practice his quadruple salchow instead of magically learning it off-screen  -_-

And now I'll move on to my last, and favourite section, which takes elements of the above two genres and makes them awesome

The "Life Intrusion Moment" 

This last section is not about a genre, really, but about a technique that some sports series use. I'll call it the "Life Intrusion Moment." It's when a character is going along on their sports-related quest yay yay no probs and then BAM life hits! and their course is screwed up and they have to deal with it and I melt into a puddle of goo as I watch them struggle. Here are some effective examples: 

Slam Dunk: Mitsui's injury and descent into delinquency. Oh my god, Mitsui. No sports series does an injury better than this one. 

Hikaru no Go does it best, and it does it at all the right times: Hikaru having to leave the Haze Go Club...Touya Kouyo's heart attack...and of course the whole Sai saga sob sob. 

Chihayafuru is still ongoing, and I don't want to spoil it for those who have only watched the anime, but...well, you'll know the Life Intrusion Moment when you get there. See Chapter 137 onward. It is gut-wrenching awful and beautiful and...in many ways absolutely ordinary too. It's Life. There are also a couple pregnancies in later chapters that are done very well (not the high schoolers!). 

Prince of Tennis: Tezuka's injury counts. As much as the series goes into craaaaaazy psychedelic la la land after buchou leaves, that moment at the end of the Hyoutei arc is epic and you at least think it's going to be earth-shattering to the team and the  (and it is earth-shattering, but not in the way you think. Just earth-shattering for the dinosaurs). Secondly, I think Echizen's departure at the end of the regular anime series also counts, as ridiculous as it is? The ubiquitous airplanes overhead throughout the series foreshadow the event enough that it isn't out of nowhere. Just ignore the unexplained retcon in the OVAs. 

Kuroko no Basket: the Generation of Miracles throwing away the idea of teamwork and good sportsmanship in the Teikou arc. It works because the whole series is built around it. Nijimura's dad being sick is...an okay Life Intrusion Moment because it directly catalyzes the Generation of Miracle's descent, even though Nijimura's dad isn't connected to anything else.  

Ace of Diamond: Sawamura's yips. The coaching situation (although that one kind of piffles).

And here are some ineffective Life Intrusion Moments, in my opinion: 

Slam Dunk: Miyagi's suspension. This is mostly just a plot device to delay his entry into the series and to introduce Mitsui's more epic Life Problems. The suspension is almost never mentioned again, and Miyagi and Mitsui strangely don't show any animosity toward each other after they've both rejoined the team, despite how much Mitsui screwed up Miyagi's life. 

Haikyuu!!: Nishinoya and Asahi's thingy is a tepid rehash of the Miyagi/Mitsui entrance. Again, the relationship consequences are minor. 

Prince of Tennis: Yukimura's disease. This one is debatable, but it feels like such a plot device. Yukimura comes back and he is 100% fine. No consequences. 

Chihayafuru: Arata's grandpa. The event itself is fine, but it's almost never mentioned later on, and Arata doesn't seem to be as traumatized as he should be. Compare this to Touya Kouyo's heart attack in Hikaru no Go, which is a major world-altering event in so many ways. 

Yuri!!! On Ice: Victor's dog gets sick. Victor goes home to look after it, and Yakov is supposedly Yuri's coach in the meantime (not really). Victor and Yuri reunite and the dog is fine. The reunion scene is touching, but...the meaning of switching coaches is kind of glossed over? I really wanted Yakov to say or do something deeply meaningful here, and he didn't. 

Almost every sports series ever: Injuries that are played up for drama and which never bother the characters again. Really? Too much of this starts to feel like cheap drama. 

So, obvious plot devices suck, but what makes them obvious plot devices? Lack of consequence is the most important thing, as I've mentioned above. If the plot device didn't create lasting change, then what was the point, other than convenience for the author?

The other thing is that a good "Life Intrusion Moment" ought to be deeply intertwined with the character's development. And in a sports series, that generally means intertwined with sport.

Mitsui's injury, Touya Kouyo's heart attack and subsequent retirement, the Sai saga (sob sob), Chihayafuru Ch. 173, Tezuka's injury, Echizen's departure, the Generation of Miracles betraying themselves...these were all events that not only changed the course of the characters' lives, but also changed the course of their development in sport. Even in a ridiculous escapist fantasy version of a sport (Pot, KnB), you've gotta make me buy into it. The Life Intrusion Events in PoT honestly moved me...because they hit at the core of the series, at Seigaku's solidarity, and it was tennis that did it. The irony! If Echizen's cat had died or something it wouldn't be quite the same.

Some series do a much better job of preparing us for the big Life Intrusion Moment, especially Chihayafuru and Hikaru no Go, which basically spend the whole series doing that. They also put the big Life Intrusion Moments in the middle of the series, so we do have to deal with the consequences of them, which are shockingly wide-ranging and life-changing. So even though the Life Intrusion is so heavily foreshadowed, there are still plenty of surprises in the aftermath. It's as if the authors thought, "How can I make this as wonderfully awful as possible for my protagonist and readers for a long time?

"...and then eventually lift them out of the awfulness with an amazing life-affirming message about sports and life???" 

(Compare this to PoT, which puts Echizen's departure at the end of the series and resolutely does NOT deal with it in the following OVAs.) 

Hikaru no Go's biggest Life Intrusion Momenet is so powerful that, even though it's centered on a board game I barely understand, it has given me comfort in my own life. In particular, it has helped me grapple with ideas about death and mortality and what we are here to do--and the idea of suffering, especially, because the fact that someone was able to write such a powerful representation of a kid's pain has made me realize that we all suffer, we all experience terrible loss, and I'm not alone as long as I remember that I'm not alone. (My personal take on the story, anyway.) It takes me out of the escapist model of most sports series and forces me to care harder, to not run away; and that is something quite amazing when really I am mostly watching sports anime specifically to relax and run away :D This is what your English teacher might call "theme." 

(I'm still waiting to see how Chihayafuru defines its main theme in the end, but I have every confidence that Suetsugu-sensei will do it well.) 

This section got really long, huh? To sum up the past few rambly paragraphs, Life Intrusion Moments work in sports series when they: 
a) have lasting consequences 
b) are intertwined with the sport
c) create a powerful message that we can take into our own lives

What I personally like about the Life Intrusion Moment model is that you can keep your sports escapist fantasy most of the time, and then deal with Life just every now and then. That's about as much drama as I want in my happy happy sports fantasy life la la la.  

Other Genres and Writing Advice for Myself

Let's think for a moment about the Toy Story movies. Most of the time in those movies is spent having zany toy adventures. And then once in a while Pixar pulls out their magical sad-scene-making machine and make you bawl like a baby. Those are Life Intrusion Moments. And the reason those moments work so well, in part, is because they are so closely tied to the idea of toys: themes of growing up, abandoning childhood things, irrevocable loss.

And then we're back to zany toy adventures! 

I think I love the Toy Story movies (and Pixar's movies in general) because they know not to hit you with Life themes all the time. That's the kind of story I like best, I think. And the kind of story I would like to write if I ever get around to writing a novel.   

So here are a few reminders for myself:
a) Write like you're writing Toy Story (there's enough Life in there to make you cry) and not Cars (joyless gimmicky piffle)
b) Don't write stories with unrelenting Life stuff (I'm thinking...Rent?). You don't like that kind of story. Relax! 
c) Don't use a female figure as the sole representative of Life. Too many stories do this. Haruko in Slam Dunk and Kiyoko in Haikyuu!! and Mamori in Eyeshield 21. Liv Tyler in Armageddon. Yuck. Do something else. But don't just erase females as the solution. You are guilty of that sometimes. 
d) Set up Life Intrusion Moments properly, with foreshadowing and symbolism and stuff.
e) Watch more sports series for "research" purposes *cough*  

This entry was originally posted at http://flonnebonne.dreamwidth.org/101263.html. Comment here or there - it's all good.
Tags: ace of diamond, chihayafuru, free, haikyuu, hikaru no go, kuroko no basket, prince of tennis, slam dunk, writing, yuri on ice

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