I love sports. It wasn’t always this way, but I love them now. Watching the Bears disappoint on Sundays or Iowa State lose on Saturdays can be the highlights of my weekend because sports is really, really weird. I can follow six months and 162 games of the White Sox mostly losing and still have my spirits up for next year. I can also watch Iowa State basketball have single digit losses on the year, miraculously win the Big 12 title, and experience crushing defeat in the NCAA tournament and still love them with all of my heart. Sports isn’t about wins and losses, it’s about the love of the game and the team.
What got me here? Sports anime. I grew up watching the big shonen stuff—Toonami fare like Dragonball Z and YuYu Hakusho and the weird WB and Fox stuff like Pokémon, Digimon, and Yu-Gi-Oh—but I had no idea that shonen had more to offer beyond beat ’em ups. I didn’t even know they were anime, much less from Japan. When my buddy said Gohan and Videl from Dragonball had a kid named Pan, I had no idea where he was getting this information. It was YEARS later that I realize he Googled it or, more likely for the time, Ask Jeeves-ed it.
But when I discovered stuff like Bamboo Blade, Big Windup, and yes even Suzuka in college, I was enthralled. I got into sports more than I had in junior high. I watched the White Sox clinch the World Series in four games on my dad’s birthday, I watched Devin Hester run back a touchdown on the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl (only for the Bears to experience crushing defeat at the hands of Peyton Manning), and I watched Kawazoe Tamaki from Bamboo Blade stare down a girl much bigger than her and win. I loved all those moments, but I only cried during one.
Sports anime, and sports manga, touches in a way that real sports can’t, but they disappoint in the exact same way. The final pitch from Bobby Jenks was just as big of a high as the final pitch from Uesugi Tatsuya. Watching Hester run is just as exhilarating as watching Hinata Shoyo spike for a point.
When I found out there was manga that inspired these anime, I was floored. “I love manga!” I said to myself, “And I can read that faster than I can watch the show! I can read so much sports manga!” If only it existed in the States… (but Yowapeda, Kuroko’s Basketball, and Haikyu are upcoming from publishers Yen and Viz!!)
What I know exists, I’ve delved into headfirst, as least as much as the wallet allows. Reading through the emotional journey that is Cross Game (from the same author as Touch, Adachi Mitsuru) made me realize that not all sports anime are about the sport. I’m paging through Eyeshield 21 right now, and the art can make a football game fly off the pages more than an animation (it helps that Murata Yusuke, one of the best, is doing the art). The Bamboo Blade manga continues off where the anime left and gives more precious time with Tama, Kirino, and the other girls on the kendo team. Viz’s (criminally) digital-only Cross Manage made me realize that I like all sports, not just football, baseball, and college basketball. And KAITO’s next manga, Buddy Strike, just ran a jump start in Shonen Jump.
Sports anime is more than just the sport. I can sit and watch football all day Sunday but, at the end of the day, I could care less about Jay Cutler, John Fox, and the gang. Who I really care about are characters like Ace of Diamond’s Sawamura Eijun, Haikyu’s aforementioned Hinata, and, right now, Kobayashi Sena of Eyeshield 21 fame.