Sports anime are extremely popular. It’s a rare season that doesn’t include at least one–though it’s true that the definition of a “sport” can be a slippery thing in the world of anime: consider Saki, for example, which is centered around the “sport” of mahjong.
Conventional sports get their share of the shows. Soccer is a perennial favorite. Basketball, tennis, judo, and American football have shown up in popular shows. And, naturally, baseball is common. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve seen very few of the baseball shows, even among the classics.
But it’s in the lesser-known and imaginary sports that anime can really shine. Take, for example, two recent entries, that showcase the two major types of sport show.
Keijo (it’s actually Keijo!!!!!!!!, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to type eight exclamation points every time) is a twelve episode show based on an eighteen volume manga. The titular sport combines all of the most attractive elements of women’s beach volleyball and steel-cage martial arts and serves primarily as a vehicle to put the young women who compete into a variety of bathing suits.
I said that there are two major types of sports shows. The first is the one in which the protagonist is familiar with the sport, often having played it for years. Such shows generally focus on the character’s efforts to level up, improving his or her skills. Despite its unashamed roots in mindless fan-service, Keijo succeeds on its own merits as a sports show. The heroine, Nozomi, is an Olympic-calibre gymnast, who brings her skills to the sport of keijo in pursuit of riches. She learns all the expected lessons about becoming a team player and skill not being sufficient to become the best.
But what distinguishes Keijo from just another “boobs and butts” show is the sense of humor. The creators–both the original manga author and the anime staff–know how ridiculous the premise is, and they refuse to take anything about it seriously. In a training sequence, Nozomi is required to harvest turnips by pulling them out of the ground using a rope tied around her hips. Fighters use outrageously named attacks (“Full-Auto Cerberus!”) which often invoke psychic effects to confuse or distract their opponents.
The show is a classic piece of mindless entertainment; US residents can stream it through Crunchroll.
The second type of sports show features a protagonist who initially knows nothing about the sport. The audience expects to learn about the sport by watching the main character go from rank beginner to champion-quality. Welcome to the Ballroom is a current example of this variety.
As the title implies, the sport is competitive ballroom dancing, and our hero, Tatara, literally falls into a dance studio one day and discovers a purpose for his previously-motiveless existence.
In typical sports-show fashion, he quickly masters the basic techniques–that’s quickly in terms of screen time; from his perspective, it’s a long slog of late- and all-night practice sessions–but the mental disciplines and understanding of his dance partners and opponents come more slowly.
Actual devotees of dance will no doubt find Welcome to the Ballroom‘s portrayal of both dancers and dances laughable, but that’s par for the course for a genre that gives us pitchers who can throw a ball too fast for the eye to see or mahjong players who violate the laws of chance through sheer willpower.
Look past that, however, and you get a sports show that rather atypically brings in secondary characters with more than a single dimension. Rivalries go beyond a simplistic “you go to a different school, so you must be the Enemy”. Antagonists have reasons for their behavior and can become neutral (turning enemies into friends is typical; what Welcome to the Ballroom does that’s unusual is to suggest some of them might stop actively impeding Tatara without swinging all the way over to helping him.
Welcome to the Ballroom is running now–US viewers can stream it through Amazon. As of this writing, fifteen of the planned twenty-four episodes have aired.