Good Sports

With the baseball season winding down, as usual, I find myself looking for ways to justify that TV in the bedroom. The DVR is set to record whatever episodes of Chopped Junior it can find. The summer Kids Baking Championship just ended yesterday.

If you think you detect a pattern in my viewing, you’re right. I’m finding the cooking competitions featuring kids to be more to my tastes (sorry) than the adult versions.

It’s not that the youngsters are better cooks than the grownups. There’s some overlap, but the adults’ skills are largely more polished and their knowledge of dishes is broader.

The reason I prefer the younger competitors is simple good sportsmanship.

How often does a chef get eliminated on Chopped and storm off complaining about how the judges were wrong to eliminate her, or how the breaks just didn’t go his way? Far too often. Even the chefs who take elimination gracefully rarely shake hands with the other competitors or wish them luck.

By contrast, the kids always encourage each other. During the competitions, they share ingredients instead of hoarding them. When they’re eliminated, they get hugs from their opponents and often say they intend to practice and learn more so they can do better next time.

Sure, some of that positive interaction has to be staged. And when you’ve got six or eight hours of footage for each competitor, it’s easy to pick the best bits for the forty-five minutes that’ll be on the air.

But that’s beside the point. You’ll never see a chef on the grownup version of one of the Baking Challenges stop in the middle of the final round to give an opponent a hug and some good advice–or if you did, the recipient would probably do exactly the opposite, suspecting a trap.

It may be a carefully selected feel-good moment, but when it happens (as it did in last night’s show), the interaction still comes off as genuine. And who doesn’t need more genuine feel-good moments these days?

It doesn’t look like there’s a new kids competition on the fall schedule, more’s the pity. So, as usual, I fill the gap with anime. And I’ve found a show that hits a lot of the right notes–the same notes as the junior cooking shows.

Uma Musume: Pretty Derby (I’ve also seen it transliterated as “Umamusume”) is yet another in the chain of unconventional sports shows. Unlike last year’s favorite, Keijo!!!!!!!!, the sport actually exists. As you may have guessed from the title, it’s horse racing.

The twist is that the horses are cute girls, who perform idol songs after winning races.

Yeah, I know, but stick with me.

The songs aren’t really a major part of the show, at least not through the first few episodes, despite being significant in the world we see.

Where do the horse girls come from? (Note that I’m not using the term “pony girl”. If you don’t know why, I strongly suggest you refrain from googling it. There may have been some artistic inspiration there, but the show goes in a whole different direction.) In-world, it’s made clear that a horse girl comes from a horse mother, but nothing’s been said about the fathers. So if you want some uncomfortable speculation, you can indulge.

But that’s background. We follow a young woman, Special Week, who’s come to the big city to pursue her mother’s dream, that she become the greatest in Japan.

Sounds just like most sports shows, doesn’t it? Where Uma Musume shines is in where it deviates from the sport show tropes. Rivals are competitive, but the rivalry stays on the track. Special Week idolizes the horse girl who turns out to be her roommate, but Silence Suzuka neither becomes Special Week’s bitter rival nor her biggest supporter: she’s helpful, but not to extremes, and it’s obvious she has her own concerns.

And the creators have not only passed on multiple chances to insert fan service, but they’ve given the stereotypical girl/girl love story subtext a miss, despite the many, many opportunities the premise offers.

There are a few wrong notes here and there–Trainer’s habit of “checking his charges’ fetlocks” springs to mind–but the positives far outweigh the negatives in my book.

If you’re interested, the show is available on Crunchyroll. Even if you’re only mildly intrigued, swing by and take a look. You can try the first episode, and possibly more, for free.

Offseason Sports

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.