Category Archives: Sports

The conflict and goals are based around a sport.

Tomorrow’s Joe – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ashita no Joe

 

Related: Tomorrow’s Joe 2

Similar: Fighting Spirit

Rainbow

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Boxing Sports Drama

Length: 79 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Joe’s rivals, Rikiishi and Carlos.
  • Rough art aged surprisingly well.
  • Greatly improves in the second half.

Negatives:

  • Insufferable protagonist.
  • Too much of the comic relief.
  • First half is a slog.
  • Audio did not age like the art.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Joe Yabuki is a douche. A giant douche. Never has a bigger douche roamed the lands of Japan, itching for a fight. He wants trouble. Drunkard and former boxing coach Danpei witnesses Joe’s latest street brawl and sees something in his punch. Though Joe is vulgar, he has potential for greatness in the ring and he could give Danpei a reason to live again.

Tomorrow’s Joe is Japan meets the Wild West. Everything has this dusty ragged look, from the art to the characters. Joe’s whistling echoes across the windswept streets of the slum, creating a lonely and downtrodden atmosphere.

The archetype of starting as a delinquent before finding a purpose in sport/music/art is a common one. You expect the character to grow as a person over time, both in skill and temperament. Joe is in dire need of the latter. See, when I said he is a douche, I should have made it clear that I meant throughout the entire series. I’m unsure if I can think of a more unlikeable protagonist. He is a prick to everyone even when he has no reason to be, especially to those who care for him. Speaking of, it makes no sense to have a gang of children, Danpei, and many more besides to be so obsessed with him. No one would stand by him after the fifth instance of douchery, let alone the tenth. And why does no one object to little children hanging around a dangerous criminal all the time?

Shortly into the story, Joe is arrested. He has the opportunity to go free if he doesn’t act like a prick. Of course he acts like a prick. Later, after the kids and company do all they can to support his release, he again has an opportunity, but lo and behold, he’s a right arse to the judge as well. This happens every episode. He tries excessively hard to be cool – the number of face punches he takes without falling is another effort to convince you he’s cool. Even the worst protagonists must have a point of sympathy for the audience. Why would anyone want him to succeed?

The repetitive cycle of dickery results in a glacial pace for the first act, which mostly takes place in prison. Even after prison, the story is mediocre. Not until around the midpoint does it start to become interesting.

Opposite Joe, we have two great rivals and without them Tomorrow’s Joe would have little value. The first is against Rikiishi, a fellow inmate who is Joe’s opposite – upstanding, polite, and disciplined, which irks Joe to no end. Carlos from Venezuela joins the series later. When the story focuses on the rivalries – prep through to the matches themselves – Tomorrow’s Joe is at its best. Some episodes are top tier quality. An episode that will stick with me for a long time is with Rikiishi losing his water weight before the weigh-in and the loss of his mind in the process. It makes the others all the more disappointing not to have the same passion and emotional intensity.

So, Tomorrow’s Joe gets better around halfway, but asking someone to stick around for forty episodes is a bit much. If it were spectacular in the end, maybe.

Art – Medium

The rough art comes across as style rather than errors, which ages it well – fights look good. One can see the French influence in the line work and character design.

Sound – Low

The music is okay – I like the whistling – but the voice audio is bad. The higher the voice, the worse it gets. The bass is shallow while the mic breaks against a high pitch. When the little fangirl screeches, which is often, your eardrums burst.

Story – Medium

A delinquent wanderer must find disciple through boxing if he is to survive prison and the world beyond. The first half is a challenge to clear – owed in no small part to Joe being insufferable – though it’s better once the boxing gets serious.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For old anime fans only. You have to love the rustic style of Tomorrow’s Joe to make it seventy-nine episodes (more if you go for the sequel). Interestingly, a love of boxing isn’t required (unlike Fighting Spirit), as character drama takes precedence.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Phenomenal Villain

Negative:

Ear Grating Voice WorkPoor Pacing

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Fighting Spirit – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting!

 

Related: Fighting Spirit: Champion Road (sequel)

Similar: KenIchi: The Mightiest Disciple

Eyeshield 21

Baby Steps

Initial D

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Boxing Sports Drama Comedy

Length: 75 Episodes

 

Positives:

  • Easy hero to cheer for.
  • Surprising victory conditions.
  • A nice balance of drama, sport, and humour.
  • Emotional highs.

Negatives:

  • Romance element is wasted.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Even if you haven’t watched Fighting Spirit, you have seen it before. It’s the underdog story of a normal guy who enters boxing as a way to find himself, using drive and determination to close the gap between himself and his opponents. Rocky, Warrior – pick any fighting film and you will know 90% of Fighting Spirit. But there is a reason this story sees itself adapted every few years. Boxing gives the protagonist a direct target to overcome, a target that is near to his equal though just that little bit stronger. And it is in finding the strength to overcome that little bit where he sees what he’s made of and who he is as a person.

Our hero for this boxing journey is Ippo, a short friendless kid often bullied at school. During a routine bullying session, boxing pro Takamura happens to be passing by and helps Ippo out, later taking him to the gym for a patch up. He also suggests that Ippo release his frustration by punching a bag with the lead bully’s face on it. Much to everyone’s surprise, Ippo packs quite a punch, owed in no small part to doing the heavy lifting for his mother’s fishing business every morning and night. This awakens a drive inside him that never existed before. He finally has a goal. With the help of Takamura and others at the gym, he will take each step up the ladder to becoming boxing champion.

Ippo differs a little from other boxing protagonists by already starting strong. He isn’t Steve Rogers with no muscle before growing into Captain America. Ippo’s greatest challenge lies in mental frailty, which ties well with his theme of needing to find a path of his own. He says that he helps his mother because it’s his responsibility, but we see it’s also an excuse not to have to put himself out there and face rejection from peers.

He is an easy protagonist to cheer for. By golly, his innocent outlook and eagerness to improve just makes you want the best for the little guy. The gym owner believes he has no chance as a boxer because he’s too polite. Good humour like this keeps Fighting Spirit from growing too heavy. The best is the running joke of his big package – he packs more than a mighty punch, if ya know what I mean. He’s the Podrick of boxing.

Not forgetting the physical side, Fighting Spirit has Ippo progress through various training exercises to master new techniques, as you would expect. Thankfully, the training segments don’t drag on – this is no Naruto Shippuden – and they make sense, teaching a thing or two to the audience. He never improves just because the author said so. We see his systematic process in how he comes to grips with a new technique.

An advantage Fighting Spirit has over its inspirators like Rocky is in its ability to string a series of fights together over numerous episodes. A movie has to reach the peak quickly. It doesn’t have the luxury of twelve smaller fights before the finale. That’s not to suggest Fighting Spirit is slow or that it takes the extra space for granted. It develops just as fast as any boxing movie with the luxury of showing every stage of development. The training montage doesn’t need to cover months of training here and every important fight is shown in full. If you are a boxing fan, you will love this.

The fights are interesting too. Each opponent is a character full of complexity and with engaging backstory that they bring into the ring. I often find the inner thoughts of battle anime characters to be a waste of time, as they aren’t interesting characters, but Fighting Spirit justifies diving deep into a character’s mind.

While the victor of any given fight won’t come as much of a surprise, the manner in which they win is unpredictable. Will it be the knockout? How many rounds will it take? Will he overcome the Wall? It’s exciting!

All my praise above in mind, do note that this is an anime for boxing enthusiasts. If you dislike boxing or are indifferent to it, Fighting Spirit won’t change your mind.

Art – High

Fighting Spirit has a surprising amount of animation for a cel anime of this length. I expected the rigidity of Rose of Versailles and Legend of the Galactic Heroes. The more realistic art style suits the tone.

Sound – Medium

The dub is average – Ippo’s actor needs work – so go with the Japanese. It may sound old, but it has charm.

Story – High

This is a classic underdog story of fighting through the world of boxing. Though Fighting Spirit uses a formula you have seen elsewhere many times, it executes with such heart and passion that you will want to watch this formula again.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Highly recommended for sports fans – a must for boxing fans. Fighting Spirit won’t convince you if boxing isn’t your sport, but if you have any inclination, this anime won’t disappoint.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Extensive Character DevelopmentRiveting ActionStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Kuroko’s Basketball – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kuroko no Basket

 

Related: Kuroko’s Basketball Seasons 2 & 3 (included in review)

Similar: Haikyuu!!

Slam Dunk

Free! Iwatobi Swim Club

Prince of Tennis

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Sports

Length: 75 episodes (3 seasons), 5 OVA

 

Positives:

  • Good animation.
  • Starts well.

Negatives:

  • Can’t choose a protagonist.
  • Superpowers cheapen the matches.
  • No surprises.
  • Worse with each season.
  • Too much spectator commentary.

(Request an anime for review here.)

The hype was real for me going into Kuroko’s Basketball after the comparisons drawn to Haikyuu. Yet even with tempered expectations, this anime disappointed me. It started well…

A middle school team of basketball players once known as the “Generation of Miracles” have since gone to separate high school teams. When people talk of the team, they only mention five players, having not noticed the ‘phantom’ sixth player, Kuroko, on the court (just go with it). He gains renewed energy when Kagami, a player with great potential, joins his high school. They work together to reach the top of Japan’s inter-high championships, even if that means defeating Kuroko’s former teammates of Miracles.

At first, I thought all was well with Kuroko’s Basketball. We meet the characters in fine fashion, backstory doesn’t bog the start, the coach is funny, the first serious match is good, and the animation does the sport justice. I like the running gag of Kuroko being so inconspicuous that people often forget he’s there, similar to Hinata. The anime does stretch the plausibility of this in matches though. Even spectators act as if Kuroko was wearing an invisibility cloak this whole time. It’s a tad silly, but not a big deal. The problem lies in the writer’s inability to stop the power creep.

It starts with Kuroko’s invisibility, then onto a guy that never misses, and even to the best player being someone that never practices. Tell that to any basketball pro and they’ll laugh their arses off. One match has the entire opposing team blatantly cheat throughout to no consequences. If you’re going to have them cheat, at least make it clever so we can believe they wouldn’t be disqualified, never mind arrested. More brains needed. It fails at being cool by going beyond the realm of implausibility. And it creeps worse with each season.

By the end, one guy can make you drop the ball just by looking at you. I do not jest. He looks at a player and they lay a brick right there on court. The mysticism element in the techniques lessens their impressiveness because rather than make success come for hard work and strategy, magic hands over victory. It isn’t impressive when Superman bulldozes human linebackers to score a touchdown. A touch of the supernatural would have been fine, but here, just when I think it cannot get sillier, Kuroko’s Basketball proves me wrong.

This supernatural approach to basketball could have excelled if it didn’t take itself so seriously. When a player runs from mid-court to block the basket faster than the speed of a pass, no one questions it. At no point does anyone laugh at the ludicrous techniques on display. It feels as though the writer is desperate to legitimise his lazy approach to conveying basketball in fiction. A sprinkling of Food Wars would work wonders here.

Seasons 2 and 3 are nothing but a string of tournament matches against various teams starring one Miracle player each. Hints at good external drama from season 1 fall to the wayside. This can be engaging if the Miracle players have dimension. They don’t. Like their powers, these shounen stuffers have the ‘one trait’ that defines them, without layers to make them memorable. I can’t recall any of their names. I remember them by their colour on the rainbow. Character depth tries to step on court towards the end of each match to mediocre results, which often amounts to a complete 180 in personality. Kuroko’s Basketball has this constant sense of needing to get the next game started immediately, lest the audience lose focus on trite things like “characters” and “story.”

Kuroko’s Basketball is in such a rush that it forgets Kuroko. Oh the irony. Several-episode stretches have him as the least important character, as the next player on the rainbow takes all focus. Even Kagami becomes a shadow for too long. The airtime balance in season 3 is atrocious.

To conclude on a positive note, I must commend Kuroko’s Basketball for giving attention to the pressure that comes with being the best. Most anime, whether sports or battle, will show the strongest characters as never letting the pressure get to them, when in reality, being the best comes with a new set of pressures to which lower players cannot relate. I love this inclusion – could have been the main conflict.

Art – High

Good animation brings the games to life. The colour-coded characters are a matter of preference to the individual.

Sound – Medium

The acing is fine, but the script has issues timing player thoughts and spectator commentary. I appreciate the effort of giving a giant Senegalese player an accent – shame they made no effort with the “American” girl.

Story – Low

A mythical player from a basketball team once known as the “Generation of Miracles” takes on his former, and equally mythical, teammates in their new teams one by one. Kuroko’s Basketball amounts to a string of matches with predictable outcomes as it gives too much attention to side characters over the protagonist.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For shounen sports fans only. Kuroko’s Basketball is as generic as you can imagine for a sports anime in terms of its structure and story. The characters stepped out of every battle anime with a cast of one-note ‘specialists.’ If you love the genre, this will be your dream. Fans of real life basketball will find it hard to stomach the bad strategies and implausibility.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative:

Shallow

Haikyu!! – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Haikyuu!!

 

Related: Haikyuu!! Second Season (included in review)

Similar: Free! Iwatobi Swim Club

Kuroko’s Basketball

Ace of Diamond

Prince of Tennis

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Sports Comedy Drama

Length: 25 episodes (season 1), 25 episodes (season 2), 2 OVA + more on the way

 

Positives:

  • High-energy characters and competition.
  • Varied strategies and deep plays.
  • Good production values.
  • Well-woven humour.
  • Friendly to the volleyball illiterate.

Negatives:

  • There’s no story beyond the sport.

(Request an anime for review here.)

For the next step on my sports anime journey, I went with the highly recommended Haikyuu!! (The double exclamation triggers me. It’s simply not right!) Never watched a game of volleyball in my life, but let’s go!

In his first volleyball match, middle-schooler Hinata gets stomped. And I mean stomped, worse than Germany versus Brazil (7-1 never forget). He decides the enemy ace, Kageyama, is his new rival, works hard, and gains entry in Karasuno High School, a good institute for volleyball, hoping to rise up and defeat Kageyama on the big stage. However, Kageyama took a downturn in recent times, rejected from the top volleyball school, and has ended up in the same school as Hinata. Rivals become teammates.

Hinata is a fantastic character. He may be a midget – people often forget he’s there – but he sure can jump. His energy and enthusiasm are infectious, except before matches, where he gets so nervous that telling him not to be nervous gives him the runs. Interestingly, despite falling into the typical shounen protagonist archetype (genki underdog) like Naruto and Luffy, Hinata is one of my favourites in Haikyuu. Usually, the cheerful protagonist is bland compared to the varied supporting cast. Hinata succeeds, I feel, because the underdog status is genuine. He doesn’t have the magic ability to win when the plot needs it. He has his role in the team as a Spiker and doesn’t overshadow the rest of the cast. ‘Less is more’ in action.

Opposite him, Kageyama is obsessed with winning. Not in the same way as Hinata, but in a manner that destroys any hope of success, as he berates his teammates for the slightest mistake. If he were company CEO, he would be over everyone’s shoulder on all twenty floors of the building at all times. And as Hinata’s rival, he’s tall – naturally. He plays the Setter position – sets up the ball for the Spiker.

First, the boys must learn to get along as teammates; otherwise, they can forget victory, let alone a championship. Their only chance at breaking the barriers is the captain. There’s also Noya in the Libero position (defensive specialist), a noisy fellow and the only guy shorter than Hinata – another great character. In fact, every character on the team is solid. Again, I think it comes back to the balance between Hinata and everyone else – the supporting cast doesn’t feel like they exist solely for him.

The funniest character is Tanaka, a guy who wants to look and act like a hard-ass intimidating newbies in a comical manner until the captain reins him in. Humour is never far away in Haikyuu and I worried about whether it could get serious enough when needed. Now, a super heavy moment hasn’t occurred in the two seasons so far, but when there has been weight in a scene, the tone has given just enough ‘serious’ for me to believe it.

As for the sport itself, Haikyuu does an excellent job illustrating the gameplay for anyone to follow, even the uninformed like me. The story also isn’t bogged down with explanation either, unlike battle anime. The strategies have variety, character psychology plays a big part, and everyone has strengths and weaknesses on court. The crowd even features Japan’s crazy coordinated chants!

The best aspect of the sport is its understanding of what it means to lose and the effect a loss has on players. This is what distinguishes Haikyuu from run-of-the-mill competitive anime like Food Wars. The writer doesn’t treat the characters like infants locked into a safe space, and knows that losses provide the greatest opportunities for learning.

If Haikyuu could find room for improvement, it would be outside the volleyball. There isn’t any story beyond the sport. It’s all about practicing volleyball, studying volleyball, and playing volleyball, which creates a lower ‘intensity’ ceiling than if there was more beyond volleyball. That’s not to say Hinata needs to come from some abusive home or live on the streets. It could be as simple as a romance affected by Hinata’s commitments to volleyball. Perhaps later seasons will introduce something.

Haikyuu is very “shounen” in its use of grandstand challenges, too many speeches, intense glares, over assignment of god-like titles to characters, and inspirational scenes. They aren’t realistic by any stretch. However, I have learnt to embrace them – you have to or there’s no way to enjoy hot-blooded sports anime.

After I finished Haikyuu, I watched a real volleyball match for the first time and it was phenomenal, probably one of the best matches in volleyball history (Women’s Japan versus China at the London Olympics – highly recommended). Japan even had someone shorter than Hinata playing Libero position! Haikyuu is the best shounen sports anime I have seen so far.

Art – High

Haikyuu is colourful like Hinata’s hair and sports great animation during the action. Simple, yet memorable character designs – expressive too.

Sound – High

Great acting brings this energetic cast to life and are even believable in otherwise unbelievable shounen dialogue. Good music, but nothing outstanding.

Story – High

A short but high jumping kid works with his team to reach the apex of high school volleyball. Though Haikyuu has little story outside of the volleyball, the conflict and development within the sport itself is excellent.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it/must for sports fans. If you’re a sports anime fan, Haikyuu is necessary, while I urge others to give a try, even if disinterested in volleyball.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

CharmStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor

 

Related: Kaiji: Against All Rules (sequel – included in review)

Similar: Akagi

One Outs

No Game No Life

Death Note

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Gambling Sports Psychological Thriller

Length: 26 episodes (season 1), 26 episodes (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Intense gambling psychology.
  • Brutal challenges.
  • Clever strategies.
  • Great protagonist to cheer for while yelling at his naïveté.

Negatives:

  • Drags at times.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Akagi is one of my favourite hidden gems of anime, regardless of its flaws, so when going into Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor by the same creator, my expectations were high. And Kaiji delivers.

It follows Kaiji, a bum with no responsibilities in life and gambling as his only talent. His life goes to hell one day when a debt collector called Endou turns up at his door to collect on a loan Kaiji co-signed with a friend. This friend scarpered, so the repayment of 300,000 yen falls on Kaiji’s shoulders. Except, the debt now stands at 3,850,000 yen due to compound interest – the Yakuza are unfair like that. With not a yen to Kaiji’s name, Endou offers an alternative: play a game on our boat, win and clear your debt. Who knows, he may even leave with extra in his pocket. Tempted by Endou’s masterful baiting, Kaiji accepts.

The game isn’t a standard tournament of poker, blackjack, or mahjong, as one would expect. No, it’s rock-paper-scissors.

What?

You heard me. The twist is that players have limited uses of each symbol, meaning there are limited wins on the table. Each win allows a player to take a star from the opponent. To survive the night, a player must have at least three stars (they start with three), but also use up all their symbols. To complicate matters further, beforehand each player could borrow 1,000,000 or 10,000,000 yen at a rate of 1.5% per ten minutes in a four-hour tournament. All must be repaid before leaving the boat. Win an excess to the debt and you keep the difference. Players can sell extra stars at the end for exorbitant amounts of money. Why are the stars so valuable? Well, finish with less than three stars and you become a slave until the tournament next year.

The premise had me hooked. It reminds me of a gambling version of the Zero Escape game series (Virtue’s Last Reward is the best visual novel ever made). At first, Kaiji feels like every underdog gambling setup: bum guy forced to clear a friend’s debt. But no, Kaiji spirals into crazy territory only anime would attempt.

The games takes unexpected turns, even in something as simple as RPS. I get the impression the writer thought of the obvious first, discarded it, and said, “I don’t print until I find something better.”

Kaiji’s strength (and where it outshines Akagi) lies in the conflict between characters. The gambling is a mere device to bring the psyche of each contestant to bear. This is a depraved underworld where the rich put on these sick and twisted games for entertainment. With each subsequent game – for there are several throughout the series – the entertainment grows more and more twisted.

The central theme is trust and betrayal. Kaiji must survive in a world where people will do anything for survival, or worse, greed. He starts as a naïve, gullible fool. Several times, I found myself yelling, “Of course it’s a trick, you fool! How could you fall for that?” Unlike other shows, however, where a character (usually the villain) falls for a trick because the writer said so, Kaiji sells us on the decision first.

Kaiji himself elevates this anime above most other artworks of this nature, such as Danganronpa. He has complexity. He doesn’t simply cheat everyone nor does he go full goody-two-shoes. He struggles against his conscience between the requirements to win and the cost on his soul.

If I had to level a complaint, it would be the pacing. It drags at times. One scene of characters being indecisive with a single decision shouldn’t take an episode, let alone a few. There is also enough to be had within the first season; the second is more of the same but in different games. Then again, if you enjoyed the first, you’ll find it easy to keep going.

Kaiji is one hell of a tense ride.

Art – Medium

Kaiji sports the same art style as Akagi, and as with the latter, it’s either hit or miss with the audience. I like its eccentricity. It’s a notch above Akagi on a technical level.

Sound – High

The acting couldn’t have more tension if the actors tried, accentuated by equally tense music. The intense sports-like narrator is perfect.

Story – High

A debt-riddled bum agrees to risk it all in a chance at clearing his debts. The games are strange, the rules insane, and the tension high. A little long in parts.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it. If you liked Akagi, you will like Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor. Outside the art, the tension is most likely to put people off. Yes, it’s so intense it may stress you too much.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

StrategicStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None