Category Archives: Sports

The conflict and goals are based around a sport.

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.

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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.

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

Positive:

StrategicStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Chihayafuru – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Chihayafuru

 

Related: Chihayafuru 2 (included in review)

Similar: Hikaru’s Go

Free!

Hanasaku Iroha

Utakoi

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Card Game Sports Drama

Length: 25 episodes (season 1), 25 episodes (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • High energy, likeable protagonist.
  • Natural friends dynamic.
  • Unique sport presents strategic surprises.

Negatives:

  • Slow to escalate.
  • BLOOM!
  • Karuta isn’t an infinitely rewatchable game.

Not to reveal all my nerd cred, but as the first Yu-Gi-Oh champion from my country over a decade ago, I felt compelled to pick a card game for my next sports anime. As it turns out, the card game Karuta in Chihayafuru is nothing like Yu-Gi-Oh. It’s nothing like what one would expect when they think of competitive card games. I can best describe it as Snap meets Memory – hit the matching card on the board faster than your opponent does. Chihayafuru doesn’t explain the rules early enough, so watch the video below for a great explanation and a Karuta champion in action (start at 20:33 for mobile users) – rewind to the start for the history of Karuta, if you wish.

What strikes me first about Chihayafuru isn’t the unusual game, but the protagonist. Chihaya has this infectious energy about her, that I can’t help feeling happy whenever she is on screen. I love how she speaks her mind and isn’t afraid to say what she needs. She’s a Karuta freak who seeks to establish a competitive team at her high school with the help of her friend Taichi. However, to qualify as a legitimate school club, she needs more members.

Before this, the story flashes back to primary school when another friend, Arata, first introduced her to the game and the circumstances that split him from Chihaya and Taichi. These three as kids are adorable – just wanna pinch their cheeks! Whoever wrote the scenes for these kids ought to be commended. The dialogue and interactions make the kids natural. Whether a good or bad thing, these episodes were my favourite and I would have like to see more of the primary school days.

As for the sport itself, Karuta is fascinating in its unusual nature. You truly won’t find a similar sport. It has a surprising amount of depth in swipe techniques, card layout, card prioritisation, mind games, and fortitude. That said, there are only so many possibilities in any given Karuta match. As a result, matches become increasingly less interesting that no amount of anime overdramatisation can fix.

To alleviate repetition, sports fiction uses character drama between and even inside matches to raise the stakes. You could be watching a match like any other, or you could be watching a kid trying to win the championship while he parents go through divorce. How much sweeter is the victory after countless struggles that came before, in and out of game?

Think of whichever sport you follow. How much more interesting are the matches with a story – the rematch, the underdogs, the return of an injured player, the player who defies her parents’ wishes, the political ramifications? The story behind a match makes all the difference. Chihayafuru doesn’t need to resort to something as heavy as politics for drama. Just something would be nice.

We get a glimpse of drama early on when Chihaya meets Arata all those years later. He now hates the sport, which he taught her with such passion, and lives as a recluse, owing to personal guilt for an action in his past. After this plot point resolves, nothing takes its place. It does hint at a love triangle in the main trio, but by the end of season two, it makes little progress, still promising something will come of it later on (you have to continue in the manga to verify this promise). What kills me is that I can see the writer knows what will make for a great love triangle. Instead, matches fill most airtime in season two.

Chihayafuru as a whole doesn’t escalate enough. It reaches a good level and gets comfortable, staying there without striving for higher. I had my fill with season one – season two was for the review’s sake. Chihaya made it a fun ride, though.

Art – High

Chihayafuru’s cute art and soft colouring reminds of Usagi Drop. The animation and mood lighting are good, but that overused bloom – Gondor calls for aid!

Sound – High

Good voice work, especially for the protagonist, whose enthusiasm bursts off the screen. Fine music.

Story – Medium

A girl seeks to establish a Karuta club in her school and win the championship. Happy, energetic and fun, but could do with more drama.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Chihayafuru is certainly worth a look for this unusual sport and the energetic protagonist that leads the charge.

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

Positive:

Charm

Negative: None

Ping Pong the Animation – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ping Pong the Animation

 

Similar: Chihayafuru

Free!

Fighting Spirit

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Sports Psychological

Length: 11 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Natural, smack talking dialogue.
  • ‘In the action’ cinematography.
  • Realistic about achieving success.

Negatives:

  • Bland protagonist.
  • Dull drama.
  • Janky art style.

Continuing my dive into sports anime, I went for Ping Pong the Animation, a highly rated piece of the genre in the hope of finding the best anime had to offer. Immediately, the art style tempered my hopes. Those ugly characters, especially during the opening credits, are not the most pleasing sight, but I figured it was worth staying for at least one rally.

Then once it got rolling, I started to see why people were interested. Ping Pong the Animation is not as I expected it to be, nothing like the usual sports fiction aimed at teenagers. Akin to its art, this anime took the rough and dirty approach to teenagers. Neither their manners nor behaviour was sanitised; they shit talk in every conversation as if their mothers will never hear of it. They felt like real teenagers. Couple that with the intensely stylised action, camera down low alongside the ball, Ping Pong engaged me to the end.

We follow three major characters. Tsukimoto (nicknamed Smile) is an introverted high schooler with a natural talent for table tennis, though he has no passion for the sport. Hoshino (nicknamed Peco), Smile’s friend and opposite, has passion and energy to the point of annoyance. Lastly, there’s Kong, a Chinese transfer pro who doesn’t waste time with scrubs, but wants to challenge Smile. A nearby table tennis school also provides plenty of challengers.

Like the realistic approach to dialogue, Ping Pong is realistic about talent, dreams, and winning. It never resorts to feel-good victories. I love how it focuses on hard work and drive rather than dreaming. That said, most drama unrelated to the sport itself (ambitions beyond table tennis) lacks that excitement found in the competitions. When it deviates from the sport, it feels a little irrelevant, at least relative to the amount of time dedicated to these side plots.

Protagonist Smile isn’t interesting either. He suffers from the ‘quiet character with no story to tell’ problem. I kept wondering when his story would really start, but there is no change, no real development for him by the end. The other characters simply matter more, such that removing him altogether would have changed little. Kong is much more interesting with his story of alienation from China and efforts to succeed in Japan.

I’m not sure I could have picked a more different sports anime than Ping Pong after Free! From its shit talking dialogue to its down-to-earth realism, Ping Pong the Animation showed me that the genre could become serious when needed. I admit, part of me did worry all sports anime would have a go-get-em attitude like battle anime. Glad that isn’t the case. Let’s hope my next pick keeps momentum.

Art – Medium

The art is simultaneously good and janky. The lines are rough, proportions inconsistent between shots, and animation is shaky, but the action looks great, camera angles putting you right in the action, your eyes with the ball as it tears across the table. Characters are hideous, though.

Sound – High

Ping Pong the Animation sports great dialogue – very natural, especially when it comes to the smack talk. I also commend the use of actual Chinese for the Chinese characters.

Story – High

Several students look to hit it big in ping pong. The struggles are real, the characters interesting (outside the protagonist), and the action intense.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for sports fans. Where a lot of sports fiction goes for the feel-good vibe, Ping Pong the Animation serves competition with reality in mind.

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

Positive:

Engaging DialogueExtensive Character Development

Negative:

Ugly Artistic Design