Tag Archives: Sports

The conflict and goals are based around a sport.

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.

(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:

Engaging DialogueExtensive Character Development

Negative:

Ugly Artistic Design

Free! Iwatobi Swim Club – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Free!

 

Related: Free! Eternal Summer (sequel – included in review)

High Speed! Free! Starting Days (movie prequel to childhood)

Similar: Kuroko’s Basketball

Haikyu!!

Prince of Stride: Alternative

Tsuritama

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: High School Sports Comedy

Length: 12 episodes (season 1), 13 episodes (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Super fun and enjoyable.
  • Chemistry between main characters.
  • Elegant art style suited to the water.
  • Music gets you pumped to swim.

Negatives:

  • Season 2 largely repeats season 1 drama.
  • Some cheesy confrontations.

With the sports genre being least familiar to me, I thought it time to dive in new territory, though I probably should have picked something other than Free! Iwatobi Swim Club to start with. I wasn’t the target audience for those glistening bodies, tight shorts, and the protagonist undressing every episode. Well, I’m already halfway across the pool, love the water, so may as well reach the end.

Free follows a group of friends and their passion for swimming. In middle school, swimming was life, swimming enveloped every waking moment, but then high school crashed into their bubble of happiness. One of the gang, Rin, moved to Australia to make it as an Olympian. They drifted apart. Jump to the final years of high school, the mature and sensible one of the group Makoto wants to refresh the passion for swimming with his friends Nagisa (a guy) and Haru (full name: Haruka, also a guy, hates his girly name – they all get made fun of for having girly names). Haru swims for the pleasure of it, needs water like air, to the point where soaking in a fish tank at the pool shop isn’t beyond his dignity. With the loss of the swim team, he’s retreated into his bathtub – wearing his swim trunks, no less – a quiet guy without a passion in the world.

Then Rin storms back into their lives (subtle with those shark teeth, guys), attending a nearby school known for excellence in aquatics. Except…he has changed. He finds their past childish and doesn’t have time for nonsense like “friendship.” His return motivates the others into reopening the school’s swim club.

The childhood memory catalyst works well here. How many times have you seen the ‘childhood friend’ trope only to find nothing indicates they were ever childhood friends? Free sells its impact through the camaraderie between characters. I never doubted they were friends.

The boys enlist the help of their wisdom-quoting literature teacher, a funny character with an embarrassing past involving ‘swim wear’ from her previous Tokyo job, and Rin’s younger sister Kou (real name: Gou, but that’s for boys – having a name commonly used by the opposite gender is a recurring theme). Manager of a swim club is her dream job, surrounded by glistening boys. She creams her knickers at the sight of Haru and “all those hard muscular arms and pecs” – a hilarious fangirl stand-in character. In fact, all characters had me laughing in Free. They are fun to be around, and after the dreary, uninteresting anime I watched previous, this was a refreshing change.

Needing a fourth swimmer to qualify as a team, Nagisa uses his boundless enthusiasm to recruit current track & field athlete Rei – “He also has a girl’s name, so he’s destined for the team!” Though I would identify the most with Haru, Rei is my favourite character. I love his methodology and logic; he hates swimming because he sees it as going backwards in evolution to when we were fish in the ocean. “It’s illogical!”

Free has no drought of comedy. As for conflict, their struggles have an emotional core grounded in reality. Each has something to learn, individual motivations in the goals they strive for, but do so as friends to the end (hopefully).

Swimming doesn’t have the luxury of the physical head-to-head clash found in the likes of boxing or tennis. Free leans heavily on character mindsets to weigh the races with drama, often represented through beautiful metaphors – the wall seeming an ocean away, seeping blackness on the edge of vision, or the feeling of freedom, swimmer alone in the water. These techniques make the sport engaging, though it wouldn’t keep one breathless for a long-running anime. Thankfully, Free doesn’t aim to cross the Pacific. On land, the conflict is a sip overdramatic, yet still enjoyable; if Free hadn’t sold itself as a ‘fun first’ anime, this could have been a problem.

Where Free does waver is in its second season. They introduce a new rival, but from his backstory to his dramatic beats, he’s a near copy of Rin with less emotional impact. Season two isn’t bad, just more of the same and not as funny. Only the final three episodes advance the characters in a meaningful way.

For my first traditional sports anime, (technically second, but track & field series Suzuka hardly had any sport) Free! Iwatobi Swim Club was a great start. I expected a fan-service ecchi fest, but no, none of the ‘attractiveness’ comes at the expense of other areas. Free is an excellent example of how to do an ‘attractive’ anime without resorting to the dregs of the fan service barrel. I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Will definitely watch again and am excited to experience more sports anime.

Art – High

Great animation when swimming. Even outside the water, there is plenty instead of usual static pans – hair always moves. These artists know how to create elegant art suited to the water. Also, Sydney, Australia looks perfect – glad they did it justice.

Sound – High

The ED with Haru as the Prince of Persia searching for water in the Arabian Desert, Nagisa dressed like a harem girl, Rin as some water baron, is both a creative metaphor and humorous. Listening to the metal OP, you wouldn’t believe this was a swimming anime. The music in general is good. I preferred the dub for the less feminine voices on several characters (some sound prepubescent in Japanese), which makes the girly name jokes funnier through contrast; however, the Australian accents are better in Japanese. So surprised!

Story – Medium

A group of friends seek to revitalise the swim club and bring back the passion for swimming. Free has enough drama to fill the plot, but characters and comedy keep one going to the end.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Worth it for the first season, at least. Stay on for the second if you want to spend more time with the characters. Free! Iwatobi Swim Club is an all-round fun anime anyone can enjoy.

(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:

HilariousPositive Recommended English Voice Track

Negative: None

Initial D Fourth Stage – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Initial D Fourth Stage

 

Related: Initial D (series start)

Initial D Fifth Stage (sequel – included in review)

Initial D Final Stage (series conclusion – included in review)

Initial D Extra Stage 2 (side story)

Similar: Yowamushi Pedal

Fighting Spirit

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Racing Sports Action Drama

Length: 24 episodes (Fourth Stage), 14 episodes (Fifth Stage) & 4 episodes (Final Stage)

 

Positives:

  • More supporting backstory and drama.
  • More of the same great music.
  • Races are still intense.
  • Improved visuals over time and better dub acting.

Negatives:

  • Nothing new.

Note: This review contains mild, not-really-spoiling, spoilers from Initial D Third Stage.

After learning all that he can in his area, Takumi joins Ryosuke Takahashi’s elite team, Project D. Along with Keisuke and a full support crew, they seek to conquer Japan’s mountain tracks by issuing challenges and posting results online. As their reputation grows, so too does the desire to see them beaten.

Initial D as a whole is split into two halves. Stages 1-3 are domestic racing, Stages 4-Final are foreign tracks. If you watched the first half and felt you have had your fill of mountain racing, then feel free to stop, as Third Stage ends satisfactorily and the second half doesn’t bring anything new. Different, yes – more cars, different drivers, more backstory for the Takahashi brothers – but not new. That’s not to say it is worse in latter stages; the series maintains the same level of narrative and action quality.

However, if you do have a drive for more racing, then these seasons will please. Keisuke is as much a protagonist as Takumi now, for both are the driving aces of Project D, and Keisuke experiences his own arc of drama and romance. Ryosuke too has his arc in Fifth Stage, though I found it a tad empty – they didn’t delve deep enough, in my opinion.

Regarding races, Takumi’s development is focused on reading his opponents, learning their weakness rather than solely relying on his own strengths. Each driver brings new racing techniques and car specs for the spectators to analyse in detail on behalf of the audience.

My favourite part of this second half is the realistic approach to success. Hands aren’t held. Initial D doesn’t pretend that you can be the best driver, have a great personal life, and pursue other dreams at the same time. It knows that if you want to reach the top, sacrifices must be made. Every day you spend not driving is an extra day your opponents have on you. I love that there is no magical ‘you can have it all’ solution.

So, while these seasons don’t reinvent Initial D, they are more of a good thing for racing fans. The worst I can say is that Final Stage’s new character goes a little overboard with the mystique (they try to draw parallels to Takumi’s origin) and rubbish about auras, but that is a minor complaint to an otherwise great anime.

Art – High

Fourth Stage drops a little compared to the movie production of Third Stage, but Fifth and Final take it further until the CG is almost imperceptible.

Sound – High

Much improved acting in English – I would call it good now; however, Japanese is still preferable. Eurobeat is back for the music and it is excellent. First time I loved the OPs and EDs. Strangely, Final Stage lacks eurobeat during races.

Story – High

More Initial D. The team seeks new opponents to beat. Same quality as before.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: If Initial D’s previous seasons left you wanting more, then Fourth Stage and up should satisfy. If you have had enough, then Third Stage was a good conclusion.

(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:

Great MusicRiveting Action

Negative: None

Initial D – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Initial D

 

Related: Initial D Second Stage (sequel – included in review)

Initial D Third Stage (further sequel – included in review)

Initial D Extra Stage (side story)

Initial D Battle Stage (remastered summary of key races)

Initial D Fourth Stage (even further sequel)

Similar: Yowamushi Pedal

Fighting Spirit

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Racing Sports Action Drama

Length: 26 episodes (First stage), 13 episodes (Second stage) & 1 hr. 54 min. movie (Third stage)

 

Positives:

  • Races are intense and varied.
  • Great attention to driving and car mechanics.
  • Shows love and respect for mountain racing culture.
  • Hype music.

Negatives:

  • Duckface art style is weird and CG shows age in First Stage.
  • Underwhelming romance side plot.
  • Tokyopop dub (see Sound section for details).

Initial D got me interested in cars and racing. That should tell you what I think of this anime, and while Initial D may not be as beginner friendly as the likes of Top Gear, it could be what sparks your interest as well.

While driving the mountain pass one night, Keisuke of the Akagi Red Suns encounters the ‘Ghost of Akina Mountain,’ an AE86 (Eight-Six) car that takes corners at seemingly impossible speeds, passing him with ease. Keisuke challenges the local team, Akina Speed Stars, in the hope of a rematch. Unfortunately, the Ghost isn’t a part of the team. Akina leader Iketani has his pride on the line to defend his turf. However, after seeing his opponents’ speed, he pushes it too far and crashes, totalling his car. He now seeks the 86.

It turns out the 86 is driven by Takumi, a high school kid, son of a racing legend, friend of Iketani’s, and a guy everyone swore had no interest in cars. Takumi inadvertently learnt to drift while transporting deliveries for his father’s tofu shop since the seventh grade. He has to deliver tofu on time and undamaged while driving at night when no police are out to catch an underage driver.

This is a great origin story. It has a good mystique to it, yet remains within the realm of plausibility. Having driven the same roads for years and used the most efficient racing lines, it makes absolute sense that Takumi would have mastery over his car and the road. He comes into the challenges with a natural instinct for racing, but no clue on the mechanics of cars – he doesn’t know why his technique is effective, he just knows it works. To top it all, he has this no-cares-given attitude that infuriates his best friend Itsuki, who can’t understand why the guy who cares least for the sport is the best among them. Takumi only agreed to race in exchange for time with the car on Sunday and a full tank to go on a date.

To counter Takumi’s dry sensibilities, Itsuki brings humour with his desperation to find a girl (despite his motto, “Street racers don’t need girlfriends!”) and his overblown reactions to the most minor of incidents (the duckface art helps in this regard). He becomes Takumi’s cheerleader, fancying himself as a great racer too one day.

As word spreads of the 86’s prowess, more drivers come to challenge him, often in disbelief that a young guy could be as good as his reputation. He meets all sorts of personalities from the proud to the arrogant to the douchebags. These varied opponents also bring a variety of challenges, which keeps the action from becoming stale. Against Keisuke, it’s a simple race; later, there’s an overtaking race; my favourite is the gum tape deathmatch, where the driver’s hand is attached to the wheel, restricting steer unless one is willing to break their wrist.

The passion for drift culture is evident from the outset. The creators put a lot of effort into detailing the cars, exploring the mechanics of drift, why people love it so much, and what it’s like to be behind the wheel on the mountain at midnight. And I would expect no less, as legendary Drift King Keiichi Tsuchiya is an editorial supervisor for the anime. (Watch Itsuki’s actor unleash his inner anime character when Tsuchiya takes him out for a spin in his own 86.) In fact, Takumi’s driving life is based on Tsuchiya’s own – both learned doing deliveries, came from humble roots, and gained fame in mountain racing. It would be like having Michael Schumacher for an F-1 anime.

Initial D isn’t all racing, however. Between races, the plot takes the time to develop characters – the third challenge doesn’t start until halfway through First Stage. They could have easily doubled the number of races at the expense of characters if they so wished. Even with Takumi’s romance subplot not amounting to much in the long term, I am glad they gave the characters equal screen time to the cars. It does drag a little, though it isn’t anything serious. I actually grew more tired of the pessimism from Takumi’s friends each race. One would think that after seeing his talent, they would have a modicum of faith. Thankfully, Itsuki carries the optimism before long.

Initial D strikes a good balance between cars, characters, and mechanics. Even if you don’t know the difference between a turbocharger and a supercharger, it doesn’t matter; Initial D gives you enough to work with to enjoy these intense races.

Art – Medium

Initial D’s distinctive style doesn’t look great by today’s standards. I still laugh over a decade later at the duckface character art, and the car CG is noticeable. That said, do bear with the art – the series is worth it – and it improves with each season. (I would give Third Stage a ‘High’ art rating.) The jump between First and Second Stage is significant.

Sound – High

The music is hype-inducing eurobeat and the acting is great in Japanese. For the English, however, you need to be aware of two different dubs. In Tokyopop’s dub, they not only supplied weak acting but also replaced all the music with garbage 90s teen rock and hip-hop. This is what an awful dub looks like. Thankfully, once Funimation acquired the license, they redid the whole show with the original music and better acting – still not as good as the original Japanese, but certainly watchable.

Story – High

The birth of a Drift King in Central Japan’s Gunma prefecture. Tense races, nice cars, and a love for drift. Worthy of the source material.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for petrolheads and those looking to get into cars. If you have no interest in cars, Initial D is unlikely to hold your attention, unlike Top Gear, which had mass appeal for three blokes being ambitious but rubbish.

(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:

Great MusicRiveting Action

Negative: None

Redline – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Redline

 

Similar: Space Dandy

Initial D

 

Watched in: Japanese and English

Genre: Racing Action Sports Science Fiction

Length: 1 hr. 42 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Exquisite hand drawn art.
  • Sense of speed.
  • Heart-pounding action incorporated into racing.
  • Weird cast of characters.

Negatives:

  • Plot misses a few opportunities for depth.

What a ride! Redline may just be the most exhilarating anime ever made. If you can imagine F-Zero meets Wacky Races you will have an idea of what Redline holds in store. It centres on a race known as Redline, where anything goes – missiles, harpoons, ramming, whatever you want, resulting in a hectic and riveting battle to the finish line.

We meet JP, the greatest Elvis impersonator, in the qualifier race Yellowline, and straight away the pedal is to the floor. Vehicles blitz through the desert, firing at each other, dust trails everywhere, engines roaring, tires screeching, and it is glorious. What drew me into the action is the sense of speed and acceleration. Rarely do racing games and films capture that feeling of a car accelerating at full power; in Redline, the cars are high tech, so it was more important than ever to nail this aspect. The artists couldn’t have done better. The rattling frames, tire distortion, slipstream, phenomenal – such attention to detail.

As the racing is hyperactive, so too is the world design in Redline. We have many alien races from ducks to dogs, and the cast is a collection of weirdoes – in the good way. JP keeps a switchblade on him at all times, expect it’s a comb for that sweet hairdo of his. Another guy grows stronger the more he cries. Then there’s the alien granny midget that runs the cigarette stand – she’s…crazy, mouth foaming, bipolar, rabies-infected kinda crazy. The crowds and the press are like a hive mind, all hyperactive, all desperate to watch races, in love with the crashes and worship the drivers. Every scene presents some eccentricity or another.

It is fortunate that the writers knew how to create lively characters, for they experience little in the way of development. How they are when you meet them is how they will be by the end, for the most part. Similarly, the narrative is light on drama. For example, during the Yellowline race, JP is forced to throw the race at the finish line as part of a deal with the mafia – same plan in Redline. However, though his match fixing history comes to light, the plot does nothing with it in terms of drama. JP is never challenged, never forced to face his actions.

Another instance. During Redline, the host planet sees the race as an invasion, for it takes place near military secrets (against the galactic treat), so they go to war with the race itself. And yes, the mixture of war and racing makes for thrilling action, but there is no drama behind it, no politics. I feel it wouldn’t have taken much to elevate the single-note conflict to multi-faceted drama.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Redline is still thoroughly enjoyable and I wouldn’t hesitate to load it up when a friend asks to watch a good anime film. What Redline does right, and there is plenty of right, believe me, is perfect – the speed, the action, the energy. Watch Redline for those if nothing else.

Art – Very High

The team took seven years to produce Redline, and it shows. Smooth, hand drawn animation, full of life and vibrancy to match the action’s energy and pace. There is so much motion that one needs to watch each scene several times to notice the small details. I love the sense of speed, the use of motion tear when accelerating – the fact that the artists achieved this by hand blows my mind.

Sound – High

Like the art, the music gets your heart racing, pumped up as the cars flash across the screen to rock and techno. Engine sounds are perfect. The acting is good in either language – pick your preference.

Story – Medium

An exhilarating thrill ride in sci-fi racing. However, the overall plot is too straightforward, though without glaring flaws and is enjoyable.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch for its artistic achievement and fast-paced excitement. Even with the simple story, Redline is engaging and kept me riveted to the end.

(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:

Fluid AnimationRiveting ActionStunning Art Quality

Negative: None