Have you been watching the Olympics lately? Unfortunately, I’ve been fairly busy this month and have missed a lot of it, including my favorite summer Olympic sport—gymnastics.
If you haven’t watched sports anime before, it may seem like a strange idea. I mean, why would you want to spend time watching cartoon characters doing sports when you could be watching the real thing, right?
But, like most anime shows, sports anime are appealing to me for two main reasons: 1) The characters, and 2) their passion. And I think that these two aspects are why so many people enjoy watching other people play sports. There’s something inspirational and exciting about sports players, their abilities, and their drive, and even though sports anime characters aren’t real, their interactions and struggles are still relateable.
I started watching sports anime a few years ago. My partner was watching Chihayafuru, and I quickly found myself drawn into the story, which centers on Chihaya Ayase, a high school student and talented karuta player.
Competitive karuta is a traditional Japanese card game based on poetry and syllables and sounds, and although it may sound dull from that simplistic description, Chihayafuru makes karuta surprisingly exciting! The show encourages you to root for Chihaya and hope that she’ll reach her dream of one day becoming the karuta Queen. It makes you feel the same feelings that Chihaya and the other characters experience—passion, ambition, and hard work, as well as happiness when they win, but also disappointment when they lose. And it makes you feel as though you should be putting as much effort into the things you love as Chihaya does.
It also inspired me to do a little research about karuta. Real-life karuta Queen matches that you can find on YouTube, like the one above, fascinate me, and I wish that I could understand Japanese enough to play a match for fun one day. Chihayafuru is probably my favorite sports anime, because its main character is a relateable woman, which you’ll see from the rest of my list is a rare thing in sports anime, and because it introduced me to a sport/art that I had never heard of before. The art is also very beautiful, and unlike some sports anime, I didn’t feel as though the show dragged on too long.
After Chihayafuru, my next favorite sports anime will seem very superficial: Free! If you haven’t heard of Free!, you need to change that. I will admit, I became interested in this anime after seeing the thirty-second teaser and screenshots of the show on Tumblr a few years ago. The anime didn’t even have a name at the time and wasn’t even really a show yet, and still, fans were already choosing favorite characters and lovingly calling the show the “Swimming Anime.” This was enough to intrigue me, and when it was finally released in the summer of 2014, I watched it immediately. Yes, for many people, this show is all about the hunky boys, and even for me, that was a draw; however, it’s not entirely a superficial anime, and in fact, it actually has a lot of depth.
The show centers around four boys—Haruka, Makoto, Nagisa and Rei—who come together and start a swim club at their high school. It also stars Haruka’s best friend from elementary school, Rin, who used to swim with Haruka, Makoto, and Nagisa when they were little, but moved away soon after competing in and winning a swimming relay race with the three other boys. Haruka and Rin have a sort of friendly rivalry going on throughout the series, although much of it is on Rin’s end. Haruka just wants to swim freestyle—he just wants to be free—but Rin wants to beat Haruka, and the two of them often race and tie one another.
Friendship and helping one another to keep striving are the ultimate themes of Free!, and like Chihayafuru, I feel like the show isn’t too drawn out. I also really like the animation style. Sadly, there are very few women in the show, mostly just Rin’s sister Gou and the boys’ homeroom teacher and faculty advisor Miho Amakata. Gou spends much of her time helping the boys—and talking often about their muscles—and Miho, or Ama-chan as the boys call her, isn’t taken very seriously by the swim team, especially after they discover that she used to be a swimsuit model. Suffice to say, the show doesn’t pass the Bechdel–Wallace test, and yet, this didn’t really bother me too much when I watched it. After all, I think everyone watching ends up talking about the boys’ muscles!
The last anime I want to recommend is a little bit different from Chihayafuru and Free! But it is a show that I found myself slowly being pulled into from the moment I started watching it: Yowamushi Pedal. Yowapeda, as fans call it, was originally created for a shōnen or teenage male audience, and yet, it eventually garnered a large audience of teenage girls and grown women, making it different from Chihayafuru and Free!, which both seem to me to be meant for a primarily female audience.
Yowapeda is probably more similar to other sports anime than Chihayafuru and Free! The show centers around Sakamichi Onoda, a high school student and anime geek, who suddenly finds himself joining his high school’s bicycle club. It has a huge cast of characters, as well as two seasons with a total of 62 episodes. It is a time commitment, especially since some story arcs can last many episodes—a 3km stretch of road, for example, can take a group of characters at least three episodes to complete, and of course, along the way, those characters are talking and conversing and even having flashbacks to their past.
Even so, I really enjoyed Yowapeda. Onoda is adorable and inspiring. I mean, if geeky, little Onoda can become a biking champion, I could do it too, right? He makes road racing look like a lot of fun, even though I know that it’s actually very hard work. Still, I watched Yowapeda at a time when I needed some inspiration, when I needed something to give me a push back in the right direction, and the show made me really want to get into bicycling again. In the end, I didn’t go out and buy myself an expensive road bicycle or a pair of cycling shoes, but I did find myself getting back into other physical activities that I love, including muscle building, barre, and yoga.
Rine Karr is an Anime Writer at Girls in Capes. She’s a writer and aspiring novelist by moonlight and a copyeditor by daylight. Rine loves good food, travel, and lots of fiction, especially novels, anime, manga, video games, and films. She’s also the Chief Copyeditor and an occasional contributor at Women Write About Comics.