Full disclosure: I am not a fan of sports by any stretch of the imagination. After a brief (and fairly disastrous) bout with middle school basketball I have studiously avoided athletics of all flavors, even as a spectator, but I LOVE Sports Anime!
This genre tends to focus on character driven stories with boatloads of delicious drama. The four series featured below don’t assume that you have a great deal of prior knowledge about the athletic activities that they focus on and each does a great job of deftly integrating necessary information into the narrative without over explaining or talking down to their audience.
Since he was young, Shoyo Hinata’s dream has been to play volleyball. His middle school didn’t have enough players to form an official team and the only time he was able to gather together enough friends to plan in a tournament, they were immediately pitted against the super driven “King of the Court” Tobio Kageyama. Hinata vows to defeat Kageyama, but then they end up at the same High School!
A fast paced slice-of-life sports anime, this show has a solid ensemble. The puppy levels of enthusiasm and excitement that Hinata throws at the uber intense Kageyama makes for entertaining interactions and this duo is complemented by the strong set of adorable upperclassmen on the Volleyball team as well as fully fleshed out antagonists. Multiple characters get their own time in the spotlight complete with angst ridden flashbacks!
Swim Team: Free! Iwatobi Swim Club
In elementary school, Nanase Haruka, Tachibana Makoto, Matsuoka Rin, and Hazuki Nagisa attended the same swimming school together. When three of the four swimmers start attending high school together they attempt to resurrect their school’s abandoned swim team. They plan to compete against their old teammate Rin’s High School in the regional competition so will need to work together to make it happen.
Free! is a newer show, so the animation is really splendid, with underwater sequences that have a hyper saturated color palette of blues and aquas, but the tempestuous interplay between Rin and his former teammates is why you will keep watching these episodes. The major conflict of the first season revolves around the team while they recruit a fourth member, convince a teacher to work as their staff advisor, and train for competition and Rin’s interactions with Haruka are particularly intense. Since the main characters are on a swim team they spend most of their time in swimsuits and the series’ visuals are obviously aimed at folks attracted to male bodies. This series checks all of the boxes that make for a beautiful Sports Anime: Teamwork. Friendships. DRAMA. *sigh*
Baseball: Princess Nine (Kisaragi Joshikou Yakyuubu)
The Kisuragi School for Girls is trying to put together an all-female baseball team. That’s right, not softball, baseball! This new team is lead by the extraordinarily talented rookie pitcher, Ryo Hayakawa. She is struggling to recruit at least eight other players so that Kisuragi can qualify to compete as the first girls team in the National High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium. The girls will have to overcome many obstacles on their journey including a tennis star straight out of Mean Girls, disapproving family members, and a love triangle or two.
Princess Nine is the oldest title on this list and while the 1998 art style (and some of the content) is slightly dated, some issues clearly never go out of style. This female focused, feminist leaning show has structural similarities to a Magical Girl anime. Similar to Sailor Moon, each member of the roster has either a featured introduction episode or mini storyline. The series methodically builds up their viewers attachment to each character so that by the time you get to the extreme melodrama at the end of the season, you are solidly invested in these girls. Sadly, the end of the series is extremely abrupt and there is no second season. I’m sorry. This is why fanfiction exists.
Basketball: Kuroko’s Basketball (Kuroko no Basuke)
The “Generation of Miracles” was the nickname given to a group of five extraordinary middle school basketball stars. This series starts off after this group has started attending separate high schools. Kuroko Tetsuya was the best kept secret of this middle school team. His special skills combined with the raw power of US transfer student Taiga Kagami make Seirin High a force to be reckoned with, but can they really stand up to Kuroko’s former middle school teammates?
The players from the “Generation of Miracles” function as a villains of the week for the first few episodes, but as line between allies and enemies blurs the emotional stakes skyrocket with each chapter. This show is the most gameplay heavy of the titles on this list, but the larger than life court time drama is riveting and features, I kid you not, basketball special attacks. At one point a character punches a basketball to pass it more quickly to a teammate:
He punches it.
It is called an “ignite pass” and it is beautiful.
Do you have any other sports anime that you think we should cover? Comment below!
— Jennifer Billingsley, currently reading Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell.
Goggles “Old Blue Eyes” ©Martin Kenny, edited by Jennifer Billingsley
Swimming pool background image used with permission: ©Diane Crispell, edited by Jennifer Billingsley