The realm of anime was first introduced to me through the humble video rental store. Back then, my dad would take us to rent stuff every Tuesday when they had specials. I remember being able to grab four tapes for just a couple of bucks, as long as it wasn’t in the new releases. I went through a few different phases. Sci-fi. Horror. Academy award winners. Then there was the anime phase.
During the 90s, anime didn’t really have the same massive outreach it does now. A bunch of the boys at school were hardcore fans of Dragon Ball Z, while the some girls were in love with Sailor Moon. And that was it. The shelf or two at the video store was basically all the available anime in Canada at the time. It introduced me to a particular side of anime, the more cultish, mature, cerebral, and violent side that appealed to Western culture. Classics like Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll, and Princess Mononoke presented a stellar level of animation far beyond anything seen in American cartoons, and some of the most complex and compellingly intricate stories too. But this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Over time, I started to dig into more anime through whatever p2p or hidden download sites in the corners of the internet. There was no Netflix, or Crunchyroll, or Funimation that provided collections like there is today. Instead, there were fansubs. Entire communities of anime fanatics that lovingly subtitled episode by episode and shared them online for the rest of the world to access. There were plenty of reasons to fall in love with anime. Some of the best drama were found in goth gangster series like Gungrave. Enchanting magical realism found in Wolf’s Rein or Haibane Renmei. Or the most depressing psycho-mecha of Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Then there are the sports and slice-of-life genres. There was this one captivating series that fell into this more realistic side of anime called Hikaru no Go. It was about a boy growing up playing the chess-like game of go. It’s about a little boy who starts to play go, rising up the ranks, meeting new rivals as both friend and foe, before playing the top level grandmaster. The story might sound familiar given the recent Netflix hit, The Queen’s Gambit. The main difference is that the boy, Hikaru, was guided by the spirit of an ancient go master, and the fact this anime was released 20 years ago back in 2001.
Hikaru no Go is one series in a history of many that follow the same trope, playing and mastering a game. Chihayafuru follows a girl and two boys as they rise up the ranks of a traditional Japanese poetry-based card game. March Comes in Like a Lion, follows a young professional shogi (Japanese chess) player living with depression and anxiety. This idea of passion and mastery aren’t only limited to games. A recently acclaimed series Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a historical piece about the dying art of monologue plays called rakugo. And there are countless sports animes about anything from baseball, to swimming, to volleyball like Haikyuu!! (yes, it has two exclamation marks).
Haikyuu!! is the top sports anime at the time I’m writing this piece. It has a massive following both in the East and the West. At the surface it may seem odd that a show about a bunch of high school boys playing volleyball would be popular at all. First off, volleyball isn’t exactly a popular sport in any part of the world. Japan is known for its obsession with baseball. Americans covet football (not the soccer kind) and basketball. And globally football (the soccer kind) is loved by many. So, overall Haikyuu!! sounds pretty run of the mill when it comes to the setup, but like most game or sports based anime, that’s not really the point. It only serves as the vessel for the things that really make it shine.
Most of these types of anime follow the same plotline. There’s some kid who isn’t particularly interested in anything or they don’t fit in, but they have some innate talent that they haven’t yet discovered. That is, until they are pushed or dragged into the sport that becomes their obsession. They make a bunch of friends with the team, form a crush on that boy or girl, and rise up the ranks against all the formidable opponents. Pretty vanilla stuff. But along the way you get to meet a bunch of the teammates, each with their own personality, their own backstory, and their own relationship dynamics.
In Haikyuu!! the main headliners are Tobio and Shoyo, two dumb boys that are passionate about volleyball. They bicker with each other like an internet shipped couple and have a special chemistry on the court. Then there are the three seniors who stuck around with a crappy team until these new juniors showed up. There are sophomores that aren’t the star, but feel like they want to contribute. And of course, there are a couple of cute female team managers the whole team has a crush on. Along with the alumni coach, they all learn to work together, sharpen their skills, and rely on one another with this unrivaled level of comradery.
But it doesn’t stop there.
As Karasuno high school has practice matches, goes to training camps, and play in tournaments against other high schools you are introduced to the rival team and their cast of characters. You might think that these other schools come and go, but they actually stick around. They become friends and rivals of the protagonist school, they watch as audience members, they have their own school history, their own character backstories, their own special skillsets. And there are even stints where they become the protagonists while they play their matches. The main school isn’t even shown for a few episodes. Given a weekly release schedule this mean they wouldn’t be seen for a month!
Something like this is unheard of in Western media. It would be like watching Friends, then for weeks they would show this other group of six friends in a different café before coming back to the stars of the show. Yet that’s precisely the appeal of anime. Each character gets their own time to shine, whether or not they are the main characters. There is a sense of connection to all the teams that play. Every team has practiced hard, has worked through their troubles, has played their best. The stakes feel higher because both sides have their own motivations and drive to win, and the audience gets to experience that. There isn’t the home team and the enemy team. The opposing team has their own strategies, their own skills, their own jokes, and character quirks. Viewers start to like and cheer for both sides because they’re all so likeable.
All the characters also share an unbridled passion for the game. Some might have an in-your-face kind of passion where they just find pure joy in playing. Others might be a bit lazy and never wanted to play in the first place, but they want they don’t want to let their friends or their team down. Others still just want to be the best. This kind of passion is infectious, and anime takes it up another level.
As the characters learn and grow, the audience also does too. What the coaches and players learn about the game, they also teach to the viewers. How the positioning works, how the strategy works, how special tactics and skills work. So, when Shoyo and Tobio nail that minus tempo quick smash, as a viewer you feel the achievement since they were there learning it with them. Someone who watches Haikyuu!! will go in knowing nothing about volleyball, to feeling like they’re becoming experts as part of the team. This was especially strong in Hikaru no Go. While they do teach viewers how the game works, the game of go is ridiculously complex and the audience probably won’t understand go as much as with volleyball. But what they can grasp is the amount of effort it takes and the stakes involved in rising up the rankings. Hikaru took 75 episodes across 3 years to reach the final match against the grandmaster. Along the way you see him play every rank as he grows from 11 to 15 years old. You follow his journey almost in real time. Every struggle, every loss, every victory, until he reaches the top.
You might wonder how can a show about a board game be engaging or entertaining. Or even one about volleyball. There are no laugh tracks, no crude jokes, no sex or violence. Yet somehow it all works. The enchanting magic of anime comes from its wide cast of colourful characters, unbridled passion, and levelling up, all mixed in with some of the best animation in the world. Anime doesn’t just give you a show to watch, it makes you feel like a part of the team.
At least when it’s not full of weird shit and sexual fetishes, but we’ll get to that another time.