Where is the Sports Anime East of the Pacific?

Exams are over and I’m officially a graduate.  It’s time for me to put more work into this website.

So, I’ve always been wondering about this.  Captain Tsubasa, probably the single most iconic sports anime I can name, has been the inspiration of many football players, such as Lionel Messi and Alessandro Del Piero.  There are a large number of quality sports anime, such as Slam Dunk have been some pretty big followings.  Add in the growth of anime in North America to the mix and you’d think some of these shows would really take off.  Heck, Eyeshield 21 is a sports anime about gridiron football.  The show was fairly popular, getting 145 episodes and manga generating 20 million in sales.  Yet despite the United States of America being the only country on earth which has its most popular sport being gridiron football, it never took off.  All it got was an interrupted release via streaming and quietly released DVDs.  And I know hindsight is 20/20, but I must disagree with AnimeNation’s old news blog post that sports anime are simply not aware of the genre.  10 years and still extremely limited penetration into the market means something is up.

What gives?

Guest writer for another blog (Robert’s Anime Corner), Jerry Campbell, highlights a few aspects.  I’m not sure I agree with them, but I’ve summarized them below:

  • Emphasis on the individual in North America.  He points to American emphasis on quarterbacks and star players getting attention whereas the Japanese culture tends to direct towards emphasis on team effort.
  • The characters reflect self-repression as oppose to celebration of self ability and persistence.  The do not sell well in North America.
  • The anime are fairly cookie cutter.  There is little deviance in a formula that doesn’t sell in North America.

I think some good points are mentioned here.  Sports anime are fairly similar.  Stock characters are quite often used.  That being said, I would imagine it’s not impossible for unique characters to intersect with sports.  But I certainly agree that they are standard use due to limited audiences for the most famous examples.  And my beliefs on Japanese culture are pretty similar in terms of difference to North American culture.

The biggest disagreement I probably have is with the statement that stories about suppression of self for the good of the team do not sell effectively.  One of the most famous books about gridiron football (and often the first one listed if you talk about the sport in narrative) is Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream.  It has received many accolades and was written in as #4 on Sports Illustrated’s top 100 sports books list.  This story is anything but about the stars and is entirely of suppression.  Of self for a fleeting glory.  Do yourself a favour and read the book if you’re interested.  It really seems the movie doesn’t really recapture this in its entirety.

What is the main in my mind then?

Association of Anime and Mange with “Nerdom” in North America

I find this is a pretty big one.  For those in North America, give me some characteristics of your run-of-the-mill anime or manga fan.  Go ahead.  I’m betting the vast majority picked either children, non-social individuals, or general nerds.  I admit, I’m in the last one myself.  I enjoy sports (ice and field hockey…despite them being different things entirely), but also play card games, know how to play a few tabletop RPGs, and know way more than I ever should on quite a few video games.

This isn’t really true in Japan.  There were a few Prime Ministers which have had professed love of anime and manga.  Taro Aso, PM from 2008 to 2009, was the most famous.  I’ll let you search the results up yourself.  At any rate, I think the connotations between manga and anime in Japan and North America, as the two most prominent examples, are different.  While there is a growing “shut in” culture being tied to deeper Japanese anime fans, it’s perfectly acceptable and seemingly fine to be a fan, even if you’re in a high role such as a leading politician.  Kind of similar to how few Americans aren’t really concerned with their president Barrack Obama being comfortable quoting Star Trek and Superman.

This would be no different for sports anime.  And the major problem, under this theory, is that this culture contrasts with the typical “sports culture”.  The typical stereotypes of a sports fan (“jock”) and those of the above activities (“nerd”) are wholly different.  There’s a great reason why TVtropes can get away with using “Game of Nerds” as its trope to describe Hollywood’s portrayal of nerds and sports.  Because these two contrast so greatly, it’s rare that sports anime succeed in the current North American anime market because they just don’t appeal to what the average fan thinks about.

But of course, the demographic of anime fans are changing.  Much like older video game fans, I think there are starting to become waves of older anime fans who will have a more varied set of interests.  And if that happens, there may be enough to encourage the sports anime to come over.

Or maybe I’ll be like the AnimeNation blog and will be disproved a few years down the road.

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