I am not really qualified to write about sports. Nor do I read a lot about sports, either, but evidently reading about sports these days does not make anyone happy.
Just this past summer, the media narrative about sports seems to have soured considerably. John Oliver took down Sepp Blatter and his seedy gang of FIFA executives. The New York Times thought that a judge overturning Tom Brady’s suspension was important enough to warrant multiple notifications on my phone. Our colleagues at Halftime want you to hate Floyd Mayweather and his misogyny and dirty tricks. Whatever happened to the beautiful game?
Within the genre of anime, sports are another story. From Haikyuu! (about a volleyball team) to Big Windup! (about a weird baseball pitcher who lacks self-esteem) to Yowamushi Pedal (about a cycling team that has members with intensely weird hair and a biking prodigy who is really into anime himself), sports anime is brimming with stories of valor, dignity, discipline, respect, and perhaps a greater metaphysical sense of how some Japanese people feel about the spirit of sports.
Onegaishimasu is one of the first phrases that Japanese language learners will learn in their first week of class. It is a versatile phrase that expresses goodwill and trust, or to thank someone who has offered to do you a favor, or you can say it after introducing yourself to someone new to indicate that you would like to build a good relationship.
Before every volleyball game, every baseball game, every at-bat, and at every practice, you will notice that the athlete will almost always say, “Onegaishimasu!” and acknowledge his or her opponent with a bow. The verbal gesture is brief and doesn’t seem to be all that significant. Sometimes, if you’re watching the anime with English subtitles, the translator will interpret that phrase as, “Let’s play!” or “I’m ready!”
But those translations are not entirely accurate. It appears more like a request to your opponent that you’d like to play the game the best as possible. You want to show that you are worthy of your opponent. You acknowledge the fact that you and your opponent have endured grueling practices from dawn to dusk, and that neither of you are going to take it easy on your opponent.
Ultimately, it’s a sign of respect towards each other. And that’s how, as this scene from Haikyuu! cutely shows, a rivalry is born—through acknowledgement and appreciation, not jokes and demeaning chants about our opponents at the Verizon Center.
The underdogs matter, too
Success isn’t an element that you can take for granted in a sports anime, even if the protagonists are so young, green, and adorable that,you want them to win at all costs. Alas, the road to victory is filled with nail-biting moments where the momentum of the game changes. Yes, it’s really just an animated cartoon, but when a single volleyball or baseball game or a cycling contests drags on for more than a dozen episodes where you have no idea if the team you’re rooting for is going to win or not, you just get stressed. (And because you’re binge-watching, your heart rate remains elevated throughout the night.)
When an anime decides to pad its earlier episodes with how lovable and friendly every character is, how they wake up at 4 a.m. to arrive at the gym for practice, and how they have no time to do any homework everyday, and then the anime decides to hit you with the most heartbreaking loss after the team has worked so hard, you can’t help but die a little inside.
During my freshman year, I went to a basketball game at the Verizon Center where, 35 minutes in, everyone knew for certain that the Hoyas weren’t going to make a turnaround and take the game. To my surprise and disappointment, my friends and pretty much everyone else began to leave their seats and file for the exit before the game was even over.
We left our own team hanging to deal with the devastation of their defeat by themselves on their home court. And mind you, this is our basketball team that I’m talking about—what of the other varsity teams on campus that don’t get as much attention as men’s basketball? Is this how we treat the athletes that we’re supposed to love?
Is sportsmanship a fantasy?
It’s sad to admit this, but to watch anime is to escape the cruel realities of everyday life, and this is where sports anime comes in. Because after sitting in the Verizon Center, you feel like you’re sitting in an endless Chick-Fil-A commercial rather than a basketball game, and after watching John Oliver destroy remains of FIFA’s dignity on his HBO show, perhaps everyone needs a little fantasy about the importance of sports.
We need to relive the moments where the beautiful game is filled with endless youthful passion, the teams were brimming with an intense camaraderie, and spectators teared up at beauty of defeat and the endless pursuit of pure sportsmanship by the young athlete who stopped at nothing to attain victory.