This below post was kind of something that came to mind after I hit “publish” on the previous post, and it’s too big to just edit into my previous post. So.
To summarize my last post, I am just complaining that sports manga/anime stories shouldn’t be taking sports just as a character development vehicle. It’s not to say don’t develop characters. I’m not saying we shouldn’t focus on intercharacter relationships, teamwork, or any of that good stuff. What I am saying is the way the actual sport is portrayed in sports anime/manga should be taken seriously and more thematically thorough. It should not just be a means to an end.
To go to the next step, maybe Chihayafuru is a good example because that is a pretty hollow example. By that I mean competitive karuta, as much as you dress it up to be, is still not much more than Egyptian Ratscrew. There are techniques, but it’s hardly a game nearly as complex as, say, motor sports in general. Or even most team sports. Is it more complicated and nuanced than curling? Anyway, that’s not the point, and I don’t want to belittle anything. But part of what makes Chihayafuru ticks is how it explains one of the most ethnically obscure sport of Japan to an audience who largely isn’t aware that it is a thing. There’s the whole exploratory angle. It really isn’t a story focused on an audience of pro karuta fans who follows the scene, but we share Chihaya’s point of view, starting a novice, as she explores the world of karuta.
What I enjoyed from Chihayafuru is that it plays pretty hard on the artistic nature of karuta. That the poems’ history as courtesan time-wasters is not lost on the audience. The art to “singing” the poems, for example, interplay with how fast someone can pick up the audio cues and thus get the right card first, is precisely the kind of thing that ties both the athletics and artistry sides of the sport and what it means to people who play it, in light of karuta. It’s not done in light of some intercharacter conflict or struggle, but as a nature of karuta. And in a way that karuta is such a simple game means there were only a few ways they can make these sorts of things stick out in the anime. I think that is a mixed blessing because the story can focus on the “go to koshien” aspect, which is, admittedly a necessity if the game here is foreign to most viewers. I’m also glad, visually, Chihayafuru is all about those artsy things.
And I think that’s the best way to approach sports anime: treat it as art. To use K-ON as an example, music is, by default, treated like art. It is about how it affect our lives. It’s not as much about how competition, pressure, a desire to be successful, self-worth, or whatever teenage angstbait or page-turning trick, but about what it means to learn to be a craftsman in your art. It’s partly what makes team sports so much fun to watch, because it’s not just a single guy doing the physical equivalent of hunting wild boars in a MMORPG until he dings level cap. Mio and Azunyan can practice until their fingers bleed through and their guitars stain crimson, but it’s not what music is about. Just like how abusive and difficult summer camps is what Koshien is about, but not so much what baseball is about. But singing a nursery rhyme when it’s raining outside and you’re doing absolutely nothing on a Saturday afternoon is exactly one way what real life music is like.
This is partly why I really like Oofuri. That is one story where you know whoever wrote it paid the gods of baseball the proper respect. It’s a plain koshien story, sure, and it still focuses on the battery like 90+% of baseball anime, sure, but the treatment of the sport is glorious. You can actually find what is artful about both baseball and Oofuri just by watching a bunch of people play the sport. Despite swimming in its very culturally-specific context of the Japanese high school sports club experience AND the whole Koushien culture context, Oofuri takes a big step beyond just all of that, and talks, well, baseball.
So, yeah, the other big reason why I like Oofuri is because it goes beyond the rigid genre walls of sports anime, the go to koushien schtik, and even the walls of high school baseball stories (and high school stories). Maybe another way out of these barriers for a non-Japanese to enjoy sports anime is through the appeal of these simpler, fundamental concepts like teamwork or raw human emotion and growth/character development. But if the focus is on that, I feel the work would lose its sports appeal.