Cultural Differences in Sports Anime And Manga

HN Matsuri Tokugawa

Ed from Vertical wrote a blurb about sports anime and manga and it is, in my opinion, the baseline. He covered a few things that are challenges or causes why sports anime/manga just don’t take off in the States.

Viz tried promoting Slam Dunk with the NBA. That didn’t work. They marketed Whistle! with US Soccer before a World Cup. That didn’t work. They partnered with the NFL for Eyeshield. That didn’t work. Were their plans perfect? No. But they sure tried and with some of the biggest brands in sports. Sports anime rarely seems to work in English. So tying in anime fans to their respective manga is almost pointless.

Story-wise most sports anime are high school based. That poses a problem cause the structure is different for sports in Japan vs the US. Sports in the US are league based, so teams play full seasons before a playoff tournament. In Japan high schools are almost entirely tournament only. So where in the US kids train thru playing games; in Japan they train to play games. Also as these works are fiction there is a lack of familiarity with characters and teams. It may be hard for casual readers to understand the rules of certain games if they aren’t already fans of that sport.

I would also say there might be some social resistance as faces and names are not what people see from their heroes in the US.

If you drill down on examples, yeah, Slam Dunk, Eyeshield, etc all have additional factors and issues as far as why nobody gave them a damn outside of Asia, but a fundamental one is the contextual one. Just like sports culture is ingrained in America mainstream consciousness, the same is for Japan. And when Japanese writers create sports stories they rely on those assumptions and cultural norms, which often don’t translate well to the States. High school level sports organization is entirely a different bag than the Japanese one for all the popular sports like baseball, basketball, etc.

I’m thinking these differences  even comes down to what people are looking for in entertainment in terms of narratives involving sports. Why do people read ESPN? SI? Or write Breaking Madden? Or watch 30 for 30? I don’t know, but I feel that’s kind of the mentality that ultimately has to be catered to for Americans to care about sports fiction.

And in order to get over that hurdle, maybe what it takes is either for people to buy in on the context (eg., anime fans who dig characters and the tournament plot), or for people who are in for the giggles and can live without it (eg., Shaolin Soccer). It’s like sports comedies.

It makes me wonder if anime/manga sports comedies actually have a shot at making it in the States. It’s never been done in a serious way, as far as I know. And probably not something like Teekyuu…

I wonder how anime/manga fans would feel about something like Friday Night Lights. Or maybe if someone made a manga adaptation. That’s the kind of issues, I am assuming, that western audiences of “sports” media would enjoy.

At any rate, I think we all need to understand this before going forward. Maybe it doesn’t really mean much; what are hits are hits. I do know that in general I don’t enjoy sports manga mainly for these kinds of reasons. The narratives about real life sports leagues, teams and players are so much better than what Japan’s fictional ones have to offer, partly because the fictional ones are usually about something else entirely different.

14 Responses to “Cultural Differences in Sports Anime And Manga”

  • jpmeyer

    For a long time, the model I had mentally for fictionalized sports was the Friday Night Lights model (sports being incidental/metaphorical/whatever for the inter-character drama), but in recent years I’ve realized that there’s a second one in pro wrestling.

    What I mean there is more about how pro wrestling got to its current form, namely in that real wrestlers realized early on that real matches often don’t necessarily have particularly compelling narratives (I mean, almost all of the pretexts for the games are “scheduling algorithm made this matchup during the preseason”), much of a hook beyond simple tribalism, or crowd pleasing action and that it’d be much more attractive as a spectacle if it were staged.

    Think about something like the Super Bowl from last year and how that was hot garbage. Or, think about how nobody cares about sports games between middling small market teams (or even championship matches between “boring” small market teams). You could also toss in something about how we need fantasy sports to give a shit about pretty much any sports not revolving around “our” team(s).

    (That also said, think about something like the 2007 Fiesta Bowl which would’ve gotten laughed out of a pitch meeting for being so corny and unbelievable!)

    And it’s not like fictionalized sports have trouble working in America in terms of stuff like sports movies, nor do I think a lot of the cultural stuff should really be a hindrance after all. Like, pretty much any American sports movie/show/whatever is “We want to get to the championship” so I sincerely doubt that it’s a non-starter if said route is a tournament rather than a league.

    So in terms of sports manga, it seems like a bigger issue would be in terms of creating characters/teams to care about and having them compete in exciting games which also have greater overarching significance to them. “Exciting” (and to a lesser extent “overarching significance”) are important points as well in the sense that any fictionalized sports will have the meta cloud of audience expectations regarding fiction hanging over them as well. What I mean by that is even if a match is “exciting” in the sense of like TIED 0-0 GOING INTO SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME, it’s not going to be able to hook the audience if it’s a foregone conclusion that the good guys are win anyway because it’s only the second round or whatever. This is why it can be useful to have the narrative not revolve so much in ways that write it into a corner since it leaves out other satisfying ways to resolve a particular story. If the game is built up as like OUR LAST CHANCE TO MAKE IT TO KOUSHIEN or whatever, hurr durr I bet they’re gonna win the game and make it to Koushien since anything short of that would most likely not be satisfying. Like for example, I personally fuckin’ love Rocky-type stories where even though the good guy loses he still “wins” in the end because sempai noticed me or HE TOOK THE CHAMP TO THE LIMIT, and they give lots of storytelling potential both in the even itself as well as in what can come after that.

    • omo

      Applying your ideas to facts:
      1. Are you suggesting that a reason why, say, sports manga do poorly, is because these sports teams “are not my teams”?
      2. Are you suggesting that a reason why, say, sports manga do poorly, is because they are narratively predictable? (FNL model or not)

      Ultimately tournaments and sportsball are relatively universal in terms of their appeal. Some guy shooting hoops in Japan is probably enjoying it more or less the same way as some guy shooting hoops in America. You are right, in that sense cultural differences doesn’t matter as a per se obstacle, but it can matter in the sense that it makes the reader feel “these are not my team(s).”

      I mean just look at who would read Tony Romo/Tebow fanfics.

      I do think the pro wrestling concept makes sense, so that’s kind of like what I mean by Shaolin Soccer to a degree.

  • jpmeyer

    1) Sort of. I’m saying that this is a problem that real sports have, which sports manga will then also have unless/until the audience gets invested in the characters/teams.

    2) Sort of. I noticed this first as I said with pro wrestling. Like while every once and a while in real sports you’ll get something crazy like when Appalachian State beat Michigan, you’ll never see something like that in fictional sports. The worst example of this is when I did a WIWFTWTW review of Flame of Recca where every single bout was ridiculously contrived since you knew that Recca would always need to fight in the deciding match of each round so you knew that every other time when his teammates fought it would be meaningless in some way. They’re up 2-0? The next 2 members will lose. Down 0-2? Next 2 will win.

    3) To go into the meta expectations thing, in real sports the mindset is like “The Broncos are a pass heavy team but the Seahawks have a historically dominant pass defensive, so they’ll win by shutting down their offense”. Nobody really applies this to fictional sports expectations though. To use wrestling again, going into Wrestlemania last year the predictions were like “I think Dave Batista might win the title so that WWE and Marvel can use it as a marketing opportunity for Guardians of the Galaxy” or “The Undertaker is going to win because ‘Undertaker always wins at Wrestlemania’ has been a meme for 3 decades”. So in order to make fictional sports exciting, you need to try to prevent those sorts of meta assumptions from sneaking in (orrrrrrrrr, to make the thwarting of the meta expectations the twist, which is what happened in both of those cases).

    4) One case I liked was of all things Ginban Kaleidoscope where they didn’t need to make her like WIN IT ALL and DEFEAT HER FIERCEST RIVAL IN THE PROCESS and all that kind of stuff, so that just getting there was satisfying enough.

    5) That said, some of these issues ARE due to the use of tournament structures since those provide tons of restrictions that straitjacket the story. If the team is in that tournament because they ARE DOING IT FOR COACH (RIP) and they need to defeat their BITTER RIVALS THAT OWNED THEM SO BAD THAT IT KILLED COACH (RIP) in order to achieve this, it makes things pointless if say, their BITTER RIVALS are in the other side of the bracket but lose a few rounds in or if they meet the BITTER RIVALS in like the first round and now there’s still this tournament to sleepwalk through.

    6) And let’s not even get into something like Saki lawl

  • Seraph

    Reading this, I’m curious if you’ve read/watched such series as Kuroko no Basket and Chihayafuru. Okay the last one is a bit of a stretch to call it a sports anime, but it really follows sports anime tropes and format, although it does insert more drama… I’m sidetracking a bit too much here.

    Anyway, I’m bringing these two up here because I feel they do bring a different flair to the usual sports anime, in which you just assume the main characters’ team will win because otherwise you wouldn’t have much of a story to tell. I don’t want to spoil too much here in case you haven’t seen either shows, but basically assuming they win all the time is wrong in both cases. It’s especially wrong in Chihayafuru since individual match performances for the teammates vary wildly and I feel that’s where the draw comes from. The main problem with marketing Chihayafuru outside of Japan is probably the obscure nature of the “sport” which is being played (hell even most Japanese are pretty iffy about the nature of karuta), but the focus on individual drama lends itself pretty well to the sensibilities of the american viewer as I see it being closer to your average sport-related sitcom than most sports anime are.

    Kuroko no Basket is also in sort of a similar situation in which you are presented more than just basic “rivalries” between teams and you start rooting for other teams as they go through tournaments. If you find yourself uninterested in most sports anime I suggest you try it, it brings some nice flavor to the mostly similar genre.

  • Telliamed

    Actually Chihayafuru exhibit all the problems JP talked about fairly strongly; enjoying it is something we have to take for granted in terms of watching it for the character development versus for the “sports” of the thing.

    Could be that we were allowed to take the sport for granted that way because it was a sport that is foreign to us. We grow up on the big three sports here so when we watch an anime about basketball there is an overwhelming temptation to insert it into our domestic sports context. Which is a mistake of course and distracts us from what the story is actually trying to tell us. A sort of cultural uncanny valley where we see something very familiar to us but presented in too unfamiliar a way that we get hung up on the differences.

    Is this why I’m enjoying Yowamushi Pedal, even though cycling isn’t entirely unfamiliar to me? Or is that because I bike myself. Do people who play the sport enjoy sports anime more than spectators?

    Waiting for the curling anime to see if that takes off in the U.S. But then it would bomb in Canada.

    • omo

      I think that’s part of it. What both Ed and I were talking about is precisely this context is different, and that’s part of what sports fans are interested in. JP is saying on top of that, ultimately you still have to deliver some kind of, for lack of a better term, drama, that is compelling enough but yet context-sensitive. Anything that’s set in a tournament setting will have to struggle with it.

      To put it in different terms, unless we are already fans of the art form or genre, why would anyone go read or watch Chihayafuru unless we are interested in the drama within? It has no lateral attachment to “sports” in the way that a baseball or basketball story can be marketed as. It becomes a matter of the work meeting the expectation of someone looking for a particular type of story and getting it. Imagine how well it goes if you look for a basketball story and you end up getting something that looks like the sports of basketball, but it’s nothing like you have any experience with. It’s not very engaging.

  • jpmeyer

    This is 100% hearsay since I didn’t watch it, but ghostlightning said that Baby Steps does a great job of being about its sport.

  • jpmeyer

    Bah, comment got eated.

    Anyway, I thought about the most popular sports tournament in America: March Madness.

    March Madness is so beloved because the tournament structure creates such crazy stories, and because there’s usually plenty of plausible outcomes. You’ll care about your team(s), but then other ones will come up throughout the tourney. The Gonzagas or Villanovas of the world.

    Then I thought about this would be super hard to do in fictional sports land because of the time it would take to create any kind of backstory for the zillion different teams (and you would need to do this or else it’s basically a cheat when a “real” team plays a faceless team), but then you’d be spending all this time for someone that then drops out after a single game.

    • omo

      With stuff like One Piece in existence I don’t think it would be impossible to do. Nonetheless a daunting task for sure.

      I thought what makes March Madness popular is the bracketology aspect. It’s a much easier way to ‘fantasy’ the system than the usual draft-and-play that happens. The fact that the thing ends in about 6 weeks, from towards the end of the regular season play to the championship. As for people anticipating the game, madness tends to go away after the last popular underdog loses, which more often then not stops at or before the round of 8, at least that’s my casual observation. If one of them makes to the final four then it’ll be kind of exciting until the obviously top dog wins (more often than not). Which is just what I’m trying to say that what you’ve pointed out happens in NCAAMB all the time.

  • omo

    I got click-baited by Lauren’s tweet so I read part of this, and it struck me as yet another thing that turns me off from sports anime/manga.

    In that sense I enjoy shows like Ace of the Diamond in that they still juice sports injuries for what it’s worth, but it really isn’t that big of a deal (in that context). Some of the drama just feels like it fits more the kind of story something goes for than how true it plays within the context of the sporting or w/e.

  • jpmeyer

    Like that injuries should be a thing that sometimes happen and that affects the games rather than a storytelling convention in and of themselves?

    • omo

      Sort of.

      The average regular season NFL game has like, what, 8 injury timeouts? American Football is outrageously violent as an exception, but IMO it is ridiculous to do an “arc” on any sports injury in the 21st century unless we’re talking about permanent disabilities. In Ace, for example, there’s a little plot arc about one of the second baseman playing hurt, but the point is being made that many people play hurt once deep in the tournament and you’re expected to just tank it.

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