Sports anime and manga live in that strange realm of pop culture where typically, most people are incredibly invested or not at all. It feels oddly divisive, where other anime might not. For anime fans who love sports, it’s a dream come true.
But then it gets tricky. For fans of sports, they might be interested, unless they don’t watch anime. If someone is interested in anime but not sports, then why would they even be remotely interested?
As with most anime, it’s never as simple as it seems. Sure, the shows are about sports but to only classify them as such would be a disservice to the story. Not all sports anime are created equal. In fact, many are solely about the show, and that’s where their fan base comes in. If someone is die hard for baseball or rugby, then they might be more inclined to watch a show devoted to that sport.
But others frame things like characterization, growth, subtle plot twists through the device of the sport. While the sport is occurring, so are other things. Relationships are evolving, people are growing, and life is changing. The sport might just be a catalyst for such major events.
And sports anime have quite a task in front of them. They have to appeal to both sides of the fan base. They have to spark the interest of anime into sports fans and the interest of sports into anime fans. A few shows do that incredibly well.
One such show was Slam Dunk. An anime based on a manga of the same name, it was one of Weekly Shōnen Jump ’s highest selling series. The show is considered one of the pioneers of the genre and for good reason.
We follow Hanamichi Sakuragi, a boy with a fiery temper and the red hair to match. He’s a rowdy fella, becoming the leader of a gang and subsequently, incredibly unpopular with the ladies.
Trying to break his record of fifty romantic rejections, Hanamichi desperately wants a girlfriend. After the last rejection, who denied him in favor of a basketball player, he determines it’s a worthless sport for losers. Definitely not for him.
When he’s approached by a fellow student at Shōhoku High School, a girl named Haruko Akagi, he falls head over heels. She’s everything he’s dreamed of, and as a plus, she isn’t repulsed by him like the other women he had previously encountered.
She recognizes talent in him and asks if he likes basketball. Like all smitten teenagers trying to impress someone new, he says yes without giving it much thought. She challenges him to slam dunk but instead watches as he tries but only manages to slam his head into the backboard of the net.
Still, she recognizes the athleticism in him and pushes him to join the team. He does because he’s madly in love. However, he soon realizes that he genuinely enjoys playing and is pretty damn good at it. The show follows him as he’s joined by rivals and other misfits and pushes the team to be one of the best in Japan.
A Basketball Manga Changed the Game
While it absolutely is about basketball, as the writer and illustrator Takehiko Inoue based it off his own real-life experience and love for the sport, even he mentions that it could have worked with a different sport. But people loved it all the same, for both sport and the characters playing it. The series even managed to push the popularity of basketball to new levels within Japan.
The series was even so popular that creator Inoue helped start a scholarship called the ‘Slam Dunk Scholarship,’ where recipients of the award are given the opportunity to attend a college preparatory school in America, where tuition and costs are paid in full.
Beyond the popularity of the show when it first was published and the subsequent release of the anime, the series remains a massive hit today. In 2005, TV’s Asahi released their Top 100 Anime that was voted by Japanese viewers. The poll reached through multiple age groups and categories.
Slam Dunk managed to snag a top 10 spot, beating out other heavy hitters such as Sailor Moon and even Pokemon. The show has managed to stay relevant and in the public eye for years now, often landing spots in top lists and ranking high for the viewers’ choice in anime being made into a live-action film.
In fact, because the novel coronavirus has shut down hundreds of events throughout the world, the NBA suspended the season. That left Taiwan with the heavy task of entertaining thousands of basketball fans. Sure, they could maybe air old matches or commentary.
Instead, a sports network decided to air Slam Dunk instead, introducing a whole new audience to the anime. And people loved it. Taiwanese social media was ablaze with praise for the show from both those who had already seen it and those who were new to the show.
The series will strive even further this year, with Inoue revealing on his official Twitter that 2020 is the year of the Slam Dunk resurgence. This year will feature over a hundred new illustrations that Inoue has been working on, titled ‘PLUS/SLAM DUNK ILLUSTRATIONS 2.’
The series pushes hard the idea of redemption, perseverance, and passion. Often these are huge thematic points for sports anime because so often it happens with sports in real life. Those who are deeply intertwined with their passions, sports or not, find that their point of obsession, whether it be basketball or something else, pushes them to be better in their everyday life as well.
We see with Hanamichi that it no longer is just about him or his romantic pursuits. It becomes part of something greater. He has to worry not only about his performance but his team as well. With sports anime, that’s often where the difference resides.
Sports have the task of not only capturing the attention of viewers and spectators but competition as well. Most sports focus on winning, whether that be as a team or as an individual. It would be easy to leave it at that, but it’s never that easy.
Slam Dunk managed to show the best of everything, even when that meant showing the worst of the sport. It told viewers about the struggles of not only the sport but feeling like you don’t belong. That’s where a good sports anime story steps in.
Even if Hanamichi hadn’t been amazing and naturally talented at basketball, he still managed to find a passion for something. And it was that passion that helped him to be a better person. Being on the team helped him to see not only how training, working hard and having determination not only helped the team but himself as well.
Over everything, past becoming one of the best basketball teams in the nation and a stellar player, Hanamichi learned how to be the best person he could be, both in and out of the sport. And that’s what a good sports anime does.
So it’s no wonder that Slam Dunk laid down the foundation for what the genre could be. That’s the resiliency in the series, and how it has managed to stay relevant even now. No matter how athletic someone is or their passion (or disdain) for sports, there can be something found in the series for everybody.