If you think sports and manga don’t mix, think again. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a sport that doesn’t have a corresponding manga or anime, with the most popular sports featuring in hundreds of titles for demographics across the spectrum. But despite the popularity of sports manga in Japan, the genre has faced a difficult path in the US, and sports anime even more so.
Much ink has been spilled trying to pinpoint why, but for some reason sports titles in America rarely pull the sort of numbers that justify keeping them in print. Despite that, there are simply so many in Japan it was inevitable at least a few would make their way across the Pacific, and indeed, it’s been more than a few. If you’d like to give this under-appreciated genre some love or have an athletic friend you’re trying to convert to otakudom, this list is for you.
Baseball may be America’s national pastime (don’t tell the football fans), but in Japan, it’s practically the national sport. As such, the number of manga series featuring baseball in some capacity numbers well in the hundreds. Several have even been translated into English. In the US, you can enjoy the crack of a bat with series as diverse as manga Cross Game (baseball meets shounen romance) or anime series Princess Nine (girls face adversity forming a team) and Big Windup! (the relationship between pitcher and catcher takes center stage).
Baseball has more titles, but it’s basketball that reigns when it comes to series licensed for American readers. As is the usual fate for sports titles, some have gone out of print (Hoop Days, Girl Got Game), but heavy hitters like Slam Dunk (one of the best-selling manga in history) and Kuroko's Basketball (spin-offs include movies, video games, and a play) are readily available. If you’re looking for something lighter and targeted at girls, Waiting for Spring will be right up your alley. There’s even Real, about wheelchair basketball and written by Takehiko Inoue after he achieved super-success with Slam Dunk. There’s something for everyone when it comes to basketball manga fans. Hmm, is this what it’s like reading manga in Japan…?
In Japan, just about everyone has a bicycle, but far fewer people race them. (And, if you remember Golden Boy, even fewer people race hot motorcycle riders by performing death-defying stunts.) But sometimes, when you’re riding your bike home, disappointed that your school’s anime club has been disbanded, someone comes along and notices that you’re pretty good at pushing those pedals. That’s how you get Yowamushi Pedal, which won the 2015 Kodansha Manga Award for Shounen. Be warned, super-serious cyclists: not everything in Yowapeda is exactly plausible, but it is pretty entertaining to watch.
The number of Japanese titles focusing on football (American football for our international readers) can be counted on two hands, and that’s being generous. There’s only one series of any prominence, and fortunately that series is the one available here: Eyeshield 21. While it doesn’t follow the rules of football exactly, Eyeshield 21 is a lot of fun, with good humor and a bucket-load of character development. Plus, you can get it in both anime and manga format (print status can vary).
Yuri On Ice wasn’t the first title to take on ice skating (hands up, people who remember Sugar Princess and Ginban Kaleidoscope), but it was the first major title to focus on men’s skating and absolutely the first to achieve such prominence in both the anime and skating community. Watch it for the no-compromises, had-to-be complete short and long programs; for the touching relationships; or for the lovingly animated gluteus maximuses (maximi?) or just because you love ice skating. There’s a reason even professional ice skaters went nuts for Yuri!! Will it pave the way for more ice skating on your manga and anime shelves? Time will tell.
Kendo is more likely to turn up in manga as a club one character participates in on the side (like Arima in Kare Kano), but there’s one title where kendo is the main event: Bamboo Blade. And it has to, because the coach has a year of free sushi riding on his team’s success! Full of cute girls and comedy, the drama in Bamboo Blade comes not so much from the matches but instead the usual vagaries of high school life. The series had a couple of sequels, but they have not yet been licensed in English.
Sometimes it’s all about speed, speed, and more speed. Don’t worry, anime has got the world of motorsports covered. Rideback, in which an injured ballet dancer discovers a talent for motorcycles, takes advantage of its futuristic setting to push the boundaries of what motorcycles might be capable of (like transforming into robots, of course). For something grounded more in the here and now (and still available, unlike the much-lamented-by-me Mars), there’s Initial D, many fans’ first introduction to drifting. The corresponding manga series are either unlicensed or out of print, but the anime (and it’s ever-popular Eurobeat soundtrack) are still with us.
Yes, even ping pong has a manga series – a couple of dozen, in fact. Like many other titles on this list, however, it’s the anime that’s available in North America. Ping Pong aired in the famous Noitamina block and sports a rather unusual aesthetic. The series eschews the “usual” anime style for more caricatured faces, slightly stilted animation, and a limited color palettepalate. It’s very much like the manga came to life in front of your eyes – which is just as well, because the manga remains unlicensed in the US.
Rugby is about as popular a manga topic as American football – that is to say, not very. All Out!! shows why it’s worth giving the rough and tumble sport a chance. To differentiate rugby from other sports readers might be familiar with, author Amase Shiori went to great lengths to depict different body types and how all of them can work on the field if you build up your muscle strength. The drama also keeps in mind that these are teenagers, and provides appropriate drama that will strike a chord with anyone who played teen sports.
It’s not the ‘90s anymore, when inline skating (rollerblading) was all the rage. In Air Gear, however, it’s the future, and skates aren’t just the rage, they’re capable of propelling you into the air and into the hearts of a busty group of sisters. (You may remember author Oh! Great from fanservice favorite Tenjo Tenge.) Is it realistic? Not in the least. Is it fun? Absolutely.
Soccer – or, more accurately, football in non-American parts of the world – is hugely popular in manga. One of the seminal manga titles credited with popularizing the sport in Japan is Captain Tsubasa, and it was a hit in countries around the world… but not the US. Reasons given vary, but it’s plausible that Captain Tsubasa simply came about at the wrong time for American audiences, who in the ‘80s were into action, comedy, and adult titles, not long-running sports series. With that said, it’s somewhat amazing Viz published every volume of Whistle! in the US. Not because it isn’t a good series – it’s quite endearing and, unlike certain other sports titles, sticks to realistic moves and problems – but it frankly never gained much traction here. If you’ve got a soccer fan in the house or are one yourself, do yourself a favor and start tracking down the volumes before they get even harder to find.
There have been multiple manga series about swimming, but in the US it’s an anime that stands out: Free! Why did it take until 2013 for the United States to realize swimming is the perfect excuse for the cast to spend most of their time in swimsuits? The world may never know. Free! caused a sensation even before the first episode was released thanks to the studio animating it (KyoAni) and their choice to make a series featuring half-naked high school boys after a run of very successful moe titles. It lived up to the hype, deftly balancing sports scenes with building the relationships between the characters, and continues to have a dedicated fandom today.
Tennis pops up now and then in American-licensed manga, particularly older titles like Marmalade Boy and Maison Ikkoku, but there’s just one title that most people associate with the sport: the aptly named Prince of Tennis. Prince of Tennis is a rare sports manga I don’t recommend to every fan of the sport but do recommend to some people who I know have no interest in sports at all. The reason is that after the first few volumes, the rules of tennis become increasingly elastic and the characters start inventing moves that would be more at home in Hunter x Hunter or Naruto than a court intended for normal humans. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief, you’ll enjoy seeing the crazy moves the characters come up with. If you’re the kind of fan who’d rather see a serve you could conceivably replicate yourself, however, you’re best off campaigning for Baby Steps to be licensed for print.
If you like your no-contact sport with plenty of off-the-field “contact,” then have I got a show for you. Suzuka is a romantic comedy for boys (think Maison Ikkoku). Main character Yamato gets interested in track after discovering his attractive next-door neighbor is a high jumper and takes up running himself. One of the nice things about Suzuka is that both the boy and girl participate in the sport and compete, rather than one being the team manager or otherwise ancillary to the main sport plot.
Quick, name an exciting sport! If you didn’t name volleyball, you probably haven’t seen Haikyuu!!, one of the most popular sports manga to come along in a decade. With fun, interesting characters and a dramatic sense of pacing, even non-sports fans are sure to get sucked into the world of volleyball. Better yet, you’ll even learn the rules since Haikyuu!! sticks to moves possible in real life. If you’re looking for something with a bit more romance and a lot more melodrama, however, consider asking Viz to put Crimson Hero back into circulation.
This is just a sampling of the many sports manga and anime out there. In Japan, there are thousands more, including titles devoted to sports as varied as boxing, badminton, regatta, billiards, and golf. I hope at least one has caught your eye and given you the impetus to give this under-loved genre a “sporting” chance.
Long-time Right Stuf fans may recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as the OG RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com, where she offers tips and insights into business writing.