In 1964 Japan was the first Asian country to host the Olympics. With the world watching, Japan won the third most gold medals (behind the United States and the Soviet Union), including the gold in women’s volleyball. This sparked a boom in female athleticism and added volleyball girls’ gym class curriculums across the country in addition to inspiring an anime called Attack on No. 1 about a young girl struggling through fierce volleyball competitions. Attack on No. 1 is the earliest example of a sports anime starring female characters and its popularity influenced other sports anime like Aim for the Ace, a show about a female tennis players that is still referenced to this day. (If you see a girl playing tennis with curly hair and doing an ojou-sama laugh, chances are that’s an Aim for the Ace reference.)
But in recent years all high profile sports anime like Yowamushi Pedal and Kuroko’s Basketball focus on men’s sports. Women’s sports anime hasn’t been able to grasp the same popularity it did during the intense shoujo showdowns of the 60s, leaving female driven sports anime lacking in quantity.
Perhaps this is because of an issue of association? People tend to think of the men’s version of a sport as the default, because in real life men’s sports have a greater following than women’s. Thanks to that unconscious bias, the idea of making a sports anime about female players might be perceived as too niche and not very financially enticing. Following that logic, we should expect to at least find female-driven anime about sports that are more associated with women, like volleyball or cheerleading. However, this belief that a sport’s associated gender matters is quickly debunked by shows like Haikyu and Cheer Boys, which are about boys participating in volleyball and cheerleading respectively. So the issue isn’t that audiences can’t imagine characters playing a sport not associated with their gender.
Then maybe the lack of female driven sports anime is an issue of target audience? Sports anime has a reputation of catering to ship-happy fujoshi who are expected to care more about pairing off the boys playing the sports rather than the sports themselves. However, it’s rare for a sports show to openly sexualize its male characters in order to appeal to a straight female audience like Free! does. The truth is that most sports anime have a broader appeal than just inspiring doujinshi and, as someone who genuinely watches Kuroko’s Basketball for the storyline, it seems obvious to me that sports anime can reach a broader audience. Sports shows are about more than just ogling at the athletes’ bodies.
Which leads to my dismay of fan service driven sports anime about female athletes. One would think the climate towards women’s sports is perfect for a feelgood underdog story. Some series have actually taken advantage of this, like Princess Nine and Taisho Baseball Girls, in which female baseball players are out to prove they can play with the boys. But even though it doesn’t seem difficult to create a natural conflict for a women’s sports anime, many just end up as excuses for fan service. Free! became so well-known partially because it was outside of the norm to have its male characters be so sexualized, whereas the expectation for female anime characters is just the opposite; series which don’t focus on the characters’ sex appeal are considered hidden gems.
The few woman’s sports anime that are driven by characters rather than bodies are worthy of praise. Some examples are the aforementioned Princess Nine and Taisho Baseball Girls, which share similar premises but have completely different aesthetics. There’s also Bamboo Blade about a female kendo team. And there’s also Kaleido Star which doesn’t focus on a team sport but instead the career of a young acrobat. These are all available through legal streaming in the US but unfortunately, there isn’t much more where that came from that’s as easily accessible.
I would also like to give Chihayafuru a shout out, which is another show available via legal streaming in the US. It falls into the “that’s a card game not a sport” category of competitive activities but is still a series with all the elements of a sports anime combined with a strong female lead. Shows like Chihayafuru which would be disqualified from the genre by technicalities are important to consider if you’re looking to watch a female driven sports anime, since there is so little to choose from. It’s important to support these kinds of shows to prove that there is demand for them and that an anime doesn’t need to use fan service as a crutch in order to financially succeed.
I’m not very patriotic, so my hope for the 2020 Olympics is that Japan’s women’s teams rank up some gold and hopefully inspire women to pursue athleticism but also inspire some quality female driven sports anime.
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