Hear me out. I am fully aware that is a gross misuse of language to call an original live-action television series or movie a “live-action sports anime,” but I also firmly believe that sport anime at this point in common parlance has transcended being anime about sports. Instead, it is more indicative of bombastic, larger than life energy that serves as an introduction to the activity: a protagonist honing their skills in their activity with the power of friendship, mix in a tournament set back arc, and finish with a triumphant main theme track over the final match at NATIONALS.
Sports anime is what got me invested in the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim block, largely because I was utterly captivated by the original Prince of Tennis and the utter insanity that came with it. I watched the prodigy, Ryoma Echizan, landing tennis balls perfectly in the corner of the field so there was no dispute about if it was an out, snake shots, data tennis, middle schoolers built like thirty years old. I love sports anime. I love the whole pursuit of Haikyu and Yowamushi Pedal. I love the realistic detailed struggle of Ao Ashi and Dance Dance Danseur.
I love the “basically a shonen” Blue Lock and the heart wrenching “what if sports anime also prominently featured emotional trauma of various Japanese cultural fears” Stars Align. I’ve done the basketballs, the football, the sumos, the kabaddi (yes, that’s actually a real sport). I’ve watched both badminton animes that for some reason exist. I’ve watched an archery one. And despite the differing subgenres, tones, and sports, they all feature the same core elements.
- Sports anime act as an introduction to the sport. One of the main features of a sports anime is that it takes the time to explain the rules and strategies so that no prior knowledge of the sport is required.
- Sports anime feature a protagonist working their way through their own workups, whether it is an inner struggle they must shed or a just learning the fundamentals of the sport after being drafted, or as is often the case both.
- Sports anime follow the structure that after gaining some confidence, the protagonist is just utterly defeated by a combination of a better opponent or their own hubris.
- Following that, the protagonist works to overcome these issues and returns triumphantly to the last major tournament of the season to prove that they are still a contender.
- Crucially, the acts of athleticism and intellect are demonstrated in truly dramatic ways and are the primary focus of the narrative.
I’ve basically laid the standard template of every sports story in existence, but I think the last item on the list is what distinguishes the regular ole sports drama from the live-action anime. Before we get to my list of prime examples of live-action anime, we’re gonna go through some examples of just plain old sports drama.
Friday Night Lights? Sports drama. While football was at the center of the story, the main driving elements had less to do with the sport itself and more about the sport’s insular importance to the well-being of the town, and it doesn’t make an effort to fully elaborate on the sport with the same pedagogy of a sports anime. All-American and All-American: Homecoming? Same deal. They prominently feature sports, but a nontrivial amount of the narrative hinges on interpersonal drama and sociopolitical commentary, and there are several stretches where their respective sports factor into it.
The vast majority of the Rocky and Creed franchise? Straight drama. While they follow a similar arc, a lot of the moments are much more grounded. Although when we transition, there are two notable ones that I will talk about here. Same with Rudy, Remember the Titans, and Coach Carter.
Strangely enough, Cobra Kai exists right at the precipice of this distinction; however, given that karate at some point stops being used for sports and starts being used for all-out brawls in a wide variety of set pieces disqualifies it. Although, there is also an argument that the Karate Kid movies do follow this paradigm.
And without further ado, the five live-action sports anime I’d like to add to the taxonomy.
There was a version of this list that didn’t have Ted Lasso on this side of the live-action sports anime. That version vanished once Captain Isaac kicked a soccer ball so hard that it made a comical burn hole through the net. That’s some classic anime bull-$#!% right there. Ted Lasso’s certainly unique is that the protagonist is a coach unfamiliar with the sport, but all the other elements are alive and well.
Throughout each season, the fundamentals of soccer… sorry, football are relayed to the audience through Ted Lasso’s eyes, while also exploring a wide variety of interpersonal relationships, always culminating in a big game with even bigger stakes. Whether it’s the first season’s arc of understanding basic soccer, the second season delving into traditional strategies, or the third opining about the nature of Total Soccer, the larger-than-life messaging and matches stand a cut above the rest. Plus, one of the recurring refrains of the show pairs well with another actual anime.
There is a sumo anime called Hinomaru Sumo that I watched it on the recommendation of my co-host. It’s a good anime that explains how sumo works on a high school level.
Sanctuary is what I would argue is the live-action big brother anime that I watched because it showed up on my Netflix feed. Its focus is on sumo on a professional level. It is a much darker series, but it is one that takes great care in exploring the ritual, culture, practice, and reality of the sport.
Our protagonist starts out as a delinquent riding on his laurels and natural athleticism. He eventually learns to respect the sport and becomes an actual sumo by the end of the first season. With its heavy stylization and niche secondary character learning about the sport from an outsider perspective, it is my second example.
I know what you’re going to say: Chess isn’t a sport. To which I say, it doesn’t matter if it’s not a physical activity. The way Queen’s Gambit is constructed it is entirely a sport anime. The rag to riches story. The untimely set back. The chess training montages and corroborating research with formal rivals turned best friends. The epic finale match where our protagonist pushes through the offer of a draw-to-draw proverbial blood and the win.
The fact that there is a freakin’ board game that tries to capture anime levels of precognition of planning is indicative enough that Netflix knew the energy they were generating.
Creed III/Rocky IV
When it comes to Creed III, I’m not actually going to argue why it should be considered a live action anime. Michael B. Jordan already admitted to basing the fight choreography off several famous anime shots, and you can go watch the final fight yourself at this point.
That being said, I’d be remiss not to mention the ur-Example, the predecessor to all of these: Rocky IV. Rocky IV gets elevated into this live-action sports anime list largely because it takes all of the regular sport drama and then decides to amp the ridiculousness of the entire situation by having Rocky fight the literal embodiment of communism to essentially end the Cold War. That’s not your run of the mill sports stakes. That’s something that could only exist in a heightened reality.
The Defense Rests
Please leave any of your favorite live-action anime in the comments below.