What it’s about: Sensha-do. Tankery. The Way of the Tank. As explained in the show itself, it’s “A strong, but delicate art that aims to make women more polite, graceful, modest, and gallant, both on and off the battlefield. To learn tankery is to armor the heart of a maiden, the soul that embraces and burns with femininity.”
But despite such self-evident virtues and the generous package of benefits and perks that come with signing up to the school club, Miho Nishizumi is hesitant about getting involved in the sport again. With the international Sensha-do tournament coming up shortly, there isn’t much time to get Oarai’s first team assembled and ready, and Miho’s flair for tactics and strategy may well prove the decisive factor in reaching the finals.
Why you should watch it: It’s an utterly ridiculous premise, and a blatant excuse to combine cute girls and military hardware, but somehow it works. The show is charming, the girls are endearing, and the battles themselves are a heck of a lot of fun to watch. It’s not all “boom-boom”, there’s a lot time spent going over the tactics and plans the girls put together, too. For fans of military history, there are a host of nods and references to actual hardware and personalities, and for the rest of us there’s a sizeable cast of quirky competitors and an interesting military march-inspired soundtrack. Somehow, the show manages to blend the slice-of-life school antics with its bizarre military tournament almost seamlessly. It’s an easy series to binge through, and one that I’m glad I did!
Caveats: I said that the cast is huge for a twelve-episode show, and it is. What that means, though, is that the creators take some shortcuts and rely a lot on stereotypes and tropes to get us to fill in the blanks for everyone outside of Miho and her immediate friends. They’re no less fun to watch because of that, but don’t expect any of the competitors to get much development past being representatives of their particular nation or club.
What it’s about: They call him “Smile”, because he never does. While not as personable or charismatic as his friend and fellow club member Peco, Tsukimoto has begun to attract attention from the bigger ping pong societies as a potential pro-player. But his heart isn’t in the game; he lost his reason to play some time ago, and he’s fully aware that to reach the heights of any sport, one must be prepared to sacrifice everything else.
Why you should watch it: This is a sports anime, and simultaneously it isn’t. Unlike the standard entries in the genre, Ping Pong does not obsessively detail strategies and gameplay – it uses the sport as a lens through which to view the protagonists themselves. Every single character in the ensemble cast is both heroic and monstrous, obsessed in their own way, many willing to sacrifice everything they are upon the altar of the sport they love. Masaaki Yuasa is one of the most supremely self-confident directors in Japan today, and he’s one of the few willing to treat anime more as a medium than a genre, employing the tools that animation provides without indulging in the clichés. I’d be willing to say that Ping Pong is his masterpiece. The cinematography and soundtrack are without peer, and the show is one of those works where every element complements and builds off of the others to create a greater whole. If you want to see some of the best that anime has to offer as a medium, and if you have any interest in character dramas at all, Ping Pong is a show that you just have to watch.
Caveats: The art style is pretty polarising. The character designs are oftentimes quite ugly at first glance. But give the show a few episodes and you’ll find yourself warming up to it, particularly with the fluidity it lends to the game scenes themselves.
Themes: What does it take to succeed? Ambition? Talent? Passion? Hard work? No matter what you bring to the table, there will always be someone who has sacrificed just as much and is willing to continue doing so if it’s what it takes to win. The question is, at what point is it no longer worth it to you to carry on, and can you live with yourself if you don’t?
Similar works:Chihayafuru. The execution also reminds me a lot of the Monogatari series, though instead of exploring the mind of a sexual deviant, it explores competition and obsession.
What it’s about: Every five years, the various alien races of the galaxy are brought together by their love of racing, with the infamously deadly and spectacular *Redline* race. “Sweet” JP, a rockabilly racer with a fondness for driving a Transam souped up by his childhood friend and mechanic Frisbee. But is the clean weapons-free driving he gained his nickname for going to be enough to survive the upcoming Redline race, which is to be held in the territory of a hostile military power?
Why you should watch it: Many sports series use the genre as a jumping off point to expore other themes. Not Redline. This is a racing story through and through. The biggest draw of the film by far is its animation, which is unlike anything seen in anime before or since. It draws heavily on Western graphic novel styling, all bright colours and harsh shadows. The common anecdote is that it took six years to complete, and it really shows. It’s a non-stop adrenaline ride where the characters and plot are there to serve the spectacle, and not the other way around. That’s not to say that either are bad, it’s just a film that knows its strengths and plays to them. This is not a movie that would benefit from overly complex character progression or plotting.
Caveats: If there’s any anime out there where you don’t want to skimp on resolution quality, it’s Redline. Don’t resort to fuzzy garbage-level streams; use a premium service or just go and buy the DVD – it’s not that expensive.
Themes: Nothing particularly deep here. Doing what you love and sticking by the people you care about.
Similar works: Not much, really. There’s Trava, which is a side-story exploring the background adventures of another of the Redline racing pairs.
What it’s about: Tokuchi Toua is a big fish in a small pond. Despite having only mediocre skills as a pitcher, his ability to analyse his opponents has made him the undisputed king of the underground gambling world of “One Outs” baseball. Until one day he is presented with a challenge from the all-star batter Kojima Hiromichi to sign up to the professional leagues. Toua suggests a bizarre contract to the team’s owner: in lieu of a salary, he’ll be given $50,000 for every batter he outs, but for every run he gives up, he has to pay back $500,000. For a businessman who doesn’t care whether the team loses so long as it makes him money, this seems like a dream deal. But is it?
Why you should watch it: This isn’t your standard sports anime. Baseball is more or less just the colour of the paint slapped onto the real meat of the series – the psychological tricks and underhandedness of the central character as he seeks to dominate his opponents on and off of the field. It’s a very watchable series that encourages you to keep on playing one episode after another. The characters are well-written and the challenges are interesting. Definitely give this a go if you’re a fan of the “genius protagonist” trope.
Caveats: You don’t need any knowledge of baseball to enjoy the series, but a little familiarity with the basics of the game (what’s a pitcher? how are points scored, etc) is definitely beneficial. The show leans heavily on the omniscient narrator to explain what’s going on in everyone’s heads. Some of the situations are a little contrived – if the shenanigans in episode 8 went down in a serious league game there would be riots. This is a series that’s best watched in bursts – finish a game or two and then take a break or you’ll end up a bit tired of the formula.
Themes: Intelligence trumps brute strength. Application of psychology.
Similar works:No Game No Life is a more comedic take on the same sort of thing. Kaiji and Akagi are also quite similar, though the protagonists are a little different.
What it’s about: Karuta is a game of poetry and cards, native to Japan but little known elsewhere. Of course, this means that whoever reaches the top national rank is not only the best at the game in their country, but the best in the world. The tomboyish Chihaya learns of karuta from her friend Arata, a loner obsessed with living up to his grandfather’s legacy as a karuta master. She sees in the game a way to step out of the shadow of her sister, to find a dream of her own.
Why you should watch it: Like all the best sports anime, the actual game being played matters very little, and the nature of karuta makes audience predictions and strategising entirely moot. Instead, the show uses the game as a lens through which to examine the characters and their relationships to one another and to the game itself. All three protagonists are incredibly well-realised; I can only think of a handful of other anime with characters that seem so *human*: flawed, vulnerable, but capable of greatness. The art and character designs are utterly gorgeous and the soundtrack, while unobtrusive, ties the show together. This is a really, really strong show and all too easy to binge through.
Caveats: You don’t need to know anything about karuta going into it. It won’t affect your enjoyment at all. This is a very character-based show, so what happens in the plot is never as important as the way the protagonists react to the changing circumstances. There is no dubbed version available, and the nature of the sport makes it uniquely unlikely to ever receive one.
Themes: Finding a dream for oneself, and dedicating one’s life to its pursuit. Bonding through shared experiences.