After Haikyu!! revitalized my interest in sports anime, I started seeking out other series. I scoured top ten lists, read manga, and looked at reviews to find my next hit of sweet, sweet, animated sportsting. The Eyeshield 21 manga was a hit for me, even years after reading it the first time. Yowamushi Pedal has been a surprise hit with both my wife and myself. But one series seemed to dominate every list I saw. I noticed an overwhelming fanbase as it topped most lists and garnered rave reviews.
That series was Kuroko’s Basketball… and I’m not a fan. I’ve only watched fourteen episodes, which is hardly enough for a full review. It has, however, provided me with some context as to what I love in a sports anime. Rather than ripping apart a series I am still trying to give a fair shake, this gives me an opportunity to run down the things I love in a sports anime—and why Kuroko’s Basketball made me aware of their absence.
A Team’s Story
I love an ensemble cast. It allows you to find a character to connect with, to follow their growth, and to make the events feel more personal to you. The best ensemble casts go a bit further, making the interactions between characters a major game changer. Adding or removing a character sends a ripple through the rest of the cast as they adjust to a changing status quo.
Sports anime are in a unique position to take advantage of this. Most sports anime revolve around a team sport, meaning that not only are the personal lives of the characters intertwined, they must lean on their teammates to succeed. This leads to plenty of great moments where a previously under-performing character is able to find their strengths in a way that complements the team. Each member of the team gets moments to shine, and the characters slowly realize that they cannot carry a team on their own. I have not seen this done better than Haikyu!!, but most sports anime have similar themes. I always love an underdog, and sports anime feed that love more than any other genre I’ve seen.
Kuroko’s Basketball’s focus is much more narrow. The main character, the eponymous Kuroko, is part of an all-start Junior High team known as the Generation of Miracles. As the shadow sixth member, he was unknown, but his power comes from being unseen on the court and hitting amazing passes. Kagami is Kuroko’s fellow first-year, coming back to Japan after having played Basketball in America. He’s a tall, powerful, all-around player with an emphasis on dunks.
And the rest of their team… is mostly unimportant. The show takes the players’ skills into the realm of superpowers to fun effect, and occasionally another character will show that they have something special. Ultimately, however, each match comes down to Kuroko and Kagami facing down an ace from the opposing team. The other players are never the playmakers, nor do they even seem particularly important to the match. The others get no real character development in the show’s downtime, and you’ll be hard pressed to identify them outside of the ones with identifying characteristics (glasses, cat-like expression, etc). The other teams rarely fare better, usually having only one to two characters that matter in a match. A narrower focus can work well, provided your sport focuses on a smaller team. Even then, it could be forgiven with…
Meaningful Character Growth
The best thing about a sports anime following first-year students is watching those characters grow, both as players and as people. The classic sports story is the underdog team, training and learning to work together to overcome greater odds. It’s a bit formulaic, but that character growth is one of the biggest reasons to get into a sports story.
There’s a lot less of that in Kuroko’s Basketball. Kuroko and Kagami start the series as all-stars, far more skilled than their seniors. They quickly outshine their teammates, removing the need for learning teamwork. Their only real obstacles are willpower and the expectations of their opponents. Without any notable early-series losses, there is no uncertainty to overcome and no pathos in overcoming a difficult opponent. There are no training camps, no lessons to be learned about the game. In fourteen episodes, the best I got was a five minute training montage.
I think part of this is due to the sport itself. Unlike many other sports anime I’ve seen, basketball is well-represented in the genre. You don’t need to go over the rules, and the archetypes are well known to the more casual viewer. This just makes it harder for someone like me to get into it, being a more sports-neutral anime fan. It also lacks any development to make up for that loss in the amateur-level games. It feels like coming in late to the series.
Budgets are what they are, and I’ve enjoyed many shows with less-than-stellar animation. My favorite anime of all time is Beck, and calling the animation low-budget is pretty generous. However, interesting things can be done even with a limited budget. A strong art style can really elevate an entire series, and many series do well by carefully choosing important moments to highlight the action with. Haikyu!! will montage the middles of matches, Yowamushi Pedal will lean back on CG during longer sequences, and Eyeshield 21 heavily uses speed lines and light animation during dialogue-heavy scenes to make them pop without breaking the bank. Kuroko’s Basketball, by comparison, seems a bit bland. Stills with speed lines are used for important plays, and many are even reused with little besides the background and the blur of a ball to differentiate them. The CG balls and nets are ok in moderation, but they are used for nearly every shot, leading to a fake and plasticky movement when pivotal plays are being hit. Characters are stiff, and this makes the action during big games less interesting.
This is exacerbated by the bland supporting cast. Again, the main characters are pretty well designed and fleshed out, but they stand out against a sea of similar-looking players. It’s nearly a given that, if a character lacks a unique hair color, they won’t have much to do in the plot.
The most exciting part of sports, and the reason why people are lifelong fans, is the uncertainty that comes with being a fan. You hope your team will win, but until that final buzzer you’re almost never sure. The idea that your team can lose is vital to the catharsis when they win. This is harder to achieve in a scripted story. After all, there is an author to look out for his characters and ensure they never get beaten so badly they give up!
There are a few common ways to handle this. The most common is to hand the team an early-story loss and build up a rival team to overcome. This can also be done by setting the team as an underdog, someone who has to fight tooth and nail to be taken seriously, much less to win. If you have some certainty that your team will win, it’s important to give them something to prove.
Kuroko’s Basketball does neither. It doesn’t find a clever way around the problem, either. Within the first couple of episodes, members of the Generation of Miracles are impressed by Kagami. Kuroko doesn’t even have that hurdle, being recognized by the group before the series even starts. Since the team seems able to ride on the abilities of its best players, the failures of other teammates seem insignificant. Even if the rest of the team is of middling skill, it doesn’t matter: Kuroko will pass the ball to Kagami, and Kagami will dunk over the head of any opponent.
But despite these complaints, the fact is that I haven’t gotten too far in the series. At 14 episodes, perhaps some of these complaints will be addressed. If they are, I’ll certainly bring a new writeup on the series—if not to save face, certainly to introduce others to something great. More importantly, this gives you a better view of what I’m looking for in a show. Hopefully it’ll help you parse through my view- so that even if you disagree with me, you can identify why. Ultimately, these criteria are not just what I’m looking for in a sports story. It’s what I’m looking for in any story, it’s what turns a book into a page-turner and a TV show into a binge. Because really, Kuroko’s Basketball isn’t a bad show. It’s just not keeping me up later than I should, bidding my wife goodnight as I burn through another two or three episodes long after the house has fallen asleep.
And if you’re looking to really lose yourself in a story, few things feel better than when it refuses to let you go.