How Fangirls and Yaoi Are Changing Sports Anime

Sports Anime as a Genre has existed for a long time, ranging from the more common basketball and baseball sports to sumo and competitive swimming. Many of the manga has been featured monthly Shounen Jump Magazine, under the assumption that an all male cast and sports would appeal to Jump’s young male readers. In recent years though the popularity of this genre has grown more and more as it has worked to appeal more for female audiences. This essay offers that the way female fans look at Sports anime might be a contributing factor to the recent success.

The overall premise of these stories feature a underdog boy (or team) as they strive to become the best at their sport. The storyline itself is drawn out into multiple arcs where the team will grow stronger as they work towards ultimate victory. In a lot of ways, the Sports genre is very similar to an Action Shounen as they both show the protagonists in numerous victories and defeats. There are also rivals who come in and out of the story growing stronger as the hero does, meaning numerous rematches.

Like the Action Genre, Sports Manga and anime has a target audience of boys ages 9-16, thus the shows itself is structured with a majority male cast. Though there have been plenty of success stories for Sports Manga in Japan, the same can’t be said for the West where titles such as Slam Dunk didn’t appeal to wider American audiences. For a long time, the Sports Genre’s best hope in the US was breaking even and the worst case scenario meant they did poorly, resulting in companies backing away from such titles. However, it seems now more than ever an influx of sports anime is becoming more and more popular with fans around the world. The general outline of the stories have remained the same, so what has changed?

To start out with the idea that sports are just for boys has never been more incorrect. In fact, a 2012 poll from Shounen Jump shows that Haikyuu and Kuroko no Basket are more popular among female readers than male. The titles that showed a majority female readership included: Hitman Reborn, One Piece, Bleach, and Gintama. All shows that have a large majority of their cast as Bishonen (Beautiful Boys.) That leads me to my next theory, females are becoming more interested in male-dominated manga because they are perfect material for Yaoi Pairings.

Shounen Jump 2012 Poll: Haikyuu has 66.8% Female readers and Kuroko No Basket has 58.9%

Sexualizing sports goes back almost to the very creation of competitive athletics when the Greeks invented Wrestling.  Even in modern day standards, watching a wrestling match feels like one is looking in on an intimate moment between athletes. Two men, sweaty and grappling each other on the ground battling for control, or better yet, who will be on top. In fact, athletics and sexuality are so intertwined that there are numerous sexual phrases taken from Sports. The ideas of Bases to indicate sexual achievement with a partner and even the homosexual phrases, “Catcher and Pitcher” which refer to the roles of Top and Bottom.  We can’t deny the way sports often flash brief sexual images like this, with men getting sweaty, exhausted and flexing their impressive muscles, but the interest in Sports Yaoi isn’t strictly a visual experience but an emotional one as well.

Yaoi has become a way to reinterpret the sports context to focus on the relationships and personalities that the animes have built up before us. Focusing on these relationships is the center of fandoms that revolve around sports. The same is applied to the popular Football Fandom that focuses on the Premier Football League Players in Europe. Unlike in Sports Anime, the relationships between players in the Real Person Football Fandom is not as intimately known. Fans often have to rely on interviews, on the field interactions and social media to fuel their fandom. What is important to note though is that in both instances, fans find the deep emotional bond between players as the crux of an ideal m/m relationship.

At the center of Sports Fandoms and yes even Sports Anime, there is a deep homosocial desire that features various different relationships between men. This homosocial desire is described by Sedgwick as, “the whole spectrum of bonds between men, including friendship, mentorship, rivalry, institutional subordination, homosexual geniality, and economic change.” (Sedgwick, 1984) And indeed these of the social relationships that stand as a base of the Yaoi fandom.

In this sense, Sports anime works best working with a Team of boys in this homosocial context. On the list of Sports Anime that American’s just couldn’t get into one title that came up was Prince of Tennis. A very popular manga and show in Japan which even received an English Dub, however, the reviews for the Prince of Tennis once it came to America were only so-so. Despite the numerous Bishounen in the show, it lacked a warmth and companionship that we see in newer series. Tennis is often a one-on-one event, which worked well in building up rivalries, yet it did little for developing the male companionship. That said it was still a very success manga in Japan, not only in Shounen Jump but with Fangirls as well. One could even say it laid down the foundation for fangirls in the sports genre.

In many ways, a sports setting already fits the common staples in Yaoi. For example, Sports are considered an activity for boys with women acting on the sidelines. This is in line with how many BL titles often feature few female characters, who are all limited in how they interact with the male protagonists. Women play either the best friend or horrible antagonists meant to keep the main love interest away from each other. Mostly, we see these women in supporting roles and nothing says support more than the one female manager on a sports team.

Such is the fate of Kiyoko Shimizu of Haikyuu. She is the sole female manager throughout the entire first season and is known throughout the school as the beautiful manager of Karasuno. Yet she barely speaks, making her almost invisible throughout the series. I should mention that in the more recent Season she has come out of her shell a lot more and the female cast has greatly improved. It is important to note that none of the boys on any of the Volleyball teams appear to be in heterosexual relationships, though a few have shown interest in Kiyoko. I should also note that the single female manager in Free, Gou Matsuoka, breaks away from the invisible female narrative but only to encourage the homosexual agenda of the show. In many ways, Gou is a manifestation of the fangirls watching the anime as she squeals over the male figures surrounding her. Her support works both for the show’s male characters and for the benefit of the viewers but beyond that she is often sidelined as a character.

The lack of females in these shows leaves room to develop the bond and relationship between the male players, which is ultimately what fans want to see. The basic premise of a Sports anime allows for the boys to be intimate with each other and emotional without the promise of over wrought romantic dilemmas by focusing on triumphs or disappointments of games, injuries and personal life. Fangirls excel at filling in the gaps between games and practices with romance by imagining the budding relationships bloom between the players. Gary Whannel points out in Media Sport Stars: Masculinities and Moralities that, “emotions and sexuality are part of the domestic sphere and the domain of women” (Whannel, 2002)

Despite the underlying theme of  the power struggle that follows Sports Anime, the one thing that makes it stand out against regular Yaoi might be the absent femininity of the male characters. All the players in sports anime are often the epitome of manliness or boyhood. They are loud, sweaty and a far cry from the beautiful flower boys featured in BL manga. When viewers pair these boys together, that often changes the entire dynamic of a uke / seme relationship that appear in Yaoi. Neither character in the relationship can be dubbed entirely feminine since both have unique strengths essential to the team. They are considered equals.

This is also an idea that bridges the gap between the Eastern concept of Yaoi and the western ideal of Slash. The Uke/Seme relationship is a product of BL’s culture, featuring one character in the role of an innocent. In many ways, this character is considered “the girl” and takes the role the bottom while the Seme is the manly figure, topping and caring for the younger Uke. This dynamic isn’t always seen in western Slash, or in cases of the Real Person Football Fandom where the males in a relationship aren’t set into confining roles. In the Football Fandom, the players are on the same team and match each other in physical strength there is no need for a relationship to be simply “Top” or “Bottom.” The result is art and fanfiction that feature the relationship in numerous different roles.

It is depressing to think that at Shounen and Sports anime are something regarded only for “boys.” In the general terms of Sports, women are often seen as fans who are only participating to fawn over the attractiveness of male athletes.  In her writing about the Sport and Commodification, Liz Moor notes, “The idea that woman, who were rarely perceived as fans in previous decades, are new consumer fans brought in by media and marketing to civilize the game.” (Moor 2007) However, it is exactly because women connect bring a different perspective that causes such great success for Sports anime and manga.

In the world of Yaoi, women feel free to engage in sexual content, conversations, and media. Sports Anime is just now realizing how powerful these viewers can be to gaining popularity. With the recent announcement that Viz Media will be bringing the Haikyuu Manga to America and Funimation’s recent dub of Free, two anime that are most popular with women I can’t help but see fangirls and yaoi as a contributing factor to success, proving that the female gaze holds just as much weight in this industry as the male.

 

References:

Four manga that are hits in Japan but relative flops in America: http://www.japantoday.com/category/arts-culture/view/four-manga-that-are-hits-in-japan-but-relative-flops-in-america

Challenging the Demographic: Men and Women http://www.comicvine.com/profile/foxxfireart/blog/challenge-of-the-demographics-men-and-women/87487/

Moor, Liz. 2007. “Sport and Commodification: A Reflection on Key Concepts.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 31 (2): 128–42. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0193723507300480.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1984. “Sexualism and the Citizen of the World: Wycherley, Sterne, and Male Homosocial Desire.”Critical Inquiry 11 (2): 226–45

Whannel, Gary. 2002. Media Sport Stars: Masculinities and Moralities. New York: Routledge. E-book edition.

 

Senshi Study is where Cara Averna looks at anime, fan-culture, and movies with squinty eyes and tries to glean the deeper meaning. These articles are her own opinions based on self-research. 

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