10 iconic sports anime and manga that influenced Japan

Haikyuu!
Haikyuu!'s protagonists as seen in the series' anime (Image via Production I.G)

Sports is one of the most exciting and unique genres of anime and manga. Regardless of which sport it centers on, these series typically feature high-intensity, fast-paced action sequences interspersed with emotional and developmental character moments.

Sports anime series are also some of the most popular amongst Japanese and international youth, because of their predominant academic setting and how relatable they can be. This, in turn, leads to sports anime and manga series that have been a massive influence on Japanese youth.

On that note, here are 10 iconic sports anime and manga series that influenced Japan.


Old classics and new hits comprise most influential sports anime series

1) Haikyuu!

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The Haikyuu! series is a sports anime about volleyball, following protagonist Shoyo Hinata on his quest to become a great volleyball player despite his short stature. Though the road is long and hard, Hinata is incredibly devoted, showing his love for the sport and his desire to be great every time he steps on the field.

In both Japan as well as internationally, the series generated a new interest in volleyball in those who watched it, especially those young enough to still play high school sports.

A major contributor to this is how easily the series explains the game of volleyball, doing so in an informative yet captivating manner for audiences.


2) Blue Lock

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Blue Lock follows protagonist Yoichi Isagi, who joins the Blue Lock program to become the world’s greatest and most egotistical striker. The program, set up by the Japanese Football Union, was designed to lead Japan to stardom via building and finding its next striker. The series begins following Japan’s 16th-place finish in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

With football being such a major sport for Japan, the Blue Lock sports anime helped to further inspire young children to do their best in the sport. The series has also seen its anime premiere roughly coincide with the 2022 World Cup, generating further interest in both football and the series itself.


3) Kuroko no Basket

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Kuroko no Basket is a basketball sports anime which centers around eponymous protagonist Tetsuya Kuroko. Kuroko comes from the “Generation of Miracles,” a term used to refer to a group of five-star players who dominated Japan’s middle school basketball scene.

With Kuroko being the sixth man of the Generation of Miracles, he must now lead his new team to victory against his former, brilliant teammates.

One of the most exciting aspects of Kuroko no Basket for Japanese viewers was how seemingly grounded in the reality of the Japanese school sports system it was.

As a result, fans were able to liken the anime’s events to their own personal experiences even more. This, in turn, created further inspiration in those young enough to have the opportunity to play basketball at a competitive, high school level.


4) Slam Dunk

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Slam Dunk is a basketball sports anime that follows protagonist Hanamichi Sakuragi, a street delinquent and leader of a gang who is eventually recruited onto a basketball team.

Eventually, he comes to realize that he loves the sport, and fully leaves his former life as a street tough and delinquent behind, fully committing to the exciting world of high school basketball.

What makes Slam Dunk unique relative to other sports anime is the protagonist being a street thug and delinquent at the start of the series. Although not as common as it once was, delinquents are still out there in Japan, and Slam Dunk can serve as an exciting, engaging way to show them that there are other, more productive ways to spend their time and energy.


5) Eyeshield 21

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Eyeshield 21 is a particularly unique entry on this list and in sports anime in general. It’s one of, if not the only, sports anime series to focus on American football. It tells the story of Sena Kobayakawa as he’s brought onto the team, eventually becoming its star running back.

The series follows him throughout high school and immediately after, showcasing his journey as a person and football player. One of the most unique aspects of Eyeshield 21 is its focus on American football, a sport that many Japanese youths would otherwise have little to no exposure to.

Providing them with said exposure gives many Japanese youths alternatives to the mainstream sports for the country, an opportunity they may not have otherwise discovered if not for Eyeshield 21.


6) Real

Real is a particularly unique series on this list, also being the only seinen present. While not exclusively a sports anime or manga series, it’s framed as such thanks to the shared activity of wheelchair basketball between the three protagonists. The series follows them as they work through the mental and physical struggles of being paralyzed, while also bonding through their love of wheelchair basketball.

Real is exceptional in that it both introduces Japanese youths to an alternative type of basketball, as well as highlighting the struggles of living with a physical disability.

Even if students are unable to relate to or be inspired by the former, the latter is at least educational in its desire to educate readers about how difficult it can be to live with such limitations.


7) The Prince of Tennis

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The Prince of Tennis follows protagonist Ryoma Echizen, a young tennis prodigy pursuing the goal of winning the National Middle School Tennis Championship. Along the way, he makes new friends, discovers his own, unique style and approach to the sport, and realizes what the sport really means to him, as well as learning about himself.

One unique aspect of The Prince of Tennis relative to other sports anime is how introspective it can be at times. While other sports anime will have their characters simply share what the sport they play means to them, Ryoma answers that question through his journey.

It’s a fresh take on an old trope and helps show readers that sometimes the journey with sports is more important than the destination.


8) Free! Iwatobi Swim Club

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Often shortened to just Free!, the series follows Haruka Nanse, a gifted swimmer for the Iwatobi High School swim team. While most sports animes will see their protagonist join a pre-established team, Free! is unique as it shows Nanase restarting the swim club. The series also helps educate readers on this revitalization process, as well as the general rules of competitive swimming.

As touched upon above, Free! is unique in that it highlights to its readers that, if no sports club at school interests you, start or revitalize one of your own. It also popularizes what is otherwise a somewhat lesser-known sport in the Japanese high school and middle school scene.

Finally, it’s also one of, if not the only, sports anime which exposes viewers to the concept of competitive swimming as a sport.


9) Hajime no Ippo

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Hajime no Ippo is a boxing-themed sports manga that follows protagonist Makunouchi Ippo, a friendless, shy high-school student who is recruited to the boxing club.

It’s here that he blossoms as both a person and boxer, learning his natural affinity for the sport and growing close to those he practices and fights with. The series follows him as he strives to become world champion from humble beginnings.

While not the original boxing manga, it is arguably the most popular of its kind. Like The Prince of Tennis, Hajime no Ippo is rife with character development, introspective analysis of motivation, and life lessons that any reader can find value in.

Especially when considering its target demographic of teenage boys, it’s one of the most influential sports anime of all time.


10) Captain Tsubasa

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Last but certainly not least, Captain Tsubasa follows Tsubasa Oozora, who starts the series as an 11-year-old who is in love with football and dreams of winning the FIFA World Cup for Japan.

Known as the “heaven-sent child of football,” the series follows Tsubasa as he strives for soccer greatness, following his journey into adulthood, where he truly begins striving for his dream of winning Japan a World Cup.

One of the most unique aspects of this sports anime series is that it follows its protagonist throughout essentially his entire life. While many other sports anime series do something similar to a less-focused degree, Captain Tsubasa always fully focuses on and flushes out Tsubasa’s life.

Something unique about this is it helps show readers that the loftiest dreams require lifelong dedication.

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Edited by Prem Deshpande
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