And somehow this became a history of the Sports! anime genre…
I’m pretty sure that people who take classes in creative writing, i.e. people who are not me, are told that stories need conflict. That’s a fairly old fashion view that isn’t true in all cases and they probably also say that in the classes. Still it’s advice that does generally hold true. And often, that conflict will come in the form of a “bad guy”.
Now anime (and fiction in general) has many different types of bad guys and each of them tends to affect the narrative in unique ways. But sometimes the distinctions and roles of each can get a bit blurry and I think it can really bring down a series when a bad guy gets miscasts or misinterpreted.
As you may know, I watch a lot of Sports! anime. I mention it less these days but I still do. And one of the main features of modern Sports! animes is that they usually don’t have any villains. They have rivals. When the narrative pits one team against another in a tournament or something, it’s tough to simply villainize the other side since they are essentially characters that look, act and feel just like the heroes. They have the same motivations and for the most part, go about those motivations in the same ways as the protagonists. If those rivals are evil then the heroes are as well.
However, at the same time, Sports! animes are usually very dependent on personal drama to drive the story forward and create engagement from the audience. I may be wrong but I suspect no one is watching close to 200 episodes of Ace of Diamond only because they think the games are super exciting. There is actual real baseball to watch out there. Anime fans are invested in the lives of the characters and so those other teams can’t just remain simple antagonists they need to be actual complete people with dreams and problems and quirks of their own. They need to be rivals.
But this wasn’t always the case. There was a time where it was much more common to see actual villains in Sports anime. And these were actual bad guys. They would cheat and use nefarious means to gain the advantage. They could stoop to trying to physically injure key players before a match or ruin their private lives to prevent them from playing or distract them. There was no camaraderie between teams, no grudging respect.
But for this type of bad guy to work, and by extension this type of conflict, the structures of these shows were just a bit different. They were in fact very similar to classic fighting shonen with a bad guy of the week to take out that we would often never be heard from again and maybe an overarching evil team that the protagonists are working towards confronting. Like the national champions or something. In these shows the driving force wasn’t to win the match, it was to defeat the opponents.
But eventually this structure lost popularity. Arguably the simple evil villain lost popularity in general and now we always need complex bad guys with all sorts of Freudian excuses. I miss the simple evil. That’s neither here nor there.
The point is that when the main conflict was in the form a clear bad guy that the audience didn’t like, the focus of the shows was in beating that bad guy. As such they were much more plot driven and less personal, which appealed to a specific audience. When that audience started to dwindle, the genre had to reinvent itself and one of the first things it did was retool the source of conflict.
There was an adjustment period and you do see that in the shift to more character driven story lines the villains started to become flat antagonists for a while. Opponents were no longer villains as it was pretty ridiculous having a these righteous teams entirely surrounded by teams of thugs doing barely legal things no one seemed too concerned about. So instead the other teams where just… the other team.
We didn’t learn much about them or even get to see them that much. We didn’t necessarily want them to lose or anything it’s just that we wanted “our” team to win. Flat antagonists are often not really characters exactly. They are more like plot devices and in this case they were obstacles to bring about conflict and not much more. This means that the weight and momentum of the narrative had to be carried entirely by the protagonists.
As far as genre bending experiments go this was fairly short lived and there aren’t tons of examples I can think of. The early Prince of Tennis series could fall into the category though. In practice what it meant for the series was that they became hyper focused on the protagonists and more often then not on only one or two main characters that were deeply developed, and the stories became more like character studies about these specific character’s lives and personal drama which just happened to include some sports in it.
In many ways these shows were similar to Free! Yes the story does involve a sport and it is important and often depicted but that’s not really the main takeaway. In fact it’s more like a setting. The main genre would usually become either drama or comedy. Another recent example would be Tsurune.
This wasn’t exactly the best formula for the sports genre mind you. In many instances, creators found it somewhat restrictive to constantly have to add in sports related story lines and scenes, especially if an author wasn’t a huge fan of the sport in question and there was a fear that it would alienate a wider audience. These sports dramas were starting to attract a new audience that had been long familiar with character driven personal dramas. You know, like the ones you see a lot in shoujo for instance…
But how to keep this new audience without losing the old one and without completely diluting all the sports out of sports anime. I believe that the answer to that was two fold.
First and very strikingly, art styles and character models were tweaked to be…pretty. Cause people are simple. And to be honest with you guys, maybe that’s all they would have needed to do in the first place and not bother with all these narrative of tonal adjustments.
But the second thing they did was change the conflict once more. The game needed to be once again central to the plot. And to get a wide audience, one that is not necessarily that interested in the sport itself, to care about endless match episodes, authors needed to create that new found personal drama within the game itself somehow. And one of the most effective ways to do so was to create real rivals.
If the audience cares about the opponents almost as much as the protagonists then that doubles their investment in the game. Everyone has a favourite player they are keeping an eye on and cheering for. Conclusions aren’t necessarily foregone. You can have your team lose a match without turning the audience off cause those other guys are pretty great too and worked really hard and there’s always next time. The others aren’t bad guys, they are often really good guys, sometimes they are our friends! They just happened to be on the other side of the court this time.
In time this meant that the number of characters developed and established in Sports anime stated to grow. Seasons would juggle dozens of different players from different teams all with their own thing going on. By necessity, the personal dramas became ensemble casts with diverging slice of life stories all brought together and brought to a dramatic conflict in a game.
I used Sports anime as a genre to try to illustrate the different types of antagonists we most frequently see in stories and how the use of one particular type rather than another can affect the entire narrative. But I do believe it basically applies to all genres.
Do you have a preferred type of bad guy? Have you noticed a type of villain evolution in another genre?