Getting into sports can be a challenge for some, and those already disinterested in sports might be similarly disinterested in sports anime. Even so, sports anime skeptics might change their minds about the genre after giving Eyeshield 21 a chance.
Eyeshield 21 is a shonen sports anime/manga centered around the game of American Football. The series was written by Riichiro Inagaki (Dr. Stone) and illustrated by Yusuke Marata (One Punch Man) and originally ran in Weekly Shonen Jump from 2002 to 2009. It received an anime adaption by Studio Gallop, known for the Yu-Gi-Oh anime and its various spinoffs.
The story of Eyeshield 21 follows Sena Kobayakawa, a freshman student at Deimon High School who’s been picked on his whole life and wants to make real friends. While running for his life from some delinquent bullies, Sena catches the attention of the demonic quarterback of the high school football team, Yoichi Hiruma, who believes his incredible speed and quick reflexes would make him an excellent running back for the team. Hiruma then “politely suggests” Sena joins the team, but to hide his secret running talent so he won’t be scouted by other clubs, Hiruma makes Sena wear an eyeshield over his helmet and gives him the number 21 on his jersey, referring to him only as Eyeshield 21 during practice and games.
What immediately sticks out about Eyeshield 21 is that it uses the shonen battle formula super effectively in its storytelling, which makes it easy to latch onto even for those unfamiliar with football. Sena’s desire to become faster and improve is admirable, the strong assortment of rivals makes the football games so much more intense and seeing new techniques and plays applied as new abilities and powerups work surprisingly well. The characters are super likable and passionate about the game.
Take the protagonist, Sena, for instance. Sena has been a pushover all his life, forced to run back and forth to buy snacks for the bullies who torment him. Now he’s part of the Deimon Devil Bats Football Team, and surrounded by people who like and respect him. The fact that he ran so much out of fear has made him the star player of the team, and he’s just as determined to reach national leagues with his team beside him.
However, a football team is more than just the running back, as every character is vital to winning games. A pitfall for many shonen anime is little screentime or development given to characters outside of the protagonist. However, Eyeshield 21 knows that football is a team sport, so the rest of the team gets develop just as much as Sena. A single star player doesn’t make a perfect football team, and The Devil Bats shines through with this philosophy.
For instance, there’s Taro Raimon, a wide receiver and prodigy at catching. Originally a fanatic for baseball, Taro was cut from baseball tryouts for his lack of ability in hitting and running. However, with football, if you can excel at one skill, you’re still vital as a player. As a wide receiver, Raimon is able to excel at catching far better then he would in baseball, and his team is lucky to have him.
The quarterback and tactician of the Devil Bats, Yoichi Hiruma comes up with not only the team’s plays, but intently studies his opponents to exploit their weaknesses. A true devil in disguise, Hiruma shows no mercy to his opponents (and sometimes to his own team). Occasionally, he can seem like a slave driver, telling his teammates to do a specific action in a play without explaining why, but this is usually done so that the player can discover what makes this new technique work on their own, without having to rely on Hiruma to explain to them. Hiruma psyches up his team before every match with a battle cry, similar to a devil general speaking to his army: “RIP OFF THEIR HEADS!! YA-HA!!!”
The Devil Bats themselves aren’t the only great characters, as each team they face off against has at least one stand one rival that makes them endearing. Each team in Eyeshield 21 has a different theme that shines through in not just their designs but their playstyles as well. Take the Zokugaku Chameleons, for example, a football team made up of mostly delinquents and punks. This team not only plays very aggressively and underhanded, but their captain, Rui Habashira, has unusually long arms similar to a chameleon’s tongue. This lets him reach out to grab running players easily and intercept passes with little effort.
There’s also the Ojo White Knights, one of Japan’s all-time best highschool level teams. Their linebacker, Shin, uses his signature attack, the “spear tackle,” to extend his arm quickly and with the impact of a knight’s lance to tackle players. Lastly, there’s Kyoshin Poseidons, a team who’s majorly consisted of especially tall players. Unlike most football teams who prioritize power or weight in their lineman, The Poseidons use taller players instead. This lets them use their longer limbs to keep the opposing line from getting a good grip on them and while keeping them from using their full power effectively. When their linemen are all lined up together and charge at once, it feels like a massive tsunami wave that envelopes everything and everyone in front of it, a terrifying play to witness on the field.
Eyeshield 21 is the perfect entry point to sports anime for anyone who’s a fan of classic shonen storytelling. The series isn’t without its flaws; as with a lot of shonen anime, it’s female cast is very undeveloped in comparison to the star players of the Deimon DevilBats. Still, they manage to still contribute by giving a non-football player’s reactions and reasoning to ground the more complicated plays of a game. Starting with either the anime or manga works, as the anime is consistent overall in its animation and voice performances, and the manga offers Yusuke Marata’s extremely kinetic artwork.
Those already disinterested in sports might be disinterested in sports anime. Even so, sports anime skeptics should give Eyeshield 21 a chance.