There is a phenomenon within anime that I refer to as the “niche genre”. You don’t have to go very far in order to stumble upon it. It isn’t a genre, not really, but it is an extremely common type of of anime that focuses on a particular niche, hobby, or sport.
Most sports anime fall into this category, but it could be any number of things. I lauded Backflip’s portrayal of rhythmic gymnastics, and Those Snow White Note’s love for the shamisen. Anime is great at pushing the upper limits of human imagination, breaking the boundary of creative storytelling. It doesn’t need to be limited by reality, physics, or expectations.
Despite that, we see a large number of anime that don’t focus on magic powers and mecha as tall as skyscrapers. They’re just about normal people doing things that anyone can do.
In an anime market that is increasingly struggling to rip your attention away from the dominant shonen titles, these anime have dedicated themselves to attracting viewers differently. They don’t do it with bombastic action and spectacle, but grounded human stories with an emphasis on personal and professional goals. They do that by making you care.
The best examples of the niche genre are sports anime. Outside of the few sports that dominate globally, most sports fall outside of the immediate mainstream. However, even unpopular sports have a chance of gaining traction in Japan, if a manga or anime about the sport is released.
American football skyrocketed in popularity in Japan after the runaway success of Eyeshield 21, and the rapidly declining membership of boys’ volleyball halted and even reversed drastically after Haikyuu. It isn’t often you see manga and anime have a documented effect on the real world, but these are both great examples of how anime can inspire interest in just about anything.
The central conceit of most sports anime is that the people playing it don’t just like the game; it’s their life. For Hinata, a world without volleyball is genuinely bleak. It’s not just that these characters are endearing or well-written; their love of the game is infectious. By watching or reading along, you’re going to find yourself being drawn in along with them.
This isn’t only true of traditional sports, either. Skateboarding is immensely popular in Japan; they led in gold medals in the first Olympics since it was introduced as a sport. And the first honest skateboarding anime, SK8 the Infinity, is a passion project dripping with enthusiasm for skateboarding and the culture that surrounds it.
That isn’t to say that an anime that came out at the start of this year inspired anyone to win at the Olympics, but sports anime are uniquely designed to make people more invested in a sport by enticing them with other aspects they’re already interested in.
Card game anime is the single most profitable example of how anime makes us care about the source of their stories. Many of the most popular TCGs in the world were either made after being featured in a manga, like Yu-Gi-Oh, or were released as tie-ins to other games and anime, like Pokemon. Many others were given anime specifically to market them better.
TCGs actually take advantage of nearly everything that anime has to offer in their storytelling. Their overlapping areas are expansive: unique character and creature designs, structured combat with an emphasis on a few specific rules, and the serialized episodic nature of anime means it’s always possible to keep introducing new cards into your storyline.
The success of the Pokemon Company is a testament to that. Their entire business model is predicated on releasing a video game which ties into the currently airing anime which also ties into the trading card game which also ties into a massive merchandising business. The reason for Pokemon’s success is largely that they have an established brand across a dozen different fronts that all advertise for one another.
And let’s not forget that anime just has a habit of making everything look cooler, even compared to manga. The original Yu-Gi-Oh manga had duels play out on holographic tables, but it still vaguely resembled a card game. In the anime, though, they play in massive arenas where photorealistic augmented reality technology battles before your eyes. Absurd? Yes. Awesome? Undoubtedly.
All I’m saying is that if you were a kid and saw Yu-Gi-Oh, Bakugan, Beyblade, or any of the hundreds of kids’ game tie-in anime, you understand perfectly how anime can make you care.
I have talked about Japan’s cultural imports in the form of sports, and its exports in the form of card games, but maybe the most fascinating niche genre anime are those that focus on Japanese art and traditions. I’ve already written about Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, and mentioned Those Snow White Notes, but I recently finished the first season of Chihayafuru, and darn it, you all need to know about it.
Chihayafuru is about the card game Hyakunin Issha karuta. The game follows a similar structure to the simple memory card game; both players lay out 100 cards, each containing a piece of a poem from the Hyakunin Issha anthology. A referee reads out one of the poems, and the player who grabs the card first wins.
It sounds like a decent structure to build an anime out of. Most TCG anime focus on saving the world through big monsters and cards you can purchase for a measly $19.99 at local retailers, but Chihayafuru goes for a different approach. It’s not about karuta, rather the people whose lives revolve around this card game, and the many reasons that they have come to love it.
This approach means you come away with the feeling that anyone could appreciate rakugo, play karuta, or pick up a shamisen and start strumming. As Japan increasingly opens up to globalization and slowly loses its grip on many of the traditions that have defined its culture, perhaps the only way to keep them alive is to make them as accessible as possible.
Storytelling has been a shortcut for getting people to empathize since its inception. Our brains are hardwired to hear a story or an anecdote and decipher a meaning. Anime frequently capitalizes on this basic human trait by introducing us to likable characters with a compelling story, and center that story on their passion.
This formula can be used, changed, and repackaged in an infinite number of ways, and thank goodness for that. Anime, thanks to its many moving parts coming together from a variety of disciplines, have to be passion projects. No anime would ever make it to the finish line if the people making it were only in it for a check. Niche genre stories are almost perfectly-suited to anime, thanks to their shared zeal.
So what’s your favorite niche genre story? I’ve highlighted many favorites here, but I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what this subgenre is capable of. Heck, it’s so large that I can’t even call it a subgenre; it applies across dozens of genres. I guess that makes it a macro-genre, credit me with coining the term.
So let me know your favorites, either down in the comments or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I’m always talking about the newest seasonal anime. Until next time, thanks for reading.