A swimmer’s arms cut through the water. A basketball player pivots in a tight semicircle around an opponent. A figure skater eases into a chassé, spin and stately arabesque.
These scenes are animated, but they’re no less entrancing than live performance. Though the pandemic shut down plans for this year’s Olympics, there’s still somewhere you can see the beauty of athletes in motion: sports anime series like “Haikyuu!!,” “Kuroko’s Basketball,” “Free!” and “Yuri!!! on Ice.”
Because animation is free from the physical limitations of reality, it would be simple for these anime shows to slough off trifles like gravity. But they don’t let their characters fly off into space. Instead, they depict athletes as living just a few toes beyond the realm of possibility, their movements just a beat quicker or their jumps a notch higher than physics usually allows. In this, they remind us of what flesh-and-blood athletes and dancers do: They stretch and subvert — or break completely — the bounds of what we believe bodies can do.
In “Haikyuu!!,” an earnest boy named Shoyo Hinata aspires to be a great volleyball player, though he’s short and lacks the polished training of his peers. In a flashback, we see the origin of Hinata’s obsession: He watches a game, mouth agape, as a player vaults himself into the air and spikes the ball over the net. The spiker sweeps out his left arm behind him, wrist bent, and Hinata’s eyes widen as the player’s arm transforms into an elegant black wing.
It’s a visual metaphor that the show returns to again and again, as Hinata trains himself to jump as high as he can. “Haikyuu!!,” though a sports show, is never about the actual points. It’s about Hinata finding a team of athletes who can allow each other to shine, who can help him make something more of his body.
Often, we see him bound left and right in front of the net, torpedoing forward, his body low to the ground. When he leaps — chest forward, suspended in midair, one arm raised and the other cocked back, elbow pointed behind him — he is like Icarus, confident in his flight, and yet his metaphorical wings do not dissolve. “I can fly!” Hinata declares, his knees pointed, feet kicked up behind him.
“Kuroko’s Basketball,” whose central team is known for pulling off amazing physical feats, similarly dramatizes athletes surpassing the body’s limits. The show goes so far as to literalize the sports metaphor of being in the zone by showing it as a heightened, almost supernatural, state of physical and mental acuity. The players quickstep around one another, and their attempted passes, blocks and shots are rendered as a flash of limbs. Two players in the zone face off as though they are dance partners, body to body, step to step, jumping in sync, their motions mirrored in a constant point-counterpoint matchup.
Here, too, is a character like Hinata, who would traditionally be considered unworthy of the team. Tetsuya Kuroko is also small — and slow and missable. And as master of misdirection, he takes advantage of how unnoticeable he is, by vanishing.
Both “Haikyuu!!” and “Kuroko’s Basketball” glamorize characters with distinctive styles who approach plays or routines with an execution that’s particular to them, their body types and personalities. This is a more essential part of “Free!,” a series about a water-loving high school student, Haruka Nanase, who joins his school’s swim team. Haruka is praised for his freestyle while other teammates have their own specialties, such as the backstroke or butterfly.
One character admires another’s form — how his long arms seem to lengthen even more as he reaches forward, the speed with which he launches off his turns. Someone comments on a swimmer’s floundering butterfly, which doesn’t have the graceful rise and fall of the others we see but rather looks like a constant lurching and collapsing into the water.
The show frames each scene both above and below the surface, floating and sinking with the characters so we can see each swimmer’s gait in the water.
Occasionally, during a race, a swimmer will see a vision: a dolphin, perhaps, or the water reaching back with a liquid hand. The point here is that the sport isn’t just about the body moving through space but about the body redefining itself in a new element, one that will move with the swimmers or against them, push them forward or resist them.
This particular dance is a muscular one, and assertive: The swimmer must use his hands and arms to carve open a space for himself, as one character explains, and slide his body through that opening. Unlike Kuroko, who shrinks and slows to make himself disappear, the boys of “Free!” assert themselves as they push their way forward.
Each show is so exaggerated in its style that the characters’ movements reveal thoughts, emotions or a story. In “Yuri!!! on Ice,” an anxious, defeated figure skater named Yuri Katsuki is coached by his idol, Victor Nikiforov, who inspires Yuri’s love — both for the sport and for Victor.
The show’s animation is stunningly fluid: The skaters swivel and swerve, fan out their arms and legs in a large circular sweep, then tuck themselves into tidy spins. (The two-time Olympian Johnny Weir is a fan of the series and has even performed one of the featured routines.) Victor choreographs a routine for Yuri called “On Love: Eros” and coaches him through the task of physicalizing his idea of seduction: a flirty turn of the head, a popped hip, saucy footwork that falls somewhere between a burlesque dancer and a matador who tempts and evades the bull.
Victor choreographs another routine, “On Love: Agape,” for a different student — also named Yuri — a usually ornery skater, who is here made ethereal. The routine, set to choral music, is rife with supplicant gestures: His body opens up, chest first, to the sky as though in offering, then folds down to the ground in adjuration. In the final moments of the program, we hear his thoughts, and he is completely unguarded, his fears and regrets exposed. He has used his body to tell a tale about prayer and devotion, and that’s the image we are left with as he strikes his final pose on the rink.
Though these sports anime programs don’t depict their athletes as dancers, they work with a similar philosophy of movement. The art isn’t simply in that movement but in the body that performs it, whether live onstage or animated on a screen. These shows say that the art resides in the body’s moment of redefinition, when it may choose to spin, reach out and perhaps even take flight.