Sports anime run on a simple but effective engine: Take a heaping spoonful of misfit children, show them working together in pursuit of The Big Prize, then fold in their sad backstories, their longing, their injuries, their anxieties. A good sports anime is as manipulative as a roller coaster — the arc is obvious, but when you’re on it, you don’t give a shit because you’re crying.
I love sports anime because they’re the shortest routes to having feelings. The Sport, be it basketball, volleyball, freaking road racing, acts like a magnifying glass for stakes. A high school basketball game is essentially a life-or-death exercise. Character relationships are heightened because they all revolve around The Sport, and god forbid someone graduate because I will literally die if they have to leave the team they love so much.
Cheer, Netflix’s cheerleading documentary, uses the same ingredients to explosive effect. But, unfortunately, the kids are real and I’m very worried about them.
The show focuses on the cheerleading team at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. Navarro has won The Big Prize 13 times but, in true sports storytelling fashion, these kids are underdogs. Cheer introduces talented athletes who can do a billion backflips, then peels back the layers of their stories to discover their vulnerabilities. The team’s most famous member, certified “cheerlebrity” Gabi Butler, sweats and cries and struggles like the rest, seemingly without ego.
In Cheer, as in sports anime, the stakes are clear (The Big Prize, but also, the friendships along the way). The athletes are flawed, but they are working so hard — and more often than not, they’re reaching for their dreams and falling on their faces. In Cheer, this results in very real concussions.
[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for Arakita’s arc in the first season of Yowamushi Pedal.]
Injuries are as commonplace in sports anime as they are in, well, sports. The first season of the cycling anime Yowamushi Pedal ends with The Big Race. It’s a challenging course that the teams train for all year. During the race, the competitors are picked off one by one in the sports equivalent of “dying,” complete with black-and-white scenes of them collapsing on the side of the road. Yes, it’s heavy-handed. But it’s also emotional terrorism.
My favorite episode is about Arakita, a loudmouth asshole who bikes for the Opposing Team. He’s not The Villain, but he’s still scary. In this episode, a flashback reveals that Arakita was a pitcher until an injury forced him to quit. Without baseball, Arakita is filled with self-loathing, and lashes out at everyone near him. It’s only through Hakone Academy’s cycling team that he finds a reason to live.
What sets Arakita’s story apart from more soapy fare, for me, is that he doesn’t learn to love himself through cycling. There’s no cheesy moment of recognition that helps him know he’s worthy of happiness. All Arakita learns from sports is how to keep going — even if you hate yourself, even if you think you’re worthless. Because you’re not doing it for yourself; you’re doing it for the team.
Cheer is just as militant. In one interview, tumbler Lexi Brumback tells the crew that she’d be in jail if she weren’t cheering. The Navarro team provides her with the structure she needs to stay on the straight and narrow.
What sets Cheer apart is a lingering anxiety about what these kids are going to do when they graduate. I call them kids — they’re all in their 20s, but they’re so vulnerable. What Cheer makes clear is that this is a sport for the young, and their knees are absolutely fucked. After collegiate cheerleading, there are no Big Prizes left to claim. A cheerleader’s career ends with graduation.
Knowing this, the subjects of Cheer push themselves through unbelievable injuries, and I am being emotionally manipulated, and I am complicit, and I am here for it. One cheerleader is told by a doctor that all her ribs could essentially explode, and she still wants to compete! What the fuck!!
But it makes a dangerous amount of sense. If there’s one thing I learned from sports anime, it’s that sports are about finding makeshift family. Winning is the hook, but friendship and belonging are a drug. Cheer does nothing to disabuse me of that understanding.