While you might assume that sports anime series like Haikyuu!! and Kuroko’s Basketball might relegate its female characters to the sidelines, they do a remarkable job of making them smart, relevant to the story and characters in their own right.
Sports anime can pose a challenge in trying to include women characters, especially those with single-gender teams like basketball and volleyball. Female characters don’t play on the teams, so they often provide support for the teams in varying capacities off the court. That support often turns out to be crucial for the team’s success.
To be honest, I was a little worried about Shimizu Kiyoko, the female manager for the Karasuno volleyball team, in the first several episodes of Haikyuu!! She didn’t say much, even though she is a manager for the team. While it was mildly amusing that she routinely rebuffed any sign of interest from Tanaka Ryunosuke and Yu Nishinoya, two members of the team (they seem to thrive on the rejection), even I was wondering about her role in relation to the team. But just because she doesn’t talk much doesn’t mean that she’s not valuable to the team.
I realized that Shimizu really believes in the team. She is one of the third years who will have to leave after this season, so she is invested in their run to the championships. As a result, she also functions as much-needed support for a team trying to reclaim its former glory. Kiyoko is an introvert, so it really takes a lot for her to give her heartfelt little speech when she unveils the restored team banner before a significant game. Her efforts are appreciated by the team. We can tell by the emotional reaction from everyone on the team (everyone basically melts into a ball of tears, even scowl-y Kageyama Tobio. This made me think that I had been too hard on Kiyoko. In later episodes, she talks more, and even introduces another female manager to the team. Flashbacks also show how she helps the coach of the team and reveals more about her relationship with the third-year players.
The relationship between the members and Kiyoko is also an interesting one. While some members of the team think she is cute, they are also really protective of her, not wanting members from other teams to even think about disrespecting her. Once they learn that they stand no chance, the Karasuno team members can befriend them. However, there are other players on other teams who more sinister characters. When Kiyoko is being held up by two thugs from a rival team trying to get her number, Shoyo Hinata, the smallest member of the team, flies to her defense. Literally. Ultimately, Karasuno team members seem to respect her role and see her as a member of the team.
Kiyoko, however, is only the opening act compared to the plethora of female characters that populate Kuroko’s Basketball, which features young women that include a shrewd manager, hands-on coaches and a streetball pro. First and foremost is my girl, Aida Riko, the “lady coach” for the Seirin basketball team. From her first appearance in the series, she comes off as competent and involved in the training and success of her players. When she looks at them, she doesn’t objectify them, but considers their strengths, for which she praises them, and weaknesses, which she works with them for improvement. She has a good relationship with the players; she’s able to joke around with them. I particularly like her interaction with Hyuga Junpei, the captain of the team. They have known each other long enough to speak casually to each other. She even lets him cut her hair!
At the same time, Riko definitely practices tough love. She’s constantly smacking players or putting them wrestling holds. I think everyone, even little Kuroko, has been on the receiving end of Riko’s brand of discipline. In return, the players have a lot of respect for Riko. I’m sure this has nothing to do with her tendency to inflict violence on them as part of her leadership style. She is part of the team, as the stills from the intro and outro credits reveal. They often picture her with the team, full of the same determination as the team members.
This is not the opinion of others, though. Frequently, other players and coaches look down on Riko because she is a girl. Sometimes, attendees at games make rude remarks, like “Seirin should get a real coach.” They underestimate her knowledge of the game and her ability to guide her team. They also insult her appearance. Members of one team heard Seirin had a female coach, but voiced their disappointment when they see Riko, saying that she’s not cute (she’s totally cute!). Yeah, Seirin’s team was not happy about that. At. All.
The other major female character in Kuroko’s Basketball is Momoi Satsuki, former manager for the Generation of Miracle’s middle school team and current manager for Touou Academy. While she looks like a typical busty anime girl, Satsuki is basketball’s secret weapon, a data analyst who can ascertain the strengths of other players and predict how they will grow. She is a force to be reckoned with. Like Riko, she has no problem hanging out with the guys on the team. She is respected by the coach of Touou, who relies on her information and experience.
At the same time, though, I don’t like Satsuki nearly as much as like Riko. First of all, she’s always all over my boy Kuroko (get your hands off him! He’s not that into you). Second, I don’t like the way she treats Riko. She channels the same body-shaming insults as the male members of other teams that Seirin faces, trying to make Riko feel bad that she is not a curvaceous as herself. This is entirely different from the trash-talk that happens on the court, which is part of basketball culture. It’s par for the course when Riko calls Yosen’s female coach a grandma on the court during a game, but Satsuki rags on Riko off the court.
I also don’t feel the same sense of loyalty and friendship between Satsuki and her team. Satsuki is here for Aomine mostly, when she’s not flirting with Kuroko. Even her relationship with Aomine is really unclear. Riko, on the other hand, laughs and cries with her team. She knows each and every one of them and supports them, even the weak players. Just as Kuroko supports team play, Riko supports her team in ways that Satsuki does not.
Still, both Haikyuu!! and Kuroko’s Basketball do a surprising job at creating female characters with some depth.