Run with the Wind is available on Crunchyroll
The shonen-action genre has been the Western face of anime for a long while now, beating out harsher seinen series and softer romantic comedies through its lineup of sheer juggernauts like Dragon Ball and One Piece – even the three most-recognizable anime of the last five years are all teen-oriented action shows. And there’s certainly a lot of appeal there – who doesn’t love a hot-blooded fantasy with indulgently-cool main characters? That kind of boisterous action is one of the more satisfying ways in which anime tends to wear its heart on its sleeve.
These series tend to be are driven by plot rather than story – that is, the series culminates in Saving the Realm and/or Beating the Big Bad rather than the cast completing a moral arc or finding catharsis. It’s great if you want something bigger-picture, or something that’s energetic in a colorful way with lower emotional stakes. But stray too far down the road from shonen and you’ll arive at the grab bag that is the seinen genre, where you can still get more playful series like Lupin III, but more often than not you veer into dark and depressing territory like Berserk or Lone Wolf and Club.
And what I tend to love about sports anime is its compromise between the two.
They can get tough at times, certainly – last year’s Megalo Box was raw and downright dystopian in its depiction of an underdog boxing story, but the key word there is “underdog”. Much like Hollywood’s big-screen sports stories, sports-focused anime seem determined to maintain an upbeat, hopeful attitude. Always about a protagonist aiming higher, almost always inspirational to the viewer. And that idea of “aiming higher” is never just about winning the tournament, or about placing first – never just about that, anyway. It’s all about personal struggles, clashing against the motivation of a fellow competitor, and bettering yourself in the end.
It’s similar, but in a way that’s immediately relatable to the viewer instead of abstracted through the lens of science-fantasy or the supernatural or whatever this week’s flavor happens to be.
And the best part is that sports anime – especially modern offerings – have a fantastic habit of doing this for every single character. The full lineup of protagonists, all your major antagonists, and your stable of side-characters all have their own goals and agency. And for series that are predominantly focused on high schoolers, it provides a richer and more complex setup for conflict than many more “mature” shows – all without trivializing violence, to boot.
You have a lot of high-visibility shows on the market nowadays to illustrate this; Haikyuu! had a knack for fleshing out the character and ambition of whole teams- some showing up for only two episodes before being summarily defeated – which gave each match a palpable tension and some credibility to the notion that any given opponent could be the one to knock the main characters out of the competition. But just about every single action series regardless of subgenre is about clearly-defined protagonists and antagonists.
Run with the Wind stands out for how hard it veers against this competition-oriented mindset, and instead turns its focus inward. Sure, eventually other schools’ track teams show up to meets and run the same races, and an obligatory rival character does show up now and again. But they’re almost never at the true center of a conflict, and both only exist as a “face” for other, more deeply-rooted issues.
Throughout the series, the greatest things that the Kansei running team have to overcome are always themselves and each other.
This is pretty clear from the outset; the very premise of the first few episodes is that nobody really wants to be part of a college running team, which co-protagonist Haiji is doing his darnedest to will into existence. Everybody has their own well-founded resistances to the idea; a few are founded in a resistance to competitive running in particular, based on past experiences or otherwise.
But the majority of the team has delightfully ordinary reasons to not take part.
For example, Youhei “King” Sakaguchi, who – aside from being of a short and stocky build not suited for distance running – simply doesn’t have time to practice every single day, what with the pesky need to secure a job offer before he graduates. Which, let’s be honest, is a real reason why the vast majority of us don’t exercise as regularly as we should: we have other obligations in our personal and professional lives, and we just can’t commit to the hours and effort it takes every week to put in that work. He might be my favorite of the entire team, and not because he has some deep moral struggle or must overcome some tragedy of his past or is the resident nerd of the cast.
It’s because his central struggle is so overwhelmingly mundane and normal.
And, as it’s come up previously, anime is fantastic at dramatizing these everyday problems.
The team definitely has other stand-out characters in this regard: Musa has to grapple with feeding into the stereotype that African men are naturally athletes and competitive runners (making Run with the Wind a rare anime that directly acknowledges racial issues). Takashi deals with the repercussions of being a kindly doormat who rolls over to other people’s needs and requests (which ends up tearing him apart both emotionally and physically). Akane and Akihiro would have to fight uphill battles just to take part in the club (the former being overwhelmingly out-of-shape and the latter a habitual smoker).
In fact, only two members among the team have personal arcs that specifically tie into running as a sport: one about having emotionally-damaging relationships with past teammates, and the other about working through and past an injury – both of which are still generic enough that many viewers will map other, equally-common struggles of their own onto these characters.
It’s worth noting that the bulk of the external conflict in the show still comes from within the team itself. Too-cool-for-school Yuki needs to be convinced that any school club could be worth his time and effort, the whole team has to deal with the elephant in the room that Akane will and does inevitably drag the their collective performance down, and not a single one of them aside from Haiji buys into the idea that they’ll meet the goal of even participating in the Hakone Ekiden relay, let alone be a competitive force in it, leaving them resistant every effort to reform their diets and lifestyles toward becoming a proper running club. For most of the show’s early run, the team rightly spends as much time arguing with each other as making actual progress.
But it gets better.
There’s no “a-ha” moment for any of them. Most of the characters turn over very gradually, figuring “it’s probably good for my health, anyway”, through getting acclimated to morning runs whether they like it or not, or eventually just caving in to the sheer attrition of peer pressure. Which – guess what – is exactly how you real people build the habit of regular exercise or change an attitude or get convinced to join a social activity. Few have a miraculous moment where they push past their personal issues, either – Takashi and Akane still contend with being weak links to the very end, the rival character is ultimately right about the team being built to fail, and protagonist Haiji ends up caught and punished by karma that he clearly saw coming but staunchly refused to avoid.
Which is why I was completely and absolutely bought-in on these characters’ pain and perseverance: it’s grounded in a way that not a lot of other stories manage. Long-distance running isn’t even the kind of sport where you can pull out a “clutch play” and overtake the other team in some come-from-behind victory. There’s no “miracle on asphalt” – Kansei starts in absolute last place, and for all their efforts they finish near the bottom of the pack.
But they’re in the pack.
It doesn’t really matter that there are still other teams above them, or even that they were competing against other records and runners at all. Distance running isn’t even a sport about direct confrontation in the first place.
They’ve outdone themselves, utterly and fantastically, through grit and attrition over the course of a great many months (both in-fiction and over the show’s broadcast). And that’s a more real victory than taking down any villain, and more meaningful than beating out a rival. What the team has really overcome, in the end, is the past versions of themselves. Their problems never go away, but their attitudes toward those problems change, leaving every one of them physically and emotionally healthier than they were in episode one.
It’s the drive for self-improvement that keeps our nose to the grindstone, that keeps us aiming high and focused on tackling what’s still within our control, no matter how uphill of a battle that may seem. It’s same kind of battle that every single one of us have to fight day in and day out.
And it’s what makes Run with the Wind one of the most downright motivating bits of television I’ve seen in a very long time.