‘Quitting is the devil’s fruit!’: why anime is firing up sports stars

TBournemouth striker Dominic Solanke thought twice that he had scored the opening goal against Brentford on May 11. Each time he rode out to celebrate, he donned an orange mask with a spiral pattern and one eye hole before posing for the cameras.

The goal was disallowed by VAR, but the celebration went viral, as journalists wrote about ‘masked chaos’ and others wondered what this ‘bizarre‘celebrate’ could mean.

It was the latest in a series of hand gestures and poses that Solanke has performed this season that are unfathomable to the uninitiated, but for fans of anime (Japanese animated dramas) it is clear that the mask was a character, Obito Uchiha, from the Naruto -series.

Obito Uchiha, an anime character from the Naruto series.

With its roots in 1980s manga comics and animated films such as the 1988 cyberpunk epic Akira, anime has transcended its Japanese base and become a global phenomenon over the past two decades. It has grown from children’s entertainment to a medium for every kind of story, covering every genre, from historical to science fiction and from romance to humor.

Shows like Dragon Ball Z, One Piece and Naruto already have hundreds of episodes and are watched by millions of people on streaming platforms, with the entire industry – including comics, video games, merchandise, TV shows and movies – worth approximately . $30 billion (£24 billion) by 2023.

Shonen, a form of anime aimed primarily at boys aged 13 to 18, has proven particularly popular with the current generation of sports professionals.

So far this season Solanke, who has had a breakout year with 19 goals, has made subtle references to shonen during his celebrations, including Jujutsu Kaisen, Gear Second and One Piece.

The Bournemouth striker isn’t the only one celebrating his anime goals: NFL stars, Bundesliga footballers, Olympic athletes and rugby league players in Australia’s National Rugby League have all embraced the trend.

New Zealand’s Israel Adesanya, the MMA star and former UFC middleweight champion, poses in honor of Rock Lee from Naruto. Photo: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty

MMA star and former UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya has arguably done more than any other athlete to raise awareness of anime. The Nigerian-born fighter often chooses a different anime theme for his fights, changing his ring walk, music, and sometimes fighting style in honor of a particular show he enjoys.

When Adesanya fought Brazilian Anderson Silva in 2019, he posed with his arms outstretched, referencing another Naruto character, Rock Lee. “When you know it, you know it,” he has said of the gestures. “I play for my audience.”

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Rock Lee from Naruto.

Many of the athletes embracing this trend are Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, although some, like Adesanya, are older millennials.

Helen McCarthy, an anime expert and author, said the fact that more Gen Zers are referring to the genre makes sense as they were children when two major changes occurred that sparked its boom: the popularization of high-speed internet, of which 50% of the British homes had that in 2009and the proliferation of anime piracy platforms.

“Until that happened, we didn’t have access to anime on a regular basis,” McCarthy said. Gen Z now has access to anime on the same level as anything else they stream.”

Isaac John, the former professional rugby league player who now runs the podcast and clothing company YKTR, says many Australian and New Zealand players grew up with shows like Dragon Ball Z, which they watched after school.

“It’s that little hour in the day between school and chores where you can escape,” he said. “Footy players are just big kids, they never really grow up.”

But for some sports figures, anime is not only the culture they like to consume during their free time, it’s also inspiring. When asked if anime has influenced his playing style, Solanke told the BBC: “You could say a bit of mentality, because it’s just so unforgiving, so many stories [about] the characters just don’t give up. It’s actually always fun to think back to those characters and what they’ve been through and how hard they’ve worked.”

Son Goku in Dragon Ball Z, who inspired Brian To’o of the Penrith Panthers. Photo: Photo 12/Alamy

That idea of ​​resilience and determination is something that several sportspeople say fuels their love for animated dramas.

In Australia, Penrith Panthers rugby league player Brian To’o has started a clothing brand with his teammate Jarome Luai, inspired by Dragon Ball Z, and To’o said he partly models himself on the character of Son Goku.

“He is a family man who strives for greatness, and that is something that inspires me,” To’o said before last year’s State of Origin series, where he appeared in Dragon Ball Z-inspired boots.

“In my world I am player one,” Adesanya recently told GQ, when explaining his nickname “the Last Stylebender,” a reference to the Avatar anime. “I had to master all the elements of martial arts to realize my destiny… It’s very relatable.”