There is something uniquely tragic yet beautiful about unrequited sports fandom—passionate fans who stick by their teams through the sporadic highs and lowest lows, fervently hoping every year that this year— this year— is going to be the year they go all the way. It’s a universal experience shared by fans around the globe, especially those born with the misfortune of supporting perpetual underdogs and chokers—White Sox fans, Bills fans, and, of course, Samurai Blue fans—Japan’s national soccer team. Japan has one of the most passionate soccer fandoms in the world, and is responsible for exporting one of the most influential soccer properties ever created (Captain Tsubasa), but outside of regional cups, their men’s team has never even come close to tasting glory.
There was one glimmer of hope during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar when it felt like things might be different though. They pulled off major upsets against Spain and Germany, and headed into the Round of 16 with momentum under their wings. But as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. Despite holding on in a tight match against Croatia, their dreams fizzled out in the most unsatisfying final showdown—the flaccid whimper of missed shoot-outs.
But there was a moment— one glorious moment— where it felt like David could have felled Goliath to finally make it into the Quarterfinals. Fans excitedly took to Twitter and chatted conspiratorially about the prescience of Blue Lock, joking that maybe the Blue Lock program and its cutthroat, Battle Royale-style training regimen and aggressive play style might actually be real. It also helps that Blue Lock manga illustrator Yūsuke Nomura had an official collaboration with the team (alongside Giant Killing‘s Tsujitomo), showcasing the series’ main character wearing the 2022 Adidas kit alongside actual players.
The Blue Lock anime, adapted from Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Nomura’s ongoing hit manga of the same name, follows an indecisive and self-loathing high school soccer player named Isagi who whiffs his team’s prefectural finals. As he wallows in self-pity, he receives an invitation to a mysterious soccer camp. When he gets there, he’s met by 300 of the country’s best soccer forwards, players with talents that may as well be superpowers. But they’re given an impossible choice— if they leave or get eliminated during the camp, they will forever forfeit their chance of ever being considered for the national team. Win, and not only are they guaranteed a spot, but they would be considered the best striker ever to represent Japan. As the enigmatic and a-little-too-on-the-nose program director Ego explains, Japan has never made it far on the world stage because they simply don’t have the bloodthirst to dominate. They’re not egoists. And so he wants to tear the sport down to the raw basics and rebuild the program from the ground up, starting with strikers who will do anything to win, including destroying the dreams of their fellow players.
To some degree, Blue Lock is a sports anime, in that it is an anime about sports. Almost every minute is dedicated to playing soccer, training for soccer, or learning why the players like soccer. Sometimes, you get to see the national soccer federation argue about soccer. But spackled in between are some light-hearted gags— teasing a player for his luscious hair or bemoaning the program’s lackluster meals. There’s also a fair amount of navel-gazing, though that tends to also revolve around soccer. But besides the subject matter, the show plays out more like a shonen fighting tournament show, where every character’s superpower gets its moment in the spotlight. There is a giant cast of characters, everyone has a unique gift, and by the time the season wraps, many have unlocked even bigger and badder powers.
While these superhuman abilities provide a good chuckle, they also go a long way in broadening the series’ appeal for anime fans who may not know or care about soccer. At times, it feels reminiscent of other over-exaggerated sports series like Yowamushi Pedal, where characters can pull off impossible, physics-defying feats that would require more suspension of disbelief if the overall tone wasn’t so enjoyably campy. The characters are also wildly varied, even if, at times, it almost feels like they were run through a Shonen Side Character generator. There’s the elegant long-haired one, the shark-grinned one, the one who refuses to talk, the one who sees monsters— if there’s an overpowering sense of déjà vu at times, it’s because it feels like some of the characters could’ve been plucked from other series.
The Hunger Games nature of the soccer camp lends itself to an interesting exploration of individuality running through the series. At some point, Ego argues that Japan excels in baseball because everyone has a job to do and a pre-specified role to play. Being more fluid and dynamic, soccer requires a certain degree of improv and ego, like knowing when to take the shot or commandeer the play instead of passing. It’s fun to chew on from a sociological perspective, but even as the setup for a show about clashing egos, it’s fun to watch. Ego’s philosophy has big “If you’re not first, you’re last” energy, but it’s easy to see why soccer fans got so hyped when Japan started dominating at the Cup.
Regarding the physical release itself, the Season One boxset is pretty barebones. It includes clean versions of the opening and ending themes— the latter being an absolutely underrated banger— but that’s pretty much it. Of course, it also includes both Japanese and English language tracks, and subtitles that can be toggled on and off. Language preferences are subjective and almost not worth contesting anymore, but it’s worth remarking that some of the English language voice directions are… a choice. Ricco Fajardo brings a lot of energy and passion as Isagi, but some of the others characters are a little hit or miss. Bachira, played by Drew Breedlove, is a miss; his boyish charm is replaced with something slithering, almost creepy. Raichi’s voice (Aaron Campbell) sounds like he’s doing a bit. It’s a little jarring at times because the characters’ energy sometimes feels at odds with the directorial choices, but it’s otherwise a decent production.
Voice-directing quibbles aside, Blue Lock is a magnificently fun romp. The huge cast can be a little overwhelming at times, especially in the back end of the season when the pacing starts to sag, and Isagi becomes cockier and more insufferable, but the story is never predictable. The players’ powers are so absurd and deployed so unexpectedly that the outcomes of the games are opaque until the final whistle. Even Messi would be impressed to see some of these kids sniping their shots with deadly accuracy. For soccer fans, it’s also fun to try and guess who the real-life inspirations are for some of the fictional heroes name-checked in the series.
Artistically, the series does a pretty solid job depicting action scenes, especially some of the more elaborate set pieces during the matches. With a combination of 3D modeling, dynamic camera angles, and keyframes, the plays are a genuine thrill to watch, although there are times when the consistency and quality dip. As for style, it’s not always the most aesthetically pleasing show, and your mileage may vary depending on how much you gel with the massive cast of characters, but it’s at least never boring. And there’s also the feet. Blue Lock has a lot of bare, gnarled feet, and lots of visual focus is specifically pointed at the feet. Sometimes, the feet don’t even look good, so it’s unnecessarily distracting at times, but no one can claim they didn’t put the “foot” in football.
Overall, Blue Lock is a really good time, especially if you have a high tolerance for camp and absurdity. It’s the kind of show that will plaster a smile on your face, even as you’re rolling your eyes at some of the scenarios. Action fans will enjoy the strategy sessions and head-to-head showdowns; soccer fans will enjoy this impassioned and mildly angry love story to the sport, like armchair quarterbacking brought to life. As for the Blue Lock program itself, it’s easy to see why fans were eager to embrace it. At the end of the day, there’s nothing like hope.