A soccer anime like no other, Blue Lock is a show that combines the excitement of sports with the sick games, betrayals, and shocking twists of a lethal game story like Squid Game. Forget about friendship and teamwork, forget about going to nationals with your buddies; this is real life, where your goal is to crush your best friend’s dreams and where the protagonist is no wide-eyed prodigy or a kid who is best friends with the ball. This is the origin story of an anime villain who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, and it’s one of the most thrilling anime of the past year.
It is honestly not that far-fetched of an idea: When Japan fails to advance very far at the World Cup one too many times, the national team hires an unhinged sociopath with big ideas to make his own Battle Royale camp for teenagers. Blue Lock does a good job of justifying the logic behind this, how soccer — despite being very much a team sport — is all about that one extraordinary player pushing their team to victory.
In order to find the star who can lead Japan to victory on the world stage, 300 diamonds in the rough (high school kids) are brought to an undisclosed location where they will compete and hone their superpower-like skills in an all-or-nothing tournament.
The anime, based on the award-winning manga of the same name by Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Yusuke Nomura, subverts the expectations of sports anime while still following them. These characters are not underdogs who bond over their love of sport, but rather a collection of the type of sociopathic and over-the-top villains who would show up at the big game to crush the protagonist’s dreams in any other show. From exaggerated character designs with wild facial features or hairstyles to over-the-top personalities and backstories, you’re essentially following a competition to find the biggest asshole on the field, and it is exhilarating.
It helps that, rather than something like Haikyu or Slam Dunk which balance the players’ school lives with training for the next big tournament where they all work together, Blue Lock deals in sadistic death games that encourage betrayal and backstabbing. To make things worse, during what little time we spend outside of playing and training it is clear that this facility is no summer camp, which just increases the tension. The contestants are given rewards for being the best, like the chance to eat meat if you score a goal, or a proper bed once you pass a certain stage of the competition. This is a show full of temporary alliances and lots of heartbreak, and there is no going back from defeat. Once you lose, you’re gone, and your dream is over, which makes Blue Lock emotionally devastating and truly special.
And yet, Blue Lock is still fairly typical of sports anime. Though the story is all about being an egoist, the characters still have to work in teams during challenges, like five-on-five matches but they are all strikers. This leads to some fantastic dynamics between the characters as they are forced to work together and make their chemistry work in spite of themselves. When friendships do develop, they’re given a layer of tragedy because you know they’re all eventually going to crush each other’s dreams, so every little moment of joy and downtime between the characters is precious because it is so fleeting.
Blue Lock does have some interesting things to say about sports, their competitiveness, and what it means to be a great athlete. It even recognizes luck as a factor in sports, and how you have to open yourself and plan for moments of sheer good fortune, which is rare to see in a show like this where heroic skill is usually emphasized above all else.
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If there is one big weakness of Blue Lock, it is its animation. This is no Haikyu, where every episode is full of fluid movements. The use of 3D computer animation, and particularly the back-and-forth between CG and traditional 2D animation, becomes jarring to watch. That being said, Blue Lock compensates for this with a knowledge of a strong still frame, often employing dynamic angles, comically dark and messed-up facial expressions, and strong keyframes that communicate the action without the need for that much movement.
Likewise, there is a use of visual metaphors and iconography that enhances the animation and helps avoid a sense of repetitiveness in soccer matches. Characters talk about their inner monsters, which actually manifest themselves as shadow creatures, while the protagonist’s spatial awareness ability is portrayed like a never-ending game of chess, and puzzle pieces fly around that he rearranges and puts together to come up with new strategies in visually exciting ways.