If there’s one thing Love All Play unquestionably has going for it, it’s the facial expressions. That perhaps sounds like an odd thing to praise in a sports show, but it truly is one of the standout features of both art and animation; Each fleeting emotion that the characters feel can be seen on their faces, from mild reactions to more extreme feelings, and not only is it fun to watch, it also helps to make each of them feel like distinct individuals. That even goes for identical twins Taichi and Youji; While they still function as a set in the best anime fashion, their facial expressions vary from each other based on what’s going on around them, and even if you still can’t quite grasp which is which, it’s readily apparent that they’re Separate people with their own thoughts and feelings. (In an equally nice touch, when we see them in their street clothes, they don’t dress identically.) There’s just more nuance to everyone’s reactions than you might expect, and that really helps to keep emotional story beats moving.
That’s important, because the plot itself is fairly cookie-cutter. The story follows Ryo Mizushima, a first-year, and the other rising five incoming students on the badminton team at Yokohama-Minato High School as they begin moving ahead in their sport. Five of the six were specifically scouted by Coach Ebihara, with the standout being Koki Matsuda, an expressionless powerhouse of a player. First-year number six is Akira, who switched to badminton from ping pong upon entering high school, and the other four players run a gamut of skill levels between the two. All of them have to learn to adjust to a higher level of play as well as each other, with the major interpersonal relationship work taking place between Sakaki and Ryo, both former singles players who have to learn to function as a two-person unit. As these episodes, which cover most of their first year of high school, go on, we see everyone learn to improve and to bond with each other in typical team sports fashion.
Or is it so typical? There’s a real sense of friendship building between the boys as they try to figure each other out, with Koki being the most pleasant surprise. He at first seems like the usual snooty prince-of-the-court figure who doesn’t give a damn about anyone else, but that is slowly peeled back to reveal that he’s just a truly awkward, lonely individual; when we watch him interacting with his teammates or observing their games, we can see that he really does consider them friends, even if he can’t quite admit it. He’s clearly frustrated by Ryo a lot as they compete for the top spot in newbie tournaments, but if he wasn’t it frankly wouldn’t feel natural. And besides, we do have the selfish jerk character to contrast him with in the form of second-year Yusa. While both Yusa and Koki demonstrate a lot of similar attitudes, Koki is better able to get over his issues, and when he stumbles into Sakaki’s family’s restaurant, we get a better sense of why he’s so awkward. Yusa, meanwhile, gives the impression of having heard that he’s the best for a bit too long, although we do learn that he’s also trying desperately to impress the girl of his dreams, which may also play into his attitude. One of the best scenes in these episodes is when Yusa discovers that his dream girl is, in fact, Ryo’s older sister; Not only is it entertaining, but it also shows us a crack in Yusa’s façade that helps to make him a bit more rounded as a character.
If it seems like I’m mostly talking about the cast rather than the action, that’s because the latter is somewhat underwhelming comparatively. While we do see a decent amount of game play once the plot is established, the timeline of the story feels very rushed and choppy, with tournaments apparently just piling up one after the other at a rate that leaves you to wonder when they have time to practice. There are a couple of episodes devoted to regular life – the boys trying to talk Koki through a date he doesn’t realize he’s on is an one – and we get a good sense of Ryo’s family dynamic, but mostly this feels more like a show you watch for how the characters interact with each other than for the exciting sports action. I will say that it features a much more attentive coach than we sometimes see; Ebihara tails his instructions to each individual player and appears to be training Akira to be a coach himself, both of which are nice to see. While he does sometimes tell players to think about their actions and see if they can figure out what they need to change, it’s never without guidance or accompanied by any threats, making him a solid adult figure in an unobtrusive way.
Love All Play is the sort of show that’s good enough to keep watching even as it doesn’t blow you out of the water. The character interactions are the heart of the show, but the badminton is not completely sidelined either; it’s just not as well-paced as the rest of the story. While it may not be the hot-blooded sports action some viewers are looking for, it is a perfectly decent series, and certainly one that’s good enough to hang on to for a second cour.