Now that I'm totally NOT distracted by replaying Persona 4 Golden, let's take things into a more active and athletic direction. That's right, it's time for sports manga! So of course the first example I could find was...a kendo-themed drama full of girls?
BAMBOO BLADE (Banbu Buredo), written by Masahiro Totsuka & art by Aguri Igarishi. First published in 2004 and first published in North America in 2009.
Kojiro-sensei is not having a good year. His teaching job leaves him hopelessly broke most of the time, living mostly off of instant noodles. He could distract himself with his duties as head of the school kendo club, but most of the members have graduated and it's on the verge of being shut down. That's when he makes a bet with an old friend/fellow kendo coach: if Kojiro's team can beat his, then Kojiro can eat for free at his father's sushi restaurant for a year.
Determined to win, Kojiro sets off to find a winning team, and he first sets his eyes on Tamaki, a kendo prodigy from a long line of kendo dojo masters. There's just one problem: Tamaki is more interested in tokutatsu than kendo and has no real desire to take up the sport again. It'll take time, effort, friendship, and even a sense of justice to win her over and forge not only a great kendo team, but some lasting friendships in the making.
Bamboo Blade occupies a strange space, being not quite a traditional sports manga but neither the sort of aimless slice-of-life story that the all-girl cast might suggest. Still, it devotes enough time and care towards its characters to make it an effective and affecting drama.
The cast is pretty universally endearing, if not all that deep. Kojiro is mostly defined by his desperation, Kirino is your standard genki girl, Miyako vacillates between her sugary sweet public persona and the brutal girl lying just underneath, and the few boys that gravitate around them are mostly afterthoughts. If anyone gets the lion's share of focus, it's Tamaki. It would be all too easy to write her off as just another stoic anime girl, but once we start to see her home life we get a far more complete picture of her. While she is very skilled at kendo, she's mostly viewed it as a duty up to this point, thanks to her father. She's also got a very child-like fascination with super sentai shows, and from that she's gained a keen sense of justice and a desire to protect those in need. As the volume goes on, we see Tamaki open up to others in subtle ways. For her, the simple act of bringing food to share at lunch is big step forward, and on the whole it's qualities like this that makes her character arc both sweet and subtle.
Despite being about a sport, not much progress is made with the kendo club in this first volume. Hell, the team isn't even fully assembled at this point and the closest we've gotten to a tournament is a one-on-one match between Tamaki and a bully. This slow and sedate pace might turn some people off, even if everything else works for them. Yet it's the sports-related stuff that helps to give the story some focus and forward momentum. They have something to work for beyond 'make friends.' They also have things like 'find more members,' 'buy new equipment,' and 'train for the tournament' to complete Yet it also has a lot of sincere emotion and a minimum of moe pandering. It's the sort of balance that a lot of manga strive for but that few can truly pull off, and Bamboo Blade is very much one of those exceptions.
Igurashi's artwork is well-suited for this sort of understated story. The character designs are simple and cute, but also very distinct, very much lacking in fanservice, and fairly expressive. Well...maybe not so much in Tamaki's case, but her lack of expression is part of the point of her characters so I can let that slide. She tends to keep the panels fairly tight-focused. That's not a problem in the conversational scenes, but it becomes one during those rare instances where the girls have to actually practice or compete. She's got a bad tendency to drown the girls' movements in speedlines. I understand that kendo is not as dramatic in movement as, say, saber fencing, but it's not enough to truly sell the reader on the speed of the action. Still, that's probably the biggest flaw in what is otherwise very gentle and appropriate art.
Bamboo Blade is a pleasant combination of sports manga and slice of life. It's not something that I'm particularly compelled to read more of, but those who want a sports manga without the burning spirit angle would do well to give this a look.
This series is published by Yen Press. This series is complete in Japan with 14 volumes available. All 10 have been published and all are currently in print.