Sports have traditionally been an unsatisfying subject for
animation, at least in America. After seeing Bugs Bunny casually defy gravity,
watching a character play a realistic game of baseball or golf isn’t much fun.
Many impressive athletic feats don’t seem that impressive in animation—the
training, talent and effort a human exerts aren’t there. Yet Japanese artists consistently
make exciting sports series by focusing on the human interactions behind the
scenes, from the remaking of the arrogant Ryoma
Echizen in The Prince of Tennis, to
the travails of neurotic pitching ace Ren Mihashi in Big Windup and Ryo Hayakawa’s battles
against entrenched sexism in Princess
Shoyo Hinata, the hero of the broadcast series Haikyu!, is determined to be a volleyball
star despite his short stature. He was inspired by a short high school player
known as “The Little Giant” he once saw on TV. Because he trains constantly,
Hinata has incredible speed and amazing jumps. His unswerving commitment to his
goal and loud-mouthed enthusiasm will remind some viewers of Naruto Uzumaki.
Popular on IndieWire
On his first day at Karasuma High (the school Little Giant
attended), Hinata joins the volleyball club—only to discover he’s signing up at
the same time as Tobio Kageyama, the tall, formidable player who trounced him in
a match in junior high. The icy Kageyama is known as “The King of the Court,” but
not just because he dominates games. He’s perceived as an unfriendly, selfish
player who uses his rivals and his teammates for his own ends.
Naturally, the two of them take an immediate dislike to each
other. Senpai (upperclassman) and
team captain Daichi Sawamura patiently explains they’re now on the same team.
The person who was once their greatest enemy is now their strongest ally. To no
one’s surprise, a grudging friendship arises. Hinata admires Kageyama’s natural
talent and polish as a player. He begins to discover the human being beneath the
star athlete. Kageyama realizes that Hinata isn’t some pipsqueak clown, but
player with real ability, who works ferociously to overcome the handicap of his
Other freshman and returning upperclassmen join the team, complicating
the relationships. But the focus remains
on Kageyama and Hinata as they learn to work together. They quickly achieve a
kind of psychic rapport: Hinata is so sure that setter Kageyama will direct the
ball to him perfectly, he can spike it with his eyes closed. Players who fail
to take Hinata seriously receive painful lessons, as the diminutive spiker’s speed,
stamina and high leaps enable him to overcome taller opponents.
As is often the case in sports anime, much of the story
focused on the struggle to forge an effective team out of group of disparate
individuals, many of whom don’t get along and/or share unpleasant histories. In
Haikyu!, those problems are
complicated by a new coach who didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps,
but who can’t resist settling a long-standing grudge against the coach at a
rival high school.
The one real weakness is first episodes of Haikyu!, is that the audience rarely sees
the characters outside the gym. There’s too little sense of Hinata, Kageyama,
Sawamura and their teammates as people. Much of the fun in The Prince of Tennis
and Big Windup came from the
interactions outside of school. In Big
Windup, when exuberant Little League star Tajima visited the woebegone
Mihashi, he began by poking around his bedroom, cheerfully asking, “Where’s
your porn?” The antics of his teammates at
a victory celebration in a sushi bar began thawing the glacial Ryoma in Prince of Tennis. Haikyu! would be more fun if included some of those moments.
The series began as a manga
written and illustrated by Haruichi Furudate in the
magazine “Weekly Shone Jump” in 2012. To date, 16 volumes of it have been
published, plus the story was adapted to radio. Given the popularity of
volleyball in the US, it would be surprising if Haikyu! didn’t catch on here, although the absence of an English dub
may limit its appeal.
Haikyu! Episodes 1-13
Sentai: $42.95, 2 discs, Blu-ray