When it comes to big names associated with this hobby we human beings call “anime”, few are more popular or more influential to a normal fan than Shonen Jump. Although they’re primarily known as a weekly manga magazine catered towards young boys, said magazine has produced so many famous, influential, and well-received anime adaptations since at least the 80s with Fist of the North Star, City Hunter, and of course, Dragon Ball, that nowadays they might as well be their own anime studio. And what’s admirable about Shonen Jump is how they still manage to stay relevant with brand new hits after their old hits eventually end with anime like The Promised Neverland, Demon Slayer: Yaiba, and to a lesser extent, We Never Learn, making a name for themselves when they debuted this year alone.
One of their big current hits is Haikyuu!!, which is basically the hottest sports series as of right now. Shonen Jump is known for producing really well-received and really long sports stories that we ate up despite their interpretation of real-life sports being as realistic as a new Youtube policy in present day that actually helps its content creators, and this series in particular focuses on volleyball. It stood out from shows like Kuroko no Basket and Eyeshield 21 for having really good animation with very little obvious cost-cutting in regards to the intense sports matches, not too dissimilar from how KyoAni’s Free became so big, except Haikyuu!! is focused more on the sport than the abs. And its current-day fanbase is so large and so passionate about the show that all three series rank incredibly high on MAL, with the later seasons being in the top 30 as of this time of writing, and it was HUGE in Japan when it premiered. Might still be. I don’t keep up.
Now I avoided Haikyuu!! for the longest time myself because it came out during a time when I was in an edgy phase combined with an “I hate sports shows” mentality that made me unable to even appreciate Ping Pong, which came out around the same time as the volleyball boys. Obviously I went back to Ping Pong and loved it after a few months, but I didn’t do the same for Haikyuu!! because people kept telling me how slow it was along with how exaggerated the sport could be, which are the main reasons why I can’t get into sports anime in the first place. I’m not as iffy about this as I used to be, but I don’t like how over-exaggerated a lot of the sports techniques tend to be in these shows what with the slo-mo brain sessions and sick-ass move names. Also, I don’t like how the reason these series are so long is because the story wants to show off said techniques rather than tell us something interesting about the characters.
But after five years of procrastination bar watching the third season when it aired, though I’ll be damned if I could remember anything about that ten-episode long match before my recent rewatch of it, I was lightly peer-pressured into binging all sixty episodes that are out so far. And you know what? I was right to put this show off for as long as I did. Not because it’s a bad show, but because a lot of the issues I had would have irritated me ten-fold if I had kept up with Haikyuu!! weekly.
The overall story isn’t much different from other entries from the sports genre. There’s an orange-haired short kid named Shoyo Hinata who loves to play volleyball. In middle school, he competed against a guy with a permanent frown on his face named Tobio Kageyama, and vowed to defeat him in high school after losing to him. However, Kageyama ends up going to the high school he picked, Karasuno, and thus they have to learn to work together if they want to make their school volleyball team a name to remember. There are other male teammates who get involved. There’s a beautiful female manager who literally got introduced to the audience through her boobs and ass before we get to see her face. There’s a coach whose backstory I’ve already forgotten because it was so insignificant and predictable that I can’t be bothered to use Wikipedia to remind myself what his deal was. And there are a bunch of rival teams who simultaneously exist to provide a challenge as well as tick off the male sports stereotype checklist.
Now generally, what makes the good sports stories stand out from the bad sports stories is the characterization and how the anime handles it along with the actual gaming, since nobody really goes to a competition-based series for that overrated concept that’s known as “originality”. Ping Pong: The Animation is a personal favorite of mine because everything was in there that needed to be there, and not an ounce of screen time was wasted in depicting the psychological struggles of its lead characters regarding what competition means to them. On the flip side, I (and the rest of the world) have already forgotten Days, the soccer anime by MAPPA from 2016, because the characterization boiled down to basic “I want to be more confident” cliches stretched over twenty-four episodes plus a few OVAs I haven’t seen. So where does Haikyuu lean towards between those two extremes? Mostly towards the latter, because it’s more familiar and when it comes to pleasing me or the mainstream audience, most creators would obviously pick the mainstream audience since I only have so much money to give people.
The first season in particular is very bad about this. It really only focuses on Hinata and Kageyama for the first twenty-five episodes, and unfortunately Hinata can’t pull his weight since the only thing that stands out about him is that he’s the only one who can complement Kageyama with his natural athleticism. Even his short height becomes a bit of a non-factor when a teammate who’s shorter than him eventually comes. Kageyama’s character on the other hand has substance, but not enough to carry the entire show on his own. He’s a really good volleyball player, but he sucks at teamwork to the point that people look at him as an evil metaphorical king. Through his rocky but growing friendship with Hinata and the other teammates, he eventually learns to play with others and gain the respect of his former teammates, who he’s now competing against in official matches. It’s not a bad personal story, but it’s too predictable for anything outside of the 90-minute movie mark when that’s your only real subplot.
And Haikyuu really does not get off to an exciting start when it comes to selling itself on the intense volleyball. The first thirteen episodes of its introductory season consists of nothing but character introductions and practice matches with very little at stake other than our leads’ pride, and you don’t learn much about the other players like Kei or Tanaka that you couldn’t get from looking at their character designs. The latter part of Season 1 finally puts the players against schools in order to compete for the upcoming national volleyball tournament, but it ends with Karasuno being defeated in the second round and having to wait until the Spring preliminaries to try again. Kind of a pretty anticlimactic payoff for a series that’s trying to sell itself on being a sports epic. Unless it’s meant to be a subversive sports tale in the vein of Coach Carter, the important loss is supposed to happen really early in the sports story for a reason – so that your first season doesn’t feel like an overly-long prologue.
Thankfully, the second season was much better in this regard. It introduced a few new supporting characters and rival characters that do a decent job at livening things up whilst giving attention to the rest of Karasuno’s team, who end up being far more interesting than our main duo. I particularly liked Kei Tsukushima (the tall glasses kid voiced by Kouki Uchiyama’s one voice) and how he looked up to his older brother growing up, only to discover that said brother was lying to him about actually playing for his school’s volleyball team because of how strict the selection process can be. And Yamaguchi is basically Hinata if Hinata was actually interesting with his inferiority complex and how he doesn’t want to rely on Kei for everything. Unfortunately for Kageyama, because his character arc was technically completed in S1, he’s a lot less interesting in S2 and barely contributes more than Hinata in regards to his anti-social nature and a fight with Hinata that basically just repeats a lot of their initial conflict regarding seeing the orange-haired shorty as useful.
On top of having overall better characterization, the volleyball matches actually feel like they have more consistent weight to them. It’s still “first half of the season is training whilst the second half is the actual important matches” like the first season, but said training takes place in an actual camp this time rather than just friendly matches, plus the improved supporting cast help carry the show through its slower moments. Haikyuu!! still suffers from the usual Shonen Jump-style pacing problems no matter what season it’s on, don’t get me wrong. The volleyball rematch against the team that beats them in first season goes on way longer than the other matches for example, and most of that length is due to using flashbacks and explaining the moves to draw things out. But I’m aware that complaining about how a show isn’t as tightly told as your personal favorite isn’t very constructive, so I’m not going to do that.
What I will complain about is how I find it incredibly disappointing that after sixty episodes, Hinata is still lacking in background, regardless of comparisons to his more interesting teammates. Isn’t he supposed to be the main character who actually got chosen to represent his series in J-Stars Victor VS, that big Shonen Jump crossover fighting game from 2014? Is it like One Piece and we’re going to have to wait until Volume 45 (although I hope the series doesn’t plan to go on that long) to actually learn some interesting background for him? Because his present character doesn’t develop all that well as is. He grows to accept Kageyama as a friend and gets better at using his natural athleticism to compensate for some serious weaknesses. You could argue that every Karasuno team member does that, but they also have other personal issues that make them stand out. What makes Hinata so special?
Also, I didn’t make a typo when I said “sixty” episodes, because there is a third season of Haikyuu as well, although it’s more like a Season 2.5, because it only consists of ten episodes that basically acts as a continuation to Season 2’s cliffhanger ending, and the only thing that happens in these episodes is Karasuno challenging Shiratorizawa (the team who usually goes to the nationals every year) for the right to compete in the Spring Nationals. Yes, an entire season of an anime is dedicated to just one volleyball match. And yes, that match is prolonged with flashbacks, explaining moves, and a really annoying creepy guy who feels out of place even by Shonen Jump standards. It doesn’t really stand well on its own even with its decent characterization of everyone who’s not the main duo (even the creepy guy gets his own personal story, although I find his personality too annoying to really get into it), but explaining how it’s not an actual S3 is too complicated, so I’m just going to call the inevitable next season of Haikyuu “Season 4” whenever that comes out.
To sum it up, while I do understand why Haikyuu!! is the biggest thing at the moment, there are just too many competition anime (not necessarily sports) I prefer in terms of style, substance, and pacing that I can’t see it as anything more than a way to pass the time. And unlike my friends, Haikyuu!! doesn’t make me want to play volleyball. All it does is make me think how bullshit a lot of the logic in this show actually is, along with how I will never be able to return a ball over the net in my entire lifetime. It’s pretty much the definitive Shonen Jump sports anime for this generation, so while the number of people who enjoy that is huge, there are people like me who don’t give it a wide berth.
With all of that said, I will keep up with Haikyuu!! as long as more anime continues to be made if for no other reason than to discuss it with my friends and it’s not a bad way to waste time. So with that said, I have a few questions regarding its future. I notice that the series is still going on after over thirty volumes and the anime only covered a little more than twenty. Exactly how long does this series plan to go on? Is it going to end when the nationals finish, or is there more afterwards? I would hope the former, since I remember how Hikaru no Go became a lot less interesting after the lead character accepted a certain important person’s disappearance – something the anime thankfully realized and thus ended the story at that part.
And are these volleyball matches going to go on even longer later on? I know that the third season covered four volumes worth of material. You’d be hard-pressed to get a hentai series up to four volumes, and not just because a man’s penis can only get so erect. And we know that Karasuno is going to continue winning up until maybe the finals because competition anime in general aren’t know for plot twists, so you have to rely on those matches being engaging to actually carry the audience. Yes the production really helps in that regard, but I think you could have combined Seasons 2 and 3 into a single season without losing anything important.
Finally, does Hinata improve later on? Because even my friends think he and Kageyama are the worst part about this show, and they’re big fans of the main duo in Seraph of the End.
- Yes I’m fully aware those recap movies exist.
- Actually I’m not sure if my friends like the main duo in Seraph of the End, but they sure as hell don’t talk about Shinoa or the dancing vampire aka the only characters people cosplay from that series.
- Looking forward to the inevitable volleyball hangouts amongst my anime club.
- Reminder that Run With the Wind is a critical darling in the West, but a commercial flop otherwise.