If I said another sports anime was my favourite recently, then that didn’t stand for long. Because I fell in love with Haikyuu!! at episode one and basically watched the whole 25-episode season in three days.
I noticed Haikyuu!! figurines all over the place on my most recent trip to Japan, and liking the designs – the main characters represented being Hinata and Kenma – but decided against buying any (or taking chances on the UFO machines for them) because (a) I didn’t know the characters and might have ended up hating them, and (b) slightly embarrassingly, I thought they were actually characters from Kuroko no Basuke.
Haikyuu!! does something rather special, sitting in the middle of the cutesy passionate-boys-bonding thing Inazuma Eleven makes so enjoyable and the rough, relatively gritty, boys-with-issues-finding-purpose-through-sport thing that you find in the likes of Rookies and Slam Dunk. It also has the best rivals-who-become-allies story since Hikaru no Go, with which this series shares much. Since HikaGo remains my favourite manga of all time, that’s high praise.
Haikyuu!! has a classic rival-story opening episode: at a school tournament, there is a gruff and moody elite player, who goes up against a good-hearted, naive go-getter type. They clash but the go-getter is actually a genius and very much impresses the elite. The genius cannot carry the whole team, though, so they lose, but the episode has a deep effect.
A year later, the boys begin high school and discover they are now in the same club. They are chalk and cheese, so are soon at one another’s throats, but it soon becomes clear that the shortcomings of each are balanced by the skills of the other, so they begin to develop a real bond. However, will this allow them to compete with much more established players?
This central relationship is brilliantly-done. Our main character, Hinata, is short for a volleyball player, even mistaken for an elementary school boy at one point, but can jump extremely well and idolizes another short player recognized as brilliant. The secondary character is the tall, extremely intense setter, Kageyama, who has undeniable skills but is seen as very arrogant and hard to get along with. He’s the kind of gruff character I usually dislike, but as he reveals more of his goofy side and is coaxed out of his shell by Hinata – as well as shown that his way of playing is terrible for a team game – he really grew on me, until eventually I came to realise I actually identified with him more than I have with any character since Tomoya in Clannad. That was deeply unexpected, as was how much I enjoyed seeing the interaction between these two. They’re very like Akira and Hikaru in HikaGo, and that’s certainly no bad thing. They spark off each other, and it’s brilliant to watch, and by the time they start to rely on one another it’s like they’re in a comedy routine together. Very sweet.
Very much helping this is the fact that the minor characters are extremely strong. They come from stock, but they are extraordinarily well-developed. The volleyball team also contains a typical yankee, an extremely tall surly bully type, a dependable captain who has an extremely scary side, a wild child even smaller than Hinata, a gentle giant who has great spiking strength but the heart of a coward and an older setter who may not be a genius but has a lot of clever ideas and is very relatable as the underdog.
I very much enjoyed the art style, which was pitched very well. Production I.G. have done a lot of very flashy productions, but this one is more modest, yet moves slickly and captures the manga’s aesthetic well. It is not cutesy or pretty-pretty, and it is not ugly and scratchy, but can pull off elements of both styles without them seeming incongruous. Thus, Hinata and the diminutive libero Nishinoya are very cute, but the yankee types like Tanaka can pull faces right out of Cromartie High School without it seeming bizarre. This allows for both broad and subtle character-based comedy and the some very sweet good-hearted childlike characters, which I very much enjoy seeing together.
The series is of course based on an ongoing manga, and ends at rather a heartbreaking moment, though that makes sense for leaving the audience thirsty for more. This isn’t a feelgood anime where the characters power up to win every match like Inazuma Eleven, but a fairly realistic take on an interesting sport where there aren’t any superpowers – only particular strengths and weaknesses, none of which are infallible.
It’s perhaps telling that not only did Haikyuu!! make me want to try out volleyball, it made me want to go and compete in the sports I’m good at again. I don’t think that I’ll have a hot-blooded rivalry blossoming, but the series captured something of the adrenaline rush of a close competition, and I consider that praiseworthy.