For most of my life, sports-themed anime was some of the most boring content I’d ever seen. Most of the old-school stuff was hardly engaging, and I couldn’t help but want something more. Something flashy or exciting. Sports anime also tend to follow the same tropes, of underdogs trying to get an edge in an overly-competitive sport, beat their one and only rival, or overcome some mental obstacle, but often with little to no humor. It’s very SERIOUS BIZZNESS. I’ve always loved watching football, soccer, hockey, the Olympic Games, and more, but it hardly translated well to comedy or drama shows, no matter what medium it was.
But what I love about “Haikyuu!!” is that it takes these tropes that you’ve seen a million times and cranks them up to 20 without becoming over-the-top or out of reality. But Maj, you cry out, how can anime make volleyball interesting? I’m glad you asked!
What’s “Haikyuu!!” About?
Shoyo Hinata became a volleyball fan after watching a famous high school player, “The Little Giant” make it big in a national tournament. Being small fry himself, Hinata vowed to never let his size prevent him from enjoying the sport, and so enters a middle school tournament with some uninterested friends. He ends up losing the match to a star player named Tobio Kageyama, sparking a bitter rivalry.
Some time later, Hinata enrolls in the same high school that “The Little Giant” once attended, intent on making his own name on the volleyball team. Little did he know that the team had since fallen on hard times, losing players and fans after some humiliating losses. To make matters worse, Hinata finds out that Kageyama is trying out for the team too, and they must put aside their differences to work together and help the team restore their reputation.
Not Your Typical Underdog Tale
The best way I can compare this show to something more familiar, is that “Haikyuu!!” is like the film, “The Sandlot”. What starts as a typical underdog story, quickly turns into a raucous group of ragtag kids becoming friends and kicking ass through a sport they love. Now replace baseball with volleyball, throw in a dash of “Friday Night Lights” drama, and you got yourself a show.
The Pantsless Anime Blogger actually has a very long informative post about what makes “Haikyuu!!” work compared to other sports anime. They brought up the point that compared to other sports in anime, volleyball is rarely one-on-one. It’s two teams separated by a net, seemingly separating the drama. How can that be interesting to watch, especially in animation form?
“How exactly do you make a sport where you toss the ball to the other side of the court special? Haikyuu!! answers that by making every player as eccentric as possible.” – The Pantsless Anime Blogger
They’re exactly right, and it’s the characters that make the sport and the show so charming and exciting. Let’s take a look at why this show frickin’ rocks it.
“Haikyuu!!” isn’t the first sports anime to embrace comedy, but it’s the first one that I’ve seen that delivers the laughs consistently through every single episode. I believe that it’s best trait is how it offers humor when tension is miles high, especially during games.
Oftentimes, humor in other sports anime is reserved for practices, team bonding moments, etc. With “Haikyuu!!”, the humor carries over to the matches: the reactions are real, the jokes are perfectly timed, and the expressions are not “sugoi-over-the-top”. In fact, a majority of the jokes are genius physical gags instead of one-liner quips in other shows. There’s tons of running gags that keep you chuckling throughout the series, such as Kageyama’s literal fiery temper, the constant run-ins with members of other teams, or Tanaka and Nishinoya’s attempts to seduce their team manager. They have odd dance moves when they’re happy, perform Buster Keaton pranks, and express themselves exactly as a gaggle of high school kids would in real life.
In fact, I would dare to say that if you removed all the dialogue from this show, the comedy and drama would still make sense, and that takes some talented animated story-telling.
Thanks to the comedy and ability to laugh at themselves, I feel like these characters have contributed to a more grounded setting in this show. It’s almost meta how aware they are of their own flaws. There are no “super-powered” athletes or “chosen ones”: only sheer motivation and a will to win to an obsessive degree (which is what all high school sports are, lez be honest). Their weapons are their serves and spikes, not their bodies or tools necessarily. The players make mistakes, run into each other, slip on their sweat, hit the net, and fumble balls. Even the background character studies, that are typically reserved for filler episodes, have something to offer. Everyone has a quirk and everyone has a weakness. It’s almost Miyazaki-level details that make it all the more relatable than most sports anime.
“Haikyuu!!” focuses on characterization more than the “action” side of sports anime; you see how they function first as a team before they can begin to strategize and play against others. One of the common criticisms of this show is how the beginnings of each season build a platform before jumping into the actual games and tournaments themselves. In fact, season 2’s entire first half was all of them at a volleyball training camp, hardly moving locations or setting. But these foundations are essential to build the relationships and strategies that come into play later, especially when building tension or setting up punch lines. And don’t worry: just because they don’t move locations, doesn’t mean that the humor is all lost. But that moment later, when Hinata and Kageyama pull off an impossible play, wouldn’t feel as powerful if you didn’t see the work it took to gain that skill. And seeing rival teams try to psych each other out on the court wouldn’t be as funny if you hadn’t gotten to know them during the training sessions.
I also want to point out that the rival teams and their players are never cookie-cutter. And what’s more is that there isn’t just one rival team, there’s so many of them! Generally, one might think that they can’t possibly distinguish so many characters apart from each other, but they do! You’re rarely left thinking, who the hell is that?? Select characters from each rival team all have their moment in the spotlight, getting as equal attention as would be given to our main heroes. Since we meet these characters consistently, their names and personalities are rarely lost on the viewer. That’s something really special that I’ve never seen in other sports anime. It also drives home the good sportsmanship message: this show is not just about our underdogs, but about the other athletes they play against too.
Amazing, Consistently Smooth Animation
We’ve all seen Dragonball Z. For all the praises that the show earned, it’s still funny to think that most of the battles in that show consisted of the same frames repeated over and over. And that’s how it was in sports anime too! Whether the athletes were hitting, passing, or dribbling balls, it tended to look the same from episode to episode.
With “Haikyuu!!”, they seemed to have more freedom to move. Yes, the team consistently has moves and plays that they repeat, but it’s as though each rendition was drawn uniquely. They use these moves against different teams, or realize that they need to change their strategies slightly in the face of adversity, and the animation shifts to reflect that.
I’ll admit, “Haikyuu!!” makes volleyball look EPIC. The game is so fast-paced, and you watch these characters strain to reach the ball in slow-motion that never gets old. But it never looks cheap: if there’s one thing I want to stress about this show, is that it never looks cheaply made. The animators took their time to distinguish how certain players hit the ball, pass it, how they run from one end of the court to the other, etc.
Even off the court, these characters are rarely standing static. Like any well-acted scene you see in movies or TV, they are constantly in motion, whether it’s simple hand gestures, warming up/stretching, or funny facial and bodily expressions. They follow the movement and flow of the manga faithfully, even if I haven’t read it myself. But my sister has, and she can confirm this.
I love “Haikyuu!!” so much. That’s basically it. The characters are unique and distinguishable, the punch lines are perfectly timed, the animation is flawless, and you’re left pining for the next season. I’ve now attempted to justify my voice and feelings through examples and comparison, but the gist of it is that there’s always more to the story. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been slogging through other sports anime, only to be disappointed, and have now found my holy grail. Regardless, I hope you will give it a chance.
What other sports anime have I tried?
I can, with some confidence, say that the sports shows below held my attention for a bit, but I never finished the seasons for one reason or another.
- Big Windup
- Prince of Tennis
- Prince of Stride: Alternative
- Hajime No Ippo
- Air Gear
Bonus: The best “Haiykuu!!” video I’ve ever seen
This is probably the best example video of the flawless animation and unadulterated humor you’ll find in the show. Sorry, not sorry.