Haikyū!

Living in rural Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, Shōyō Hinata becomes obsessed with the sport of volleyball when he watches Karasuno High School’s volleyball team – lead by a diminutive but skilled player known as “Little Giant” – win the Japan National High School Volleyball tournament. But Shōyō’s junior high school doesn’t have a boys’ volleyball team, forcing him to practice alone until, in his final year, he convinces a group of his non-volleyball-playing friends to form a scratch team so they can enter a local tournament. But in their first – and last – game, they are beaten with humiliating ease by a much better side lead by Tobio Kageyama, who is known as “the King of the Court” – both for his incredible skills and his arrogant demeanour.  Shōyō swears revenge; but when he graduates to senior high school and joins the Karasuno team, he discovers to his dismay that Tobio has likewise joined the club. Tobio is one of the premier players in the Prefecture; nonetheless, a very public humiliation resulted in his rejection by the high school he wanted to join, forcing him to turn to Karasuno instead. Shōyō, despite his diminutive stature, possess incredible athleticism, pace, and stamina; Tobio, despite his conceit, is a near-genius who can read the game and place the ball wherever he needs it to be. On paper, they form an unstoppable partnership; in reality, their differences in temperament and dislike for one another could prove disastrous. Somehow, Shōyō and Tobio must learn how to work together if Karasuno – who are now known as “the Fallen Giants” – are not only to function as a team, but once more reclaim a place among the best squads in the Prefecture.

Based on the critically acclaimed and commercially successful manga created by Haruichi Furudate, “Haikyū!” is produced by anime giant Production I.G. and has thus far aired in five seasons from April 2014 through to the current series which began in October 2020.  Beautifully animated with a realistic aesthetic that nonetheless allows for moments of magic and drama, and accompanied by a moving sound-track that fully illustrates the highs and lows of its characters, “Haikyū” is unlike any sport-based drama ever produced. Instead of being a tedious proxy for nationalistic/societal/cultural prejudice, in which opponents are portrayed as “enemies” who need to be not only defeated but destroyed, this series depicts competition in all its brutal realism – but without dehumanising opposition players or attributing evil intentions to them. Likewise, although Shōyō and Tobio are undoubtedly the central characters, their teammates and the coaching staff are rendered as fully three dimensional human beings, instead of being reduced to mere background figures.  Through this empathetic portrayal, we learn to feel the anguish of every defeated opponent, gain enlightening insights into the lives of those around Shōyō and Tobio, and in the end come to care for them all – despite the emotional cost the narrative imposes upon us for doing so. Interspersed through all this drama and insight is a tension-relieving humour: at the height of a do-or-die battle with the scores tied or a match point at stake, one of the players will make a remark to another player or a teammate, eliciting a priceless reaction. And whereas many of the OTT reaction tropes in anime are often grating, in “Haikyū!” they work perfectly. By turns heart-breakingly moving and laugh-out-loud funny, “Haikyū!” is a masterpiece of anime storytelling, a human drama in the truest, deepest sense of the world that challenges us to change our perspective precisely because it refuses to simplistically divide the world into “us” and “them”.

Text ©Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2020. All rights reserved.