I am not a sports fan. This should surprise nobody. It’s not a lack of enthusiasm for the mechanics of most sports, but more a confluence of apathy around celebrity athletes, an absence of appreciation for any team’s history, and a decade-long lack of a cable subscription. Sports anime, however, has a bizarre hold over my affections. It offers a human story under the play-to-play excitement of a game. Unlike many action shows, it allows the protagonists to fail without the weighty consequence of death or serious injury behind it. As a well-travelled practitioner of failure, few things connect me to a character so much as seeing them trip. Many of the best series allow for a broad focus on a number of characters, bringing some of the best elements of a long-running shonen show into a more focused package.
While I’m usually willing to try a sports anime, I’d avoided Haikyu!! due it its focus on a sport I care little for—volleyball. Upon finally giving it a shot, I find myself looking at all the series I’ve skipped for shallow reasons over the years and kicking myself. Not only is Haikyu!! possibly the best sports series I’ve ever seen, it easily earns a spot among my favorite anime series of all time.
Minor spoilers for the first episode follow.
Haikyu!! is primarily the story of Shoyo Hinata, who at first glance fills in a checklist of anime tropes. Hinata is shorter than most athletes, unskilled, and untrained. The series opens with his first and last volleyball match in junior high. As the only member of his school’s male volleyball club, he has spent every day practicing by himself and begging his friends to toss the ball for him to spike. He gathers enough friends to enter a junior high tournament, running headfirst into a player known as the King of the Court—Tobio Kageyama. Kageyama’s ego rules the court, backed up by genius-level skills that his teammates can barely keep up with. Hinata’s team gets thoroughly trounced, but not before Hinata showcases some amazing speed and a jumping ability that allows him to keep up with much taller players. Hinata vows to someday defeat Kageyama and take his place as a team’s ace.
Fast-forward to Hinata’s first year of high school. He’s made it into Karasuno, the alma mater of his idol known only as the Little Giant. Hinata dashes to the gym for his first day and runs into one of his fellow first-year teammates—Kageyama. Forced to cooperate with his sworn rival, Haikyu!! tells a story of teamwork and friendship, stressing that a team must be stronger than the sum of its parts.
From the get-go, the twist on the standard rival relationship in shonen anime gives Haikyu!! some legs. The first few episodes of the series focus on a team heavy with the weight of infighting and rivalry. Hinata needs to get over his fear and hatred of Kageyama, while Kageyama must learn to accept an unskilled teammate whose physical abilities might allow for techniques that have never been seen before.
While these two characters form the core of the show, Haikyu!! does a great job of emphasizing the entire team. New characters are introduced over the first few episodes at a quick pace, while still giving each character enough time to become relatable. Introducing players with new positions over time also allows you to learn the rules of volleyball without the expository rules-dump many sports anime fall back on. You are rarely subjected to talking heads delving into the minutia of volleyball strategy, and when you are it fits into the story being told and often has a motivation within the story. As Hinata is almost completely untrained, you learn the basics as he does—but thankfully, the show trusts you to pick up the basic rules as you watch.
More importantly, characters that initially seem like cliched caricatures really come into their own in short order. Most characters play against their type in a fundamental way that directly informs their personal struggles. The powerful, cool ace of the team is actually weak-willed and prone to giving up. The rabid dog of a spiker is kept on an incredibly tight leash, and quickly proves to be an upperclassman who truly cares for the newbies joining his team. The weakest player of the team has an inferiority complex that he seeks to overcome, and despite regularly running into walls, it’s played straight rather than for comedy. The genuine drive for improvement runs underneath the entire team, as their love for the game and the pain of defeat drives their every action.
That’s not to say the series takes itself too seriously. The show does a phenomenal job of showing the pain of defeat, whether it’s the main characters or an opponent being defeated, but comedy runs under every episode and brings enough levity to keep the pace tight and fun. Over-the-top expressions pop up often enough to give the show its own style, but not so often as to drag the show into a full comedy. When characters take to the court, they are business, but between plays their personalities shine. As a rare bonus in this age, the eye-catches are a treat every episode as well. You’re treated to the characters trying to serve a ball and hit an empty water bottle, and their expressions as they succeed and fail really showcase the players:
The show’s animation is pretty high quality throughout. Between the vibrant color palette and a strong style in the character designs, the show has a distinct style throughout. Most of the animation is fluid, with pivotal plays getting quite a bit of attention and feeling really impactful. Spikes feel properly impactful, serves often feel like important moments, and while the series sometimes cuts to still frames for a bit of the mid-game, these sections are brief and seem like a conscious choice to keep the games from dragging.
The Japanese voice cast walks a fine line between the melodrama of high school and the joy of youth, but it never strays too far into the overacting camp. Characters are distinct enough to pick out to the non-native speaker, and the sound captures the ambiance of a squeaky gym floor punctuated by the powerful impacts of difficult returns or driving spikes. The music holds up its end, though it rarely stands out enough to be noteworthy. Occasionally a truly important moment will get a breakout piece, but the music is definitely in service to the story and meant to highlight the action rather than stand on its own. It stands with the animation and does its job well—every serve and volley they show seems important, whether due to an important play or an illustration of the game’s momentum, and no match overstays its welcome.
The series stays mostly focused on the game and the players, rarely delving into the family lives of the players or their other activities, though the pressures of the Japanese school system does come at odds with the players at several times. This is a show that really cares about the sport, and with that care comes some stellar results.
I’m not a sports fan, but Haiku!! is one of those shows that makes me understand the appeal. The opportunity to follow a growing team is engrossing, the give and take of a match keeps the tension ratcheted up, and the series keeps you invested enough in each team to give you pause even if the main characters are winning. I found myself holding my breath during important serves, cheering close saves, and coming up with strategy suggestions for a game I know nearly nothing about. That seems to cover most of the requirements for a sports fan, I just had to pull myself back occasionally and remember that the game was never real. The series might not appeal to everyone. It follows high schoolers, and while their issues are very important to them, it’s easy to be a bit jaded, looking at their enthusiasm and thinking it’s ultimately unimportant. The comedy might be a bit much for the casual viewer, and those without affection for energetic and plucky protagonists will burn out quickly.
However, if you’re an anime fan, I cannot recommend Haikyu!! enough. Even if you’re not, I’d recommend checking out the first two episodes and seeing if it floats your boat. You don’t have to love volleyball, or even be interested in sports. The passion of the characters is infectious, and their story is the important drive. The series is getting another season next month, as it’s based off of a still-running manga series, but the season that’s out is a thoroughly worthwhile view—even if it leaves you aching for more. I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes glued to the series each week.
Haikyu!! is available to stream on Crunchyroll and Hulu.