How many times have you heard the phrase “it gets better later” in reference to an anime? Countless, as most anime seem to come with the caveat that their first arc or season merely paves the way for greatness to come, while not being enjoyable themselves. This can come in many different forms.
Some, like Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, took a lazy approach to adapting the first couple of arcs that were already covered by the 2003 series. Of the five parts, part one is by far the weakest, but if Bones had not skimmed what had already been aired, would it have enabled them to create the four spectacular parts? Others, like My Hero Academia, really don’t come into their own story or animation wise until the studio puts a bit more time and resources into them, or the mangaka comes into their own.
[the following contains spoilers for the first season of Haikyuu]
Although, this is not a problem that is exclusive to anime. The first seasons of The Office and Parks & Recreation are mediocre, especially in comparison to the later seasons. However, it is widespread in anime and manga, and it feels as though many carry a barrier to entry that a little time is always needed for them to “get good”.
I recently finished Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, and the second season of Haikyuu!! To The Top is still airing at the time of writing this, both of which are prime opportunities to discuss the process of anime setting up for powerful swings later on. If you’re not familiar with Rakugo Shinjuu, I’m not surprised, as it isn’t nearly as popular as it deserves to be. It’s about the niche Japanese one-man theater rakugo, which isn’t exactly a phenomenon in the west.
Haikyuu almost needs no introduction at this point, but I have to assume that some readers have neglected to read my review of the new season here. Haikyuu follows the high school volleyball team Kurasuno as they pick up the talented setter Kageyama and the unusual amateur Hinata, who discover that their play styles meld and create an intense and powerful quick attack. These two series diverge in many aspects, but where they join is in their willingness to dedicate large portions of their runtime to setting up for what is to come.
Rakugo Shinjuu has a bit of a confusing start. The first episode follows a former yakuza, Yotaro, who apprentices under a master storyteller, Yakumo. However, just as the show starts to get into their relationship, it switches gears and tells the story of Yakumo’s youth and rise in the rakugo world. The first half is almost completely spent just acquainting the audience to these characters, like Yakumo’s best friend Sukeruko, whose self-destructive behavior often puts him at odd with his friend and their master.
Still, the first season is pretty dry. Yakumo is a stick in the mud, and as he is the point from which we see the rest of the story, Sukeruko’s begging for money and constant drinking and partying feels more like an irritation. It is meticulous in its worldbuilding, which ought to be strange considering it takes place in a realistic depiction of Japan. This is necessary, as the setting is as much of a character as anyone in the story, changing rapidly as the generations between storytellers pass and shift.
You see Yakumo’s struggle to find himself and his style of storytelling, or even if he belongs doing rakugo at all. Every tiny step in their journey is portrayed, even as Sukeruko spirals deeper into alcoholism and destroying his relationships. It is this slow and steady character and story development that allows Rakugo Shinjuu to build upon itself. In this way it mimics the storytelling style of rakugo, where each line enables the punchline of the next, each forming a cohesive whole once assembled.
This intimacy allows the last two episodes of the season and the entirety of the second season to bear its fruits. The pain and trauma that follows Yakumo throughout the later half of his life would not be as painful or as real if we did not feel like we knew Sukeruko as he did. I will avoid going into any greater detail, so as to avoid spoiling, because this series needs more viewers and a journey into it with fresh eyes is a treat. It is a veritable masterpiece, and worth every moment it asks of you.
On the other hand, the shonen training arc is a well-known trope, but Haikyuu has it figured out. Obviously Goku needs to get stronger in order to beat the new big bad, but his ability to punch harder or shoot lasers better is somewhat arbitrary. This is fantasy, so the difficulty of this process is always going to be at least a little distanced from reality, and fantastical shows must work harder to overcome that.
Haikyuu, though, is about volleyball, a real skill and hobby that most people are familiar with. So as we watch Hinata work on his weakest areas, like receiving or serving, we have a frame of reference as to how much work he has put in. Shoring up on his deficiencies is a gradual improvement, but most importantly, it is practical.
Haikyuu’s third and fifth seasons are both about one game each, against two titanic foes, Shiratorizawa and Inarizaki. As they face their greatest adversaries thus far with the highest stakes available to a highschool volleyball team, it makes sense that they would allocate the most time to these important battles. But that would not be possible if the second and fourth seasons were not equally focused on Kurasuno’s training.
After Kurasuno loses to Aoba Johsai in the preliminaries at the end of season one, they travel to a training camp with some of the best teams in the country. As they head off to the national tournament at the end of season four, they prepared by sending some of their most promising players to training camps, with Kageyama working with prospects for the national team.
These training arcs are the fuel of Haikyuu, as they permit all other parts of the series to move flawlessly. They enable moments of growth to manifest at the tensest and tightest spots in the game, but they don’t feel cheap or unearned. If they cut these training arcs out, they could fit in more hype games, but bearing witness to their training makes every powerful play an action climax to a character arc, and with such a large cast, so many of these moments are possible in every game.
Rakugo Shinjuu and Haikyuu both adopt different methods of set-up and follow through, but the results of these methods don’t lie. The first is an intimate introduction to setting and to characters so as to allow the audience to step in and immerse. The latter is about the simple power of hard work and grinding until results appear. Both are incredibly useful when done well, but there is a tradeoff.
If viewers are unwilling to put in the time to get to the payoff, then they’re going to drop the show and move onto something that provides more immediate gratification. Are we right to ask people to put a large amount of time into something that doesn’t show results immediately? Think of how many games, books, movies, and shows come out every day and are just as worth your time as the ones that don’t use it as efficiently. This style of storytelling is not suited to everyone.
However, if you have the time to burn, both Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu and Haikyuu are worth the time and energy, and both are available on Crunchyroll, who has not yet answered my voicemails and sponsored me. Any day now.