Backflip!! Review: Not Just Another Haikyuu Rip-Off

Studio: Zexcs

Director: Toshimasa Kuroyanagi

Streaming on: Crunchyroll

You cannot overstate the importance of Haikyuu, and the impact it has had across spheres of influence. It catapulted the popularity of boys’ school volleyball, with a defining point in Japanese membership skyrocketing since the manga was first published in 2012. It had subtler impact in the way manga and anime tell sports stories, and it is difficult to take a sports anime and not see it as a derivative of Haikyuu at best, and a rip-off at worst.

Last season, our screens were blessed with SK8 The Infinity, and underwhelmed with 2.43: Seein High School Boys Volleyball Team, both of which provided their own riffs on the Haikyuu formula to varying degrees of success. 2.43 was not exactly well-received, since its premise revolved around a genius setter and a rookie ace who discover a unique potential when forced to work together. SK8 succeeded with the mere blueprints of Haikyuu’s success, and crafted a satisfying story from there.

So, what is Haikyuu’s blueprint? It’s simple enough; create an ensemble cast for your boys’ sports team and fill out certain obligatory roles: the role model captain of the team, the even-tempered vice-captain, a loudmouth who’s really all bark, and so on. Focus in on the two new members, an inexperienced rookie compensating for skill with passion, and a dour, socially inept prodigy. Slide this into pretty much any sports story, add a few rivals you love to hate, and adjust the production values according to your budget and artistic talent.

However, Backflip is no mere rip-off, though calling it a derivation is more or less accurate. I also don’t feel completely comfortable calling it “Backflip” because that on its own sounds kind of silly, but I’ll use it interchangeably with the Japanese title, Bakuten!! It’s not just another sports anime seeking to follow in the footsteps of its most influential predecessor, but is looking to redefine the way we render athletics in anime.

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The Ao High rhythmic gymnastics team about to perform in episode 1.

Shotaro Futaba has just concluded his middle school career with no fanfare and no athletic accomplishments. He’s spent three years on the bench in baseball, with similarly disappointing attempts at swimming and soccer. He feels a little lost, until his attention is grabbed by an ostentatious warm-up display by the Ao High men’s’ rhythmic gymnastics club, and goes to watch their performance. He’s stunned by what he sees, and downright shocked to see they hold one of the lowest scores in the competition.

He finds out that they only have four of the necessary six members, and were docked on their total score significantly. This pushes him to apply to Ao High, even if his crippling shyness keeps him from asking to join upright. He’s given the chance as Misato, a talented solo gymnast, joins the team and explains that Futaba watched their performance at the previous competition. Regardless of Futaba’s inexperience, they’re just happy to have a full lineup now.

The first few stages of the show have been dedicated to getting Futaba up to everyone else’s level, though the team is struggling in their own ways. The four original members, Captain Shichiganawa, Vice-Captain Tsutidate, flamboyant idol-loving Onagawa, and brash Watari, are unable to accustom to a six-man routine. Meanwhile, Misato has limited experience working with a team, and that’s pretty much the only thing holding him back right now, he’s basically god-tier.

As of writing this, they just kicked off a small arc as Ao High conducts a training camp with another school, whose captain has soe beef with Shichigahama, and their ace is the eccentric prodigy Mashiro, who defeated Misato in their last tournament. It feels like an amalgamation of some of the schools that antagonize Kurasuno in Haikyuu, but I’m getting big Aoba Johsai vibes, particularly as their strongest player has history with the young prodigy, even if it’s a bit more playful.

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Futaba sitting down to watch the Ao High team’s performance.

Now, presentation is where Backflip gets to really flex its strong suits. Both its use of traditional animation and CG are on a completely other level to the vast majority of shows you see. Its character designs are colorful, endearing, and creatively applied across the cast. The two main characters are actually the most realistic and ‘boring’ of the designs, but that’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. These are the characters we get to see the most of, and their designs suit their personalities, so yeah, go ahead and give the wilder designs to the rest of the team and the antagonists.

And the performances are where it all comes alive. It’s this radical blend where they slide in hand-drawn animated sequences to this overall CG choreography, and they’re all well composited onto the 3D backgrounds. The work is a bit glaring at points, but the movement is spectacularly choreographed, and the movements are so graceful and precise. The way it’s interwoven with wide shots of the entire group and close-ups of the individual performers is just superb, absolute props to Kuroyanagi on the direction in every one of these sequences.

Don’t get me started on the music that accompanies each set, either, this slow build of tension until the performers really get going, and then it breaks into an absolute frenzy. The trained movement is paired with a wildfire of instruments that raises each cog in the machine to a crescendo of technical skill. Kuroyanagi’s direction is in perfect concert with Yuki Hayashi’s score. Oh, did you not know that Backflip was scored by the same legend who composed for Haikyuu AND My Hero Academia? Because if you didn’t, here’s your memo, and it’s makes so much more sense why the music is this good. Every time I hear a track, I just think, “Yeah, this guy obviously scored You Say Run”.

Anime is a medium defined by compromise. There’s never enough budget, time, or talent to do everything you want to do in order to bring your vision to life, but Bakuten doesn’t feel like it had to make any compromises. The CG isn’t perfect, but watch anime for any length of time and you’ll find series with so much more time and production values that don’t have as good of CGI. The standard animation is stunning, and considering what we get regularly for TV anime, the CG is excellent, and it’s complemented with great hand-drawn and rotoscoped sequences. Most sports anime are all about being number one, but Backflip is determined to be that.

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Futaba practicing with Tsutidate.

Backflip’s biggest problem, though, is that it’s critically under watched. For the quality of this series, it’s not receiving even half of the attention that it deserves from the anime community. It’s hovering around 40K viewers on MAL, and has not yet broken into the karma rankings for r/anime this season, and that’s a crime for such a well-produced show. I understand that it’s a niche topic, and competition is steep, but that’s no excuse for you guys to sleep on it.

I could see that it wasn’t receiving the acclaim it deserved because the story is underwhelming so far, but it’s been on air for a month, and not many anime have generated enough hype around their stories to warrant that complaint yet. This early on, our best criteria is the production quality, and few can touch Backflip there. 86 can match the spectacle, while Those Snow White Notes hits the music, but Bakuten has both and it’s just being neglected.

Haikyuu’s story is suited to a long-form narrative and roundabout way of development, which Backflip seems to be aiming for. One of the biggest peaks of Hinata’s character arc was receiving a spike, and that took four seasons. Despite that, it’s one of the most important moments in the entire series, so you’d think fans of sports anime would be used to the wait. Right now, Bakuten’s character writing isn’t as sharp as Haikyuu, but it’s keeping its cards close to its chest. Futaba doesn’t have a lot going on, certainly not as much as Hinata grappling with the limitations of his height and technique, but Misato clearly has things under the surface. Having a smaller cast than Haikyuu should be to its benefit, however, so they can more closely develop each member of the team.

Backflip might not reach the same heights as its predecessor, especially since it is an original anime and it’s highly unlikely it will run anywhere near as long as the definitive volleyball series. But, considering everything it has given us so far, you absolutely should be watching it. Do it, add it to your plan to watch list right now, I’ll wait.

See the source image
The Shiro High School boys’ rhythmic gymnastics team.

The Haikyuu formula has given sports anime the chance to branch out in ways previously not possible, especially for less popular sports and more technically difficult to render efforts. I was baffled when I realized we had never had a skateboarding anime before SK8, but it’s understandable when you think how hard it must have been to center an entire show around skateboarding before the advent of advanced CG, 3D motion tracking, would it even be possible? Perhaps, but it would be beyond the skills and budgets of most studios.

Most likely this older, primitive SK8 would have wound up like Initial D: inarguably a classic, and inarguably looking jank. I have to wonder, would an anime about rhythmic gymnastics have been possible before Haikyuu came and showed an easy formula for a compelling sports drama? Certainly it would have been much more difficult to produce the same dynamic choreography that Backflip has wowed me with so far.

Backflip might have worked off of the outline that Haikyuu left before it, but it has raised a completely different building in its place. Like I said, if you enjoy sports anime, give it a shot. I know you didn’t listen to me when I told you earlier, so go and add it to your plan to watch list, and if you don’t do it again, I will know.

And that caps off Spring 2021 and all the reviews I plan on doing. I know I said I might do one more, but Oddtaxi and Mars Red didn’t leave me with enough to review, so if they give me anything else before they’re done, they’ll just get a normal essay where I overstate how good they are, instead of a review where I overstate how good they are. If you think I overstate everything, which is correct, you can tell me so on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, or just follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress to get that last solitary notification before I close out the spring reviews. Until next time, thanks for watching.

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