Haikyuu is in many ways the definitive sports anime. Not the first, but no sports manga since Slam Dunk and Eyeshield 21 has had this level of influence and popularity. Despite a simple concept and equally plain execution, it managed to reach the upper echelon of anime, all while centering on a relatively niche sport. I am fascinated by how it did that.
I could give the credit to a lot of things. Its presentation is fantastic, whether I’m talking about Haruichi Furidate’s lifelike artwork depicting real volleyball, or Production I.G.’s excellent adaptation of his work. In both cases, Haikyuu has a distinct art style that complements its incredible talent for coming to life in the game.
It has an impeccable sense of humor and its characters support that with solid chemistry throughout the entire cast. Truly, Haikyuu understands the fundamental appeal of the ‘himbo’. It also has one of the funniest dubs in an anime, but you’ll know what I mean if you read my recent essay on Kaguya, which you can find here.
However, there is something more than that behind Haikyuu’s success. It isn’t content merely introducing you to endearing characters and watching them play a sport you don’t care about. It gives you these characters whose strengths and flaws as people come through in their playstyle, and then their growth as volleyball players corresponds to personal growth.
This is perfectly suited to Haikyuu’s long-form narrative and ensemble cast, meaning that Furidate can show off his character writing skills in dozens of ways. Today, I want to pick apart just a few of them.
Haikyuu follows the Kurasuno High School boys’ volleyball team after picking up some promising first-years who offer the chance to turn Kurasuno’s fortunes around. The first, Tobio Kageyama, is a bona fide prodigy with a tyrannical lean, whose middle school teammates abandoned him after getting sick of his domineering. The second, Shoyo Hinata, is a meek wannabe ace who compensates for his lack of height with raw athleticism and a can-do attitude.
The series sees them clash in the beginning, thanks to stark contrasts in personality and opinion, and the various tournaments and training camps they partake in. Haikyuu doesn’t have a clear end goal because its primary focus is the game and the people playing it. The best way it shows this is how Hinata goes from being a novice to the deadliest player on the team.
Hinata excels at first for two simple reasons: he has staggering speed and jump height, especially for someone of his size, and he’s such a trusting and optimistic person that he’s completely confident that Kageyama will put the ball in his hand at the right moment. Kageyama succeeds because Hinata is so blindly trusting and naturally athletic as to literally go for a set with his eyes closed and deliver a devastating spike. This symbiotic relationship gives the two otherwise worse-than-useless players a means to contribute, as well as an opportunity to collaborate and learn to communicate.
The simplest illustration of Haikyuu’s approach to character growth is Hinata’s receive. His defensive abilities are grossly underwhelming at the beginning, as the receive requires technique honed over thousands of individual receives. As such, managing to keep the ball in play is the best he can hope for, with no accuracy or consistency.
But in the match against Inarizaki High, Hinata receives the ball with…well, not ease. The impact of the ball forces him to do a complete somersault, but he receives it and gets the ball to his teammates. The same serve from the same player that has been devastating Kurasuno for most of this season was received by Hinata, of all people. The sum of dozens of episodes of effort and characterization has been paid off in a single moment of volleyball.
Now, Kageyama, the other player I mentioned, I sort of have a sweet spot for him. Not just because we have the same birthday, but I was lucky enough to share December 22nd with both him and Megumi Fushiguro, so go ahead and be jealous. The reason Kageyama is my favorite character in Haikyuu is that his struggles hit much closer to home, at least for me.
He struggles to communicate his thoughts and feelings, he’s bad at teaching other people how to keep up with him because he’s a natural, so he’s never had to think about it and never had to put it into words. To put it simply, he’s socially awkward, has a hard time relating to people, and this manifests as a bad temper. Not only that, but he’s separated from his peers thanks to the gap in their respective skill levels, and as most people fail to meet his standards, he begins to resent them for isolating him.
This is a vicious cycle in which people become bitter, angry, and socially inept in their most formative years. If Kageyama hadn’t wound up going to Kurasuno, he probably would be on Reddit ten years from now why the government should mandate girlfriends. Jokes aside, he was already becoming aware of his social struggles when his final middle school game was punctuated by his teammates leaving him out to dry. The king of the court hadn’t realized it, but he had been overthrown without a word.
And Kageyama is the setter, the worst position in volleyball for someone to lack empathy or be incommunicative. The setter has to read their players, know them as well as he knows himself, and how to get the ball to them. This forces him to learn from his senior at Kurasuno, Sugawara, and by relying on Hinata as the first person with the athleticism and trust to keep up with him.
And while that dictatorial setting style doesn’t leave overnight, and not ever completely. Even this far in the story, Kageyama is still blunt, frequently insulting, and easily misreads the room. That just proves how strong Furidate’s writing is. Kageyama is and will always be socially awkward, and a character arc isn’t about curing someone’s personality. It’s about accepting criticism, taking it to heart, and learning from that. Kageyama has done that both on and off the court.
But Kageyama isn’t the only first-year who has issues playing nice. Kei Tsukishima, the towering middle blocker, really does not care for volleyball. For most of the series, he is smug and apathetic to the struggles of his classmates. Considering how hard everyone else is trying, it feels almost insulting for him to be numb to it. He doesn’t celebrate wins, doesn’t beat himself up over losses; you don’t ever get why he’s still there.
And that’s something I just can’t understand, both in concept, or how to explain to someone. If you don’t care about competition, that’s all well and fine, but I don’t get it. Maybe the reason that the boys in Haikyuu strike a chord with me is because it’s more of that fundamental human drive to win that I got a bit too much of.
Tsukishima is an excellent foil to Hinata, nearly as much as Kageyama or any of the series’ rivals and antagonists. He’s the same position, but his character traits are the inverse of our lead. He’s the tallest person on the team, with a natural aptitude for volleyball, but he has no passion for the game. Sometimes you’d think he wouldn’t show up if he had anything else going on.
And the best way to describe Tsukishima’s character arc is an infection. The fire his teammates and their rivals at Nekoma, Aoba Johsai, and Shiratorizawa eventually spreads and kindles in him. Even as he mocks their effort and pretends he doesn’t understand their love of the game, the bug bites him, and gets him good. It comes out of the cracks at first, but his celebration after shutting down Shiratorizawa’s ace Ushiwaka, it’s undeniable. Tsukkishima has a gently subtle yet incredibly dynamic character arc, one of the best in the whole show.
It’s hard to see how one of the most despicable characters managed to become this likable, but that’s what good character writing is all about.
Haikyuu is good at a great many things, but it has gotten to the place it is today by the strength of its characters. That starts off small because you have to find these guys funny and amusing in order to make this work. However, as you learn more about volleyball and begin to empathize better with the characters, you find yourself with a deep and abiding enthusiasm for it.
I never thought twice about volleyball in the short walk of my life, but an anime managed to make me of all people care about and appreciate the finer details of a sport. That’s wildly impressive on its own, but the way it does that is just having good writing. That presents first in its characters, but in many other ways as well, although those are the subject of another essay.
I barely got to talk about Kurasuno’s lineup, and Haikyuu has so many excellent characters outside of them, so if you’d like a follow-up, best way to let me know is to LIKE, COMMENT, AND RING THAT BEL-oh, there’s no bell on WordPress, is there? I guess you can follow the Otaku Exhibition for notifications when that goes live, or follow over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. Until next time, thanks for reading.