Attack, Lil Shrimp (‘Haikyuu!!’ Review)

Haikyuu' Hinata Ready to Spike

I can never remember just how many ‘k’, ‘u’, and ‘!’ this thing actually has.

(this post covers the first two seasons of the show, with the third one coming in next autumn)

Based on Haruichi Furudate’s manga, Haikyuu!! is a vanilla sports drama that occupies its designated genre and demographic very comfortably. Vanilla sports drama, as opposed to character-driven drama that just happen to have the characters play sports (e.g. Ping Pong, Mitsuru Adachi’s works), is what I like to call a series with an almost singular focus to the sport being depicted and rigid adherence to a very familiar and cyclical pattern of narrative beats: underdog protagonist enters a club-recruitment time -scrimmage-training camp-tournament. Rinse, lather, repeat. If you’re fine with that, you can take it from me (a fan of sports animango since the 90s): Haikyuu belongs to the upper tier of this genre and deserves a lot of its surging popularity.

Haikyuu S1 Key Image

Now, keep in mind that I do think volleyball is one of the few sports that is fun to play, fun to watch in real life, and fun to watch in anime form.  Volleyball anime was quite popular in 1960s-1980s thanks to a trio of similar-sounding shoujo titles (Attack No.1, Attack on Tomorrow, and Attacker You!), but Haikyuu!! is the only notable one that came out in recent times and became a smash hit.  It also boasts a strong production value courtesy of Production I.G., one of the more dependable anime studio around. This kind of series tends to live or die based on its ability to generate adrenaline rush during the action/match scenes, and luckily Haikyuu!!’s audiovisual execution is easily its strongest suit.

For most of the first season and the final stretch of second season, the volleyball action in the show is nothing short of exhilarating. While nothing can’t quite match the full house atmosphere of high-stakes matches in real life, Haikyuu!! does an admirable job of emulating that kind of electric vibe. The sonic element is on point, for one, whether it’s the sound effects of sneakers crunching on the hardwood, the players’ hands connecting with the ball, or the extremely satisfying thud as the ball hits the floor. Add in some appropriately placed background music, and it’s hard not to get pumped as you watch the boys zip around and smack some balls.

Ooikawa Haikyuu Serve

You may have already knew the outcome of most matches (especially if you’re a sports series vet), but the visual direction makes the process to get there remain interesting. Haikyuu!! takes a firmly realistic approach to the sport; this isn’t the series to watch if you want character unleashing special moves, throw around energy balls, or similar such nonsense. The show thrives by highlighting athleticism and team synergy instead, backed by a visual that accentuates the characters’ agility, length, and verticality. It makes them look extraordinary without getting over the top, sporting plenty of flair in the proceedings: zoom–ins on the players’ footwork and blocking motions, slowdown during key dramatic moments, and sterling key animation that seamlessly integrate impact frames such as the one below.

Mad Dog Haikyuu

As far as the story goes, it’s a classic underdog narrative. Karasuno, a competent but low-tier school tries to re-capture past glory, spurred by the arrival of two promising youngsters with baggage: pint-sized Energizer bunny Shouyo Hinata, and exiled genius Tobio Kageyama. These two are the most prominent characters in Haikyuu!!, but in essence  there’s no real Main Character in the show. What I like about volleyball is how it’s even less about individual brilliance than many other team sports, and Haikyuu!! understands this by stressing the philosophy of cogs-in-a-machine (the showrunners’ favorite recurring imagery, in addition to Karasuno’s corresponding spirit animal, a pack of crows). It’s not just a lip service either, as the show repeatedly demonstrates the importance of team synergy and less glamorous roles in the game.

Over the course of the first two seasons,  there’s a rotating focus among the cast, highlighting the internal anxiety of nearly every member in the main team. This may be a grab bag of sports series cliches, but it’s still well-executed enough to be compelling. The show gets into the characters’ headspace very well, deftly conveying emotional weight during key moments in matches. Such moment, like when the team’s spiker ace finally overcome his mental hurdle and just spike the damn ball already, feels cathartic and well-earned as a result.

Haikyuu Kenma

On the other hand, because almost every single one of the character arcs are inextricably linked to their on-court roles and struggle, Haikyuu!! gets significantly weaker once it steps away from the court. This isn’t readily apparent in the first season because the cast still feels fresh, but for a lot of second season it hits the proverbial sophomore wall. It’s pretty common affliction in vanilla sports drama, I think: once they finished establishing the team and got past the first tourney arc, a lot of them struggle to sustain momentum and find new source of drama. That also happens here, and it doesn’t help at all that a significant number of early episodes in S2 is dedicated to tedious training camp—probably my least favorite narrative routine in a sports series. The second season does hit its stride in the last few matches, but as a whole the characters, the comedy, and the off-court drama aren’t strong enough to carry the show when it’s taking a break from intense volleyball action.

(I understand that this show is considered fujo-tastic. That may dramatically elevate your appreciation toward it should you’re inclined that way, although I’d also note that I don’t find the show to be particularly pandering or distracting in that regard)

Haikyuu Third ED Image

As a last note, I find the line-up of OP & ED to be highly enjoyable. There are eight songs in total, most of them are of folk rock variety, and they set up your mood very well. I particularly like the ED songs contributed by the three piece band, Leo and Hatsunetsu, which also have masterfully composed visual sequence.

If you’re already sick or completely uninterested in vanilla sports drama, it’s rather unlikely Haikyuu!! is going to change your mind. If you’re still undecided and/or inexperienced on the genre, it could be an ideal gateway show. And, if you’re the kind who could fist pump and whoop in joy at fictional characters’ athletic triumph, this is one of the must-watch from the modern era.

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