Haikyu (yes, I’m settling for that spelling, because I can) is a show that can be closely compared to Free! in the way that it exemplifies what a good sports anime can be if given the right characters, chemistry, setting, plot, and art direction. Haikyu was released in April of 2014, and has been running since, with the show currently in the fourth season. There was a long gap after the third season ended in December of 2016 – while the previous three seasons had released one after the other, fans had to wait a full three years for the first episode of season four. Season four debuted in January of 2020, and was set to be split into two “cours.” The second “cour” was set to begin in July of 2020, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was postponed until October of 2020.
The show follows Shōyō Hinata, and his quest to become a great volleyball player at Karasuno High School after seeing one of their games and witnessing one of their players, The Little Giant. If you don’t know much about volleyball, the net is pretty high. In order to reach the top of the net, you need to either be tall, or have great jumping capabilities. Hinata is super short for a high school boy, at only 5 feet 3 inches canonically. After seeing The Little Giant play volleyball, though, he was inspired. The guy was very short, just like Hinata – but he could jump insanely high. Hinata tries to join his middle school volleyball team, but he learns he’s the only member, and has to spend the next two years trying to get his friends to help him practice. I think that this setup of struggle was pretty artfully done. It sets up a lot of possibilities for later in the story, and introduces a unique struggle for the main character to overcome. It also is a complex-enough backstory to allow the viewer to connect Hinata’s current actions to his previous experiences, which is a huge bonus in anime.
In Hinata’s final year of middle school, he convinces some of his classmates to form a volleyball club with him so they can enter a tournament, and they lose – of course. But this loss introduces Hinata to Tobio Kageyama, who will serve as Hinata’s rival for the duration of the show. The concept of rivals is something that’s very exaggerated in sports anime to help drive the plot forward. In this case, Kageyama is significantly more talented than Hinata, but he is cold, calculating, and mean – the antithesis of Hinata’s warm, friendly, kind personality. When Hinata graduates and enrolls in Karasuno High School, he discovers that he’s on the volleyball team with Kageyama. The story revolves around Hinata and Kageyama’s growth as they work with the rest of their team to pursue the ultimate victory: the national championship.
The rivalry in Haikyuu is a special one, in my opinion, and a great way to handle a rivalry. The majority of the time, I find rivalries in sports anime to be utterly exhausting and frankly annoying. You end up rooting for one character or the other, typically the main character, and you just get annoyed by anything the rival does to hinder the main character’s process or otherwise not help them. Haikyuu handles this differently and avoids that by making the two characters both have an appropriate amount of flaws, as any character should. At times, Hinata is just straight up annoying, or you completely disagree with how he’s handling something, and you side with Kageyama. Other times, Kageyama is an ass, and you wish he would just listen to Hinata. There’s an equal balance between the two characters so that you don’t get burnt out with the rivalry immediately, and I love that about the show.
Another thing I really like about Haikyuu is that sports aspect of the show is definitely the focus, but it doesn’t always feel like it. Almost every memory I have of the show is in some kind of gym or takes place while the characters are playing the sport, but there’s enough exposition and down time that it isn’t constant action that gets boring after a while. It also takes the focus past the immediate future sometimes, focusing on the characters’ long-term goals and dreams instead.
You also get to watch the characters actually grow throughout the show, instead of having the characters start at Olympic-talent levels. Kageyama and Hinata are both prodigies, yes, but it quickly becomes clear that they both have flaws that negatively impact their abilities on the court. Even Hinata’s seemingly unbeatable spike has its downfalls – he’s not perfectly accurate, and if anyone other than Kageyama sets to him, he’ll miss. Kageyama’s attitude makes him a difficult to work with on the court, and he’s easy to psyche out because he’s always thinking. Flaws like these are what make the characters interesting and relatable, and makes the show truly special.
Haikyuu does somewhat fall victim to the typical sports anime trope of the main character’s team being unable to lose. However, it feels different when Haikyuu does it. Instead of the characters seemingly being handed win after win on a silver platter, the show does a great job of making the wins feel very weighty. We see the characters grow and change, and develop their skills and styles as the main focus of the show. Because of this gradual development, it’s much more satisfying to see one of the characters pull off that new technique they’ve been practicing – we know the work that went into it, and finally seeing it pay off is very fun to watch. This payoff isn’t the only major selling point for Haikyuu, though.
The characters and their personalities are what really keep Haikyuu going. They really nailed the characterization of high school boys from year 1 to 3, and how their maturity levels change. An often overlooked issue with sports anime is the characterization of high schoolers. They’re always too adult-like, and lack that childish playfulness and fun that high schoolers tend to exude. Adult characters are fine, but if you’re gonna write a story about high schoolers, I expect the characters to actually act like high schoolers. Even Free! doesn’t write their characters like high schoolers!
I tried to go spoiler-free this week, so I hope that paid off. Haikyuu is overall a great show that does fall victim to some sports anime tropes, but makes up for them with great writing and characterization. The plot is fun and easy to follow, and it’s just as exciting at times as watching real sports on TV. I love this show, and I really recommend that everyone watches it.