Imagine there was a show that was so much of a good fit for you that all your friends never recommended it to you because they simply assumed you had seen it by now. When Netflix began streaming Haikyuu!!, I took the plunge and binge watched the first two seasons. I was so entertained by it that I got HIDIVE to watch the rest available. I’ve been on the record as an apologist for Kuroko’s Basketball and its ridiculous basketball logic. Maybe for lack of a better, non-boxing sports anime available, I gave Kuroko the title of my favorite sports anime.
Growing up, I always wanted to try to play on a volleyball team. Unfortunately, I lived in a small rural community that considered a male playing volleyball blasphemy. Of course, I still found a niche with team sports in basketball and (as an adult) running. As a result, I have been fascinated with the makeup of sports teams. Team chemistry and sports psychology are very real factors that may mean as much to the success of a team as individual abilities (especially at the lower, more amateur levels).
Despite being arguably one of the most popular pastimes, sports stories only ever really find success through documentaries. Perhaps Disney shoulders the blame with how unapologetic they were making and rebranding the same feel-good sports stories every other year from the late-90s through the mid-00s. Stemming from the first few financial successes of the “feel good underdog sports team” stories Disney shared, many wannabe studios pumped out near identical films that left many team sports stories in a purgatory of tropes.
Looking at sports storytelling from an anime perspective, it is clear there are two wells that anime loves to draw from- boxing and baseball. While there are certainly more examples of popular sports anime, I would like to keep the focus on team sports with the exception to boxing as an honorable mention.
Boxing is, indeed, an individual sport, but its legacy with anime is worth mentioning briefly. Franchises to the likes of Hajime no Ippo have flourished as the quintessential sports anime. Baseball, on the other hand, has influence on nearly every year of anime. Major, Ace of the Diamond, Big Windup!, and what feels like obligatory baseball episodes in slice of life anime remind viewers just how important baseball is as a sport to Japan.
When I first saw Kuroko’s Basketball, one of the details that was immediately appreciated was the passion for the sport that was conveyed by its characters. Players grappled with quitting, pushing themselves, and injuries in a way that made me enamored despite notable problems I had with the series. One of the biggest problems that I (and many haters of the franchise) had was in how ridiculously high-level play there was amongst high school students. As much as it is over-stated, “Dragon Ball Z only with basketball” is not a terrible summary of how these games play out. Every team has at least one player who is as ripped as Kenyon Martin and can dunk from the same heights as Blake Griffin or Vince Carter. I wanted a show that had the passion and psychological aspects to a team sport while still having realistic abilities and development in the characters’ play.
Obviously, these wishes were met with Haikyuu!! and the story of a roster of quirky, raw players coming together to share their love for volleyball. By now, most readers probably know of Hinata, Kageyama, and the rest of the Karasuno’s team. The characters shine and make this anime worthwhile, but I wanted to take a minute today to share what makes this show special to me in how perfect it gets the psychological side of team sports. Three points I want to touch on are how the show handles mental hurdles, losing, and in-fighting.
While it is one of the most well-known examples, I think Asahi and his struggles with getting past a crushing wall (both figuratively and literally) is something that happens frequently in team sports. Especially in close knit groups, role players can be rattled if they fail to deliver their part of the team gameplan. I remember, as my basketball team’s primary rebounder, I was completely shut down by a guy significantly bigger than me during our championship game one year. I spent almost a full year struggling with timing on rebounds thereafter. This is a small example of what happens to some players as they stack up against opponents. A far more notable example is Roy Hibbert (former Defensive Player of the Year for the Indiana Pacers) who faded into irrelevancy after never recovering from having all his flaws exposed during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat.
There is this side to sports stories where a single pep talk, a training montage, or just a sudden inner monologue solves everything the player is experiencing. In Asahi’s case, his climb back to full speed was something that occurred over the course of a season. While the team managed to talk Asahi back on board over the course of a few episodes, he did not reach full comfort at first. He struggles, and the blockage shows in how he trains, practices, and thinks. While his team continuously shows him support, the results are not immediate. This is exactly the kind of detail that makes Haikyuu!! so elite- the way the characters overcome their struggles are not immediate and, as a result, successes feel so much more satisfying. This mirrors a facet to real sports that I think make them so special to be a part of (more so as a coach than a player) in that it is incredible to plant the seeds of growth and watch how players struggle and claw their way to developing past walls they face.
If seeing success because of hard training and getting over humps is one of the most effective parts of telling a good sports story, how the narrative handles losing is equally as important. It feels like the only times a “main” team loses in live action sports comes from the obligatory “low” point in the story where the coach found out his best player got a DUI or that the school-board wants to defund the program because obvious hateful reasons in the deep south. Indeed, the outcome is always set for the main team to win (with exception of something legendary like Friday Night Lights) and for the emotion to spill over at that triumphant moment. What I do not see far enough, however, is where that emotion goes after a loss. It does not just vanish- players are invested and have given their all into playing.
Something that Haikyuu!! manages to capture well is the raw emotion that follows a crushing loss. For Karasuno, they hit a blockade in Aobajohsai and their star setter Oikawa and were sent home in the third round of the Interhigh-Prelims. On top of being an iconic, crushing moment, the team bawls collectively as they eat a dinner arranged by their coach, Ukai. I don’t care much for the “wow we did it” moments in sports stories. I have coached and played and I know that, more times than not, you’re going to be on the losing side of things. Perhaps that is a bit cynical to hear on a surface level, but I tend to soften the blows of losses to my teams by reminding them that there are more steps to go up the ladder than there are to go down when you’re initially climbing up. Being afraid to lose will only make it harder to climb.
Similarly to this, I believe that it is critical for players to have moments where they can let it all out. Call it toxic masculinity, call it not seeing sports as more than a game but however you slice it, crying after sports losses is taboo. When both the boys and girls Karasuno teams lose, we see them cry over their losses in full, heartbreaking detail. As we learn, these moments of closure are important as the school’s teams return to practicing with new fire. Dwelling on the emotions left behind with significant losses will only complicate how the athlete feels going into their next challenge. Furthermore, not getting closure is dangerous to the mental health of these young athletes. I am relieved to see a popular piece of media show it is not taboo to cry after losses.
Finally, I think that this series does not shy away from showing there are some merits to teammates fighting amongst themselves. When Hinata and Kageyama argue fiercely over their chemistry problems, their frustrations come to blows. Rather than fully condemn fighting, the story conveys that this fight is the result of the level of passion and commitment from both players. When teammates fight, it is not always a bad thing. Part of the team building process is the “storming” phase, but in sports, “storming” could turn from arguments to getting physical. Now, in most cases, the fighting results in a typical case of “H-h-h-hold me back!”, but the frustrations are out in the open. While this is not as detailed of a note that I appreciated from the series as the other ones, I liked seeing how Hinata and Kageyama became closer as a result of letting their frustrations be known and pushed themselves to become better teammates.
How did you all feel about this anime? Are you a reader of the manga? Did it end how you were hoping?
Stay healthy and safe!