Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Sub.Blu-Ray - Collection 1
Despite his short stature, Shoyo Hinata desperately wants to play volleyball – and ever since he saw a televised high school match, his dream has been to be like the “Little Giant,” a short player who was absolutely amazing. After singlehandedly cobbling together a team his last year in middle school, he manages to make it to a tournament...where he is instantly crushed by a different team lead by an abrasive and self-centered boy named Tobio Kageyama. Shoyo vows revenge in high school...only to find that he and Kageyama have chosen the same school and are now teammates! Can the two talented players learn to get along, or will both of their dreams crumble?
Shoyo Hinata is a shounen hero in the typical mold – a go-getter, talented beyond expectations, but still charmingly innocent in the ways of his chosen world. In his case, that world is volleyball, and despite his lack of height, Sho has the raw talent and power to thrive in it...if he's able to hone both of those things into something he can actually use in a team sport. Being a Luffy-type rather than one of the more solo heroes, Sho has the love of the team he needs to pull it off, but he's also hot-headed enough that he faces some challenges when the boy he declared his rival/enemy at the only middle school tournament he played in turns out to have chosen the same high school, the once-great Karasuno High. In an upset of the usual shounen tropes, Sho has to learn to work with Kageyama rather than towards his ultimate defeat, making his ultimate challenge less about triumph over his rival and more about becoming the best player he can be in a team setting. We find ourselves not just rooting for Shoyo as a character, but rather for the Karasuno team as a whole.
The first thirteen episodes of Haikyu!! are actually a lot of fun, no matter if you approach them from the angle of “shounen sports show” or “attractive guys working closely together.” What helps to make it such a success is the fact that each character has a distinct personality, and they aren't necessarily jock stereotypes, or even shounen genre ones. Shoyo, our naturally caffeinated hero, is perhaps the most typical with his sunny disposition, go get 'em attitude, and crazy natural talent, but watching him interact with the rest of the group keeps him from feeling too stock. We mostly see this in his relationship with Kageyama, the setter who so badly burned him when they were at the middle school tournament. Kageyama has the reputation for being “King of the Court,” but not in the sense that he's the best player; rather it is a reference to his sense of self-importance and his tendency to treat his teammates like subordinates rather than equals. This badly burns him on the court after he defeats Sho, and while he still has a lot of those behaviors when the actual meat of the story starts in high school, we can see that he's really had to think about what he has wrought. His evolution is one of the most interesting aspects of the story: he has to start to care about the team, to work with others, and to make the transition from self-serving monster to the valuable asset he's always considered himself to be. It is through his relationship (“friendship” would still be too strong a word at this point) with Sho that he is able to make these changes, and I have to think that the fact that Sho at this point simply has enthusiasm and talent and very little basic knowledge of the game is what really makes the changes possible. Kageyama still gets to lord over someone to a degree, but at the same time he is learning to make changes to his attitude at a slower pace. While the transformation does feel a little quick, given the constraints of episode numbers and the fact that Daichi, the team captain, threatened to toss him out of the club if he didn't shape up, it is believable enough.
It is by episode nine that we really see how far he has come, and it's a striking difference if you go back and compare his behavior at that point and in episodes one and two. The rest of the team also deserves some credit here, and as I said before, they do stand out as characters in their own rights rather than mere supporting cast. From Sugawara's worries about being replaced by the more talented Kageyama to Tanaka's brash thuggishness, everyone has a personality that helps to temper Kageyama and instruct (or at least serve as models for) Shoyo. In fact, much of the plot rests on the fragile egos of the show's teen cast. Yes, there are games played (and they're increasingly tense), but the fears of the boys play just as big a role as the actual sport, adding a human element to a story that might otherwise feel too specialized to attract an audience.
Sentai's release of the show has no English-language track but has done some good things with the subtitles. Whenever we hear a switch in the Japanese from informal to formal language, the subtitles present Shoyo's self-correction as “...sir,” while listeners who can tell the linguistic difference can hear that what he's doing is changing the verb endings. It's effective, getting the point across without belaboring it or resorting to a formality in English which would feel false. The subs also really pay attention to wording, in some cases using alliteration, sarcastic slang (such as one scene where one of the boys is subbed as saying “for realsies?!”), and some just slightly odd phrases that work, such as Sho mentally labeling an opponent as “Spiky McTall.” The show's art is a little odd, making everyone look elfin, but the animation helps to make up for that with a lot of very dynamic scenes of gameplay and good body language, even when standing around. The use of stylized black outlines during impressive moves is a little much, but it doesn't happen often.
The major issues with Haikyu!! for some viewers will be that most of the volleyball scenes are actually just the guys practicing, technical jargon (the coach is just a teacher who offered to supervise, so he knows next to nothing about the sport), and the fact that Ayumu Murase (Recon from the Fairy Dance arc of SAO) often sounds just a little too feminine as Shoyo. Also a bit of a worry is the lone female character, Kiyoko, who seems to exist only to be an object of desire for the boys. There's nothing wrong with having few or no women in the series, but putting her in just so that the guys have someone to drool over and talk about feels like a waste – after all, she's the team manager; she must have some kind of relationship with some of the members.
On the whole the first thirteen episodes of Haikyu!! are a lot more fun than you might have expected. The characters' interactions, Kageyama's evolution, and the shaping of Sho's enthusiasm into actual skill are all engaging, and the animation, particularly of hands, is both graceful and dynamic. Sports anime may not traditionally do well in Western markets, but this is one worth giving a chance, even if volleyball isn't your thing.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Interesting characters, some nice changes to the shounen formula. Game play looks good, Kageyama shows good evolution as a character, as does Sugawara. Maintains good pacing.
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