Reviewby Theron Martin,
Blu-Ray + Digital
Nagisa Aragaki is tall, which has proven a big advantage in her chosen sport of badminton. However, she is also frustrated by people thinking she only wins because of that and not appreciating the work she puts in. Also frustrated by a crushing obliteration at the hands of a younger player in the last tournament, she strains relationships in the Kitokomachi High School Badminton Club she captains by pushing the others hard. But things are about to change in the club, for it is getting a new, ex-alumnus coach and a surprising new member: first-year Ayano Hanesaki, the girl who soundly beat Nagisa before. But strangely, Ayano seems reluctant to play badminton any more despite being perfectly-suited for it physically, with only a friend literally dragging her there getting her that far. Nagisa, as it turns out, isn't the only one bringing emotional baggage to the game.
Although I didn't end up following it at the time, I had a positive initial impression of this series when it debuted in the Summer 2018 season. That's no small feat given that I usually have little interest in sports-focused titles. I always intended to give the whole series a try at some point, so I took the occasion of Funimation's recent Blu-Ray/Digital release to check out the remaining episodes. I was not disappointed. While then series has its flaws, it makes for an engrossing view through a combination of its character stories and match play. And no, appreciating or even knowing anything about badminton is not at all necessary for appreciating this series.
In fact, that may be the biggest key to the series' success. The series never takes times to lay out the rules or mechanics of badminton, instead opening in the middle of match play and allowing viewers to pick up on the intricacies of the game as the series goes along, which is quite easily possible. The mechanics are not much different from tennis, but the very different physical nature of the shuttlecock compared to a ball, combined with use of a volleyball-style net instead of a ground-positioned one, creates some interestingly different dynamics that viewers are mostly shown rather than explained. (The latter happens some, with characters commenting in cases where what's going on may not be clear to untrained eyes, but it is not omnipresent.) The writing also shows a deep and thorough understanding of practice regimens and match strategies particular to badminton, though it also wisely does not usually obsess on them; such details typically pop up as illustrations of bigger points. Significantly, the writing avoids introducing exotic signature moves, instead relying on standard badminton plays and how they are used strategically.
While match play is a significant part of the series, the series concentrates at least as much or more on the dramas and mindsets of its characters. Nagisa is the primary viewpoint character in the early stages and towards the end, with Ayano getting more lead attention in the middle. They sharply contrast physically, in preferred play style, and in they way they respond to stressors, but they have remarkably similar mindsets towards the sport. Of the two, Nagisa is the more consistent and credible – and therefore generally more interesting – character, with Ayano's big mood swings over the course of the series bordering on being manic-depressive; the nasty disposition she falls into late in the series strains credibility even if she has been pushed into it.
The series mostly makes up for that with a good core supporting cast. The critical players here are the best friends of the two leads: club vice-captain Riko for Nagisa and eventual club manager Elena for Ayano. Both deserve kudos for putting up with and supporting their respective best friends, and while the richness of their characterizations pales in comparison to the two leads, they both get substantial screen time. Other club members receive from modest to almost no attention but still provide more diversity of outlook on, and mindset about, the sport, and thankfully the new coach's initial faux-pervy side is allowed to fade as the series progresses.
Recurring characters from outside the club are much more sharply hit-or-miss and where the series' most prominent flaws lie. While the series mostly stays grounded in its character designs and personalities, it disrupts that trend in a negative way with the pink-haired, pink-eyed, twin-tailed Kaoruko. She's supposed to be an expert on playing mind games with opponents, but she mostly feels like she belongs in a more outlandish and/or otaku-pandering sports series instead. The way she breaks down after Ayano reverses the mind games on her looks like a ploy for sympathy for her, but it's hard to feel sympathy for someone who comes out on the losing end after pulling the kinds of crap that she does. Connie, the blond foreigner, isn't much better, although the problem with her is more that the writing does not seem sure how to fully parse out her motivations. More than with any other character, some crucial supporting content from the original manga feels like it got cut out there. The biggest problem is Ayano's mother, a former all-time-great champion in the sport, albeit for entirely different reasons. Her motivations for what she did to Ayano are just ridiculous, and while she does eventually admit that she's a terrible mother, she doesn't seem fazed or regretful about that in the slightest. She also gets let off much too easily in the end.
The spirit behind, and intensity toward, badminton is the series' most visible feature, and that is fully evident in the artistry and animation. The animation of both basic practice and match play is remarkably robust and can even be exciting at times, though it also seems especially obsessed with showing sweat, practically to a fetishistic level. Off-court scenes occasionally see minor quality slips, but this is not a big problem. The other visual strength is the character designs, especially Nagisa, whose tall, solid build is not at all an anime standard for female characters. Other female characters run the gamut from cute to pretty, but except for Kaoruko and Connie they all have more grounded looks. Male cast members also fare pretty well on the design front, especially the coach. The other interesting visual characteristic is a camera which seemed voyeuristic enough early on that I initially expected regular mild doses of fan service, but the visuals mostly back off on that after the first episode.
Music director Tatsuya Katō has done some great work on other titles (I was especially impressed with his work on the Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya titles), but at times here he pushes the limit of reasonable enhancement. Most of the score is orchestrated, with occasional piano accompaniment and, much more rarely, rock guitar, and while it can be used in more gentle manners, it is more commonly noticeable when hyping up tension in matches or key dramatic moments. The latter in particular can go a little overboard. Opener “Futari no Hane” features a decent, energetic song but is probably more notable for its interesting visual style, while closer “High Stepper” is a an average (if upbeat) rock song set against stills.
The English dub, provided by Funimation, is a little rocky at first, but it settles down by episode 3 and is fine from that point out. Dawn M. Bennett is a strong casting choice for Nagisa and gives one of the better performances, while Ariel Graham at least makes an attempt at a Dutch accent as Connie. Funimation's release of the title comes with Blu-Ray and digital rights, with on-disk Extras including only clean opener and closer. The disk case comes in a slipcover which also included a couple of art cards.
As sports series go, Hanebado! is a grade above. It takes a sport that isn't one of the major ones and makes it interesting without resorting to outlandish gimmickry, while at the same time supporting it with mildly compelling character drama and respectable action animation. A few big hurdles keep it from being a top-tier series, but it is more watchable than you might expect.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Match play animation, character designs, some good character insight
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