Episode 8

by Christopher Farris,

How would you rate episode 8 of
Hanebad! ?

Hanebado! has really settled into an episodic structure for its second half. The tournament storyline lets us see a single match per week, focusing on a couple of characters and their growth and making good use of that ensemble element from the beginning of the series that rotates characters in and out in interesting ways. This episode brings back Nozomi, Riko's opponent from a couple episodes ago, for a grudge match against Nagisa. It's nice to see a character like Nozomi not turn out to be just a one-off antagonist, getting additional character development of her own.

Despite being the focus of the first couple episodes, Nagisa has taken a backseat until recently, so the focus on her in this episode might seem to come out of left field. For one thing, her issues with her teammates being smoothed over means she needs a new kind of conflict to focus on, so this one turns inward somewhat to reveal some physical issues of hers. The idea that she's being career-endingly hard on her knees does match what we've seen of her playstyle, but it still provokes a somewhat incredulous reaction from the audience who may wonder why we haven't heard this before. Granted, Hanebado! has generally been more effective at showing than telling, and this new point does cast an interestingly darker shade on those memorable shots of Nagisa's tensing leg muscles.

Of course, Nagisa's new knee needs are really here to drive up the dramatic elements at the heart of this episode. He's been leering around the edges since Nozomi's introduction, but the Zushi Sogo High coach gets a proper spotlight this time. The show really seems to be pushing the “If you had issues with Kentaro or Uchika's coaching, wait until you get a load of this guy!” angle. This coach might be the most openly hateable character in a series that thrives on producing antagonism, which is saying a lot. His style relies on literally ordering Nozomi around the court in real-time, openly verbally abusing her between rounds. It's more of Hanebado!'s unpleasant content, but it does serve a purpose.

Hanebado! has done well at exploring different elements of competitive badminton in these past several episodes. In this case, the coaching is the focus, along with the players respond to it. One backstory detail that gets brought up repeatedly in this episode is the general agreement that Nagisa is a better player than Nozomi, despite Nozomi being the one scouted to play for a strong badminton-focused school like Zushi Sogo. As the episode goes on, it becomes apparent that Nozomi needs direction and constant coaching to win matches where Nagisa is just as good or better at simply playing how she wants to. This episode does an excellent job of demonstrating this throughout the actual gameplay, without needing characters to commentate on it directly to make sure we get it. It also uses this setup to ask the question of what counts as a ‘win’, either using your own abilities or following detailed directions just to exploit other factors to secure a victory.

That point is where I started to become unsure of how I felt about this episode. The strategy that Nozomi's coach pushes her to pursue, strategically hitting the shuttlecock into areas to exploit Nagisa's risky knees and trigger a blowout, is technically sound and legal. However, it still feels underhanded, not just from a sportsmanship angle but from a spectator angle as well. It's not really a competition between contrasting playstyles and strategies so much as an exploit of another player's physical weaknesses. It's not necessarily ‘sweep the leg’ level, but it still feels nasty. With Nagisa having to rally against this trick, and the show's usual concern of “Is anyone actually having fun?” overshadowing the proceedings, you get to the unfortunate issues that always haunt Hanebado!. It definitely seems to frame these angsty, self-destructive elements of the sport as ‘bad’, but is it still glorifying them to some degree? Or does the show even know what healthy, fun, sportsmanlike competition is supposed to look like?

Thankfully, the answer turns out to be yes!

Nagisa's muscle-flexing, angled-camera, ridiculous backwards backhand turns everything in this show's depiction of the game around. Once she gets the momentum going in her direction, there's a notable shift from the clinical attention paid to her weakening legs or Nozomi's technical coaching callouts, and instead we get a swell of energetic sports action punctuated by spinning power-shots. It's no accident that Nagisa's choice to play this way prompts Nozomi to start playing her own way as well, which is when the game truly becomes fun to watch for the audience. This is the show expressing its belief that playing a sport how you want is what makes the heartache of competition worth it, but only if you choose to leave it all out on the court yourself.

Hanebado!'s depiction of competition can be hamfisted and uneven at times, but the reasoning for that becomes more clear with every episode. When it seems the badminton being shown isn't fun, that is because the series wants us to understand that the game isn't fun when played this way. It demands an understanding from the audience that all this built-up unpleasantness is in service of that point. That still might not be enough for some people to sit through its particular flavor of angst. But more than any before it, this episode absolutely won me over to this show's storytelling choices and helped steel me for more melodrama to come. Hanesaki still possesses some truly appalling Badminton Terminator tendencies, and with her mother and Connie getting ready to re-enter her story, things will probably only get worse before they get better. But this episode's conclusion reassured me of Hanebado!'s intent in an invigorating way.

Rating: A-

Hanebado! is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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