Episodes 1-3

by Christopher Farris,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Hanebad! ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Hanebad! ?

How would you rate episode 3 of
Hanebad! ?

Hanebado! is a novel new series not just for its focus on badminton, but for being a serious-minded sports anime about girls, a breed apart from the more outrageously fanservicey antics of its peers. That said, if you were anticipating Hanebado! specifically for the promise of intense drama, it might deliver even more strongly than you may expect. This goes far beyond the engaging competitive intensity of Haikyu!! (which it shares an adaptive screenwriter with) and veers more into the melodramatic territory of the first season of Free! or the thematically similar music series, Sound! Euphonium.

That's not a bad thing if you know what you're in for, since Hanebado! has a good sense of how to build up that melodrama only to release it before it overstays its welcome. The key example of this is Aragaki, who gets the lion's share of focus in the first two episodes. She's a quintessential overachieving rival character for asports series like this, and she isn't terribly likable through most of these episodes. Her treatment of her teammates borders on abuse, and her single-minded insistence on pushing herself to be the best at badminton simply because it's all she has does little to endear her to the audience either. Her near-constant angsty moping does well to sell the show's tone, but it becomes overbearing before too long.

Thankfully, we get that release just in time. Aragaki's point that people assume she's simply talented rather than having practiced so hard for her badminton skill is appreciable, but the way she ultimately gets over it to realize that she truly does enjoy the game and does better when she's playing for fun is even more of a relief. A similar conclusion is reached for Hanesaki in the third episode, and it's a good statement of intent for a story that briefly seemed to be glorifying the same self-destructive tendencies of its sport like Welcome to the Ballroom did.

But rounding back to Hanesaki, she's still an uncertain element that needs to be addressed. Despite being the title character, she barely registers as even a motivating background element for the first two episodes. While Aragaki does get most of the focus, Hanebado! feels more like an ensemble piece than anything else, which would be fine if the show weren't often trying to frame Hanesaki as a main character without much follow-up. For the first two episodes, her melodramatic angst is at least palpable but even less defined than Aragaki's struggles, making Hanesaki come off like a distracting secondary element in her own show.

The focus and development Hanesaki finally gets in the third episode at least puts her on the right track, though some elements still feel uncertain. Chief among the issues is the ongoing idea that Hanesaki is being dragged into the badminton club against her (repeatedly expressed) will. The third episode does attempt to reconcile this with some context in that her friend Elena recognizes that she does enjoy the sport, but she's cut herself off from it due to the trauma of her mother leaving. So learning to love the game for herself again could provide a sort of therapy for Hanesaki, but even with that background information, Hanesaki being pushed to join despite her loud protests feels less like a necessary intervention and more like someone asserting that they know what's best for someone else without taking any of their input.

On that note, some of these surprisingly cruel elements of Hanesaki's backstory are responsible for the most unsavory parts of Hanebado! so far. Aside from an almost shockingly villainous scene where Hanesaki's rival Kaoroku ties her down and forces her to catch her cold, everything that follows turns the show's melodrama dial up the furthest it's gone so far. I get the impression we don't have the full story on her actions yet, but the portrayal of Hanesaki's mother so far makes her out to be a pretty terrible person, and the flashback finally giving the full context for Hanesaki's magazine clipping provides an effective gut-punch. This does make it satisfying when Hanesaki's seemingly gotten over her trauma enough to actually enjoy badminton with Aragaki, which should provide a status quo moving forward. My concern is just how much new angst the show will heap on top of that.

One part of Hanebado! that shouldn't be contentious is how the show looks. The first couple episodes are flush with amazingly fluid badminton action, doing a strong job of highlighting the tensing muscles and flying sweat of the girls playing. It's so impressive that there was an unfortunate nagging at the back of my mind that there's no way they can keep this up. Indeed, the animation does slow down by the third episode, with some clear shortcuts and breaks for stills, but the badminton itself, especially in the important scenes, continues to look strong. Aside from that, the other issue is the somewhat distracting attention paid to Aragaki's bouncing breasts during play (someone get that girl a sports bra) though that detail is thankfully downplayed after the first episode.

Between balancing the drama of the story and some other iffy aspects (like some off-key harassment jokes courtesy of the coach), Hanebado! definitely feels like it's finding its feet in these opening episodes. The original manga apparently also took some time to figure out what kind of tone and style it wanted to go for, so the anime version is trying to reconcile that on top of finding its own way forward. But even with some stumbles in its awkward balancing act, the distinct strengths of Hanebado! can't be denied. It's a great-looking, interesting show whose more melodramatic choices are paid off with strong catharsis at the ends of its episodes. We've got a foundation for a solid sports drama, and it just remains to be seen what threads the show will choose to build on.

Rating: B+

Hanebado! is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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