Seven series covered in one day… That ties a record for me, I think (maybe even breaks it) but after watching the premiere of Haikyuu (forgive me if I dispense with typing 1000 exclamation points henceforth) I really felt like covering it while it was fresh in mind. I’m saving Baby Steps for tomorrow because I want to be really fresh for that one, but if I’d known how good Haikyuu was going to be I might just have rolled that over too.
I’ve talked about that first “wow” premiere of the season, and how it’s always a little nerve-wracking wondering if it’s never going to come (usually it does, but not always). Mushishi Zoku Shou was splendid, but the continuity with the old show was so total that it’s hard to count that one. Needless to say I really wasn’t looking for that out of Haikyuu, but that’s exactly what I got – a first episode that exceeded my expectations in every possible way, and I was expecting it to be pretty decent.
Let’s clarify a couple of things up front. This series is going to be a monster commercial hit, the heir apparent to the KuroBas/Free fanbase. That’s fine – it’s neither a selling point or a deterrent for me (that’s the group that largely drives YowaPeda’s sales too, so Goc bless ’em I say). I don’t care one way or the other about that, but I do care that this is a Weekly Shounen Jump series. I’ve never found a WSJ sports series that I’ve really liked – I think I’m too much of a sports fan to tolerate the super-powered silliness that usually drives them. That was my biggest worry going in with Haikyuu, by far, though by reputation it isn’t necessarily KuroBas‘ heir apparent in that specific sense.
What we got in the first episode was, in a word, terrific. It was everything sports anime should be – funny, exciting, emotionally accurate, and realistic. It was beautifully animated even by Production I.G. standards (there was some real hard-core sasuga here) and the characters designs and backgrounds were great. The cast was superb, led by real-life bouzu Murase Ayumu as main character Hinata Shouyou (even the guys who played his two middle-school pals, who I suspect we’ll never see again, were faultless). And it presented a scenario that was immediately both engaging and believable. It definitely plays to the paying audience by focusing on the sensitive side of the boys, but that can work if done well – and there’s definite Ookiku Furikabutte DNA in the Haikyuu gene pool.
Volleyball isn’t a game I especially love, but that’s never stopped me before with sports anime. The hero is a short kid who dreams of being the “little giant” of the volleyball world, but ends up at a middle school with no other boys who want to play (this is a common problem for boys who want to play volleyball, thought of more as a girls sport in America as well). He practices by himself, leans on his pals Izumi and Kouji (basketball and soccer respectively) to help, and is informally adopted by the girls team. Finally, in his third year, he scrapes together enough guys (including Izumi and Kouji) to play in one tournament, only to run up against a powerhouse opponent full of real giants in the first round. That team is led by Kageyama Tobio (Ishikawa Kaitou, also great), the “King of the Court” – a setter, and a superb player who makes up for all that talent with a complete lack of social skills.
What follows in the match is predictable, but it’s still one of the better game sequences I’ve seen in ages. Apart from the spectacular visuals (choreography as well as animation) the pathos is palpable. How in the world can you not root for Hinata – undersized, fighting alone for three years, trying so hard to salvage some respect and honor yet never aspiring to anything less than winning? And he has real talent, too – he’s an amazing leaper (which allows him to be a hitter/blocker despite his size). Most importantly he absolutely busts his ass (literally) trying on every point and never stops rallying his overmatched teammates. It’s inspirational without being preachy, in the way good sports anime can so often be.
It’s pretty obvious where this is headed (and it’s portrayed in a beautifully shot changing of the seasons) – Hinata and Kageyama will end up at the same high school, the national powerhouse Karusano (appropriately enough, it seems to be overrun with crows) and Kageyama will be tsundere for Hinata. He already is, really, because the little wolverine earned more respect from him that his own apathetic teammates did. If Haikyuu can avoid falling into the WSJ trap (and those who follow the manga swear it can) this has a chance to be really special – and to run for a long time, as it’s sure to be a commercial smash. It has an extremely likeable main character, a compelling sports premise, a glamour studio behind it and a cast full of big names (including Irino Miyu) set to join the cast as Karasuno teammates. The premiere is summed up by one of its best moments, as three Karasuno players watch Kageayama’s team finish off Hinata’s team and one remarks on what a tough future opponent “The King” will be. “My money’s on the little guy.” says his teammate – and that’s how I feel after this episode.
ED: “Tenchi Gaeshi” by NICO Touches the Walls