I was all set to watch Baby Steps after Haikyuu, but after watching the latter I’ve changed my mind. With Diamond no Ace added back into the mix, I think three corker sports anime in one day is simply too many. It’s like tasting single malts (which was the other thing I spent today doing) – if you down too many in a sitting, you start to lose the ability to differentiate the subtler points in the nose and palate. And frankly, watching Baby Steps after Haikyuu!! (the exclamation points really do seem to fit) would be like tasting a Highland Park 18 after an Ardbeg 10.
Some of my readers tell me that the Haikyuu manga has a lot of subtlety to it, and I do see hints of it in the first four episodes (Ardbeg 10 has some subtleties too, once you get past the smoke and coal tar). But so far what I get most from this show is that it’s a pretty straight shooter. There’s no disguising what sort of kid Hinata is and why we should like him, no hiding the fact that Kageyama will be tsundere for him soon enough. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call this series shameless, but in a good way – it simply knows it has a good thing going and doesn’t try and hide it. And there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that.
The focus of this episode of course is the three-on-three play-in match that was teased so artfully last week. It was a strong episode, but I think my favorite part may just have been the fact that it opened with a quote from Brazilian coach Bernardo Rezende: “The volleyball player is not a soloist, but a member of an orchestra. When the player begins to think ‘I’m special’ that player is finished.” I’m not a knowledgeable aficionado of the sport and I hadn’t heard the quote, but it seems especially apt – and it’s no secret that it’s aimed at Kageyama, who’s very much the philosophical center of the ep.
In terms of subtlety, there isn’t a whole lot of it in the way the struggle in this episode is set up, and that’s largely due to Tsukishima. Plainly put, Tsuki is a lot to take – it seems very clear that at least initially, his main functions are not just to make Kageyama look better in comparison, but to push him closer to Hinata. I knew guys like Tsuki in high school (and after) so he’s not unrealistic, but just as then I really want to pop him right in the cake-hole. As his type usually does, once he knows your weakness he chews and gnaws and won’t let it go – which is exactly what he does with Kageyama and his “King” nickname. Not only does he insist on using it non-stop but he clues Hinata in on the full reason why Kageyama earned that nickname – none of which will come as a real surprise to viewers who likely put two and two together based on the first episode.
So we definitely have boys falling into their archetypal roles here as the competition begins. I confess I find it a bit odd that the sempai – including the captain – let Tuskishima get away with as much trash talking as he does here, but it certainly has the intended effect both on-screen and narratively. There’s never a shadow of a doubt that Hinata will stick by Kageyama even after the truth is revealed and the first game of the match starts going badly – that’s just the sort of kid he is. Frankly for all the focus on Kageyama’s dilemma I find Hinata the more sympathetic character – his only real sin here is a lack of height. Of course Tsuki being who he is relentlessly mocks Hinata using that as a weapon, but the little bulldog isn’t so easily manipulated as Kageyama is – though he is deeply frustrated that he just can’t seem to scale the wall that’s always in front of him. Still, there isn’t much good happening in the game, though Kageyama does keep feeding Hinata for spikes even though he’s repeatedly blocked. Poor Tanaka doesn’t get a sniff for most of the episode.
Sugawara is the textbook opposite of Kageyama, and it’s he who gives the latter the piece of advice that starts to turn the game around. He bemoans that he lacks Kageyama’s court awareness and talent, but he manages to effectively set for his teammates just the same by tailoring his setting to their abilities, rather than expecting them to tailor their spiking to his. In Hinata’s case that means utilizing his speed and ability to adjust quickly, effectively telling Hinata to head for wherever the wall isn’t and don’t worry – the ball will be there when he is. Things get dangerously close to WSJ territory with some of this, especially when Hinata spikes perfectly with his eyes closed (seriously – no setter in the world is that good). I wouldn’t worry so much about stuff that if this weren’t actually a WSJ series, but I’m conditioned to be a little leery.
Still, for all that, it’s undeniably cool to see the last few minutes of the episode play out, and Hinata and Kageyama slowly start to develop a chemistry on the court. And again it must be said, Production I.G. is doing a bang-up job with the production side – you’ll rarely see sports drawn and animated this well, period. If every game sequence in the series is this good it’s a sure but I’ll never get tired of them. I can’t say there were a lot of surprises in this episode of Haikyuu, but even if it’s telegraphing it’s punches a bit, they still pack quite a wallop.