The sports anime field is a pretty crowded space right now, which is obviously a very good thing. But it does mean Haikyuu had sort of slipped behind the pack for the moment – not so much because it’s taken any backward steps, but because shows like Yowapeda, Ping Pong and Baby Steps keep striding forward. In that context I was very happy to see that this episode was without question my favorite since the near-perfect premiere – absolutely first-rate from top to bottom.
Superficially, I suppose one might contend that this ep was like the last two centered on Asahi – a lot of drama built around something I felt didn’t really merit quite so much. But I think the drama was more contained here, and the centerpiece of it – Hinata dealing with the very real feelings of inadequacy he experiences as a chibisuke in a tall man’s sport – is both much more elemental to Haikyuu’s story and more relatable. I also find the notion of a first-year being thrown off his game the way Hinata was and recovering quickly easier to take than a third-year becoming so mopey that he leaves the team altogether over what I consider to be a less compelling issue.
There was a lot else to like about this episode as well. The games were arguably the most interesting we’ve seen since the series began, and the heavier material was cut through with substantially more comedy than has been the case in the last couple of eps. I think I like Haikyuu better when the entire team or most of it is together, because there’s a certain “dorkiness squared” dynamic that’s really amplified in those situations. And Ukai-san is a nice addition to that, somebody who brings both an insider’s and outsider’s perspective to this little group.
Of course, as the coach, it’s Ukai-san who’s going to have some very difficult decisions to make (he acknowledges this himself to Shota-sensei) and that’s where the honest-to-goodness drama in Haikyuu seems likely to spring from. He’s suitably impressed by the eerie synchronicity between Kageyama’s tosses and Hinata’s hand, and readily acknowledges Kageyama (“His heart shrank three sizes that day”) as a volleyball genius. But it’s no coincidence that he follows this up with “How cruel”, because right now, Hinata’s success is inseparable from Kageyama. Kageyama himself says this in calling Hinata out for spacing in the middle of the game because he was daydreaming about a giant like Asahi – “With me, you’re invincible!” But what happens if Kageyama isn’t the setter – can Hinata really be a starting-caliber player without his partner?
Ultimately much comes down to the decision of Sugawara vs. Kageyama, unless Ukai decides to play them both (which would certainly not be unheard of). And Sugawara suddenly seems less willing to gracefully surrender his position – which, of course, is exactly how it should be. Of course Hinata is going to be involved in some way sooner or later – he is the main character after all. And there’s a reason for that because again, his story is deeply relatable – a little guy with a big heart trying to overcome his own physical limitations and become a star. But if there weren’t roadblocks along the way – even in the form of his own teammates – well, it really wouldn’t be a sports anime then, would it?