This was very much a form check episode for Haikyuu. Check the boxes for fated rival (team and individual), training camp, and Kaji Yuuki. None of them were too surprising, but surprises aren’t really the fuel that powers the car with Haikyuu anyway. This is very much a sasuga show – sasuga animation in plenty, and delivering what’s expected of it in terms of writing, albeit with a lot of humor and charm.
The fated rival, of course, is Nekoma High School, the one that has the long-standing rivalry with Karasuno dating back to Ukai the Younger’s time as a player (and presumably even longer). According to the coach Nekoma is the polar opposite of the current Karasuno team – no one stands out, but they don’t have any holes. They receive well, defend well, spread the attacks around – in short, they’re “grinders” as we might say in golf. Wheras Karasuno are a bunch of loveable volleydorks with mad skills and holes big enough to drive Noya’s hair through. In short, a classic matchup.
We first meet the important members of this team (a watershed moment for Haikyuu fans I assume, as they seem to be exceptionally popular) when the exceedingly genki-as-usual Hinata gets lost on a run during training camp and stumbles upon Kozume Kenma (Kaji Yuuki). There’s no mistaking the voice and Kaji never makes any attempt to modulate it, so you know what to expect from that – as for the character himself, he’s deadpan and seemingly unmotivated. His best buddy is Kuro Tetsurou (Nakamura Yuuichi, another unmistakable and unchanging voice) who seems to be the captain and the opposite of Kozume in every way. For all Kozume’s boredom his brief chat with Hinata seems to spark some interest, and he later expresses uncharacteristic (if understated) anticipation in regards their upcoming practice match.
You know where this is headed – bookends for Hinata and Kageyama, worthy rivals and targets to aspire to (which is important, as this “rivalry” has seemingly seen Nekoma win every match, ever). But there’s business to attend to with Karasuno, primarily in the selection of setter (no one is talking about it, but many sides really do go with two). Ukai is wrestling with his reluctance to deprive a third-year of the chance to start, as Shota-sensei notes, but Sugawara makes the decision easier on him by effectively ceding the starting role to Kageyama despite what he says is a continued desire to play. When the starting lineup is announced there are three first-years in it, but no Sugawara – and the second-years who last year briefly quit the team and returned (who I don’t think were even named before this week) are on the bench, too.
I think it goes without saying that Sugawara will get his opportunities sooner or later, and while I appreciate his selflessness I would have rather see him fight to the end rather than spare Ukai’s feelings by withdrawing. Maybe it’s Irino’s influence but Sugawara really seems to be on another level complexity-wise from everyone else in the cast, who very much paint in emotional primary colors. That can be effective too, though, and Hinata continues to be a pretty winning lead – I like the fact that he recognizes that his worth is currently inexorably linked to Kageyama, and if he’s ever to blossom as a player he needs to develop to the point where he succeeds on his own merits, no matter who’s setting the table.