I swear I had no idea that the coach of Sakurazawa Technical was referred to as “Professor” (Kyouju) when I referred to him last week as a titan (Kyoujin). He just looked like one of Isayama’s titans to me, but it really galls me that one of the best puns I’ve ever come up with in a lifetime chasing them was a complete accident.
Setting that aside, this was a terrific episode, and it really plays into the strength Diamond no Ace has at creating interesting opposition. I referred to Sakurazawa last week as Ichidai’s cannon fodder opponent, but they were the most interesting thing in this ep. Underdog stories work incredibly well in sports series, and here’s another one – a brainiac public high school that never even won a scrimmage in 20 years until the aforementioned professor, Kikuasawa Sanae, took over. And he can’t even hit a baseball for infield practice. But he loves the game, and he seems pretty knowledgeable about it. But it was the arrival on the scene of three freshman that signalled the beginning of a turnaround, especially pitcher Nagao Akira.
The knuckleball is indeed a strange phenomenon in baseball, a great equalizer. It is a gimmick pitch in the sense that it can take a guy without much conventional talent and make him a star, and having such a star can make a nothing team dangerous. But very few guys throw it because it’s incredibly hard to master – one of the hardest things in baseball sounds so simple, to throw a baseball with no rotation. It’s also a hard pitch to throw because normally one needs big hands and strong fingers, and not many boys Nagao’s age – never mind Japanese boys – would have hands big enough to be effective with it. There’s almost no record of any Japanese pitcher throwing it at the professional level, in fact, though Oka Tomo did try and crack the majors with it (unsuccessfully) four years after retiring. The episode did a great job of explaining the knuckler and depicting it realistically, with this possible exception. But it does make a hell of a good story.
On the diametrically opposite end of the spectrum is “big number one” Ichidai. They’re the epitome of the big dog – the defending champs of West Tokyo, the favorites, and they feature the best pitcher in Kanto in Narumiya Mei (who of course we already know). This is a good fit for Kaji Yuuki, a kid who’s supposed to be annoying, in a role that requires him to be neither too somber or too comedic. And it makes for a fascinating matchup – the powerhouse with the fireballer who strikes out most of the hitters he faces against the limited team that knows their limits, with a knuckleball pitcher on the mound who relies on his defense to take care of all the balls the opponent weakly puts in play. I’m going to try not to get too caught up in pulling for Sakurazawa because I know my heart is going to get broken if I do, but it’s not going to be easy – they’re impossible not to like, and Kikuasawa-kinjou seems to be genuinely kind and positive man who loves his players.
Haikyuu!! – 21
This episode of Haikyuu!! is pretty much the one I’ve been building up to since the series really got started, and that can be a dangerous thing for a series. But it really lived up to the anticipation – this was one of my favorite episodes of the series so far.
Maybe I’m a sap for liking Sugawara as much as I do – maybe it’s just too easy – but it is what it is. The guy is the friend and teammate every high school athlete dreams of having, and he’s zero flash even when he’s not being compared to Kageyama. I like Grinchie well enough, but his tortured genius riff is pretty standard stuff (so is Shouyou’s plucky chibisuke routine if I’m honest, but he’s much easier to root for). I find much more pathos in Sugawara’s situation – a guy who’s entire appeal is in his simple and unpretentious decency, and who suffers in silence when he loses his job to a rookie rather than become a cancer by rallying the third-years around the injustice of it. This is the end of his athletic career he’s watching play out while he’s forced to stand and watch a couple of first-years angst over looking cool, but Sugawara never rocks the boat.
As I mentioned before, niceness is a good thing and too much gets you absolutely nowhere (Sugawara Koushi and Samwell Tarly – two Crows too nice for their own good). And there have been times when I wondered if Sugawara was too nice. Maybe this taste of what it’s like to feel the thrill of battle again will shorten his patience, and there’s no denying he was an effective change-of-pace when he entered the game. There are elements of the setter role which he clearly understands and Kageyama does not, as is evidenced by his first moments on the court, before a single ball was served. His attacks may be “textbook”, but he knows his teammates better than they know themselves. And he actually managed to get the ultra-instinctual Hinata thinking about what he was doing – though one could very legitimately ask whether it’s actually beneficial to have Hinata thinking about what he’s doing in this situation.
I thought the episode did a very fine job of showing why things picked up for Karasuno when Sugawara entered the game, and why his effectiveness started to wane as Aoba Johsai adjusted. The fact is that Sugawara and Kageyama are totally different sorts of setters, and their impact on the team so different that it’s always going to throw the opponent off – like a basketball team with two point guards, a speedster deadly in the open court and a technician brilliant in half-court sets. Basketball teams often employ two point guards on the court, and there are many formations in volleyball that use two setters – especially in this instance when Kageyama is athletic and tall enough to be both a blocker and spiker as needed, I’m a bit puzzled as to why Ukai isn’t even considering it. In any event it seems for now as if the match is back in Kageyama’s hands, but that Sugawara’s role as a spark plug is a permanent one – a real competition for the job, but one who’s winner has in truth already been decided.