I was apprehensive about sports manga at first. Whenever I saw my father watch football, I was like, “Why are so many Americans’ entire lives defined by a game made for entertainment purposes?” (he says despite how videogames and stuff define his life). As a result, I never chose to read sports manga… until I read Haikyuu!!, published in English by Viz. With its rather lengthy run in Weekly Shounen Jump, simple story, and massive fanbase, Haikyuu!! has definitely become mainstream. But despite my aversion towards said mainstream, I think it deserves the praise.
In Haikyuu!!, a short boy named Shoyo Hinata dreams of becoming a volleyball champion. Despite his height, he has great reflexes and jumping skills. Unfortunately, in junior high, he is utterly schooled in a match against setting prodigy, Tobio Kageyama. In the aftermath of this humiliating defeat, Hinata attends Kararsuno Highschool, the same as his idol, the Little Giant. However… Kageyama ends up attending the school as well! With their abilities, they just might bring the school back from its long volleyball slump.
Like I said, Haikyuu!! is simple; straight as an arrow. Since it’s a sports manga, it’s an underdog story about a couple of young upstarts and their volleyball team. Compared to Eyeshield 21 and Kuroko’s Basketball, it’s really nothing special. But I always believe the execution is more important than the idea, and the execution is where Haikyuu!! delivers.
The best thing the series does is buildup. Haikyuu!! is really good at creating anticipation for upcoming matches. From Karasuno’s rival school, Nekoma, to the powerful Shiratorizawa, there’s a reason behind every fight. Unfortunately, there’s only so much that can happen in a volleyball match. It’s an inherent problem with sports narratives, but volleyball is literally just hitting and blocking a ball. Basketball and football at least have different directions and formations, while in volleyball, players are stuck on set sides of the court, and in a set position that rotates throughout the match.
Furthermore, Karasuno’s team kinda sorta has plot armor in a sense, more so than in usual shounen manga. For the uninitiated to volleyball (myself included), the sport is played in sets. This basically means that all volleyball matches are a best two out of three (or three out of five in rare cases). From a writing standpoint, it’s a no-brainer for the really, really important matches in a volleyball narrative to last the full amount of sets. As such, I concede that the matches in Haikyuu!! aren’t too exciting during most of the early sets.
But once they hit that third set, it becomes a pure adrenaline rush. At that point, it’s easy to get fully immersed in Haikyuu!!, despite the pretty obvious plot armor. The climaxes of fights are when the manga is at its peak, and putting up with the other shounen tropes is well worth the payoff.
Even with the adrenaline rushes, Haikyuu!! wouldn’t have been the same if I couldn’t be invested in Karasuno’s volleyball team, which I’d consider to be one of the best teams in all of sports manga. Almost every one of its members has a definable personality trait, as well as some major hurdle to get over. This might be cliche, but the chemistry between Hinata and Kageyama is the best in the whole manga. Their clashing attitudes, and desire to one-up each other make them always entertaining to see.
I also must acknowledge some of Karasuno’s opponents. While the mangaka doesn’t flesh out every SINGLE member of those teams, they each have at least one or two memorable characters. They also go through the backstories of these teams during the matches with them, to hammer in the fact that Karasuno isn’t trying to beat an “evil volleyball team”, but a team of normal, likeable people who have the same aspirations that our protagonists do. It’s effective, but it gets kind of redundant over time.
Of course, no sports manga can be good without amazing art, and Haikyuu!! has some amazing art. While the artstyle looks disjointed and sketchy at first, the mangaka ramps it up to eleven when the emotional tensity warrants it. They’re also a master at gesture drawing, which really sells the power and speed of each shot. The panel flow is amazing, and always kept me on my toes; I never knew if a spike was actually going to count until the little scoreboard popped up in the panel.
However, there’s one last thing about Haikyuu!! that sets it apart from its contemporaries. But I can’t mention it without spoiling endgame content big time. On the flipside, it’s something that could make or break the entire series for you. As such, I made the following paragraphs the same color as the background. If you want to read the spoiler, then highlight the section of your own free will. Otherwise, skip to the end of the post.
A lot of sports manga- and Jump manga in general- are meant to be inspirational and lighthearted. They give hope to the underdogs out there, and have themes oriented around never giving up and achieving your dreams. However… Haikyuu!! is not a manga about success, but a manga about failure. Karasuno fails. Sure, they lose some early tournaments, but that always happens in sports manga. If the team loses, there’s usually some loophole in the tournament rules, or a magical secret tournament that they can use to reach some sort of glory. But that doesn’t happen with Haikyuu!! Karasuno FAIL-fails. Even after the third-years graduate, the first-years are not able to avenge them. Despite my aversion towards cynicism, I actually love that this happened. I have mad respect for the mangaka for taking such a big risk with a mainstream I.P. like this. I have no idea if any sports manga has ever done this before (except Hikaru no Go, but that manga doesn’t count because it’s not very good and it doesn’t go into any sort of aftermath either), but Haikyuu!! does it really well.
I know, I sound like a hypocrite, saying that this tonal shift is a good thing. It makes me sound like the people (*cough* Western critics *cough*) who say that cynical narratives are more “realistic” because “people don’t achieve their dreams by force of will alone” and that “life is meant to be miserable”. Normally, when we see a cynical narrative, it’s a long process of seeing the main character fall into pieces and wax poetic about how “suffering is the only truth in the world”. But Haikyuu!! takes cynicism and twists it into something truly unique. Instead of wallowing in misery, the cast of Haikyuu!! just… lives. Haikyuu!! is about being able to make like a cat poster and “hang in there” even if you never achieve your dreams. Sad to say, I do truly believe that a lot of people can never achieve their dreams, just because of how our society works. But that doesn’t mean you kill yourself. That’s the lesson. The final arc of Haikyuu!! is just adult Hinata having fun playing volleyball with new and old friends. Narratively, it’s not very exciting, but it ends in the best way possible: a rematch between Hinata and Kageyama, using all the skills they’ve learned throughout the course of the story.
Final Verdict: 9.25/10
Haikyuu!! is an amazing manga, and is definitely among one of my favorite Jump manga of all time. It’s more grounded than most shounen, so I can more easily recommend it to critics. For once, Haikyuu!! actually deserves swimming in the mainstream, and I’m glad that a lot of people love it.