近海る (Kin Kairu)

JET, Japan, Journalism and other J words

“But we got to play”: Haikyu!! and the Dynamics of Japanese School Sports

Recently, I’ve been pretty into watching an anime called Haikyu!!. The story follows the lovable scamp named Hinata: a dude who loves volleyball and wants to become the star on his high school team. He’s joined by the cast of Kurasuno High, who are all just about the sport of “NICE KILL!”s and “ONE MORE POINT!”s.

I’m still trying to nail down what exactly it is about Haikyu!! that has me so invested. Maybe it’s the characters who bounce off each other so well. Maybe it’s how the rules and tactics are thoroughly explained, even though I only know about the sport on a surface level, but perhaps it’s just the pure enthusiasm that spews out of all the players. It’s probably just all of these things, but honestly it’s the first sports themed show I’ve really gotten into.

However, I think a large part of what makes Haikyu!! succeed is how honest it is about the Japanese school sports system. Now, I cannot comment if any other shows have addressed the same issues, but Haikyu!! is one of the most realistic (no dinosaur extinction final moves here) sports shows I’ve seen. In that way, I think I connect with it a little more, which is what I would like to talk about today.

A team in the front, B team on the side

Hinata, and his old rival Kageyama, featured in the front, along with the other starters of Kurasuno high.

Hinata(left), and his old rival Kageyama(right), featured in the front, along with the other starters of Kurasuno high. Source: Crunchyroll

The first thing I noticed about Haikyu!! was how the show handled their minor characters. It seems in most sports anime, the story gets so caught up in how the main character is feeling, acting and eventually performing that it tends to overlook the other players. It’s usually all about the development and growth of the one person we were introduced to in the first few minutes. Sure, minor characters certainly can get their time in the spotlight, but it’s usually for the betterment of the main character or how the newly found skills benefit the hero of the story.

In episode 14, a minor character named Tadashi Yamaguchi asks an ex-volleyball player to teach him how to perform a specific serve. Before this, Tadashi had only a few specific lines when he was introduced, and maybe some other bits here and there. Otherwise, he goes pretty unnoticed, and he’s certainly not a starter. However, when he requests the ex-player to teach him the technique, he fully admits he knows where he stands compared to everyone else and wants to learn the serve so he can support his team somewhere that’s not on the sidelines.

I see this struggle most prevalent with my school’s baseball team, which is by far the largest and most popular sport at the school. While the first year boys still have a while to go before they are even able to play, I see so many join that, well, would never really make the cut in the first place. But they join because that’s what they want to do, even if they never end up playing.

Of course, baseball gets most of the criticism in this respect, and this is certainly seen in other sports (in ANY country). There’s nothing inherently bad about this; of course coaches want their best players to shine and play. However, in this school culture where students are so forced to join an activity, there’s bound to be instances where there are more players than positions.

Seeing the characters that would normally never get a single line in acknowledging their position on the team is just really refreshing. It’s having those characters say that, no, not everyone that joins can be the star, but there are plenty of people that join just to have a chance to participate. Especially when these characters would never be given the time of day to acknowledge their dreams in the first place. Tadashi has yet to actually play as Kurasuno advances in the prefectural tournament, but his training was just mentioned in a recent episode. I can only hope he’ll be able to show his new found skills in the future.

“But we got to play”

If this were all a work of fiction, the guys who go to nationals would be the protagonists…and the rest of us would be extras. But…we got to play…

There is a scene after the first knock-out round of the prefectural tournament in episode 16 where the show takes a good five or so minutes to just show people crying: against the wall, on the court, on someones shoulders. All the while, members from Kurasuno’s female volleyball team and the team Kurasno beat talk about how it was their final match. For all intents and purposes, they’re right.

It begins in middle school, where after the summer break ends the third years begin their seven month studying period for high school entrance exams. Sure, there is the possibility of starting up their respective sports again in high school, but not training for seven months after practicing almost every single day does make a dent. The same happens in high school: once that final summer and final games come, that’s usually it. College exams, by far some of the hardest, now become the absolute priority.

The “test hell” procedure of school acceptance here has a long reach and having the vast majority of one’s last year of school being absent from any club activities to study is just another facet of it all. While it’s easy to get bitter at it, the show takes a surprising turn for the positive when talking about these final games, “But we got to play.”

Sure, their sporting careers are over, as so few actually go on to play their sport in college. Sure, they may never play again as another form of the “test hell” cycle begins when they start hunting for jobs. Sure, their relationship with the sport may become strictly recreational, if they’re even able to find a community club where they end up living. Sure, they may end up only being able to watch from the seats if their future children even choose to join the same sport. But at least they got to play.

I do get nostalgic when it comes to swimming; a sport which I did for six or so years. While I was invited to join the community adult clubs after I graduated high school, the feeling just wasn’t the same: The camaraderie, the team spirit, the passion at meets. It simply wasn’t there with other groups. And the thought of practicing in college was not even possible.

When I applied for JET, I specifically mentioned I would love to be placed at a school that had a swimming club, so I could interact with the kids on another level I knew. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and I ended up joining a sport that’s a little bit more adult friendly. But even then, the third years I’ve gotten so close with are gone now. They’ve started their grand “test hell” cycle, and who knows when I’ll be able to see them again. But at least I got to practice with them.

At times, it really makes me wonder who’s the real demographic of these types of shows. Is it for the young kids reading Shonen Jump who want an enthusiastic story about kids their age? Or is it for those who are familiar with the sport and want something to read that reminds them of the time they had? The pessimist in me says its a lot more of the former, but I can only image there are some ex-volleyball players who have picked up Haikyu!! just for that reason.

I actually remember when Haikyu!! first premiered in Shonen Jump. I skipped over it because I took it for the usual “sports manga” fare: Awesome kid X plays sport with other awesome players while they learn the meaning of friendship, teamwork, ________. And while any sports themed show is bound to have a lot of that description, Haikyu!! seems to be at least taking a more interesting approach to it all. Or at least, it’s the little things Haikyu!! does that keep me coming back. I would recommend Haikyu!! not only as a solid introduction to sports manga/anime (or volleyball!), but also as a good example of how to strengthen a series with minor characters and at a more realistic look into the lives of Japanese school sports. I may never end up playing volleyball on a more intense level, but the series still gets me pumped in a way many other sports shows haven’t.

Nice kill, Haikyu!!

Haikyu!! is available for streaming on Crunchyroll

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