Haikyu!! vols. 1-3
By Haruichi Furudate
On the one hand, Haikyu!! is a bit of a tough sell for anyone who isn’t fascinated by volleyball. On the other hand, manga-ka Haruichi Furudate does a pretty good job of not only explaining things as he goes along but also giving the reader a real feel for the game. His understanding is deep, and the players aren’t just filling positions and competing with each other, they are immersed in the game. The reader who sticks with this book will soon come to see it volleyball as more than a bunch of guys hitting a ball in order to get revenge on one another.
Although there is that angle too. Haikyu!! is a classic shonen manga, with the scrappy underdog protagonist vying against the cool-tough-talented competitor. Shoyo Hinata, the lead, has wanted to play volleyball ever since he saw a player dubbed the “Little Giant” on TV. Hinata is short, which is a big disadvantage in volleyball. An even bigger disadvantage is that his middle school doesn’t even have a volleyball team, so he practices the moves by himself and occasionally drafts friends from other teams to help out. When, in his last year of middle school, three first-year students sign up, he literally weeps with joy. (Hinata is an emotional guy whose nerves severely affect his digestive tract before big games, which not only provides comic relief but also gives him the opportunity to eavesdrop on his competitors in the men’s room.)
Hinata’s middle school team only plays one game, and they are hopelessly outmatched by the other team, especially one player, Tobio Kageyama. Kageyama is known as “the king,” supposedly because of his extreme talent. In fact, the nickname also refers to his arrogance, which later drives the rest of the team to shun him. At that one game, though, Hinata and Kageyama go eyeball to eyeball and Hinata vows to become a great volleyball player someday so he can defeat Kageyama.
That’s a typical shonen manga premise, but Furudate undermines it almost immediately by having Hinata and Kageyama end up on the same high school team. This is a team with a lot of history, some of which we learn as the series goes on, and the other players aren’t taking any nonsense from the newbies. Hinata lacks training but is incredibly fast and can get to where the ball is in a flash; Kageyama can move the ball anywhere but expects the other players to follow him. While they hate each other, the captain of the high school team sees their possible synergy and forces them to work together, with good results.
So, that’s two volumes. How do you keep it going from there? The volleyball team still has serious deficiencies, it turns out, and two of the key players are no longer on the team, for various complicated reasons. Also, they don’t have a proper coach, just an unskilled teacher who sweats more off the court than his team does on it. So there are plenty of challenges yet to be met, and there’s a lot more to this story than the underdog squaring off against the alpha guy.
What’s more, Haikyu!! has a bit more emotional depth than your typical shonen manga. There’s more to sports than just the competitive drive after all. In volumes 2 and 3 we meet the two missing teammates. Asahi is the former ace player, who has quit the game because he is too good; as a result, the other teams focus on him and completely block him, making the games frustrating for him. Nishinoya is a libero, a defense player, who is even shorter than Hinata but has an uncanny ability to keep the ball from touching the ground; he won’t play unless Asahi is there and worries that if he does play and the team wins, they will feel like they are perfectly okay without Asahi. Nishinoya feels the loss of Asahi and he wants the team to recognize it too.
Over these three volumes, Furudate assembles an interesting, if almost totally male, cast and sets up a couple of interpersonal conflicts as well as some challenges the team will face as a whole. Along the way, he also gradually introduces elements of volleyball gameplay and strategy, so that the reader eventually becomes immersed in the games.
The art is a bit better than standard shonen manga; the characters are well defined but the action is sometimes hard to follow, as the ball and the players dissolve in a mass of speedlines.
Haikyu!! is an obvious pick for volleyball fans; what’s not so obvious, but nonetheless true, is that it’s a great read for those of us who come to it with zero knowledge of the sport.