Game, Set, Match: Goodbye, Haikyuu!!

Spoiler alert

This post will be talking extremely candidly about the ending of Haruichi Furudate’s volleyball manga series “Haikyuu!!“. It is assumed that you have also finished the series. Please don’t spoil yourself.

Before Haikyuu!!, the last time I had played indoor volleyball was when I was… 12, maybe?

I’ve always been tall, and mostly clumsy with that height. There was always the expectation that I’d be good at tall people things — specifically, basketball. But I wasn’t, and I’m not. There were two sports I found I actually did like: playing goalie in soccer (15 years, baby), and volleyball.

Both meant I could use my height to my advantage, and I didn’t have to run. As an asthmatic (thankfully something I don’t deal with anymore), I didn’t particularly like running long distances for a long amount of time.

Something about volleyball stuck with me, mostly because there’s an element of forced teamwork: you cannot play by yourself, and you must pass to other people. Just being able to receive your opponents’ attacks was something worth celebrating; at a competitive level, there’s much more “alright, couldn’t possibly get that one” than you would think.

Goalie and volleyball work hand in hand, and that’s something I still notice today. I know I’m not a pro at volleyball (hell, I might not even be “serviceable”), but I know I can tell where a ball is going before it gets there. I can put myself in front of where that ball is going, and do the thing that needs to be done in order to keep it in play.

So, in both cases, I feel valuable. And that’s what that gangly, bullied, low-self-esteem kid needed to survive; someone thinking he was good at something.

Haikyuu!! got me back into volleyball after more than a decade away from it. It got me excited about the game — enough to make the decision easier as to what I could pursue to meet new friends, get out of the house, and step away from the PC as my main source of entertainment.

This past weekend, the manga ended with chapter 402.

I’m grateful for what it’s given me, and I’m grateful that it’s inspired me to keep playing volleyball.

A problem I have is that I tend to turn my passions into work. I look at things like gaming, writing, video, whatever, and think “how can I not hate working by earning money at this.” Because of that, it puts a huge pressure on me to both succeed and enjoy what I’m doing; it’s hard to balance that when you can’t just take it on its own terms.

In most cases (say, streaming yourself gaming), losing or not participating means you’re not skilled, or you’re falling behind. This is a kind of toxic relationship that makes you eventually dislike that activity, and/or get burned out.

With volleyball, I have no aspirations of going pro. I was never taught how to do a proper run-up to spike, or how to hit the ball with the right timing. I’m currently re-learning all those things on a game-by-game basis, and thankfully I have enough fundamental skills in other areas — in addition to my height — that I still feel like an asset to my team. That ability to enjoy what I’m doing, while learning and persisting, is the difference between burning out and not.

In short, volleyball is something that I can just show up to ($5 a session, twice a week, for three hours at a time) and know that I’m mostly going to have fun. I don’t care if I’m losing pick-up volleyball (or the beer leagues I’ve played in), and ultimately, it’s just rewarding to take part.

That’s what I need more of in my life.

I go through this long preamble because Haikyuu!! gave this feeling back to me, and like I said, I’m grateful.

When the series was announced to be ending, naturally, I was disappointed. So much of my appreciation for it came from its strong focus on the players playing, rather than the match itself being a life-or-death, “loser gets sent to the Shadow Realm” fantasy.

We learned motivations and backstories, but the melodrama that plagues other sports series wasn’t as strong here; we could empathize with our opponents, and we could find little bits of ourselves in them.

The series was less about the winning and losing, and more about the connection that the players had with themselves, the games, and their teammates. This is what I crave in real life, and seeing fiction that understood that scratched an itch I really enjoyed.

Haikyuu!! stuck a landing that was very hard to do. It was not perfect, though, so I’d like to get some of those things out of the way before I move on to what I liked.

  • As the series expanded, its characters and rivals clashed in terms of screentime, and there were fan-favorite secondary characters that overtook members of the main cast. I felt that the Miya Twins, Bokuto, and Hoshiumi took the fandom by force, and including them more reduced the quality of the story.
  • In that vein: because Furudate felt that everyone should get some closure (I mean this — most named player characters get a resolution at the end of the story), it took away from the people that we had spent more time with. Karasuno as a team did not get much of a closing arc beyond watching Kageyama, Hinata and the all-stars play.
  • Certain plot threads were dropped that never got a resolution (Daichi/Yui’s relationship, the third years’ arc in general). Certain key character moments (Shimizu’s injuries) got a one-panel glossing-over whereas fan-favorite characters got more elaborate futures sculpted out for them.

These all kind of point to something I’d always felt Haikyuu!! was weak at: it started off as a very shonen story with a rivalry between the two main protagonists, then realized that its strength was due to the ensemble cast. It fell into a predicable “game ► training ► game” cycle, and this evolved into a long-running tournament arc.

Somewhere along the way, though, I feel Furudate remembered the thread of “Hinata vs Kageyama” that started the story, and said “shit, I guess that’s where we’re going with the last two arcs.”

I think this was a detriment to the story. I don’t think it ruins the entire series, but personally, Hinata and Kageyama’s personal journeys were more impactful when they were influenced and affected by the rest of their team, not when they were on their own.

Unfortunately, taking both of them away from Karasuno and putting them on opposite teams as professional players after a timeskip was the only way this thread from the beginning of the series could be resolved. I’m saying that it didn’t need that resolution if it was going to come at the expense of the rest of the team’s development, which it did.

This is all speaking from personal biases, mostly because I have a curse in which I like side characters more than main ones, and the fan-favorite side characters are usually ones I dislike, as well.

On the flip side, I think that Furudate dodged some easy traps for an ending like this:

  • The “all-star” format wasn’t milked. Olympics didn’t get their own arc. We got our dessert of one game with all the aces on different teams, and then we moved on to the conclusion of the story without focusing too much on the result of the sport. Eyeshield 21 botched this with a story that went an arc or two too long in favor of having extended tournaments with “all-pro” teams.
  • Furudate didn’t feel the need to shoehorn in a romance with either of the two main leads. Hinata was allowed to mature without the obvious pairing of Yachi (even though she kind of disappeared after being a somewhat-important character for the middle third of the story)
  • Not every character (even the enemy team aces) ended up playing pro volleyball after high school. This is a realistic take on things, because volleyball is not the sole life meaning to everyone who plays it — it was interesting to see where certain people ended up in careers, and it heralded a bit of development in certain characters.

In my last blog post, I mentioned an issue where I felt uncomfortable taking inspiration from a work of fiction, because the creator ultimately has the choice over whether the protagonist succeeds or not. In short, I felt awkward using a story as basis to pursue my dreams, because in real life, not everyone gets that happy ending.

With Haikyuu!!, I’m more comfortable being inspired by the story because the story is not about one person succeeding: it’s about multiple characters growing as people through friendships, sport, and pushing their limits.

My favorite character, Azumane Asahi, starts out as the team’s ace, who abandoned playing with them after failing to carry the team on his back alone. As a person who’s both a perfectionist and insecure about his value, his journey towards trusting others and accepting help was one that resonated a lot with me.

He still stumbled, and he still retained the “paper heart” personality that he started with, but he wasn’t incapable of change. He realized that the trust others put on him as the team’s primary scorer was one he earned — that skill would need to be trained, and he would need to depend on other people to support him when he faltered.

These are skills people can use in many facets of their life outside of a situation like volleyball, and that’s why Asahi’s story stuck with me. He didn’t magically “get better” after his one story beat; his mentality was something that you could see him struggling with and using to evolve throughout the rest of the plot.

At the bottom of the list of my “worst story sins” is a plot that gets resolved too conveniently; I would put “one that doesn’t get resolved at all” right above it. What frustrated me about Haikyuu!!‘s ending was that the issue was ultimately not about Asahi, even though we spent three quarters of the story with him, and Karasuno’s other teammates.

Seeing him stop playing volleyball to become a clothing designer was something I enjoyed and didn’t at the same time. On one hand, I felt that was a cool transition, but at the same time, it didn’t show us much of how he got there. It also left an unsatisfying taste in my mouth because it reinforced that only the “super ace”, popular characters of the series got to continue enjoying volleyball after the timeskip.

While I can acknowledge there’s a large element of “you didn’t get what you wanted when it came to your favorite”, I feel like the series suffered from a large amount of character bloat. Whether the decision to focus on these other teams and characters came from editorial or from Furudate, it ended up with the need to satisfy too many storylines in too little time.

Sadly, the people who suffered most were the characters that we’d had the most time with apart from the protagonists.

This is Asahi’s only panel in the issue, btw.

It’s ironic, because reading this back, it kind of sounds like I hated this series way more than I did; I think I’m mostly just critical of its shortcomings because its differences from other mainstream Shonen Jump manga made it feel refreshing.

Sports series have a tendency to go heavy on melodrama, and when formatted like a shonen “battle manga” (think Dragon Ball, with its escalating power levels and villains), it can go off the rails easily. They can also go too heavy into the “magic” aspect of making sports techniques look flashier and more special; Inazuma 11, Captain Tsubasa, Kuroko’s Basketball and Eyeshield 21 all fall into that trap.

Part of why I like Giant Killing and Haikyuu!! so much is that they tell me a semi-realistic story that makes me understand the culture of sport and why people push themselves to improve. You learned about peoples’ motivations: they didn’t have to always be about a parent dying or a sibling losing their career to injury. Sometimes it could just be as simple as “I want to play as long as I can.”

These are concepts that inspire me to push myself, in turn, and that inspiration feels rare and invaluable.

It means a lot to me when I finish a series and something that I’ve learned sticks with me. It means even more when said series influences how I handle myself in real life.

Haikyuu!! bringing me back to volleyball has given me a way of breaking terrible, toxic habits about what I enjoy and how I approach them. It’s taken me back to an outlet where I feel valued, talented, and useful; it’s given me a place to express myself through play, and truly think “I want to get better at this because I enjoy it.”

And to be honest, I don’t think it gets much better than that.


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