Match end: concluding Haikyuu!!

This article contains heavy spoilers for people who aren’t current to the Haikyuu!! manga. Specifically, it’s written after reading Haikyuu!! 374.

I’ve been formulating some thoughts about Haikyuu!!’s final act for a while now, and I figure I’d like to write some things from time to time.

I’ve really enjoyed this series, mostly because it has a strong ensemble and it doesn’t fall into some of the tropes that plague other sports manga, like “magic” abilities or intense amounts of bullshit to drive the plot. It’s also gotten me back into playing volleyball myself, so I feel a little bit indebted to it; it’s gotten me back to something that makes me really happy.

In the last dozen chapters, the author, Haruichi Furudate, has felt that it’s time to start wrapping things up. This means tying off the long-running tournament arc that the characters were going through, and time-skipping to a point where the focus is on one character, Hinata Shoyou.

I can’t exactly fault it for that; the story was originally about Hinata, but expanded to include a number of other characters which I came to enjoy more. As the Karasuno Volleyball Club formed around him, I liked the dynamic of how they interacted with each other, and how most of them had their own arcs that felt important and contributed to a greater whole.

By making him older, and also moving him away from the rest of the cast (traveling to Brazil from Japan), Hinata is forcibly separated, and the setting means that he’s in the spotlight. There have been moments where other characters (particularly fan-favorite ones) have been shown or interacted with, but their involvement seems to be temporary. Hinata’s made it clear that he wants to learn beach volleyball after his high school career of indoor, and Brazil is the best place to do it.

This is cool for a couple reasons: we’ve spent the manga’s entire run with him as a high schooler, and fast-forwarding five years means that we instantly get to see the maturation of a character into a somewhat more grounded adult. He’s doing yoga. He’s delivering food for a job. He’s reading Portugese Dragon Ball to learn the local language. Basically, he’s less of the hyper 14-year-old and a more zen 19-year-old.

However, this kind of makes me wonder how this story is going to end. The last time I wrote about Haikyuu!! on this site, I was explaining that the series had decided to forgo one of the main drivers of the plot: Hinata wanted to stop trying to become “the Small Giant,” a character that spurred him to want to play volleyball in the first place. In meeting the Small Giant, the illusion of his greatness was lost, and Hinata decided to forge his own identity. Ironically, his main competitor to that title was the player that knocked Karasuno out of the tournament they were competing in.

After that knockout, the plot spends about a chapter showing the fallout and the emotional catharsis, which is probably one of my favorite parts of the book. It isn’t exactly a torture porn kind of scenario but more seeing how the characters react, grow, and support each other. In this case, the last page of the chapter fast-forwards five years to say “welp, he’s the start of the final arc.”

So we’re in Brazil, and we find out that Hinata’s here just “to get better.” There isn’t a final goal, tournament, or challenge in mind, and Hinata’s self-driven competition with Kageyama Tobio (his former teammate) isn’t present. Kageyama (and from what we can tell, two of the other aces of the high school time period) are playing pro indoor volleyball, and are in Brazil.

So… what now? How do we round people up, and how do we resolve hanging plot points? What plot points are still valid? Are we going to see 90% of the established characters again? Do their arcs suddenly not matter?

I realize this is a flaw in the sports manga genre because not every team can win, and if you have an expectation that the protagonist’s team will eventually win “the big one,” there’s a lack of tension in the story.

My introduction to sports stories, Eyeshield 21, had the same issue, and it was sort of circumvented by having the protagonists win the national championship, but eventually meet resistance and be challenged on the international level. All the superstar players from across the teams the protagonists faced to this point are assembled into an All-Star team, and that in itself is fanservice; we’ve seen them compete against each other, so it should be awesome when they play together.

I predicted that the same kind of narrative would happen in Haikyuu!!, mostly because the characters and teams have been marketed in order to take advantage of their own unique fandom; no opposing team is made out to be villains, and the merchandise I saw in Japan is eerily specific. Most players have the potential to be someone’s favorite, and it’s clear that design-wise, some pander, and others are more favored by the fandom.

So, it’s five years later. Hinata has a goal, but not necessarily a finish line. Three other prominent characters are in the area, and it isn’t quite clear why.

I believe there’s two possible situations that could happen here, and I’m not sure which one is preferable.

The international tournament

In this setting, there is an international volleyball tournament for the age group the players are in. This means assembling previous aces from the earlier story, having them prepare for the tournament, roll through a couple early-tournament opponents on their way to fighting against (and likely losing to) the favorites, which in this case would likely be Brazilian.

This would conclude Hinata’s arc in Brazil, but allow him to show off what he’s learned, and would also position him to discover the true nature of his volleyball. The story will close with him finding his relative place in the world, win or lose, and set up a hopeful future.

This has sort of been hinted at throughout the series with the numerous cutaways to national-level coaches, and some of the players attending camps run by said staffers. It would hinge on those characters saying “get the best we can find!” and then bringing in people who either kept being great at volleyball, or joined the sport off-panel.

My main issues with this kind of ending is that there’s only room for seven people on a volleyball court (six plus libero, and a sub or two), and fan-favorite players are presumably more talented than the former Karasuno Volleyball Club members we’ve spent time with and come to appreciate. I’m not interested in other aces: I want to see what happened to the other teammates of the core roster, and how they’ve developed.

It also presumes that everyone kept playing volleyball, which ultimately is not a world phenomenon like football/soccer; you can’t have every ace of the high school era playing pro ball. Eyeshield 21 had this issue, where the final chapters showed so many cast members playing for pro teams, university teams, semi-pro teams, and it felt a little weird.

I realize my issues are a symptom of my tendency to get attached to side characters, rather than the main cast: it leads to disappointment, especially now, where the plotline has shifted to the main protagonist. So it goes.

However, I think that already jettisoning so many plotlines in favor of a generic “show the world how talented Japan is on the world stage” is a disservice to the world that the author has built, and puts the closure’s focus on the game, rather than the characters.

The denouement

In this ending, the focus still stays on Hinata, and he either finds an end goal (a beach tournament, etc), fills in for some kind of emergency (ie, a team at this international tournament needs someone to play), or ultimately is just content to find out what kind of person he is through the avenue of volleyball.

This is a bit more hazy, because we don’t know how much longer the series is going to go (the labeling is “the final arc”).

It feels weird to drag Kageyama out of his pro team to play duos beach just to have the satisfaction of “they started together, now they end together.” Having Hinata join a pro team in need of a sub is unrealistic, as well, teams usually prepare for that kind of thing, Hinata isn’t a professional indoor player, and the time needed to adapt wouldn’t fit in the story.

With those two out of the way, the last possibility feels… lame? Unfulfilling? Weak?

As we’ve seen from the plot so far in this new arc, Hinata doesn’t seem all that disappointed, downtrodden, or burdened with his new surroundings. Despite there being a “time limit” imposed on him learning in Brazil imposed by his Japanese coaches, he seems to have a pretty good handle on himself as a person, and there isn’t a huge conflict driving his growth.

This is what leads me to think that the last few chapters will ultimately be pretty personal to Hinata himself, and the series will end with him playing volleyball, realizing that that is what makes him truly happy.

He might return to Japan and reunite with his old teammates in a social sense of closure (hopefully, at least for the fans’ sake), but divorcing his progress from everyone else’s means there isn’t enough time in the scale of a “final arc” to have him suddenly join a professional team and play another tournament for the closure of “well, he won in the end.”

Since games in-manga can take months outside of it, suddenly the book loses a lot of its formula and stability. We are usually given time to get to know opponents, their motivations, backstory, and gameplan. This makes games more intense, because we gain attachment to people and come to understand them; that all takes time the series doesn’t have, at this point.

What Haikyuu!! didn’t do

Since the series is so popular, one of my other possibilities was that Haikyuu!! was going to treat the plot up to this point as “season one”, and eventually move on to “season two,” where the players would advance a year in school, new players would enter, and the formula would repeat.

This wasn’t something I wanted to happen, because it would cheapen the storyline of the exiting third-year characters (whose looming graduation provided stakes), and said to the reader “well, thanks for playing, let’s do it again.”

If the current manga was hitting 370 chapters up to this point, we would hit 600 by the time we went through introducing the new characters and their issues, having bonding/training time, and then starting the matches themselves. Were we going to have to wait years for that catharsis of the final win, without three people (the graduating third years) that attached us to the initial journey?

I’m really glad they didn’t do this, even though it meant an ultimately disappointing glossing-over of what the rest of the high school team was like. We got a quick “they lost in year 2 to [team] and in year 3 to [team]” exposition, and didn’t even really get to see the characters age; we jetted off to Brazil afterward, and that’s where we are now.

That takes courage to do, and I have to give some props for taking that step. However, I can’t shake this feeling like the landing isn’t being stuck, so to speak; something feels rushed, or at least something feels unplanned, like the series had to go in a direction that it didn’t have the room to do.

I don’t know. It’s going to be one of those things that will get answered by the time I close the window on reading the final chapter. I guess I’m just curious about the way that it will happen.

Thanks for reading. You can read Haikyuu!! in English through buying published volumes, or check out Viz’ online subscription service to read online.

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