"I did it for the team!"
The following post is my way-too-long summer reading list recommendation as we close down the blog for the end of the semester, with love from me to you. Okay, it’s less “love” and “please allow me to gush about my favorite emotional sports manga alright cool excuse me while I cry,” but still! It comes from a place of love. Here we go.
You guys are nerds, I’m sure plenty of you read manga or know what it is. Simply put, it’s a Japanese graphic novel. I’m not a super prolific manga reader, but I’ve read enough that I’m now permanently confused about which way to read a graphic novel and try to read both left-to-right and right-to-left at least once in order to determine the proper order of dialogue. I can’t help it. It’s a terrible habit, but worth it. I like stories that include and rely on pictures because it gives you interesting leeway as a storyteller, but I’ll save that geeky meta post for another day.
Some of you might be with me on the anime-and-manga front, but I’m willing to bet fewer of you are with me on the sports front. One time in the counseling office I was reading a news story about the NBA playoffs and was met with many confused reactions, so I’m forced to conclude most of you don’t know what a sport is, aside from Gatsby’s nickname for Nick Carraway. You’re gonna have to follow me here, because manga/anime series about high school sports teams are experiencing a Renaissance of sorts at the moment. I really wish there were more female-led sports series, but again, that’s a rant for another post. Regardless, these series were popular from the late 1980s to early ‘90s, then faded away, and suddenly came back in spades through the 2000s to now. American media has an offering of sports-centric TV shows and movies, usually about football, like Friday Night Lights or Remember the Titans, but Japan’s on a whole other level right now. I can’t think of many competitive sports that haven’t been covered in a series yet - baseball, basketball, biking, swimming, tennis, soccer, even Ping-Pong - to the point that they’re a genre of their own now, complete with tropes and archetypes and shared attributes. Just as an example, this is a bingo card that pretty much sums up the common traits.
But, in my experience, it’s less about sports themselves; the game is more of a motivator and winning a tournament is an emotional MacGuffin. The real heart of a good sports series is about the emotional growth of the individuals themselves, seeing how they work together, how they change each other, how they’re bettered by playing together, and that’s what keeps me hooked.
It’s certainly what’s kept me close to my favorite sports series, Haikyuu!!, which chronicles the adventures of a high school boys’ volleyball team. I wish I could tell you the title means something cool, but it literally just means “volleyball.” Oh well. The two exclamation points are attached to the title, though, because we’re really excited about volleyball okay.
What I like most about Haikyuu!! is that, while I can fill out that bingo card for it in at least four directions, it still plays a lot with one’s expectations and manages to tell a distinct story within its chosen genre. It’s amazing to watch the constant development, the way characters evolve in their interactions, and how they slowly, slowly knit themselves together from a pack of misfits into a real team.
Jesus, that’s so cliché, I swear to god this series is actually great, trust me.
The set-up goes something like this: our darling protagonist Hinata Shouyou - just so you know, I’m ordering his name in the Japanese style of surname first, given name second, and most characters go by their family name - is inspired to play volleyball after watching a short player dominate a high school tournament. Even though volleyball practically demands height, Hinata’s determined to beat the expectations for his short stature, because he’s a sports manga protagonist and that’s what they do. “I’m short, but I can jump!” he excitedly declares to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen. Still in middle school, he gets a team together and heads off to his own tournament. His team of amateurs is soundly defeated by a team favored to win the entire competition, led by a so-called “genius” player named Kageyama. After having an emotional confrontation with said genius player, complete with angry crying, Hinata vows to beat Kageyama someday. Henceforth, they’re fated rivals, as to be expected in a sports series. Every good protagonist needs a brooding rival, these are the rules. Oh, except here’s the twist: Hinata and Kageyama find themselves at the same high school, on the same team, and they have to, somehow, work together. Naturally, setting two clashing, antagonistic personalities against each other only makes things interesting, and we progress from there.
|To say the least.|
Hinata and Kageyama’s dynamic is argumentative and vitriolic, yet built on mutual admiration and, at the core of it, unwavering trust. They need each other. Kageyama’s renowned for his talent but vilified for his demanding attitude and lack of social skills. He’s constantly searching for somebody who can keep up with him on the court, and he’s scarred and vulnerable after being rejected by his middle school team. Hinata’s all raw potential and no technique, but he never stops striving to be better. Deep down he’s always wanted somebody to grow with, someone to win with. “There’s a tall wall in front of me,” Hinata narrates in the manga’s opening pages, acknowledging that he can’t see the so-called “view from the top” by himself. But with Kageyama and the rest of the team, he’s able to surpass the obstacles in front of him at long last; in fact, he can soar right over the tall walls that block his path.
And that’s merely a fraction of my overblown analysis of the protagonist and deuteragonist. I could keep going. And there are so many more pairs of characters I could do this for. There are so many characters who I love in this series. I could be here all day talking about them. It’s wild. Volleyball hell is a deep abyss and I live there now.
|Pictured: actual dialogue from Kageyama to Hinata. I love sports manga.|
Anyway. Like I said earlier, the main draw of the series to me is the character development and the emotion, and beyond that, there’s just something really special and genuine about it. Again, this sounds ridiculously cliché, but it’s true. The series is equal parts funny and gut-wrenching; it follows a lot of the rules and archetypes but it always finds a way to surprise me and keep me guessing; it’s up to a hundred and fifty-seven chapters as of this writing with more every week and yet I’d probably reread the whole thing on a whim if I was bored. In my opinion, it’s a good summer read! It’ll keep you entertained as you recline poolside like the cool dude you are.
The one downside is the manga chapters haven’t been officially translated into English and released stateside yet, much to my discontent, but there are scanlations (scan, i.e. of the manga panels + translation) done by fans available via a simple Google search. And if reading isn’t your thing, the first seventy or so chapters of the manga have been adapted into an anime, which is available with English subtitles on sites like Hulu. That’s the trap I initially fell in; I watched the anime and found myself immediately dying of curiosity about what happened next, so I caved and read the manga and promptly cried about everything in the world.
One of my favorite exchanges in the series is one that, I believe, sums up the heart of the entire thing better than any of my rambling can. Two characters are discussing their roles as athletes; one is pessimistic and doesn’t see the point of training hard when there’s always going to be another opponent, another obstacle, another person who’s better than you and can beat you and ruin all you worked for. Knowing that, he wonders why any of them bother to practice at all. You will never be “the best” and losing is so bitter and awful, so why subject yourself to it? “What’s your motivation?” he asks. The second character, who has been training relentlessly to improve and make up for his lack of natural talent, yells out an impassioned response: “Motivation? What more do you need than pride?!”
Isn’t that what it’s all supposed to be about? Not winning, but doing your best, doing it for both love of the game and, more importantly, love of yourself? I get not being hyped on real sports, but sign me right up for fictional sports, because I’m here for proving your worth to yourself, to the point that questioning your motivation to be better is unthinkable. Of course you have motivation. It’s inherent.
So if real sports don’t appeal to you but the passion behind them does, Haikyuu!! might just be your cup of tea. Or, you know, bottle of Gatorade, I suppose. Haha, sports jokes.
Bonus fun fact: I have a Haikyuu!! wall calendar. I feel like you all needed to know this about me.
Have a great summer, everybody! I will leave you with this picture of an owl getting smooched.