Reviews

On Writing: Karasuno vs. Shiratorizawa (Haikyu!!)

Hey guys, a bit of a different post for today – mostly because I’m not in the mood to write any new reviews (though I am working through Ace Attorney on the Switch right now), but I’m still in the mood to, well, write. So my sister and I have been watching a lot of anime since we’ve been in quarantine, and I convinced her to give the volleyball smash hit, Haikyu!! a try. The series, which follows high school volleyball team Karasuno on their path to play at Nationals, is one of my favourite shows of all time. The consistently brilliant writing and character work makes you want to cheer for the heroes, but also manages to make their opponents equally compelling – it’s almost like a small part of you is also cheering for the other team. Upon rewatching, I’m still just as impressed with the writing of the show – particularly in its third season.

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Scene from the season 3 opening (“Hikari Are”) with Hinata leading the team in their uphill battle!

This season, titled Karasuno High School versus Shiratorizawa Academy, is ten episodes long, and encompasses the game between the two potential Miyagi representative teams. Only the winner can proceed to Nationals – and Shiratorizawa is a shoe-in for the spot. This season in particular is phenomenal for how it sets up the dichotomy between the two teams, and their play styles. The teams’ playing philosophies (the way that their teams are set up) are diametrically opposed. The author uses a combination of symbolism, and character work to portray these clashing ideologies; this serves as a foundation to incorporate some subtle subtext on issues like classism and elitism. With a clever, multi-layered narrative, season 3 of Haikyu!! manages to showcase, as in the name of episode 10, a true “Battle of Concepts” between the two teams. Haikyu!! is already great at incorporating meaningful symbolism into its story, and season 3 is especially emblematic of what the series as a whole does so well.

A quick note: I’m working off the English-subtitled version of the show from Crunchyroll. If any quotes I use are translated poorly, or slightly off, I apologize, but that’s what I have to work from!

Laying down the premise

Back in season 2, main characters Hinata and Kageyama have their initial confrontation with Wakatoshi Ushijima – ace of Shiratorizawa, and (unsurprisingly) absolute cannon of a spiker. His unwavering confidence in his teams’ ability to win isn’t necessarily arrogance or an attempt to be cruel – he’s just entirely committed to the idea that the “stronger” team always wins. Stronger, in Shiratorizawa terms, means a team that’s built upon a foundation of tradition and simplicity, in following the philosophy of Coach Washijo. Shiratorizawa is a team designed around supporting its primary ace (Ushijima), with no players that have a distinct will of their own. Take Shirabu for instance: he’s a setter that serves the ace, in every sense of the word. While they have other standouts, like guess-blocker Tendo Satori, and wannabe-ace Tsutomu Goshiki, the team is built around these core spikers, and a tight defense to help set them up. With Shiratorizawa’s solid, all-around players, they can support their powerhouse spikers in breaking through their opponents. Simple is strong; simple is best.

Karasuno on the other hand, the “fallen crows” is a school that has lost its powerhouse status. They have an entirely different approach. Karasuno is a team of standout individual players, who mesh together to form an extremely offensive, unpredictable (and anything but traditional) team. When their strength as individuals comes together, they multiply both their defensive and offensive power – Kageyama sets Hinata (small, but unbelievable fast and athletic) up for quick sets, while Tsukishima’s brilliant blocking helps support libero, Nishinoya, in his efforts to pick up spikes. Karasuno relies on all their players to spike, and defend; while some specialize in offense and defense (like ace Asahi, and captain, Daichi) they are all capable of attacking, and supporting plays by any means necessary. Karasuno’s motto is “Fly” and I think that describes their team philosophy rather well – untethered by tradition or expectations, they throw everything they have into their attacks, and break through their opponents with a combination of ingenuity and power. Though they focus on individual strength, ultimately, they come together to demonstrate the power of a group, rather than any one individual.

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From the manga, chapter 189.

These two differing styles are underscored by another, more subtle distinction between the two teams. This is first highlighted by Ushijima (more commonly referred to as Ushiwaka), during the the above-mentioned confrontation with Hinata and Kageyama. He explains his beliefs (in his team, their strength, and the style we just discussed), comparing Shiratorizawa to “fertile soil” from which strong, capable players are sown. Ushiwaka claims that without this strong foundation (here meaning promising players, and a strong school) any team will be weak, as a result. He also states that Aoba Johsai is weak, with Oikawa being the only “strong” player – Ushiwaka says he should have come to Shiratorizawa. Naturally, this infuriates the Karasuno duo – Hinata especially. “So what does that make us?” He asks Ushiwaka, referring to his teammates, and their situation. “Does that make us concrete?” The moment effectively ends when Hinata surprises Ushiwaka by making an incredible jump to grab a stray volleyball. He holds it out in offer to the ace. “My name is Hinata Shoyo – from the concrete. I’m going to beat you, and go to Nationals.”

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Symbolism with setting

Haikyu!! incorporates a lot of symbolism (most notably in the animals that represent some of teams) but this comes through most strongly in season 3. Karasuno is frequently represented as a murder of crows (from the Japanese word karasu), while Shiratorizawa is represented by a singular white eagle. The opening for season 3 (I could make an entirely separate post about that alone) showcases the clash between the eagle and crows well. Both the manga and the show take these concepts a step further in Ushiwaka’s discussion of “fertile soil” and growth – Shiratorizawa is a team that is associated with lush, jungle-like vegetation, which is showcased in multiple scenes. Karasuno, on the other hand, is associated with less desirable settings: a garbage dump, and as Hinata states, the concrete. While the garbage dump also relates to the “scavenging” nature of the crows that symbolize their team, it’s used in a slightly different context within this season.

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From the manga, chapter 163, “The Halo Around the Moon.”

It serves to create the dichotomy between the expected potential of the two teams. Not only based on their foundations (where they live, their school’s reputation, etc.) but on their players as well. While Ushiwaka’s team comes from the rich, “green” Shiratorizawa, Karasuno and its players come from a place of desolation – where things go to die. There’s a subtle commentary on classism and elitism going on here; its often highlighted in the show (usually by players from other teams) whether friendly or insulting, that Karasuno are a team of “country bumpkins.” Shiratorizawa is never portrayed in this same light – their school looks like a palace compared to Karasuno, and it’s generally understood that they have more money behind them. Just look at the showmanship and organization behind their cheering section!

The Battle of Concepts

Here is where another branch on the tree of Karasuno vs. Shiratorizawa feeds into the central narrative – in the coach of the latter team. Coach Ukai is certainly an important character in shaping the Karasuno volleyball team, but he doesn’t embody its ideals in the same way that Coach Washijo does for Shiratorizawa. Washijo (aka, the “Demon Coach”) is notoriously stern, and very vocal when it comes to correcting or chastising his players. It is well known that he seeks out traditional types of athletes for his team – players like Ushiwaka, who are naturally tall and strong. This is where Shiratorizawa’s philosophy comes from: “Simple is best.” For Washijo, the pure and simple strength always prevails, and that strength comes from traditional forms of power: height, and technique. This is partly due to his own experiences playing in high school, which we see in a series of flashbacks. Due to his own lack of height, Washijo was overlooked, and never able to play. Because this experience soured him, Washijo places his hopes in his traditional team – he needs to believe that he was passed over for a reason: that pure strength always comes out on top. This is why he resents Karasuno, and Hinata, in particular. If Karasuno wins, they prove him wrong.

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Coach Washijo wants to see Hinata lose.

It’s made very apparent that Coach Washijo detests Hinata, as does Ushiwaka, though in a slightly different manner. Washijo can’t let Hinata (and Karasuno, by extension) win because that unseats all of his biases, and preconceived ideas about power. It also means that, maybe, through will and determination, he could have been a better player when he was younger. Haikyu!! makes no qualms about discussing the limits of the players – though some have extraordinary talent, they are still limited to the capabilities of their bodies – their height, most importantly.  However, several notable players look to extend beyond these physical limits, in ways that can be unconventional. Though Oikawa from Seijoh is no genius player, his social skills, and ability to connect with his teammates (even those he’s never played with before) make him a phenomenal setter. He’s able to consistently lead his team to victory, by walking an unconventional path. What’s more, he never stops striving, or pushing himself to his limits (physical and beyond). Same goes for Hinata – though he is short, and not particularly powerful, he has incredible reflexes, stamina, and jumping power. He is also able to lean on Kageyama to become a genuine threat on the court. These are the innovative ways that non-traditional players can use to become strong – and these are the qualities that infuriate Shiratorizawa.

Because everything that Hinata, and Karasuno represent juxtaposes the foundations that Shiratorizawa is built upon, it creates an incredibly dynamic tension that manifests in the hatred between Hinata, Ushiwaka, and Washijo. Ushiwaka makes a point of calling for more sets, to get more points, and crush any opposition. Several players make note of the change in his attitude – Satori comments “Wakatoshi-kun, who’s only interested in himself, is actually competing with someone. How amusing!” Of course, there is also the element of Hinata’s naivety and lack of foundational skills – it irritates the other team that he is so confident when he lacks many of the basic principles. But it goes far beyond that surface level annoyance. Karasuno as a team has lit the fire of defiance in this normally collected player, and it’s because of the clever way the narrative has been constructed; Shriatorizawa has too much riding on this game – their entire philosophy is being challenged, and on some level, they recognize it. Hinata and Ushiwaka symbolize a lot of what their teams stand for – and its why this tension exists between them. It’s also the reason it’s significant that Hinata is the one to score the final, game winning point.

Why the audience knows Karasuno is going to win from the beginning (and why that’s okay)

Of course, a huge portion of excitement from sports stories comes from the tension of the “will they/won’t they win” – if the team loses in the end, what’s the point, right? But there’s more going on here, more riding on this victory than the thrill of triumph, or a trip to Nationals. There’s a more important prize here – and it’s an idea. A concept. A seed that the narrative planted all the way back in season 2, when Hinata and Kageyama have their first confrontation with Ushiwaka. It’s because the writer of Haikyu!! sets up this dichotomy between the two teams that we’ve been discussing, and the ideals behind them, that you know Karasuno is going to win – they have to. If Shiratorizawa wins, it confirms everything that Ushiwaka said – that only “fertile soil” begets strength. That if you come from a certain background, you might as well quit before you even start. That the poor kids never beat the rich kids, that David never beats Goliath. And how can that be true? There’s a unique kind of triumph that comes from a team that succeeds in spite of their circumstances, that overcomes adversity, rather than winning because they’re setup to do so, with every advantage laid at their feet.

There’s a lot more depth to what’s going on behind the clash of these two teams – the classism, the elitism, with a splash of generational conflict – than meets the eye. Sure, it’s just a high school volleyball game, but it’s also standing representative of all the things we’ve discussed. Shiratorizawa is a team entrenched in tradition, with conventionally strong players that work together to support a few select individuals. Karasuno, meanwhile, is a Frankenstein team, but a team in every sense of the word. Though cobbled together from dissonant pieces, they work together to cover for their shortcomings, and capitalize on their strengths. Each member throws everything that they have into every aspect of the game – especially attacking. They refuse to back down, even when the risk is extremely high. It’s a generational divide – the old (traditional) versus the new (innovation). In the final “metaphorical” scene of the game, Ushiwaka holds the players down, while vines wrap around their legs to keep them from moving. This illustrates their physical fatigue, but also the weight of everything that Shiratorizawa, and Ushijima, represents forcing them down into submission. However, they manage to overcome it all, with Hinata spiking the game-winning point.

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Ushijima, holding Tsukishima and Hinata down.

In doing so, Haikyu!! champions the concept of community over individualism, of innovation over tradition, and most importantly, of a different brand of strength. When these ideals triumph, the underdog team beats the favourite. The small-town, country-bumpkin kids from a school fallen into disfavor are able to beat the flashy, well-funded, powerhouse in Shiratorizawa. When they mob together, a murder of crows are able to take down an eagle. The members of Shiratorizawa express their genuine disbelief in their loss – it was completed unexpected. However, they leave the court with a sort of reluctant resignation – maybe even a begrudging respect. Will this experience change the way that Shiratorizawa functions? Maybe, and maybe not. I do think it had a significant impact on the way Coach Washijo views strength, but whether he chooses to act on it or not remains to be seen. More importantly, the members of Karasuno all lose their minds and celebrate, which is immensely gratifying to see. Now, they’ll have to prepare themselves for the road ahead – the road to Nationals!

Closing thoughts

So, despite knowing (or I guess I should say “strongly believing”) that Karasuno was going to win, it certainly didn’t make the season any less tense, or exciting. In fact, I doubted my conviction several times… with the teams’ struggle to manage Ushiwaka, Tendo’s blocking, Tsukishima’s injury in the final set, and Karasuno’s general inexperience, it’s an uphill battle for the entirety of the 5-set game. Nor is it a clear, landslide victory – it’s through a combination of tenacity, luck, and (as Hawkeye Gough would say) a touch of recklessness, Karasuno is able to triumph in the end. Shout outs to the real MVP’s, Nishinoya and Kageyama for keeping the game alive for those final points.

I think this is part of the reason I (and many others) love Haikyu!! so much – it’s just so optimistic, down to its core. It’s refreshing to see a group of guys that win, despite the odds, through tenacity and sheer determination. Many sports stories follow that same concept, but Haikyu!! does it in such a pure, joyful manner – you can’t help but get invested in this journey. I’m not sure what all this set up means for Nationals and beyond, but I don’t think Karasuno needs to win the entire thing to stay true to these ideas that the narrative presents. I’m not reading ahead with the manga because a) I’m cheap, and b) I just find the anime more exciting to watch. Season 4 has been delayed because of COVID-19, so who knows when the second half is going to air. I think the manga is almost completely finished though, so I might be forced to read it if the delay goes on for too long. Of course I’m secretly hoping they smash the whole tournament, (and get their showdown with Nekoma along the way) but who knows? I can’t wait to see how far these crows can fly!