Of course, we can't talk about modern-day shonen without talking about sports manga. Thanks to their fujoshi-heavy fandoms, we're seeing an influx of sports manga that even a few years ago would have been unthinkable. The only question I had to deal with was which one to pick.
HAIKYU!!, by Haruichi Furudate. First published in 2012 and first published in North America in 2016.
Back in junior high , Shoyo Hinata was "The Little Giant," a shorter-than-average volleyball player whose speed, high jumps, and powerful spikes more than made up for his height. The only other boy to rival him was Tobio Kageyama, the "King of the Court." He was able to master all the roles of a volleyball team, but his real skill is for setting up unbeatable shots. The two end up at the same high school, where they must now find a way to work together if they want any chance at playing volleyball again.
In many ways, Haikyu!! is your standard shonen sports manga. It follows a lot of the usual conventions and some of the usual character types. What makes it unique are the little details that Furudate does differently and his ability to ground some of those plot conventions in something resembling reality and thus making them more visceral and relatable.
One of the most obvious differences is that this story isn't about one boy who wants to be the very best volleyball player like no one ever was, but TWO of them. Better still, the two boys have very complementary skill sets but very different flaws which will take a lot more than an inspirational speech to overcome. Shoyo is scrappy, speedy, but also very hot-headed and not necessarily all that bright or focused. In other words, he's your standard shonen protagonist. In comparison, Tobio is a brilliant player but he doesn't work well with others. That's a big problem in a sport where team cooperation is everything and it's what tanked his previous team (and his previous acclaim). The two were already rivals, but forcing them to work together for a common goal gives their rivalry more dramatic heft.
I also like the fakeout that Furudate pulls with the beginning. Most sports manga start out with the scrappy protagonist putting the team together and then slowly but surely building up to the big tournament. Here we start out with the tournament and the team building is relegated to a few pages of flashback, which not gets things off to an explosive start but helps to establish Shoyo and Tobio as characters in their own right. Of course, this turns out to just be a junior high tournament and the real teambuilding part doesn't begin until the two meet up again in high school. Since he already got the introductions for our leads out of the way, he can focus more on introducing the new supporting cast and on the practice sessions. It's not a radical shake-up of sports manga formula, but it's just enough to keep things interesting.
Beyond that, it plays things fairly safe. Luckily, volleyball is nowhere near as complicated as a lot of other sports. There aren't a lot of specialized roles, equipment or strategies to explain to the audience. Instead, the emphasis is on turning these kids into a functional team, and even the those who couldn't care less about sports can grasp the importance of teamwork and how that onto itself can be a strategy. That kind of clarity and focus makes it easier for the reader to get invested in the story and appreciate all the little things that Furudate does right.
Good sports manga need good artwork to communicate the speed and power of their respective sports, and Haikyu!! largely succeeds at this. I will admit that the way that Furudate draws faces distracts me a little. They look weirdly stretched over their heads. From the front they look fine, but anytime he draws anyone from the side things just look...off. He can certainly handle everything else, as he's brilliant at drawing every swing, volley and jump from all sorts of angles. He achieves an illusion of speed and power not through speed lines, but instead the occasional visual burst of impact, some really goony looks of intensity and a lot of really well-drawn perspective. He makes very good use of the depth of image and foreshortening, and because of that the boys seem to stretch and jump their way towards the reader themselves.
He's also a very efficient artist. Every page is packed to the brim with panels, but it's a tidy sort of packing. Instead of let them stretch and overlap one another into chaos, he instead fits them together like Tetris pieces. It's a very clear and concise choice, but the downside is that it mean most of the panels are terribly small. I suspect this wasn't so much of a problem in its original run in Weekly Shonen Jump, but a small panel that works fine at magazine scale can look positively tiny in tankobon form. Still, that's a small price to pay (pun not intended) for get as much of this good art on the page as possible.
There's nothing in the way of extras within the book, but they do offer bonus trading cards if you order it through RightStuf, a tactic they also used with Kuroko's Basketball. Weirdly enough, I ended up with two of them accidentally. It's a nice touch, but unless you're really into the series and feeling nostalgic for collectable cards, they're not terribly useful outside of impromptu bookmarkers.
Haikyu!! shakes up the sports manga formula just enough to keep things interesting and has art that's skillful enough to make the sport just as compelling as the story suggests. I can see how a series like this would gain an audience, much less make for a good anime, and I'm glad that Americans can get an opportunity to check out the source material for themselves.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan with 24 volumes available. 6 volumes have been published and are currently in print. This series is also available in ebook form via viz.com.
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