Building More Than a Wall (A Haikyuu!! Analysis)
If you’ve read some of my other Haikyuu!! essays, you know how valuable I consider the show’s world. Often in sci-fi/fantasy stories, the world becomes as iconic and alive as the characters—think of Academy City in the Raildex series or the Sybil System in Psycho Pass (or think of Westeros, to bring some Western media into the mix). These storyworld constructs—be they cities, technology, or nations—play as large of a role in the narrative as any character, and oftentimes are a guiding (or even driving) force in the story.
Without spoiling anything from those series I just mentioned, let’s quickly clarify. The goals and purposes of Academy City drive certain characters to create near-catastrophes in Raildex, even if their intentions were pure-hearted. In some ways, the city and its government are a mystery for us to explore via various arcs. The Sybil System poses a moral dilemma, as well as a safety risk. Even if we aren’t hooked by the crimes committed in Psycho Pass, we are eager to watch law enforcement and morality play out under the regulations of, and in obedience of, the Sybil System (a certain scene with a certain main criminal comes to mind…).
Not too complicated. World-building gives these stories life. We read the descriptions for such sci-fi/fantasy shows, and the world is usually the part that gets us interested in watching. So, in a rather realistic sports anime, why do I care so much about world and world-building? To answer that question, let’s answer a more specific one. Why are we excited to watch Date Tech face off against Aoba Johsai?
‘Because we want to know who Karasuno has to face,’ you say. Admittedly, that’s a big reason. However, if this was a match between two unknown teams, we wouldn’t want to watch a whole set between them. We don’t want to spend that much time just to meet the next new opponent. I argue that the development of Date Tech and Aoba Johsai (the development that makes us care which one Karasuno faces) is world-building, and that we care about this match beyond its implications upon Karasuno due to world-building.
The development of teams in Haikyuu!! is world-building. The development of new volleyball techniques is world-building. When we meet Date Tech, we learn they are the Iron Wall, the unbeatable blockers. We see their size and their prowess in blocking, and know how strong they are and in what ways they’re strong. This concept—this understanding—that Date Tech is the blocking team drives the story of the match between Date Tech and Karasuno in Season 1. Much like the Sybil System poses a moral dilemma, Date’s blocks pose a tactical dilemma. Asahi is forced to deal with a mental block due to the Iron Wall. Hinata experiences his first stuffed quick because of the Iron Wall.
The very idea of a team that excels at blocking is the problem for Karasuno. Yes, specific characters like Aone epitomize strong blocks and interact with Karasuno as distinct entities. Aone and Hinata have a rivalrous bond, for example. But these specifics all contribute to a larger storyworld image of the Iron Wall. Characterization of individuals like Aone make us care about Date Tech, but we care the most about what Date Tech represents as part of the world—a blocking powerhouse, a construct.
This concept of playstyle symbolically standing in for a team leads to thinking about volleyball technique as world-building. Aoba Johsai is symbolized by two techniques: Oikawa’s jump serve and Oikawa’s adaptable sets. His ruthless jump serves and his ability to mix those up into floater serves, expand our understanding of volleyball and thereby the world. Learning of stronger serves is like learning of Raildex’s level system. When we meet a Level 5, we know how powerful that is—there’s only seven of them, after all. When we see Yamaguchi train to learn floater serves, we know how useful that is. With that in mind, a team we know has those serving tools at their disposal is much more interesting than an attribute-less team. If, in Raildex, Misaka has to battle a Level 5 instead of a Level 2, that means something to us in the context of the storyworld.
But we care about Date Tech versus Aoba Johsai for reasons beyond all that. Even if Karasuno wasn’t matched against the winner, we would care.
These teams exist so strongly in the world of Haikyuu!!—in the mythos of Haikyuu!!—that we can almost be as big of fans of them as we can be of real sports teams. We pick favorite teams in this fake universe. Maybe we like highly defensive play, and therefore become Date Tech fans. Maybe we love the roar before Oikawa’s serves, and therefore become Aoba Johsai fans. Maybe we like Date Tech’s chant, “Go, go, let’s go, let’s go Dateko!” Maybe we like the team dynamics on Fukurodani. Maybe we sympathize with Aoba Johsai’s history of barely losing to Shiratorizawa.
These details result from world-building. Distinct playstyles and techniques are like distinct supernatural powers in a sci-fi. Chants and cheers are like rituals and religions in a high fantasy. Different teams are like different countries in a fictional universe, each with their own culture. History is like, well, history. All of these details add up to create our understanding of what it means to watch a Date Tech match or an Aoba Johsai match. What challenges should we expect to face? What should we expect the arena to sound like? What history is threaded through this match-up, and what future do these teams hope to achieve? These are questions we can answer, and that makes the match feel lifelike.
Obviously, Haikyuu!!’s world-building is nowhere near as deep as something like A Song of Ice and Fire, but it’s a sports anime marketed towards kids and teenagers. Cheers aren’t as complex as religious systems, but I can love Oikawa’s serve cheer just like I can be intrigued by the old gods of Westeros. What Haikyuu!! teaches us is that investing in world-building—be that through direct development of teams and techniques or through the creation of cultural icons and rituals—pays off tenfold. The opponents Karasuno has to face are made so alive by the world-building that we’re actually excited to watch a match without our protagonist team.
That being said, we’re even more excited to watch Karasuno face off against the winner.