Oikawa Blooms (A Haikyuu!! Character Analysis)
With the conclusion to Oikawa’s first (and hopefully not last!) major arc as a character coming in Episode 25 of Haikyuu!!’s second season, I wanted to analyze his character thus far. Oikawa’s a goofy ladykiller, and easily the most developed of the non-Karasuno players. Haikyuu!! is filled with foil and complementary characters, and Oikawa is the most important of them all. Despite Hinata’s apparent role as main protagonist, Oikawa’s foil with Kageyama is perhaps the most important relationship in the series, and the competition between these two setters is really the focal point of the new Karasuno-Seijoh rivalry—not to mention the story of the entire first two seasons.
Let’s figure out how he got there and what makes him such an essential character.
A defining feature of Oikawa’s character is his hate for “geniuses”—which can really just be interpreted as ‘the highly talented’—but what’s interesting is that Oikawa was once genius-esque himself. He comes into junior high with a physical edge on other kids his age. Because of his initial advantage, coming into contact with players with even more natural talent than him (that ‘true’ genius level) frustrates him even more than if he had been a talentless player from the start. At first, Oikawa gets to experience an advantage in volleyball. When he meets Ushijima, an even more advantaged player, it negates Oikawa’s abilities and leaves him helpless.
The arrival of Kageyama is a thorn in Oikawa’s back, as Kageyama’s talent threatens to outshine Oikawa on his own team. As Iwaizumi tells us, this sends Oikawa into a “panic”, leading him to overwork himself and lose focus during matches. Geniuses like Kageyama are demons that Oikawa doesn’t believe he can overcome on the court. Iwaizumi points out the selfishness of Oikawa thinking it’s “I” vs. geniuses with a nice headbutt before presenting one of the most pervasive motifs of the series: “The team with the strong six players is the stronger team.” You don’t need to be a genius player, you simply need make sure you and your team score enough points to win.
This gives Oikawa the focus he needs to return to leading his team, and even to take a set off Shiratorizawa. However, it isn’t enough to overcome the wall that is a genius. He loses to Shiratorizawa. The words that motivate him to continue fighting and to believe he can eventually overcome that wall come from his junior high coach: nothing can ever increase the amount of raw talent you have, but have you really discovered just how much talent you have? Have you really perfected everything else about your play? Can you really not go any higher? The chunk of raw talent inside Oikawa may not be as powerful as Kageyama’s or Ushijima’s, but that doesn’t mean Oikawa can’t make it bloom bigger. He resolves to do everything he can to increase his chances of winning.
After junior high (and presumably the first two years of high school), Oikawa solidifies his vendetta against geniuses and works to perfect his playstyle. Really, he has an agenda against talented people, and wants them to throw all their best attacks at him so he can overcome it all and beat them knowing nothing was left in reserve. His playstyle becomes an echo of Iwaizumi’s words in junior high—make a team of the strongest six. If this includes practicing his own technique, studying the matches of his opponents, or meditating for focus—he’ll do it.
Although he may appear to be joking around (as he is want to do), most of what Oikawa says is super-calculated. Actually, the show does a good job of cluing us in on when he isn’t being serious at all by animating his face in expressive ways. But, when his spikers are warming up before the Inter High match against Karasuno, his comments (even the ones to Iwaizumi) are meant to reassure his teammates. He means to reassure and to make his teammates aware he knows how/what they’re thinking. To Oikawa, a setter is a tool for the spiker to use. By speaking what the spikers are thinking, he lets them know he’s aware of their needs and implies they can control his tosses from inside their heads. This is a big reason his teammates have ultimate trust in him.
With that, Oikawa becomes the egoless egoist. Egoless because he tosses the balls up for his spikers, always thinking of them and how he can help them play their best. Egoist because he plays this way out of his own obsession with proving he can beat geniuses. This shines through in his serves/dumps that are reliable enough to put his team at ease, but flashy enough to give him satisfaction. The same can be said for his opening line of “I believe in all of you”—both a complete reassurance and a complete threat. This all works because the stronger six players are the stronger team. By losing his ego, his team reaches a total understanding of each other (the reassurance). By understanding each other, they can play as a strong enough six to satisfy Oikawa’s ego (the threat).
This idea shows up all over Oikawa’s playstyle and leadership. Honestly, there are too many examples to name in this essay—any line out of Oikawa’s mouth during a match would work. Let’s just look at a couple specific moments.
Oikawa both attempts to break down the solidarity of the six players on his opposing team, as well as boost the solidarity of his own six. At the Inter High, he originally attempts to ruin Karasuno’s morale by getting a service ace off of their libero, Nishinoya (this would also boost his team’s morale). Once that fails, he switches to targeting a weaker receiver and important attacker, Tanaka. If he can spawn doubt or fear in Tanaka’s mind, he’ll have weakened one of Karasuno’s six.
As for his own team, Oikawa is a machine gun of encouragement and focus. When Karasuno subs in Sugawara, Oikawa quickly analyzes his setting style and tactics and then delivers appropriate encouragement and strategy to his team. He tells them that Karasuno has a solid offense, but that they’ve “played a number of teams like that,” so there’s nothing to worry about. This positivity and forward-thinking is the essence of Oikawa’s on-court attitude. Of course, there are numerous on-court actions he takes as well, such as setting more to Kunimi at the end of the Inter High match to fully utilize his reserves of energy. Kageyama adopts those same actions in Season 2.
Oikawa’s whole philosophy towards geniuses at this point can be summed up by his line, “Tobio, I might actually lose to you, considering how quickly you evolve. But that won’t be today!” As his coach told him, he will always have less talent than some people, but so long as he can make himself and his team stronger in some way, he can win. The team that scores enough points wins. At the same time, he recognizes that the genius talent of Kageyama and those like him will eventually lead them to greater heights. At the end of the match, he reflects on Kageyama’s “troublesome” improvement, dreading that the day he loses might soon come. The mental advantage he had is fast disappearing.
But that philosophy turns against him in the finals against Shiratorizawa. Volleyball works both ways. If you are talented enough, and just smart enough, you can break through a weaker opponent’s hard work. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re a genius, but it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’ve improved yourself either. The team that scores enough points wins. The game is as simple as that when it comes to who wins and who loses. “All of [their] practices, experience, and strategies are being broken by force,” and that’s enough.
Oikawa has yet to surrender, though. Although we don’t know exactly what happened between the Inter High and the Spring Tournament, we learn that Aoba Johsai has tightened their trust in each other even further. Before the match against Karasuno, the team has so much trust in one another that Oikawa’s teammates turn his “I believe in you” line backwards on him. They all recognize what he’s done as a setter. Although they joke about what ramen they want him to buy if he misses his serve, they admit they know he won’t miss.
I said we don’t know what happened, but based on the flashback to Oikawa practicing with Kindaichi, we get a sense. Instead of switching up the type of toss or the spiker’s approach entirely, Oikawa just tells Kindaichi to stay how he is, and then adjusts his toss to match. This is Oikawa developing his skills as the egoless, but also leaning towards Kageyama’s initial mindset of having the spiker think less about matching the toss. It’s just an interesting moment that gives us something to point to when we wonder if Oikawa is different or better than before.
Speaking of developments as a player, we finally meet a spiker that Oikawa has a hard time forming trust with. The Mad Dog should really be Oikawa’s worst nightmare—he gets in the way of other player’s spikes, he’s a self-centered player, and he’s hard to understand and utilize. Admittedly, the Kyotani does help resolve those issues on his own, but Oikawa handles a troublesome teammate adeptly. He learns how to use Kyotani as a decoy on the fly, making “[his] fangs even sharper.” Just like with any other player, if they hit a rough spot, Oikawa looks for a way to bail them out. I would argue that Kyotani is able to become a team player because Oikawa puts absolute trust in Kyotani by tossing to him after the Mad Dog is subbed back in.
Unfortunately, Oikawa is not our main protagonist. Oikawa Toru is not a genius.
Seeing Kageyama’s improvement, Oikawa repeats his/Iwaizumi’s mantra: the team with six strong players is stronger. That’s true—just like how ‘the team that scores enough points wins’ is true. And that’s the beginning of the end for Aoba Johsai in this tournament.
Kageyama, the genius, dumping the toss at such an important moment with so many potential spikers is like the ultimate insult to Oikawa. It’s like rubbing Kageyama’s genius in Oikawa’s face (which sounds a lot like some doujins, I’m sure). Anyway, the flashbacks to low angle shots of Ushijima and younger Kageyama really cement the idea that the dump took a serious toll on Oikawa’s attitude.
Oikawa fights back with all that he’s learned and practiced. “Talent is something you make bloom. Instinct is something you polish,” is a reaffirmation of what’s driven Oikawa this far. Give your raw talent the best chance to flourish on the court by training hard. Make up for whatever you lack by strategy, teamwork, and composure. This is also reflective of Oikawa’s style as a setter. He tries to make the talent of his spikers bloom as best he can. He operates based on game sense, analysis, and instinct.
During the final volley of the match, all six players on Karasuno’s side of the court get a chance to shine. With a crazed face, Oikawa remembers his mantra: “Six who are strong are stronger.” He realizes that Karasuno has indeed become a team of six (plus some) strong players. They’re a team with a genius, but they’re also a team of six.
This match, and Oikawa’s dream for high school volleyball, all ride on the last attack from Kageyama and Hinata. “Come at me with your ultimate weapon,” he thinks. Play your best. Be a genius, be a team of six strong players, be all of that—I want to beat you without any excuses. This is the epitome of Oikawa’s ego and pride. This is why he applies to Aoba Johsai and not Shiratorizawa. This is his moment to prove to himself and geniuses everywhere that he can win.
The ball hits the court and, at this moment, Oikawa could not win. The team that scores enough points wins. Six who are strong are stronger. These are the truths. These are the reasons a team wins or loses. This is what Oikawa represents in Haikyuu!!: the struggle of competition, and the truths that decide that struggle.
Oikawa will have to end his high school volleyball career by accepting these truths and looking Kageyama and Ushijima in the eye, acknowledging that those truths dictated who was stronger today. Yet, Oikawa is a player who won’t stop until he’s reached his absolute limit.