I can’t hold back the manly tears! While sports anime always has a knack for giving viewers goosebumps and taking them on an adrenaline-filled roller coaster ride of emotions, Haikyuu takes it to another level for me personally because it’s about volleyball. Everything about this week’s episode was set up so perfectly, from the emphasis of the impenetrable wall that Azumane needed to overcome, the strategy that Ukai devised to slowly draw attention to all the “weapons” that Karasuno has at its disposal, and the back-and-forth rallies of a close match, to the audience’s outside perspective and the eventual turning point of Karasuno’s perfectly executed “pipe” that left Datekou completely stunned. It was sheer awesomeness all around, and much to my amusement, they touched upon a lot of the finer aspects to the sport.
In terms of characters, I like how Datekou’s team was shown to have a goofy side, since it makes them much more “human” and not just some antagonists in a story that our protagonists need to overcome. With Aone in particular, I get the sense that his quiet nature makes him a bit of a softy inside, so I anticipate that in the spirit of competition, he’ll become friends with Hinata and the rest of Karasuno when all of this is said and done. Other than that, we were also introduced to Datekou’s coach, Oiwake Takurou (left), who’s voiced by none other than veteran seiyuu, Miki Shinichirou (Kurz Weber in Full Metal Panic, Lockon Stratos in Gundam 00, Roy Mustang in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood). His perspective on this episode was insightful and showcased the analytical train of thought that might go through a coach’s mind when he’s trying to stick to his game plan but is faced against an opponent with so many unknown variables that keep him guessing. This effectively made him the audience’s inner voice so to speak, as much of what he was vocalizing was what the writers wanted us to think, given that we were only shown tidbits of what Karasuno’s actual game plan was going into this match. We definitely knew more than Oiwake and the rest of Datekou in terms of Hinata and Kageyama’s “monstrous” closed-eye quicks, but not much more in terms of how Azumane was going to overcome the iron wall demons that made him quit volleyball three months ago, other than the fact that Ukai had him practicing back-row attacks.
Looking back, there were probably enough hints to suggest this episode would culminate to a high-flying Azumane rising up from behind Hinata’s fake and stunning his opponents like deer caught in headlights, but after his first failed attempt, I was anticipating that it would just be another attack that Karasuno has in their repertoire. Admittedly, I was totally caught up in the moment though, so I didn’t even notice Azumane wasn’t in the front row when all three of Karasuno’s attackers started their approach towards the net following Nishinoya’s dig on the initial block. It obviously helped that Hinata screamed for the ball to draw even more attention to himself, fulfilling his role as the ultimate decoy. Aone’s reaction as he was coming down from his block jump was priceless, simply because he has proven himself to be a very technically sound blocker, reading this opponents sets well and even adapting to Hinata’s quicks by “hop blocking” so that he still has enough time to get across and jump again to block Hinata’s actual hit. This is actually not unheard of in volleyball, but against a quick attack, it would be virtually impossible to get a complete “roof” (i.e. an ideal block that goes off the blockers hands and straight down on their opponents side, make it extremely difficult for anyone who’s covering the hitter to potentially dig the ball.) Interestingly enough, it’s somewhat believable in Haikyuu though, not because it’s an anime, but because of the height difference between Hinata and Aone that allows Datekou’s star blocker to get his hands above the net quicker.
On that note, there were lots of volleyball details that caught my attention this episode, so I thought I’d go off on a bit of a tangent to try to explain some of them for anyone who may be less familiar with the sport. First off, reading sets is a very important and fundamental skill that all volleyball players should have–especially middles–since you almost always want to form a double-block for outside hitters (i.e. Power or Offside). This is because outside hitters generally don’t hit quicks as often middles, and are instead, given higher sets that are farther away from the net, providing them with more hitting angles/lanes to chose from and a higher chance of scoring a point. (The same principle applies to middles as well, much like we saw in this episode when Tsukishima asked Kageyama to not give him such tight sets.) To help limit those hitting lanes, a second blocker, i.e. the middle, is relied upon to put up at least a second block. At a high school level, blockers may not be as good reading sets, particularly against really deceptive setters like Kageyama (which I stressed the importance of last week in the comments), so all Haikyuu really wanted to do was emphasize that Aone is really good at it for his level.
Secondly, for technically sound volleyball, coaches generally don’t advocate changing a block at the last second like Aone did to successfully block Hinata because it’s a risky move that not only opens a hole in your original block, but also A.) increases the chance that you’ll get tooled (i.e. ball gets hit off your hand and out) and B.) confuses your own team’s back-row, who’s covering the hitting lanes outside of your block’s “shadow”. Still, we do see this move in all levels of volleyball today, simply because really good blockers are tall, jump really high in the air, and see the hit very well, allowing them to make these last-second adjustments and make it even harder for their opponents to hit around them.
Thirdly, the serve-receive formation that Karasuno used with Sawamura playing offside is drifting closer to the three-man serve receive that I’ve mentioned several times in previous posts already, but still not quite right because their formation only allows them to use Sawamura, Azumane, and Nishinoya to receive together in their starting rotation. With a proper three-man serve receive, Sawamura would be the second Power opposite of Azumane and the three of them would be able to take the serve in every rotation.
Fourthly, Hinata performed what is colloquially known as a “pump fake”, where he made it look like he was going in for a “51” quick (a set 1 foot above the net), but fully stopped his approach in expectation of a “53” set (a set 3 feet above the net). This is a common play to try and make the the blockers jump first, allowing the hitter to hit the ball as the blockers are coming down from their jump. The intended effect is essentially the same as the 51/pipe play that Karasuno did at the end, except the middle performs it alone. However in practice, this is very difficult for a short player like Hinata to do, because the middle stops his approach completely, losing several inches off their peak jump as a result, and then has to hit the peak of their hit very quickly so that the blockers don’t land and get the opportunity to jump again. I don’t see Hinata being able to pull this off against someone as tall as Aone once the latter knows to expect it, which was indirectly confirmed later when Aone was able to jump twice to block Hinata (and finally showed some emotion too! ROAR!).
And finally, what Karasuno did early on by establishing Hinata as a threat is a pretty textbook strategy. The reason for doing this is to make your opponents key on your middle and open up hitting lanes for your outside and backrow hitters much like we saw. Still, that didn’t take away from the awesomeness of it all by any means, particularly Hinata had an epiphany of sorts at the end where he finds it just as fulfilling to help your teammates score a point as it is scoring a kill himself. That’s another step forward in terms of him appreciating volleyball as a team sport, so I can’t wait to see how this match wraps up next time. Man I love this show!
Note: They actually referred to the back-row attack as a “pipe” so it looks like that’s the term in Japanese as well.