From gawky soccer player to volleyball upstart, short-stuff Shoyo Hinata goes into his first and only official game of middle school a ball of nervous energy and infectious enthusiasm. Like a kid with his face pressed up against a shop window at Christmas, Sho watched the ‘Tiny Giant’ dominate the court three years before. Without a boys’ volleyball team to his school’s name, he went down the DIY route, roping in reluctant friends to put a ragtag team together.
The opposing team was led by Tobio Kageyama, the so-called ‘King of the Court’, whose intensity and determination to win at all costs counters Sho’s jovial agility and athleticism. The game might go in the favour of the opposing team, but it proves to all present Sho’s terrific ability, and despite his height, or lack thereof, his jumps are nothing short of inspired. Interspersed with flashbacks, the first episode is an affectionate homage to volleyball and to an equally affectionate boy.
Inspired by his idol, Sho enlists in Karasuno High School where fate conspires to pair him with Kageyama. They’re the proverbial odd couple, but it soon becomes apparent that their combined skills are the ultimate culmination of raw power, precision and poise. The image of Sho’s reddened hand is testament to his hard graft and the encouraging sting of the game, proving he has the spunky optimism of any shonen lead.
The animation draws on a colour palette of muted tones and natural hues, somehow both pastel and vibrant, adding a richness to the source material. As with Haruichi Furudate’s manga, the character models opt for a more realistic bent, which is something of a stylistic coup given the shonen tropes. But although the quality is impeccable, players’ faces phasing spectral through the volleyball net is hard to overlook.
The animation and sound design capture the physicality of the game: the running sweat, the slap of hand on rubber and the squeal on sneakers on the gym floor. It does for volleyball what Sound! Euphonium did for band and Food Wars! for cooking. And like those shows, knowledge of volleyball isn’t a prerequisite. In fact, going in completely clueless is a thoroughly rewarding experience. There’s something secret, almost precious about its depiction of the game; the nicknames and monikers make it feel as though the viewer is gifted a glimpse into this world. The matches move from ballet to aerial combat, with moments of chaotic line-work charged with tremendous energy.
The beautifully written coming of age story weaves its universal themes around perfectly timed humour, a subversive slew of characters and its emotional drama for something truly spectacular. Like the events of the first half itself, it’s all just warm-up for what’s to come.
Clean opening/closing animation; also available from Sentai Filmworks.