Haikyuu has been one of the greatest sports anime productions since its inception. Four seasons in, it’s about time we get not just into what makes its thoroughness in and outside the volleyball court so impressive, but also how the team has evolved over the years to refine their demanding approach.
I’m not exactly revealing a well-kept secret when I say that Haikyuu is a spectacular sports anime. A hit series receiving the treatment it deserves for once, rather than letting the momentum of the source material’s popularity carry it while the team behind the adaptation has to rush out something that’s unsatisfactory in and of itself. The result of their efforts only becomes more impressive when you consider how down to earth the team’s approach has been, taking no major shortcuts nor relying on surface-level flashiness. The fact that many people perceive it to be a dazzling success regardless of that speaks of the quality of everyone’s work.
Haikyuu is, at least by genre standards, a realistic depiction of sports; this is to say that aspects like posture and positioning play a huge role, and that planet Earth generally doesn’t blow up during the matches like in other more bombastic, admittedly very entertaining entries in the genre. A new project like an anime adaptation presented the chance to tweak that philosophy a little bit, but rather than do that, its new team doubled down on the authenticity.
Leading that effort, we had series director Susumu Mitsunaka. Which is to say, a complete unknown for audiences at large, yet exactly the right person if you want to depict the intricacies of sport through animation. Incidentally, the decision to rely on a director with a single, much smaller project under their belt rather than big names that could be used to boost interest is another of the many details that proves how genuine the project has always been. Regardless of his cache, though, Mitsunaka had already caught some eyes in the industry for his ability to capture complex sport actions down to their tiniest details; that included renowned directors like Tsutomu Mizushima, who entrusted him with co-supervising the entirety of Big Windup! – under another baseball animation nut like Junichiro Taniguchi – because he was impressive by his painstakingly realistic sports animation.
And so, when faced with a project larger than he’d ever tackled, Mitsunaka focused on… painstakingly realistic sports animation, what else? To be more precise, the backbone of the production is the very careful depiction of body movement in and outside the court, with a particular emphasis on the physicality of the matches. Although volleyball isn’t a contact sport per se, it’s one where the bodies of the players plays a massive role – hence the protagonist’s constantly uphill battle – and that places a massive burden on an animation team that’s constantly asked to depict fast-paced setpieces with perfectly accurate three-dimensional bodies. On top of that, the layouts must be precise down to the millimeter: shots that look spacious but aren’t mindful of scale don’t make the cut in a sport where being half an inch away can change everything. And did I mention the dynamic camerawork, spicing up the action so that it’s visually engaging even for those with no actual interest in volleyball? This climactic sequence in season three, key animated by Mitsunaka himself, sums up the outrageous ambition he had for the series.
One could argue that the reason that he got away with this approach was that Production I.G possesses something we always say we wish more studios had: a proper training system that follows a consistent animation philosophy, which in their cases focuses a great deal on making new animators grasp anatomy and realistic acting. And while that is true, it doesn’t paint the full story by any stretch.
For starters, it downplays how the entirety of Haikyuu’s team – from management to compositors – lived up to those high standards, but also it ignores that those studio strengths are only perfectly regular in I.G’s theatrical productions. A simple comparison between Haikyuu and Kuroko’s Basketball (which admittedly has its own Kazuto Nakazawa-flavored highlights) should tell you that Production I.G’s name alone isn’t a shortcut to consistent excellence.
Fortunately for the former, Haikyuu’s animation producer Keiko Matsushita works with the theatrical branches of the studio, meaning that she’s got ready access to the kind of artists who can make this possible… though again, the quality disparity between her TV sports series Haikyuu, Run with the Wind, and Welcome to the Ballroom emphasizes that there are a lot more variables at play. Not only is Haikyuu a success story of a creative team, it’s also a rare instance of higher ups not getting in the way of their work!
Much like in volleyball, there are some individual names worth highlighting in that collective victory – too many of them in fact, since multiple seasons and OVAs have allowed many people to pull off excellent performances. From regulars (starting with Mitsunaka himself with countless invaluable contributions directing and writing) to one-off guests (the intensity that Takashi Otsuka imbued S1 #17 quickly comes to mind), the project has been blessed by far too many to list them all. In that context of astonishingly true to life animation, though, it’s Shinji Suetomi who has most consistently taken the MVP spot. Both during the matches and in the conflict that surrounds them, his tremendous realistic technique – volumetric character art, calculated timing, perfect emulation of contact – is used to amplify emotion, rather than letting it dry as a vapid showcase of skill. With proper guidance, he has what it takes to be an all-time great in anime history.
As a side note, there’s another noteworthy animator who hasn’t had as much of a definitive impact, but still stands as very representative of the production’s philosophy. Although he only participated in the first season, Ryo Araki left behind many tidbits of delightful animation. He trained at Production I.G himself, but after becoming a disciple of Tetsuya Takeuchi, his style shifted towards the thorough articulation of character acting even beyond realism – a process that was still ongoing during Haikyuu’s production, but greatly shaped his output there. Such was the show’s commitment to authenticity, that one of its flashier main assets is an artist known for depicting realistic gesture to a degree that not even actual people can keep up with.
A lot of effort went into maintaining that high quality, realism-leaning animation on a regular basis, so that it wasn’t limited to sakuga highlights. The role of elements like stock footage can’t be understated here. There are tons of sequences in Haikyuu that aren’t so much recycled as deliberately animated with multiple uses in mind, assisting the team even throughout different seasons; short cuts vague enough to fit multiple contexts, sprinkled throughout frantic matches in a way that gives breathing room to the team but doesn’t even register in the audience’s mind unless they’re actively looking for reuses. Hardly a revolutionary concept, but Haikyuu executes it more elegantly than right about any other competitor.
That said, the ultimate protector of the show’s quality might have been something else. Or rather, someone else. There’s much to love in the animation sheets by Takahiro Kishida, well versed in design philosophy we can call summarizing realism. And yet it’s another Takahiro who arguably defined the show’s aesthetic when it came down to it: Takahiro Chiba, the show’s most active supervisor since the very start. Chief animation direction for 37 episodes, direct supervision of a bunch more of them, plus work in many opening and ending sequences – some key animated all by himself – on top of lots of key animation in the show proper; quite flavorful scenes at that, since he spent so much time with the characters that he fully familiarized himself with everyone’s body language. And even beyond that, there was the feeling that other animators looked up to his work as the embodiment of Haikyuu’s ideal form. His detail on clothing folds and hair, his realistic arrangement of facial features, and so on began being adopted by the team as a whole, making Chiba essentially omnipresent.
There is a final ingredient to the Haikyuu recipe that enamored many fans, one that was also present since the start. You see, lifelike character acting is hard. It might be the single hardest thing to nail in animation – which isn’t to say that realistic acting is the objectively superior means of expression, but it does take an obscene amount of effort. And all that for… not that much acknowledgment, in the grand scheme of things. This season’s wonderful look at animation’s creative process Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! even verbalizes this conundrum, as the brains of the team considers telling her animator to ditch nuanced acting in favor of flashier animation that would take a lot less effort and actually impress more fans.
How did Haikyuu address that issue, then? The answer appears as early as the second episode, with Koichi Kikuta’s heavy brushes on this breath-taking hit. That was just the first instance of what would quickly become a pattern: a complete switch from realism to exaggeration that favors thicker ink-like linework for those special moments in the matches, often the most satisfying spikes. Some animators would try to integrate them a little bit, but for the most part they’d be completely separate from the rest of the action, as if they were cut-ins in a videogame; even their depiction of space would be different, essentially ignoring the court for a few shots in a series that normally only twists optics to give us a clearer look at everyone’s positions. This would happen over and over for three seasons, sometimes directly key animated by the show’s main action director Yasuyuki Kai, but often just overseen by him in what was clearly more than just one animator’s whim. The contrast with the overall style made those split-second cool events stand out as they were meant to; perhaps a bit repetitive in retrospect and not applied in the most graceful way, but they definitely did their job. It’s hard to bring myself to complain about a formula when it just works.
Let’s summarize everything up to this point: for three seasons and their side projects, Haikyuu followed Susumu Mitsunaka’s vision to great success. His belief in depicting sports with tremendous accuracy and penchant for realistic animation in general led to excellence thanks to a fitting team at Production I.G given enough time, where individual stars in key positions like Takahiro Chiba and Yasuyuki Kai made a difference.
Years later, the fourth season arrives without Mitsunaka, Chiba, nor Kai reprising their roles, and with a tighter schedule for the team as a whole. You know what, I don’t fault anyone who expected the worst.
If you expected this piece to turn into doom and gloom, however, think again. I’m not even referring to the fact that the new series directors have been part of the team and won’t try to reinvent the wheel, nor to the split cours decision that will undoubtedly alleviate the pain of having a shorter production buffer. There are some reasons to worry, although nowhere as extreme as you might have heard, meaning that if anything what’s at stake is living up to Haikyuu’s own unreasonable standards of consistent quality. What I actually wanted to do today, after trying to narrow down exactly what made the series so special for a long time, was explain a change that’s been more gradual than people seem to realize. An evolution that, as far as I’m concerned, might make Haikyuu’s anime even more interesting.
For all this talk about Haikyuu’s consistent values throughout seasons, there was also an undercurrent of change. Artists who didn’t conform to that asymmetrical dichotomy of realistic acting versus accents of extreme exaggeration. This includes animators like Sachiko Fukuda: a character animation specialist who only became a regular in the latter stages of season two, and whose bouncy Dogakobo origins make her approach acting with a different attitude. However, since the likes of her were a minority who didn’t seem to feel comfortable going all out with a style that differed somewhat from the norm, this wasn’t enough to change the tone of the work, at best showing up in small doses.
But over the years, that changed. And the reason a lot of Haikyuu fans didn’t pick up on it was… well, that the change didn’t occur in Haikyuu but rather to the team. You see, while each project obviously has its own crew, most of these animators stayed together beyond Haikyuu’s third season (2016) into the production of Welcome to the Ballroom (2017) and Run with the Wind (2018). Two projects under different directors who had approaches that differed from Mitsunaka’s strict realism, much more willing to mix sports and fantasy. This came to fruition thanks to animators like Takashi Mukouda, the sakuga ace of both projects; someone who possesses the classic fundamentals that realist animators base their style on, but whom instead chooses to bend reality with a more expressionist style. Mukouda’s bodies are still mindful of anatomy, and he can make them conform to physics as if they were real, but none of that is an absolute for an artist like him, who can switch gears from that into pure animated emotion as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
With the arrival of the fourth season, we can finally enjoy Mukouda’s work in Haikyuu, exhibiting precisely those qualities I’ve mentioned. But in the end, it’s not so much about him as it is about the effect that artists like him have had on the rest of the team, as well as the new project leaders’ ability to pivot after losing key players. The new, more stylized designs aren’t only a more feasible goal without a monster of detail like Chiba supervising every drawing, but they also present a nice in-between detailed realism and exaggeration for the animators to switch more naturally. This new environment, as well as the experience on those recent projects, has allowed animators like the aforementioned Fukuda to begin building what feels like Haikyuu’s final form: one that’s still extremely thorough in the depiction of volleyball, but without a stylistic binary strongly separating the realism from those special moments. A somewhat more refined approach to an animation effort that was already exceptional.
Mind you: I don’t want people’s takeaway to be that all the changes to Haikyuu’s production will inevitably lead to a higher quality result, that a quantifiable improvement is a done deal. And I’m not here either to reassure fans who think that the exceptional work from previous seasons is bound to disappear due to all the missing key figures; for starters, because nothing I could say would be a more convincing argument than the solid work this new team has already put out, but also because I don’t think anyone is in the position to guarantee that Haikyuu!! To the Top will be able to match its predecessors in the long run.
For all the small gripes I’ve had with the series over the years, we’re still talking about a franchise that has cemented itself as an all-time great in the field of sports anime. One that hasn’t been afraid to play the long game even at the cost of much easier short term victories, which makes the catharses it slowly builds up to all the more satisfying when they finally hit. And just as importantly, one that’s been able to match that emotional intensity with equally robust production muscle; a strength that it has known how to employ smartly too, to the point of creating the illusion that it was never making any compromises. No excellence in anime is effortless, but Haikyuu could easily fool you into thinking otherwise.
So while it’s still up in the air whether it matches those extraordinary performances, bests them, or has to content itself with only being pretty good, I wanted to draw attention towards something that’s already palpable: the maturity of this production and the team behind it. Although the most obvious changes have happened recently with a major shake-up to the staff and even the aesthetic, it felt important to illustrate how an entire subset of Production I.G been constantly evolving. Slower change until these recent events precipitated things, sure, but sustained over time and with a consistency I can only interpret as deliberate. And, even if it’s been a series of happy accidents, the series gets to reap the rewards now in the form of a wider visual repertoire and the ability to combine those styles more organically.
Now, all that remains to be seen is how well they’ll be able to apply this more complete toolset that they’ve been building over the years. I suppose that all I’ve got left to do is pray for the success of a team that’s perfected the science of making it feel good when they hit the balls.