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– by Donovan Bertch

Sports stories are formulaic. Thereís no getting around that. There’s always going to be someone (or a group of somebodies) trying to push their way out of the underdog ranks into the top stars of a given game. This applies to sports manga especially, where the idea is to keep the momentum of these underdog stories going on a weekly basis. Because of this, the key to keeping people around for something they’ve ostensibly seen before is to make the characters engaging and unique enough to make their trials and tribulations the key focus of the manga.

This would normally make getting engaged in a character-focused sports manga really freaking difficult when you’re starting halfway into the series. It’s not impossible — plenty of series are engaging whether you’re on chapter 1 or chapter 100-but it’s still going to leave you feeling (rightfully) like you’ve missed a lot. This is especially prevalent if said volume happens to start in the middle of a tournament arc, with even more characters, rivalries, and plot to have to catch up on. There’s only so much the opening character sheet and plot blurb can do, and every reader brings their own tastes and character preferences into the mix as well. It’s an uphill battle that not every series wins.

But I’ll be damned if Haikyuu!! doesn’t try its hardest to keep you hooked all the same. Whether or not it works is a lot more debatable.

Karasuno High’s volleyball team is locked in a dead heat with their opponents from Shiratorizawa in a tense qualifier tournament, and things arenít looking especially great for the former. Shiratorizawa’s got some deadly players (including team captain Ushijima) running Karasuno ragged. The team, particularly the protagonist Hinata and this volume’s focus character Tsukishima, have their work cut out for them as they formulate a strategy to take down Shiratorizawa. Unfortunately for Karasuno, their opponents won’t be going down without one hell of a fight.

I’ll say this right off the bat-this series has a metric boatload of characters. I recognized a few throughout as the main ones of the story, and some have very distinct designs and personalities that make them easy to remember, but the rest? Not as much. The actual game of volleyball itself doesn’t get much explanation beyond the strategies that matter moment-to-moment. That’s more than understandable-it’s nearly twenty volumes in; if you have been reading the series regularly, you don’t need an explanation. If you happen to pick this volume out of a bookstore shelf out of curiosity, though, youíll likely find yourself lost and confused beyond just the character dynamics.

That being said, the smaller stories within the narrative are nice-Tsukishima finally finding his moment that makes him truly love volleyball, Hinata’s determination to prove that height and strength isn’t everything against Ushijima, the philosophy and heart of the coaches on the sidelines-it ís all very well written character development. Even not knowing much about the cast (or, hell, volleyball in general), these characters are very quick to draw you in and you’ll find yourself rooting for them as the volume goes on. It’s entertaining junk food; you don’t need to really know what’s in it, and it ís not really filling, but it’s satisfying enough.

There’s a problem with that, though, an issue that’s prevalent in plenty of sports manga and manga with tournament arcs in general: anyone who doesn’t currently have a running character arc is essentially non-existent, or only there to prop up the current focus characters. When you have an arc focusing on a specific character in a show with a small cast, this isn’t much of a problem-you have time for everyone to shine eventually. There are at least 12 players on the Karasuno team, though, and the volume is about 90% action and 10% downtime. Even when characters get swapped out, they’re rarely swapped to give them some time in the spotlight — it’s to emphasize another characterís plans or goals.

It’s not like they lack character entirely, though. It’s clear that they have personality and depth, and for quite a few it’s obvious that the seeds of future developments are being planted here. The problem is that they just don’t really matter in this storyline. They’re the Tiens, the Joey Wheelers, the (insert anyone not named Naruto, Sasuke, Gaara, or Rock Lee during Naruto’s Chunin Exam Arc here). This isn’t helped by the fact that the match’s twists and turns feel like they come too little, too late, and thereís just not as much dynamic storytelling as there could be. This feels less like a gripping battle for the chance to compete further, and more just a basic volleyball match. Even if I knew the full context, this feels like filler leading up to something greater down the line.

That’s not to say they’re not some damn good-looking filler. Haruichi Furudate knows just where to draw the reader’s eyeline, and his penchant for high-detail splash pages makes for some impactful moments throughout the volume. Every volleyball spike, every page-turner dive for the ball, and even just basic character close-ups look striking, to say the least. He’s at his best when thereís a lot of speed on the screen and his penchant for bird imagery is a bit on the cliché side but not entirely unwelcome. It also helps that this action is clearly where Furudate is in his element. To contrast, plenty of the slower moments that the volume does have lack in detail and look a lot more cartoonish and silly (go figure, I know). When he’s drawing each chapter’s big moment, though, it’s like an entirely different side of him takes the reins. It’s downright impressive, to say the least, and I enjoyed looking at the art alone even when the story faltered for me.

Taken entirely as an action set piece (and considering the short-term storylines and character growth), Haikyuu!! Volume 19 isn’t a bad piece of work by any means. It does what it needs to do in getting its core cast members into whatever place they need to be for the climax of the Spring Qualifiers arc. However, it falls into the traditional problems that throttle even the best of tournament storylines. Its characters can be engaging and interesting, but only if they’re the focus of the chapter or arc.

Least it looks pretty.

Grade: C+

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