Story Time & Narrative Time

With mentions of Haikyu!! by Haruichi Furudate

Funnily enough, it took numerous friends recommending Haikyu!! to me, and reading a lovely article called “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Watch Anime” before I finally got round to it. For those who haven’t read/watched it, Haikyu!! is about volleyball. I never thought I’d like a sports anime, and even less so about volleyball. I care less about volleyball now than I did when it was compulsory for my sports exams, and I let you imagine how much it mattered to me then. So I dallied and did other things and watched the trailer twice and still put off having to engage with it, until finally, I gave in and watched an episode.

And I loved it. I binged the 4 seasons of the series in a matter of days after that. Because I cannot leave media I love alone, I spent ages thinking about why Haikyu* is so good.

*Official title Haikyu!!, but I cannot write two exclamation marks every time. I just can’t. It grates on my soul.

It’s good for the usual reasons: it’s good writing, the characters are endearing and engaging, the story is well-paced, the stakes feel real. All of this, despite the fact that most of the anime is about playing volleyball matches (spoiler alert: they win some, they lose some). In fact, Haikyu is creating a story with impressive writing constraints: matches are hard to write, because they’re so easy to predict.

Tournament arcs often feel railroaded: as soon as the narration takes time to show us a team and introduce them as rivals, we know we’ll get to see them in a game. Similarly, if at the very start of a long, important tournament, we face up against an unknown opponent, chances are our team will win. So how to keep the reader involved despite them being able to predict the outcome?

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One reason Haikyu works is because of pacing. The balance between narrative time – what happens on screen, what we’re told – and the story time – real time, if you wish, the fact that a volleyball set should last 20/25 minutes – is beautifully managed.

If the story was just about watching a series of 20-minute matches, it wouldn’t work as well. Rhythm is a key ingredient as to why Haikyu works so well. Sometimes the focus during a match is on one movement, one serve, one block. And sometimes we skip a full game in a matter of minutes. Sometimes the focus is on flashbacks, which delve into characters, which help unpack why they’re good/bad at volleyball, or why their performance during this particular match is what it is. At one point, there is a long training montage with no matches, just a broad sweep letting us know that our favourite team is failing continuously. We don’t get to see these games, but we keep cutting to the penalty lap runs that the players have to do, so we assume they keep losing.

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And sometimes, there is a good old 5-set match to go through, taking up a whole episode, or even the whole season.

These variations in rhythm help maintain tension. Cutting quickly through the obvious matches, or even the obvious games within a match – glossing over that fourth match which has to be a loss so that we get a tie in the finals, for example – helps keep the reader intrigued, as we don’t have to sit around waiting for things we already know the outcome of. It allows Haruichi Furudate to linger on the matches we deeply care about, which have been built up.

It helps that the stakes are low. This might seem like a strange thing to say, but the low stakes serve the tension in Haikyu. Let’s face it, for most people, winning/losing a volleyball match is not the end of the world. This means the writer can afford to make the characters fail. And, because the characters fail often enough, we are ready to believe they might fail when the stakes are higher, thus keeping us engaged.

Sometimes, the stakes are even lowered, and the focus is drawn even tighter: one scene which stands out for me is a secondary character failing to do a serve. This is a big deal for him, because he’s not one of the brilliant first-year main characters, and he wants to prove himself, and he trained hard to do just that: be a pinch server, get called in to serve and get as many points as he can, and then get swapped out again. So if he is called in the game only once, only gets one serve, and fails it, then he’s not going back on the court for the whole game – maybe, if the coach decides he’s useless, for the whole season.

The character-building stakes are huge. It’s about whether he gets a place on the team or not. But the larger stakes are rather small: him failing his serve doesn’t even mean they’ll lose the game. The only loss is personal, intimate.

 

And yet it works. It works because we know the writer can afford to make him fail, and we know the character, and this combination – a believable character who cares deeply about succeeding, and the very real possibility of failing – plucks all the right heartstrings.

I’ve talked about low/high stakes before, so I won’t delve on it now. But it is interesting to note how one moment of a much longer game can take up a lot of narrative time – the moment between a pinch server is brought in and taken out of a game might be less than a minute of story time, yet keep us busy half an episode – and how, vice-versa, a long game can be glossed over by the narrative.

In a way, Haikyu works like a traditional shonen: we care about success and failure, we have speeches on not giving up, we have conflicts between members of the team. It doesn’t matter so much that’s it’s about sports; it could just as well be about cool, flashy magic duels. The writing is good enough that the sports isn’t central – it relies on well-written characters, believable stakes and a great use of narrative time.

Most of all, it manages a feat I never thought was possible: getting me to learn more about volleyball than I ever did playing it for three years in high school.

13 Jan. 22