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‘Haikyu!!’: Comic heroes fuel Japan Olympic volleyball manga mania

By AFP - May 22,2024 - Last updated at May 22,2024

People take selfies at a pop-up store for the Japanese volleyball manga series ‘Haikyu!!’ in Tokyo (AFP photo)


TOKYO — Men’s volleyball is flying high in Japan with the national team ranked fourth globally ahead of the Paris Olympics and the sport’s soaring popularity fuelled by a manga blockbuster.

“Haikyu!!”, the tale of school teams featuring an inspirational comic-book hero determined to beat the odds and his diminutive stature, has sold 60 million copies since its 2012 inception.

Turned into a hit anime series, now a new film “Haikyu!!: The Dumpster Battle” has taken 10 billion yen ($65 million) at the Japanese box office and will release in North America this month.

Masahiro Yanagida, who captained the national team from 2018-2021, said he was “immensely grateful” that the exploits of the fictional team have helped trigger a boom in numbers hitting the courts.

“I have all volumes of the manga myself,” he told AFP, recalling being “completely hooked” on its “pretty realistic” depictions of the sport.

High-school volleyball club membership for boys jumped from 35,000 in 2012 to more than 50,000 this year, official records show.


Anime-like action 


Among those inspired is Kaede Sakashita, 10, seeking to emulate “Haikyu!!” elite setter Atsumu Miya, and his low-lunge toss, in a Tokyo sports hall.

“He’s my role model,” Sakashita, a member of Tokyo’s Sugiichi junior volleyball club, told AFP.

The “Haikyu!!” fandom goes beyond boys.

For Nanami Fujiki, 22, the manga ignited her “love” for the sport.

“I used to have no interest at all... I didn’t even know the rules,” she told AFP at a pop-up store selling “Haikyu!!” merchandise.

But now thanks to the series “I can enjoy the actual matches in a way I never did before.”

The current national team has a real-life echo of the comic in star players like Ran Takahashi, a wildly popular 22-year-old playing in Italy’s top league.

Despite not being tall by volleyball standards, the 1.88 metre outside hitter stunned the world last year with a pirouetting spike with his back to the net — just like a character in “Haikyu!!”.

“Thanks perhaps to ‘Haikyu!!’, I feel the visually entertaining plays of Japanese volleyball are riveting spectators worldwide more and more,” Takahashi told AFP.

“Some may say the quality of Japanese volleyball is approaching anime.”


‘Miracle in Munich’ 


Japan’s glory days in volleyball date back more than half-a-century.

The women’s team, the “Oriental Witches”, famously defeated the Soviet Union to win gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, followed by the men’s “Miracle in Munich” gold medal in 1972.

The women have since fared better since, winning bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, although they haven’t qualified for Paris yet.

The men, meanwhile, “stagnated for ages”, Japan Volleyball Association spokesman Naohiro Kakitani told AFP.

The turning point came with players such as Takahashi and Yuki Ishikawa, 28, foraying into Italy’s top league, along with the team’s transformation since the 2017 arrival of French coach Philippe Blain, Kakitani added.

Last year, Blain’s squad finished third at the Volleyball Nations League, the first men’s medal at a major international tournament in 46 years.

“They’re now on a whole different level that I wouldn’t have dreamed of in our time,” said Yanagida.

The sport still has challenges, however, with critics pointing to the poor profitability of Japan’s top-level V.League.

The league features many company-backed teams whose players don’t rely on volleyball for a living and can therefore be less motivated, Yanagida said.

Breaking the mould is Yanagida’s current club, Tokyo Great Bears.

Donning pink uniforms, they are “actively shedding an aggressive, macho image” often associated with male athletes, to ensure “female fans wouldn’t feel ignored”, club president Takeshi Kubota told AFP.

This approach, combined with tie-ups with YouTubers and musicians, helped Tokyo Great Bears lure the biggest crowds in the men’s division for two straight years.

“We wanted to prove volleyball can draw crowds,” Kubota said.

And it’s a mindset that resonates with Takahashi, who willingly makes himself a volleyball poster boy by modelling and singing on YouTube.

“I want to make volleyball a sport children can dream of,” he said.

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