Sports anime is still a relatively new genre to me. I’ve seen a couple over the years (Ping Pong The Animation and Yuri!!! On Ice), but they aren’t exactly mainstream sports. Despite that, I enjoyed these shows for their realism and emphasis on character relationships while using sports as a way to explore them further. Other sports anime like Kuroko no Basket were lost on me with the superpowers or whatever.
Luckily, Haikyuu!! belongs in the former category. We started watching it back when the COVID shutdown happened, and for the first couple of months, it was basically a life-saver. It was the thing that got me through each week. I looked forward to our Saturday binging sessions more than anything else and enjoyed the show immensely.
Haikyuu!!, in case you’re not aware, focuses on a high school volleyball team clawing their way to Nationals, and it focuses on Shoyo Hinata working to become the very best volleyball player he can be despite his small stature, aka another “Tiny Giant.” The premise is pretty straightforward and simplistic, but it’s perfect in the context of sports anime.
This show has many strengths, ranging from action-packed volleyball matches to fun training montages featuring meaningful character growth, and consistently great animation across three seasons. It does a lot of things right. While the action is great, the parts I enjoy the most involve the character dynamics. There are many strong friendships featured throughout the show, with the primary focus being on Hinata and Kageyama’s rivalry-turned-alliance. They get the most screentime, but there are other great duos like Daichi and Suga, Noya and Asahi, and Oikawa and Iwaizumi.
Whether they push and inspire each other to be better, always have each other’s backs, or a little bit of both, these friendships make up the backbone and heart of Haikyuu!!. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that one of these friendships is my favorite part of the show. What might be surprising is which friendship that is: Tsukishima and Yamaguchi. They may not have as much time in the limelight as some other duos, but their friendship arguably evolves the most other than Hinata and Kageyama’s. Watching its evolution over the course of the show and how they change as a result is excellent.
Spoiler warning: I’m exploring the friendship between Tsukishima and Yamaguchi and how they both change throughout the show, which means getting into spoiler territory. If you want to watch the show spoiler-free, read no further!
Childhood Best Friends! …Or Are They?
Yamaguchi and Tadashi are childhood friends. While we don’t have a ton to go off of, what we do see paints a very clear picture. In elementary school, Yamaguchi was bullied by other kids and didn’t know how to defend himself, and crying would give them ammunition to tease him even more. One day while this was going on, Tsukishima happened to walk by and, after observing the situation, stood up for Yamaguchi…sort of. He calls them “pathetic” and walks off.
Not the most heroic or knight in shining armor moment ever. And because Tsukishima is as aloof and vague as ever, it’s also unclear who exactly he’s calling pathetic. Is he referring to the bullies picking on a helpless kid, or Yamaguchi for letting himself be bullied? We don’t ever get a clear answer, either, but in Yamaguchi’s mind, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. He’s grateful and from that day on and follows Tsukishima’s lead. You could argue too much.
In the early episodes of Haikyuu!!, this friendship is far from healthy. Yamaguchi doesn’t have a character of his own yet. He follows Tsukishima around like a lost puppy and blindly admires everything he does. If I had a dime for every time Yamaguchi says sorry to Tsukishima for really no reason, I’d be a millionaire. He’s way too overprotective and brags on Tsukishima’s behalf constantly (though, to Tsukishima’s credit, he’s not a fan of Yamaguchi doing that). Ironically, he becomes something akin to the bullies that tormented him as a kid whenever he jumps on the bandwagon to insult Kageyama with Tsukishima.
On the other side of the spectrum, Tsukishima doesn’t treat Yamaguchi as an equal, and frequently talks down to him or tells him to shut up. They’ve known each other for years, and yet there’s definitely a level of superiority in Tsukishima’s behavior. Half the time, he acts like he doesn’t even want Yamaguchi around. Needless to say, the friendship doesn’t start out in the best place. Then again, often the best character dynamics usually don’t. Thankfully, the dynamic between Tsukishima and Yamaguchi shifts and evolves as Haikyuu!! goes on.
How One Volleyball Club Changes the Status Quo
During their first year at Karasuno High, Tsukishima and Yamaguchi join the volleyball club. Early on, it becomes pretty apparent that the first years are very talented and have a lot of potential. With Kageyama’s precision sets and all-around talents on the court, Hinata’s amazing quick attack, jumping height, and reflexes, along with Tsukishima’s height and blocking potential, the first years make a name for themselves and are added to the starting lineup. Everyone…except Yamaguchi.
He’s the only first-year to get benched, and he feels the pressure of being left behind. Instead of resigning himself to being a benchwarmer, Yamaguchi starts working hard to improve his volleyball skills. He starts training with a Karasuno-alum Shimada to hone the float serve. Float serves are pretty tough to master, though, and when Yamaguchi does happen to succeed during practice, it’s usually down to luck. So it wasn’t especially consistent yet.
Despite that, during their match with Aoba Josai, Coach Ukai swaps Yamaguchi in as the pinch server. Unlike the other first-years who have had experience on the court in high-stress matches, this is Yamaguchi’s first time in a match of this level and it doesn’t go well. The pressure and stress get to him big time. He messes up the float serve at a pretty critical juncture and it’s devastating.
For Yamaguchi, showcasing the float serve was for more than just scoring Karasuno a point. It was meant to prove his worth on the team and his ability to fight alongside his friends. Messing up the float serve is a major blow to his pride. If there’s an example of how the “yips” is a real challenge and can plague even the best of athletes, Yamaguchi embodies that for much of the show.
If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Again
While Yamaguchi could have easily given up, he didn’t. Throughout Season 2, Yamaguchi continues to train with Shimada to make the float serve more reliable and consistent. It’s a stark contrast to Tsukishima’s attitude towards volleyball (we’ll get to that later), and his hard work ultimately pays off near the finale of Season 2 during their rematch with Aoba Josai, but not without some challenges along the way.
As much as he’s practiced the serve, he’s not free of his nerves and still doesn’t have the same level of experience as the rest of his teammates. After almost messing up a float serve, it’s clear that he’s reminded of his past failure and is afraid of messing up again. So he plays it safe with a normal serve, a decision that ultimately incurs the wrath of Coach Ukai.
As the pinch server, it’s Yamaguchi’s job to earn the team points by using the difficult to receive float serves as a weapon. By not doing that and using a regular serve he’s not using his potential and is effectively running away from his responsibilities, and it eats at him. Yamaguchi knows he messed up, but instead of running away, he apologizes and resolves to do better. He’s brought back in the game as the pinch server and is noticeably more calm and confident this time around. He proceeds to score Karasuno five points almost singlehandedly with the float serve. That’s no small number! It brings Karasuno back into the game and gives them a fighting chance in a set they would have very likely lost without him.
This episode is among my favorites in all of Haikyuu!! because it shows how much strength and resolve Yamaguchi has. He succeeded in proving his worth and redeemed himself. Yamaguchi’s character arc is so strong despite his status as a side character, and as a result, he’s one of the most relatable. He’s pretty normal compared to his teammates but he still always tries his best. He works hard to offset his weaknesses and becomes a stronger player and teammate for it.
How Tsukishima Is The Polar Opposite Of Yamaguchi
Throughout Haikyuu!!, Yamaguchi’s character arc revolves around him applying his passion for volleyball and working hard to be a better player. He practices tirelessly to be of value to the team and is ultimately validated for his hard work. Tsukishima, on the other hand, doesn’t share Yamaguchi’s passion for volleyball…or really anything in the beginning. His arc revolves around his evolution from being an apathetic, dispassionate player to learning to love the sport over time and becoming genuinely invested in getting better.
In the early episodes, Tsukishima is, frankly, a bit of an asshole. He consistently picks on Kageyama and provokes him as often as possible, and his treatment of Yamaguchi isn’t much better. He doesn’t seem to care about him very much, and if anything seems annoyed whenever he follows him around.
When Tsukishima and Yamaguchi join the volleyball club, it’s a way to get an elective to graduate. It’s not something he’s interested in, and he does the bare minimum practice. But since Tsukishima is the tallest player on the team, he doesn’t need to work as hard as somebody like Hinata or Yamaguchi to be good. He has natural instincts, can predict where to block the ball pretty consistently, and on top of all that, has the height to pull it off without breaking a sweat. But the reason for Tsukishima’s blasé attitude isn’t because he’s naturally gifted and doesn’t have to try. Instead, it stems from an eye-opening experience in his childhood that left him disillusioned.
Tsukishima’s older brother, Akiteru, played volleyball when he was in middle and high school. Tsukishima would regularly attend his games in a show of support and deeply admired his brother’s talents. It’s also worth pointing out in their flashbacks that he’s a much happier and nicer kid, and that softer side extends to Yamaguchi as well.
Later when Akiteru joined the high school team, he discouraged them from watching his games as much. Stubborn and wanting to support the person he admired the most, Tsukishima invited Yamaguchi along to one of his last games. Instead of seeing Akiteru on the court, he found him in the stands cheering them on. Not only was his brother not in the starting lineup, but he wasn’t even on the bench.
Tsukishima was jaded, and after that, he stopped trying. Akiteru worked hard, but at the end of the day, he didn’t even make it onto the team. So why should he care? It’s just a club, it doesn’t matter. In Tsukishima’s mind, you can always be replaced and there will always be people who are better than you. Tsukishima has this outlook about volleyball from the very beginning but it isn’t until later that it starts to be an issue with Yamaguchi.
How Yamaguchi Inspires Tsukishima to Change His Perspective
Throughout Season 2 as Yamaguchi trains to improve his float serve (to the annoyance of Tsukishima), they start to drift apart due to their differing priorities. Yamaguchi stays late at night to continually practice the float serve while Tsukishima leaves as soon as he can and doesn’t bother to practice beyond the bare minimum. It bothers Yamaguchi, and with good reason. His best friend, the person he admires and respects the most, isn’t acting worthy of that high praise. Eventually, Yamaguchi’s frustration with Tsukishima’s increasing apathy and non-commital attitude comes to a head and he calls him out on it.
In one of my favorite scenes in the show, Yamaguchi tells Tsukishima he’s “lame” for not trying harder in volleyball, despite having the height and intellect to be amazing at it. At first, Tsukishima’s defensive. He retaliates and questions why he should care when they’ll always lose, and Yamaguchi’s response is perfect. “What more do you need than pride?” It perfectly encapsulates Yamaguchi’s own challenges with regaining his pride after his blunder in the match with Aoba Josai, and it gets through to Tsukishima. It’s the first step to inspiring Tsukishima to change his perspective.
This scene is great for a lot of reasons. It’s the first time we see Yamaguchi genuinely angry at Tsukishima, and it catches him off guard. More importantly, Yamaguchi stops putting Tsukishima on this god-like pedestal. He recognizes that he isn’t a perfect person but still wants him to be better because he looks up to him. There’s a difference between blind admiration and acknowledging when a person has real flaws.
The best part is that Tsukishima acknowledges that Yamaguchi is right, at least to a degree. It’s not like he totally changes his tune and starts to care about volleyball 110%. It takes time for him to fully consider Yamaguchi’s words, and reconcile how much he actually cares about playing the sport. It wouldn’t have happened if anyone else tried to call him out on it.
He talks with other players like Bokuto and Kuroo to get their outlook on what volleyball means to them. He actually starts practicing more again, and the results matter. In addition to getting some great blocks in the Aoba Josai match, he’s more supportive of Yamaguchi and acknowledges how much he’s practiced in the last few months.
These are all necessary stepping stones. But it’s not really until the match with Shiratorizawa that we see his transformation and love of the sport shine. Tsukishima makes it his goal to stop as many of Ushiwaka’s spikes as possible, but it’s no easy feat. Ushiwaka spikes with a ton of power and force, injuring Tsukishima’s hand and several of his fingers over the course of the game as he attempts to stop them.
Eventually, though, the pressure of Tsukishima’s towering presence as a formidable blocker gets to Ushiwaka and he’s able to fully stop one of his attacks in one of the most gut-wrenching and powerful scenes in all of Haikyuu!!. It’s at this moment that Tsukishima finally gets what Yamaguchi, Bokuto, and Kuroo were telling him all along. In a victorious scream and fist pump, Tsukishima becomes “hooked” on volleyball despite his best efforts to not care.
This scene gave me chills the first time I watched it, it’s so emotional and amazing. I also love when it briefly cuts to Yamaguchi on the sidelines, who likely knows just what that victory yell means more than anyone else there. Tsukishimia’s redemption is a major highlight of the show, and easily the best part of Season 3. And good thing, too! I’m not sure if Karasuno could have beaten Shiratorizawa if Tsukishima hadn’t gotten
his shit together so invested.
Later after that match, Tsukishima confides in Yamaguchi that he’s disappointed in himself for not being able to block more Ushiwaka’s spikes. The supportive friend he is, Yamaguchi is quick to call him out and reminds him that he played amazingly. Unlike in Season 1 where Yamaguchi blindly complimented and bragged about Tsukishima, it’s genuine and sincere here. Tsukishima played very well, and he has no reason to be hard on himself. After all, they have bigger things like the Nationals to deal with now!
Some Things Don’t Change All That Much
Based on their interactions later in the show, it may appear that their dynamic hasn’t changed all that much. What’s important though is the way that they’ve individually evolved and changed throughout the show, and it recontextualizes their interactions now. Through his dedication and hard work to grow as a volleyball player, Yamaguchi has proven that he can stand up to Tsukishima and inspire him to change. Similarly, Tsukishima has a newfound passion for volleyball that he wouldn’t have had without Yamaguchi urging him on, even if he still regularly tells him to “shut up.”
I like to think that as often as he tells him to “shut up” in later episodes, it’s his way of acknowledging that what he’s saying is right, as opposed to “stop talking.” I don’t think he actually wants him to stop talking. And I think that’s a great part of their friendship. They feel like they’re on equal footing now where they can speak their minds, really hear each other, and support each other.
Adding Depth With Visual Storytelling & Characterization
A bit of an aside, but I have a point, I promise. Haikyuu!! explores the highs and lows of sports through various visual metaphors. My favorite one is the visual representation of Yamaguchi and Tsukishima’s roles on the team as the “spear” and “shield” of Karasuno. The weapons not only complement each other (they were often used in tandem in medieval times), but these weapon choices also perfectly encapsulate the characters.
Tsukishima is very calculating and shrewd, always analyzing the key moments to time his blocks, and serves as the unstoppable shield for the team. Meanwhile, Yamaguchi is earnest in wanting to help the team and hones the float serve, the best weapon he has, to be Karasuno’s spear of attack and earn points in clutch situations. It’s also worth noting that out of everyone on the team, Tsukishima and Yamaguchi are the only two characters who have weapons visualized and associated with their roles, and have had the longest-lasting friendship out of any of the duos in the show. Coincidence? I think not.
Karasuno is a great team, but it’s the pieces that make it great. It’s not just one person holding the team together. When every single person contributes and owns their role, Karasuno can fly high. It’s a very simple means of visual storytelling, but it’s incredibly effective and really well done.
The Power of Friendship Conquers All
While other friendships like Hinata and Kageyama or Noya and Asahi do experience some change and growth in the early episodes, they actually don’t change that much over the course of the show. Tsukishima and Yamaguchi’s friendship is challenged and strengthened throughout all three seasons of Haikyuu!!, and it’s a testament to the excellent and methodical writing of both of these characters. I can’t wait to see how the friendship continues to evolve in Season 4.
Thank you for reading!