Tsukishima Kei is perhaps the biggest slow-burn character in Haikyuu!! This week saw his development finally culminate in the anime, as he blocks a spike from nationally-famous player Ushijima Wakatoshi.
When we’re first introduced to Tsukishima at the very beginning of the series, he’s a smug, stand-offish character who seems to try very little and looks only to agitate others. However, as you gradually find out more about him, you realise that he is guarded and non-committed for good reasons.
At this early point in the series, you either love him or hate him for his smugness and sarcasm because, for a little while, it’s all he has.
However, even as early as the very first practice match about Aoba Johsai, you can see that he dislikes being looked down on and even looks to protect Karasuno’s reputation.
You see glimpses of this underlying desire to compete during numerous matches and Yamaguchi confirms later in the series that, although he may not give 100% all the time, Tsukishima hates to lose. Daichi notes that ever since their first 3-on-3 practice game, he never worried about Tsukishima because he sensed that underlying drive to win.
There’s lots to be said about Takeda, and later Yachi, being the audience surrogate as a way of providing more exposition about the sport of volleyball. However, I think that Tsukishima’s slow shift in attitude is comparable to somebody watching or reading their first sports series.
Think about it. For a long time he wonders how on earth people can take this so seriously, when it’s literally just an after-school club. Much like some members of the audience, he’s wondering why there’s so many teenagers screaming and yelling about sports all the time.
He cannot comprehend trying so hard, because there is always another level above you, that you will never reach.
Yet, he doesn’t ever quit.
He sticks with volleyball, just like the audience watching. Just like him, we get more and more invested, until it becomes impossible for him to avoid it anymore. Tsukishima’s narrative is all about discovering his love for volleyball, a type of narrative that I absolutely adore (see: Amanchu!).
An incredibly important aspect of Tsukishima’s character is that, although he doesn’t hate volleyball, he won’t allow himself to love it.
He saw the pain it caused his older brother Akiteru, which only happened because he cared so deeply about volleyball. Being left on the bench and shattering the illusion of being the ace to his younger brother tore him apart. So, Tsukishima distances himself and suppresses any joy or enthusiasm, in fear of becoming too invested in the sport and suffering the same fate as Akiteru.
He turns away from people who try too hard, because in them he sees his older brother.
There is always someone better, someone who can and will surpass you.
It’s his best friend Yamaguchi, someone who could be considered much less ‘cool’ than himself, who gets him to realise that none of this really matters.
It doesn’t matter if there is someone better, you do your best and you do your best to win, because there is nothing more you can do. This isn’t just true in volleyball, but in all walks of life. If not being number one stopped you from doing everything, you would be left with nothing.
This is emphasised during his conversation with Bokuto, Kuroo and Akaashi about how Bokuto got hooked on volleyball.
That moment was the huge ‘foreshadowing’ flag being raised. It was a signifier that, like the rest of Karasuno, Tsukishima was also going to grow as a player and a person. He has the physical talent and a huge mental capacity to read the game, but he still lacks the passion to have fun playing volleyball.
The reveal that Bokuto only recently began finding volleyball fun was perhaps a spark of hope for Tsukishima, that his ‘moment’ could be just on the horizon.
Tsukishima is not like many of the other players that we meet in the series. He does not express himself in ways such as ‘whoosh!’ and ‘fwoar!’, but instead with logic and an analytical mind.
The first time you see a glimpse of this is during the practice match against Fukurodani, when he attempts a ‘kill block’ against Bokuto. You can sense that his moment is coming, but it seems fitting that his development would crescendo against one of the top five spikers in the entire country.
Throughout the first two sets against Shiratorizawa you see as Tsukishima gradually begins to figure out how to stop Ushijima. As Yachi says, it’s like he’s 100% focused to solving a difficult question. He accounts for everything going on, on the court, and uses it to his advantage.
Not only this, but you see him slowly becoming more invested in the game. As this investment builds and builds, the expectation for an emotional pay-off grows larger.
He begins taking control of block timings and even advising other players on their movements. Slowly, methodically, Tsukishima guides Karasuno as they chip away at Shiratorizawa’s composure, waiting for a small crack in the armour.
I have to be honest, this sequence rivals the final rally between Karasuno and Aoba Johsai. Everything about it was just utterly fantastic. The use of silence in particular is a great way to signify both the tension and the fact that this entire sequence encompasses such a small few seconds.
Again, Furudate’s detailed eyes are just so vivid on the close-up shots and are the perfect way to convey focus, particularly when we see the ball in the reflection of a character’s eyes.
I also really like the fact that although Tsukishima uses a blocking tactic he learnt from Kuroo during the Tokyo training camp, there’s no callback to this moment. It not only highlights Tsukishima’s ability to observe and memorise, but also shows that he is now thinking and analysing the best way to block at all times.
Ushijima’s look of shock and disbelief is also great. This could genuinely be the first time he’s been blocked in god-knows how long and to be blocked by a first-year is such a huge upset.
The use of freeze-frames and repetition emphasises the magnitude of the situation, as the ball thunders to the ground.
The manga panel for this moment is fantastic, but the anime perfectly captures the sheer elation in his movement in a way that just isn’t possible in a still manga panel. The shaking camera especially is a great touch. After stifling his emotions for so long, this release of joy is just so incredibly fulfilling to watch.
He is literally shaking with adrenaline and can you really blame him?
People yell a lot in sports anime, it’s just a thing that happens. It might just be because we’ve never heard it before, but Tsukishima’s yell is so incredibly genuine. The way it is timed perfectly with the faster remix of ‘Moonrise’ just had me yelling with him.
Whereas a lot of the other in-game pieces in the soundtrack are high-intensity pieces with guitars and fast-paced string instruments, ‘Moonrise’ is much more electronic. Just like Tsukishima it has much more of an analytical, digital feel that makes it very unique to the soundtrack.
He isn’t just celebrating this block, but every single one that came before it.
It was only one block.
It was just one point out of 25.
This is just a club, but Tsukishima finally gets it.
It’s not just him, his teammates and everyone supporting Karasuno in the stands are just so happy for him. Despite his sharp sarcasm, Tsukishima does have friends and teammates that want to see him grow and improve.
The feeling of exhilaration and adrenaline is just as Bokuto said: it feels like his time has come. As the lunar eclipse hangs over the court, Tsukishima leads Karasuno into the third set of the Miyagi prefectural final.
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