A term that’s remarkably under-addressed when it comes to writing is progress. It’s the life blood of almost any story that is not an episodic citcome. For instance, I’ve seen video essays and read reviews highlighting Breaking Bad’s directing, its writing, the acting, but never a focused conversation on the feeling of progress as a mild mannered science teacher becomes a drug kingpin. And even in the case of the aforementioned exception – the episodic sitcom – what sets shows like the Office apart is its drawn out development of Jim and Pam’s office romance. A show could have remarkable acting, cinematography, pacing, etc, but easily lose people’s interest without proper progress.
If you look at the reasons that a lot of shows decline, I believe the answer stays the same – it all has to do with progress. Eventually Jim and Pam got together, eventually the Walking Dead ran out of the sense of anything to aspire to. And if there is any genre that is most aware of a feeling of progress, it’s a shonen anime. The genre is all about getting stronger, defeating the next powerful enemy, learning the next powerful attack.
But progress is a finite and tricky resource to manage. Give too much progress too quickly and you run out of goals for the characters to accomplish. Progress too slowly and you lose the audience’s interest. I recently read Manga in Theory and Practice by Araki (the man behind JoJo) and he actually talks quite a bit about progress, warning how “Just like the economic bubble, the problem is what happens after you’ve reached the top.” Eventually the character progresses to the point where any further progress will feel superficial or simply less satisfying.
And yes, you can always make a more powerful enemy – this one destroys planets, this one galaxies, this one the very fabric of time and space. But at a certain point the scale is so vast one can no longer appreciate the scope of the progress.
This brings me to Haikyuu, one of the shows I have been watching in the midst of Covid quarantine. Probably the strongest feature of this show is how terrifically it balances the feeling of progress throughout, not just as a mechanism of the plot, but as a part of its theme.
The show follows a particular volleyball team as it goes from underdog to powerhouse. This formula is not all that uncommon, but there is a real difficulty in telling a proper underdog story. After all, we don’t actually want to follow a weak team that can’t win, but we also want to see someone come back from behind. We have to believe they can win it all, but also fear they could lose at any moment.
Perhaps one of the most important lines early on is delivered by the captain, when he explains that the team is not great, but not bad either. An important aspect of progress is choosing a starting point. The obvious choice is to start at the bottom, giving you the most room to move up. But we also want our hero to be exceptional- a loser, but a talented loser.
Going back to Breaking Bad for a moment, our protagonist starts out as a loser who makes next to nothing as a science teacher, who has cancer and a son with cerebral palsy. He emits no cool whatsoever and has everything working against him. But, he’s also a genius scientist who helped found a multi-million dollar company and is credited with contributions to a Nobel prize in science.
In other words, a lot of progress is an illusion. We feel like Walter White is the underdog, which makes him satisfying to root for, but he’s able to synthesize the ultimate meth in just one episode.
Progress, in other words, is a lot about smoke and mirrors. It’s about convincing the audience to feel a certain way. And Haikyuu does this terrifically, creating as much of a feeling of progress as possible. When our protagonists first join the Kurasano volley ball team, two members are no longer on the team, arguably the two best out of the original roster, because they were shaken up from a devastating loss last season.
It’s a pretty simple conflict that is easily resolved, but this is a clever choice by the writer. As the players are slowly added back, the team feels like it’s growing, even though it’s simply gaining back the roster it originally had.
The show is also clever in that it manages to have a great feeling of progress throughout the first season, despite the fact that very little is made. Kurasano wins their first practice match, against one of the very best teams in their area, giving a feeling of payoff to the viewer. But the other team is missing its star player, and it is clear that the win doesn’t really count.
This is how Haikyuu solves the fundamental issue of progress. See, the issue is this: if the hero is able to beat a very powerful enemy too early, it all seems too easy and there is nowhere left to go. But if they don’t get good fast, the viewer loses interest. In the case of Haikyuu, Kurasano plays only the last few points of the match against the other team’s star player, and of those points they manage to only win one – the one point they need to win. Haikyuu cheats, letting the heroes beat one of the best teams only a few episodes in, while also making clear they can’t actually beat that team.
Not in a real match.
By the end of season two, Kurasano only manages one real win, against the team Data Tech. Data Tech is hyped up throughout the season as the team that beat Kurasano last year and crushed their spirits. This makes the win satisfying and a clear indicator of progress for the team. But their only other win this whole season is against a very weak team. By the end of season one, Kurasano is not even that good, but they feel strong because they were only a point away from beating their rival, the team they managed to beat in their first practice match.
So, on the one hand, they nearly managed to beat a very powerful team. On the other hand, they lost because the other team figured out how to beat them. Had they played a hundred games after that, it is likely Kurasano would not win a single one. Haikyuu is so clever about making our heroes feel simultaneously invincible and powerless.
In fact, as season two starts and Kurasano attends a training camp, it’s members remark how they are the weakest team out of the whole lot. The show so accurately emulates the feeling of progress – slow and hard fought for. One does not get better over night, or over one season. And yet, in the moment, it feels like our characters are growing incredibly quickly.
Apart from using the show to impart writing advice, I’d obviously love to recommend it to anyone looking for a something to watch during Covid. Particular stand out episodes include “Winners and Losers” from season one and “Greed” from season two.
In “Winners and Losers,” Kurasano competes in their first actual match. The challenge is how to make Kurasano appear like they have progressed. They’re up against a weak team, so they’ll obviously dominate, but beating a bunch of nameless underdogs hardly makes they seem powerful. This is where the story takes a really interesting turn, switching the point of view to the weaker team.
By telling the story from a new perceptive, we now see Kurasano in a new light – they are terrifying and unstoppable – we don’t see their dorky, humanizing moments. We don’t see the tremendous thought and uncertainty behind each play – only powerful spikes and impossible receives.
The underdog team also happens to resemble Kurasano and it’s players when they were much weaker. Not only does this give the episode an almost metaphorical feel, as Kurasano defeats their past selves, but it adds to the stakes. The losers worked hard too. This sport, and life, can be brutal. And yet, at the end of the day, there can only be one winner.
The rest will go home in tears.
The episode is also somewhat meta, as the characters on the losing team remark how, if this were a TV drama, they would be background extras. It’s a relatable notion, one that pushes at the boundary of the narrative. This writer is clearly quite hyper aware of storytelling convention. And this hyper awareness extends to the episode “Greed” as well, when a rival coach observes Kurasano, remarking how there are but two paths – to stagnate and stick with what works, or to evolve (and risk everything).
This sentiment extends to the show itself, already deep into the story and clearly a hit. It could have coasted. But instead this episode resets everything, breaking the fundamental rules that made the show work from the very start.
The once cohesive team breaks down, and the characters all fall out of orbit, set on separate paths, to improve in isolation. But the break up is not contrived. They are still friends, still getting along. They are still a team, just one with more separate practice.
Now there is tension.
While still being affable and a team player, the main character has become something of a monster. His ambition made him try to steal a spike from the team’s ace, not consciously, but by instinct.
With so many Shōnen about young men with the ability to punch holes in mountains, it’s a miracle they all remain so down to earth and well adjusted. Sure, seeing them become assholes would not be much fun, but Haikyuu manages to explore this notion without actually making anyone unlikable. In fact, this changing awareness of talent just becomes a part of the progress. It’s such a simple notion, but a critical one – progress can be felt not only through an increase in status or power, but by a change in personality.
Anyways, I’ve gone on long enough about Haikyuu, but check it out if you’re curious. For any aspiring writers, it’s a pretty great example of well paced, meaningful progression. If there is any weakness, it would be its status as a sports anime. Every confrontation is ultimately set to the same format – a match of volleyball. Whereas other Shōnen anime can go from a race, to a cooking competition, to a game of dodgeball, (actual examples from Hunter X Hunter) Haikyuu has no such luxury. Still, it’s amazing, and you should at least give it a gander.
Until next time.