The 2010s have been a pretty solid decade for sports anime: older classics like Hajime no Ippo have continued running strong alongside new contenders like Baby Steps and Chihayafuru while artistic experiments like Ping Pong take the genre in new and exciting directions, and others such as Free signify the slowly shifting demographic of who seems to be the most interested in the genre on the whole. In the midst of all this have emerged two of the most successful and popular sports anime of the last decade: Kuroko no Basuke and Haikyuu.
It’s almost disturbingly easy to draw comparisons between these shows: both are based on manga which originally ran in Weekly Shounen Jump, the most popular manga magazine in the world, and both were adapted to animation by studio Production I.G., who’ve long had a reputation as one of, if not the best studio for producing high-quality TV animation. Both anime adaptations have run for three seasons at the time of this writing, though Haikyuu’s third season is shorter and doesn’t reach the manga’s yet-unseen conclusion as the Kuroko no Basuke adaptation does. Each series has been both very popular and highly beloved–appearing on plenty of favorites’ lists and achieving high scores on aggregate websites.
Diving into the stories themselves, both shows focus on a team sport which take place in a gymnasium and involves a large ball which is handled entirely with the players’ hands. Both take place in high-school and are focused on tournament play between the main team and the teams of other high schools. Both shows start off by focusing on a duo of new players whose particular skillsets feed into one-another very well, making them better as a pair than they would be individually–and then later continue to develop the rest of their team, emphasizing the idea that they work best as a unit.
Both shows are populated primarily by beautiful boys, with barely any women ever appearing in the stories, and the ones who do assuming supporting roles at most. Both are structured around games that typically last for two or three episodes, but get longer as the story goes on, bookended by an episode or two of training and/or hanging out with the main characters off the court.
Opposing teams in either series tend to consist of characters who parallel those on the main team and can counteract their talents in very specific ways; and those teams usually end up comprising the supporting cast as the series goes on, slowly becoming friendly with the main characters.
Now, a lot of what I’ve just described is simply typical of the sports genre, and if I broke down every general anime convention which each story follows, such as the constant cut-aways to the supporting cast to analyze what’s happening during each match, then I’d be here all day. But while it may seem like I’m just accusing these shows of being purely formulaic and indistinguishable, it’s when we start diving deeper into their similarities, and then finding all of the ways that the two series diverge from one another, that we can start to see how, in spite of looking identical from a distance, each series actually has a very unique character–and it may even be that a lot of people who would totally love one might utterly despise the other. Let’s break them down as thoroughly as we can!
–Part One: Design–
By far the biggest and most important difference between these shows is their overall attitude, which permeates every aspect of their presentation and characterization. For instance, let’s have a look at each show’s designs.
Both basketball and volleyball are sports wherein height is a major advantage (as each show is quick to remind the viewer time and again). In Haikyuu, the shortness of the main character, Hinata, is a major plot point–and the titular Kuroko of Kuroko no Basuke is one of the shortest players in his series as well. While Kuroko is two inches taller than Hinata, and while the very tallest characters in Kuroko no Basuke do tower over their sports anime contemporaries; for the most part, both shows are comprised of players who stand at around the same height. Having said that, one could easily be forgiven for assuming that most of the players in Kuroko no Basuke were actually a hell of a lot taller than those in Haikyuu, because they all just look enormous. For example, Imayoshi from Kuroko no Basuke is actually .6 centimeters shorter than Kageyama from Haikyuu–but Imayoshi could easily pass for an adult, whereas Kageyama could probably pass for a middle-schooler.
The reason for this perceived difference is simply a matter of proportions. Characters in Kuroko no Basuke all have broad shoulders, big, well-defined muscles, and proportionally smaller heads. A lot of them could easily pass for grown men, and almost all of them are meant to be able to cut an imposing figure out on the court. Meanwhile, Haikyuu’s characters are skinny, pointy, sleek, and bigger-headed. They look like a bunch of kids–especially in comparison to the adults in the series.
This difference in the physical imposition of each show’s characters makes a lot of sense sense in the context of how threat is communicated in each sport. In volleyball, each team is on the opposite side of a net, and each player is mostly surrounded by their own teammates. While there is some squaring off at the net, wherein height often becomes a big deal; a lot more of the pressure from an attack comes from the unique skill required to pull it off, or the tactical decisions of each team’s players. We don’t often see an attacker and defender in the same frame together, but instead watch separate shots of opponents interacting with the ball.
In basketball, play is a lot more confrontational and in-your-face, as players spend most of their time squaring off against opponents one-on-one. Players have to constantly bump into one-another and knock the ball right out of someone’s hands, or to jump high enough to clear a shot right over their heads. It would be difficult to imagine that the kids from Haikyuu would come off nearly as threatening on the basketball court, wherein a player needs to be able to block a pass using their body as a shield. Likewise, if you had six Kuroko no Basuke players standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a volleyball court, they’d probably look pretty slammed-in.
I’d be willing to bet that these differences in design sense were equal parts the result of each manga author studying the builds of professionals in their sport of choice, as well as their own individual art styles; but the effect of this extends beyond merely reflecting the different natures of each sport–it also plays into how the characters in each series are perceived.
–Part Two: Narrative–
Both Haikyuu and Kuroko no Basuke center their narratives around a newly-reformed high-school team growing stronger and stronger and taking on tougher and tougher opponents–but the level of play happening in each series is totally different. Haikyuu’s characters are presented as relatively normal athletic high schoolers competing on a relatively normal high-school level–whereas the cast of Kuroko no Basuke is loaded with basketball prodigies who are said to be so good that they could change the entire nature of the game after going pro. Even though both teams start off unproven and have to fight their way up through the ranks, the main team in Kuroko no Basuke would probably have been the best team around right from the start if not for the fact that they have to compete with a generation of unnaturally gifted players.
Most of Haikyuu’s important characters are very earnest; they have to work hard to be good enough to compete at all, and they discover their unique talents along the way. Kuroko, meanwhile, is recognized as one of the best players in the story from the very start, and makes it his mission to help his already hugely-talented teammate Kagami to be able to compete against the five members of the Generation of Miracles–a title given to the most talented players. Every member of the Generation of Miracles is exceedingly arrogant and punishingly talented, and Kuroko and Kagami approach their competition against them with plenty of their own cocksure arrogance as well.
In other words, in spite of every character in each show having their own distinct personalities and traits that make them stand out, both shows have an overall character that permeates the way they carry themselves and really sets them apart. Haikyuu is about young men discovering their passions and talents and working their way up to compete on a national level, whereas Kuroko no Basuke is about a bunch of naturally talented and ludicrously skilled players trying to see who can unlock the most over-the-top potential and utterly crush their competition.
Everything about each show’s presentation feeds into these identities. Haikyuu’s gymnasiums are always brightly-lit and full of life–its characters’ facial expressions open and emotional. Kuroko no Basuke colors its stadiums with dark, oppressive atmosphere, and its expressions are often tense, pained, and angry. Haikyuu’s soundtrack sounds like a motivational video, with huge, sweeping orchestration that reaches a crescendo at the emotional peak of a match. Kuroko no Basuke is backed with pulsating, intense hard rock and electronic music in its first season, and then a suspenseful mix of electronic and orchestral instrumentation in later seasons–both soundtracks packing in tons of attitude and aggression during matches.
What all of this feeds into is a fundamental difference in philosophy between the two shows: Haikyuu is an underdog story, whereas Kuroko no Basuke is an overdog story; or to put it in clearer terms, Haikyuu’s development tends to focus on the weakness of its main cast and their learning to overcome it, whereas Kuroko no Basuke focuses on the overwhelming strength of its antagonists, and the main cast learning to overcome that.
Haikyuu spends the majority of its time focusing on the Karasuno team and getting into their heads. We see lots of their off-the-court training and day-to-day interactions, and the matches that they play focus on how they can improve themselves in dealing with the opponent’s skills. Not nearly as much time is spent on showcasing their opponents’ teams, and a lot of the time, only one member of the those teams really gets any backstory or development. Other teams are mostly important only when the matches are actually happening, or when the main characters are thinking back on how those opponents have defeated them previously as a way of getting motivated to train harder and learn new techniques.
Kuroko no Basuke, on the other hand, puts a ton of emphasis on the Generation of Miracles right from the beginning, with an opening monologue that establishes them as the sort of big bosses that the Seirin team is going to have to compete with. Once a Generation of Miracles player has made an appearance in a game, they tend to show up pretty consistently outside of matches or as commentators during them, and their personal development is as important to the overall narrative as any of the main characters–especially because of their unique relationship with Kuroko. The series actually takes this so far that it’s not until late into the first season that the Seirin members other than Kagami or Kuroko start to get any real attention–whereas the opponents are all highly memorable and important as soon as they’re introduced.
–Part Three: Characters–
Both Haikyuu and Kuroko no Basuke focus primarily on a very powerful duo of freshmen who work best in combination. Haikyuu has the genius setter Kageyama, who can get the ball to any precise location on the court with lightning speed; and Hinata, a shorter player who can jump incredibly high and fast, allowing him to hit Kageyama’s best passes. Kuroko no Basuke has the genius passer Kuroko, who can get the ball to any precise location on the court with lightning speed; and Kagami, a taller player who can jump incredibly high and fast, allowing him to catch Kuroko’s best passes. The fact that these players’ heights are flipped, though, is kind of integral to how each is interpreted narratively.
Hinata’s shortness makes him barely able to contend as a volleyball player. If it weren’t for the fact that he can deliver on some amazing fake-outs and high-speed spikes, which only Kageyama can set him up for, then he would essentially be useless. Kagami, on the other hand, is enormously skilled all on his own, and could utterly destroy all but the best players in the game by himself. The only reason he needs Kuroko’s assistance is because his opponents are just that strong.
Similarly, even though Kageyama is amazing as a setter, his perfectionism and harsh personality make him difficult to deal with, and he needs a player with the speed and jumping ability of Hinata to bring out his full potential. Meanwhile, Kuroko would always be a lynchpin in any team he was a part of, though he does need the rest of the team to be great in order to be able to win. The differences between these duos are fairly subtle, but those subtleties alter the tone of each show, along with the way that the relative power levels of the players are perceived.
Haikyuu puts a lot of emphasis on getting characters into the game at all. An early arc revolves around a third-year student who’s given up on volleyball after losing the year before being convinced that he’s needed on the team. Later on, an opposing team has to work up the will to take their game seriously even when they know they’re going to lose. In season two, a new manager is added to the team who never felt passionate about anything in her life up until this point, and learns about how to be driven from watching the team. There’s always this sense that the characters are starting from the bottom and working their way up, and that even their opponents are still training and getting better with a long road ahead of them.
Meanwhile, one of the central conceits of Kuroko no Basuke is that the Generation of Miracles have all been crippled by just how overwhelming their talents actually are. Each one has gotten so conceited and isolated that they believe they can take on the world all by themselves–and for the most part, they are correct. It takes the fact that Kuroko and Kagami–both already very powerful on their own–can work even better as a duo, to start showing them up. Much of the dialog in Kuroko no Basuke revolves around various meditations on the nature of talent and skill, and the limits which can be reached or overcome through each. It very much gives the sense that all of these characters are competing for the title of absolute best, and that to even be compared with one-another at all means that they are nearly at the level of professionals.
None of this is to say that there’s an absolute dichotomy between the two shows. Haikyuu’s characters still do have some incredible talents, and Kuroko no Basuke’s main team is still struggling to take down much more powerful opponents. Haikyuu does have at least one enemy team who stands out with a bunch of memorable characters in the form of Nekoma, and Kuroko no Basuke does explore what happens when certain teammates or entire teams have to grapple with whether they want to continue with the sport after losing. It’s not that the shows are taking an opposite approach, so much as that the many subtle differences between them give them a different kind of vibe. It also seems as though at least Kuroko no Basuke intends to comment on the nature of underdog narratives, with such great lines as one wherein a character points out that it isn’t the stronger team who wins, but the winner who is the stronger team.
–Part Four: Realism–
Feeding further into this tonal divergence is the second most-important difference between the two shows: their level of realism. Haikyuu rarely comes all that close to straining the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Each of its characters has a unique talent, but they’re all pretty normal aspects of volleyball: Hinata’s thing is just that he’s fast and jumps really well; and while Kageyama’s skill is certainly above what most normal humans could have, it doesn’t seem like an unrealistic talent for someone who is considered a sports genius. At most, the skills can be a little bit goofy–but the series goes out of its way to show the characters failing all the time anyways, either through bad execution of their techniques, or through being outdone by an opponent’s skill.
Kuroko no Basuke, meanwhile, is barely contained within the realm of human possibility. All of the major characters have absurd special moves which, while explained well enough to work in the context of the narrative, could probably never be done in reality. One guy can perfectly copy nearly any move that he’s seen at least once. One guy just never misses a shot, with the caveat that it takes him a little more time to wind up. Characters often completely change direction in midair, or utilize tricks of perception which are presented in such an over-the-top fashion as to seem outright ridiculous. In the second season, when characters start busting out even crazier super-moves, and when “the zone” is introduced as a sort of super-saiyan state that characters go into wherein their animation quality spikes and they can basically do anything, the show rides the line of unreality pretty hard, if never completely falling off the wagon. The only things which are literally impossible are some of the midair direction changes, which come off less as any kind of actual skill that the players have, and more as the animation presenting those moments awkwardly.
The drama in Haikyuu feels very grounded and human, as characters are faced with predicaments that the average sportsman in high school could probably relate to. Kuroko no Basuke instead makes it very clear that its characters are outliers, and asks questions about the nature of talent which only one in a million players would ever likely have to deal with. Again, this isn’t to say that the two shows don’t share a few of the same scenarios, but on the whole Kuroko no Basuke has more in common with the themes of a superhero narrative than it does with the average high school narrative–whereas Haikyuu’s conflicts are fairly pedestrian.
This separation in realism is perhaps the most tangible difference between the two stories, and the one that is most likely to effect the viewer’s enjoyment of them–though personally, I really think that each show’s level of realism does a great job of feeding into their overall attitude, and will probably appeal to the same kind of audience who would appreciate the rest of their presentation.
It feels right for the characters in Kuroko no Basuke to be over-the-top arrogant badasses, because the show is about the way that people are affected by developing over-the-top badass talents and arrogant personalities. Meanwhile, it would feel very wrong if some of the humble kids in Haikyuu were suddenly using ninja arts out on the volleyball court.
But while this difference in attitude might be the biggest contributing factor to an individual audience member’s engagement with each series, there are still plenty of other differences in construction quality which might sway viewers towards one series or the other.
–Part Five: Quality–
In terms of the visual component, both shows are overall incredibly strong for shounen manga adaptations, and are peppered all over with highly memorable spikes in animation quality at some of their most important moments. Both shows continue to get more consistently impressive with each passing season, though I do think that the first season of Haikyuu is unquestionably more consistent than that of Kuroko no Basuke, which can be pretty janky in some of its worst moments. Neither show is ever outright ugly, though both of them do seem to allocate their best animators to where it counts–assuming more of a typical moving-manga aesthetic during most of the off-the-court scenes.
Either show has a handful of really strong edits alongside a handful of utterly baffling ones, and a couple of truly cringeworthy montages per season. Kuroko no Basuke leans a lot harder on visual metaphor and crazy effects, and makes pretty fantastic use of them during a lot of its biggest scenes. Comparatively, Hakyuu’s visual metaphors are usually pretty boring and lacking in impact, with some of the crow imagery getting run into the ground pretty quickly. Overall, I think that Kuroko no Basuke both achieves much higher highs and much lower lows in its presentation, whereas Haikyuu is a lot more consistently impressive. I also think it’s fair to say that Haikyuu’s character designs are overall a lot more uniquely stylish and memorable, whereas a lot of those in Kuroko no Basuke are fairly generic.
Each series does falter majorly in one area where the other more-or-less succeeds, though; and whether or not these elements dramatically effect the viewer will probably come down to how much they buy into the show’s overall attitude, or care about these specific attributes.
Haikyuu’s biggest failing is in its overall dramatic structure–which it almost doesn’t have. The series rarely does a good job of setting up future matches or making its opponents interesting–and at times, its most important matches seem to start out of nowhere, with it only becomes apparent just how important the matches are once they’ve suddenly been going on for seven episodes. It’s often difficult to keep track of which team is winning or how well they’re doing over the course of a match, and we see so much filler play while also skipping over large chunks of matches that it can be very difficult to follow the dramatic tension. If not for the viewer’s knowledge that there are certain tournaments which the team is going to compete in, then it would be difficult to get a grasp on what we’re meant to expect in the story’s future–and even then, the series does a poor job of generating hype for itself.
Kuroko no Basuke, meanwhile, makes it very clear that the point of the story is to put the main team against each of the five teams led by the Generation of Miracles; and it immediately gets us curious about who each of them are and what they can do. Every match has a ton of buildup and dramatic weight, with opponents getting introduced long before their matches happen and having their talents established early-on. If a match ends before the episode is over, then we’re almost guaranteed to find out who the next challenger is going to be by the time the credits roll, which keeps us anxious about what the next match is going to be like and how the main team is going to develop the skills necessary to win it.
As for maintaining dramatic tension in the matches themselves, Kuroko no Basuke focuses only on showing the most important parts of each match and makes it very clear which teams are doing well and what the score is at all times. Even when it cuts out parts of the match, we can easily follow how it’s going and who’s been doing what. Thanks to the fact that basketball games are broken into four different ten-minute sections, the changing tides of battle are pretty easy to chart across the length of the game–and since those games are essentially the same length as how long they take to happen across two or three episodes, it feels like we’re seeing the game in its entirety–even though we’re really giving a lot of time to important moments and speeding our way through less-important ones.
Unfortunately, Kuroko no Basuke also has a major narrative weakness, which is the nearly constant retconning. Because the series is always moving at a brisk pace from game to game and keeping its energy up, it often takes a while before we learn certain elements of the backstory–which, in many cases, are crucial to the nature of the narrative. Learning about a character’s backstory will often lead to them suddenly knowing or being able to do things which it seems like they should have known or been able to do before. It’s not so much that any of it completely breaks the story, but it can really feel like some of these things would’ve been set up earlier if maybe the author had planned them from the beginning and accounted for them in the way the story was presented. There’s only maybe one or two minor instances of something reaching the level of an outright plot hole, but it can definitely be distracting to have a new character appear in the story who it turns out was important to half of the other characters all this time and they just never mentioned him.
Haikyuu doesn’t really face this problem because its backstory isn’t nearly as complex. Most characters have pretty individual narratives which aren’t intertwined in the way that those of Kuroko no Basuke are; and most of the development is based around characters building from one-another in the present rather than dwelling too much on the past; whereas the main thrust of the story in Kuroko no Basuke is a direct consequence of how the characters’ pasts have shaped each of them.
Those issues aside, I would also argue that the characters in Kuroko no Basuke are vastly more memorable and engaging than those in Haikyuu–with the caveat that their personalities are also a bit more quirky and less relatable. Most of the characters in Haikyuu simply have one defining personality trait and one general overall skill, whereas each character in Kuroko no Basuke expresses a broader range of emotional moods and has more than one gimmick both in their personalities and skillsets. The characters in Kuroko no Basuke are certainly a lot more cartoony and unrealistic, but they offer a lot more opportunities to be empathized with because we get to see them in a greater number of emotional scenarios. That said, I could easily see some viewers preferring the more straightforward characters in Haikyuu, as they might be easier for the average person to project themselves onto.
All in all, as with any matter of taste, I think that a viewer’s ability to engage with either of these shows is really going to come down to what they value from entertainment. Personally, I found that the attitude and vibe of Kuroko no Basuke jived with me perfectly, and I was able to relate to most of the characters pretty easily; whereas Haikyuu kind of bored me to tears overall. I’m sure that some people would be a lot more bothered by the super-powered shenanigans and all of the retcons and asspulls that Kuroko no Basuke runs with, but personally I was so engaged by its strong narrative arc that I was on-board for all of it from pretty early on; whereas Haikyuu had me really struggling to care about anything that was happening, even as I was being impressed with the visual flair. If neither one of these series really seems like your cup of tea, though, then may I suggest some shows that I think handle the same kinds of feelings as these ones much better.
Baby Steps follows a character with a lot of the same earnest optimism that Hinata from Haikyuu has–but who is a much more deeply fleshed-out and lovable character that I could watch forever just because I want to see where his story is going to go. The series follows Ei-chan from the ground up as someone who wasn’t even physically fit enough to consider playing tennis, but eventually strives to go pro; and who rises through the ranks to become all that he can while making friends and rivals along the way. It’s not a team-sports narrative, but if you like the emotions, optimism, and relative realism of Haikyuu, then you might enjoy Baby Steps as well.
As for a show that handles pretty much all of the same themes about talent, skill, and competitiveness that Kuroko no Basuke does in a vastly more mature fashion, I would highly recommend checking out Ping Pong. This is a show that stakes everything on the intense passions of its characters’ talents and is ruthless in its presentation of competition; with unparalleled levels of visual metaphor and epic music to back it. In a way, you could say it’s Kuroko no Basuke for adults, and while it’s characters may not be as imminently lovable, it delivers on some much more hard-hitting and heart-stopping scenes.
I hope you enjoyed this rundown of the differences between these popular sports anime, and that you’ll share this video to anyone whom you think it may interest, and subscribe to my channel for more content like this in the future. If you want to help that content to get made, then consider supporting me via patreon as well. I also recommend following all of my other channels which are linked in the description and on-screen if you want videos that aren’t as polished but upload waaaay more often. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!