Back when HANEBADO! (or The Badminton Play of Ayano Hanesaki!) first aired, I found it to be a combination of compelling character drama and kinetic badminton matches. It might have been a little melodramatic at times, but the atmosphere was solid and the badminton – the prologue match in particular – was astounding. I was certain that this unexpectedly gripping sports drama would be a highlight of the season; unfortunately, it proved to be a bit of a dud.
Still, HANEBADO! isn’t a complete wreck, especially when it comes to the sport itself. The matches provided a good enough reason to tune into the show week after week. Finely animated, and even rotoscoped in certain parts, the episodes are a joy to behold. The players move with impressive fluidity, and the sounds that accompany their movement make me feel like I’m right beside the court – the sound of shoes scraping against the court surface transporting me back to my primary school days. Meanwhile, the exchange of smashes and swings create excitement akin to that of a fight scene, and some of the showdowns offered the kind of genuine hype I seldom get from action anime these days. It’s not just pure physical action, however, as we often get to hear the players’ or spectators’ thoughts during games. More importantly, these thoughts complement the action and draw the audience in, rather than coming across as frustrating distractions.
While the badminton aspect deftly maintains its footing throughout the show, the drama portion partly loses its way fairly quickly. The seams start to unravel as early as the second episode, when Kitakomachi High’s badminton captain and deuteragonist, Nagisa Aragaki, manages to overcome her slump – owing to a previous defeat at the hands of title character Ayano Hanesaki – following a game with coach Tachibana Kentaro. After two episodes of measured pacing, this quick resolution felt abrupt and unearned, and it’s not the only instance in the series.
Despite the overly speedy resolution, the preceding drama that stems from Nagisa’s slump feels solid. But, after she gets over it, the story becomes a bit harder to engage with. There are themes about friendship and talent vs. practice, but while tasty, they don’t feel fully-baked, mentioned often enough but not fully delved into. The various arcs don’t connect in a wholly satisfactory manner, making the serial aspect of the show feel a bit rough. However, the biggest shame is that while the seeds for a season-long arc with engrossing character development and conflict are planted by the show, it is carelessly nurtured. Protagonist Ayano is shown early on to have lost interest in badminton, joining Kitakomachi’s club only at the insistence of her best friend and fellow first-year, Elena. It’s later revealed that her mother Uchika, a notable badminton champion, left her for unexplained reasons after a loss (and while she was sick in bed to boot), and even groomed and raised another badminton prodigy overseas. That prodigy, Connie Christensen, shows up a few episodes later, intending to face off with Ayano to prove herself to their mother.
It sounds so juicy and captivating, and Ayano and Connie’s first meeting on the court certainly had me hyped for their battle and whatever was to come next. Sadly, the potential ends up being squandered by the show. We instead have Connie, after her antagonistic debut, suddenly wishing to be family with Ayano. While her fast metamorphosis from her initial team-hating personality was somewhat believable, not even the relevant episode’s flashback scenes could properly reconcile this desire with her previous behavior towards our protagonist. Ayano herself doesn’t fare well either. After learning about Connie’s relationship with her mother, she develops a cold and mercilessly competitive personality with dead eyes, as well as a tendency to trash talk both teammates and opponents.
Ayano’s dark side is greatly entertaining at first, especially when she serves a crushing defeat to an annoying, pink-haired rival during the preliminary tournament arc. But it’s not long before this new side of her comes across as a shallow and insubstantial method of developing her character and story. Uchika’s re-entry into Ayano’s life doesn’t improve things either. Making it worse is it displays how determined the show is to make Ayano look increasingly evil. Her new side is enjoyably badass at first, but it quickly becomes dull and even comical, though it’s not nearly as funny as the penultimate episode’s decision to make her look abruptly aged during her match.
While I struggled to enjoy this main arc, HANEBADO! fortunately has various moments and character-arcs that shine brightly. These mini-arcs flesh out their characters better than the main one does, particularly because they let us peek into their thoughts and thus understand them better. If there is a downside to them, it is that – like in Aragaki and Connie’s cases – the resolutions to the characters’ issues arrive a bit too quickly, but I’d take that over Ayano’s long but soulless story.
The best of these come from the preliminary tournament arc, particularly the ones that focus on the Kitakomachi’s opponents. One match focuses on Nozomi Ishizawa, a former schoolmate of Aragaki and vice-captain Riko Izumi. Her playstyle is heavily dictated by her coach, to the point that he incessantly screeches orders during games, something which draws the ire of even our protagonists (sans Ayano). It’s not till the end that she finally decides to play badminton her way, and her arc, while not surprising in its conclusion, felt satisfying. Another puts the spotlight on Kaoruko Serigaya, Ayano’s aforementioned pink-haired rival. While I wished for a crushing and humbling defeat for her, the show did manage to make Kaoruko a compelling point-of-view character by showing the physical and mental effort she puts in on and off the court, all in order to match Ayano’s raw skill and talent. It also helps that their showdown is simply heart-pounding and stylish. I’d even call it the climax of HANEBADO!, with the final match of the show simply paling in comparison.
As the show neared its conclusion, I frequently wondered as to whether the final episode would salvage Ayano’s arc a little, or completely sink it. The answer is that it’s a mixed bag. There are some nice poignant moments, and the return of Ayano’s cute side easily charmed me. However, it wraps up the drama too neatly considering everything that happened, and Connie’s absence in the last few episodes just doesn’t feel right either, considering her role in setting Ayano off on her dark path. Hence, it doesn’t affect my verdict: HANEBADO! delivers smashing badminton matches and great dramatic moments, but the overarching arc of its titular character doesn’t land in the court.