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Hanebado! is a sports anime that finally brings strong women to the court

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Badminton... is cool

Nagisa mid-strike. Toho Animation

Despite being an anime fan, I spent a long time avoiding sports anime, which struck me as too masculine. While I’m definitely not averse to male protagonists — I would have watched a lot less anime otherwise — every sports series looked like one drawn-out match, and real sports aren’t my thing. But eventually, enough Tumblr buzz about the goofy, palatable 2013 series Free! Iwatobi Swim Club pushed me into the pool, and diving for pearls.

Which brings us to a new sports anime, Hanebado!, now streaming on Crunchyroll. A total thrill and great relief. the series finally bring women off the sidelines and onto the same field as their male counterparts. Rather than functioning as a women’s team that pops up when the boys need cheering on or as side characters, women bring the zest for competition to Hanebado! just as much as any of the spirited sports anime protagonists we know and love.

Hanebado! is focused on Kitakomachi High School’s badminton team, which lacks both players and a significant team drive. Ayano Hanesaki, a first-year student, has prodigal ability but no desire play. On the other hand, third-year Nagisa Aragaki works tirelessly to become the best player in Japan. The two have a troubled past and are both struggling with their relation to the sport, but coming from very different places. It’s a battle of talent and tireless work that pits the girls as seemingly inevitable rivals despite their position on the same team.

[Warning: spoilers for the first episode Hanebado! ahead.]

The first sequence of Hanebado!’s premiere episode, which depicts a badminton match that takes place six months before the action of the series, is desperate and intense. As the match goes on, Nagisa despairs, making comments like, “What have I been doing this for?” and “I hit it and I hit it, but it keeps coming back.” Her conquered tone makes sense at the end — the final score of the match is 21-0.

Her opponent turns out to be Ayano Hanesaki, who Nagisa meets again six months later. Ayano’s feelings emerge after the match — we catch her in front of her locker crying over a magazine clipping depicting another blonde girl and a woman with a badminton trophy, describing them as a prodigy and “the queen,” respectively. While we haven’t met the blonde prodigy quite yet, the trailer above suggests that she may appear later in the series. As for “the queen?” From the trailer, we know that she’s Ayano’s mother and presumably a badminton legend. She was present at this match too — we catch a glimpse of her as she leaves the gym. The scene as a whole showcases Ayano’s doubt about her motivations and place in the sport despite her dominating success.

The first sequence is superb, bringing the kind of action and emotional height that I’d expect from a climatic volleyball match in Haikyuu!! rather than a series opener. You can taste the saltiness of the sweat flinging off of Nagisa’s body, and both girls fly across the court in a way that makes both their exhaust and energy real. The sequence also introduces the protagonists while providing glimpses of supporting characters sitting in the stands. Most importantly, it very clearly poses the driving question of the show: “What am I playing badminton for?”

Ayano after the match.
Toho Animation

The animation quality and emotional current continue throughout the episode, even as the tone mellows later on. There’s some classic tropes along the way — gaggles of girls fawn over an attractive tennis star and a new badminton coach comes off creepy at first glance and overzealous (but probably endearing) at second.

It’s a bit difficult to discern who the main character is at first, as the focus shifts to Riko Izumi, the team’s vice-captain, and Elena Fujisawa, Ayano’s childhood best friend. Nagisa and Ayano don’t reunite in full until the end of the episode when Elena drags her friend to the badminton club. I’m assuming that Ayano and Nagisa will soon fall into place as the central protagonists, but it’s reassuring to see a fully fleshed out set of supporting characters that narratively hold their own from the get-go.

Aside from a breathtaking opening sequence and excellent introduction to the series that honestly just makes badminton look really, really cool, Hanebado! is noteworthy for its focus on women. Many major sports anime — Free!, Haikyuu!!, and Yuri!!! on Ice immediately come to mind — focus on masculine divisions of their respective sports. While Haikyuu!! features the Karasuno High School’s women’s volleyball team from time to time and Yuri!!! on Ice occasionally pivots to female skaters, girls are typically team managers, love interests, advisors, or some combination thereof. The most recent female-centric sports anime is Keijo!!!!!!!! (you can’t make those exclamation points up, folks), which aired in 2016. While it’s focused on girls in sport, the sport is … well, the sport is knocking other girls off a platform and into the water with either your breasts or butt.

In its first episode, Hanebado! depicts women as driven, despairing, and headstrong in the same fashion as many male sports anime protagonists. Furthermore, the characters are physically strong — a shot of Nagisa’s thighs flexing as she digs into the court to make a swing has been making the rounds as a GIF on Twitter. Not only is the animation stunningly detailed, but you feel that thigh flex in your soul. It’s powerful, and very much appreciated in a medium where women’s the obvious ogling of women’s butts and breasts is a well-tread trope.

Hanebado! is poised to take its place among the greats of sports anime — with a thorough exposition, gorgeous animation, and an excellent supporting cast, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t. I’m thrilled to see women take the court in what’s shaping up to be one of the best anime of summer 2018.

New episodes of Hanebado! are available Sundays at 12 A.M. ET/9 A.M. PT on Crunchyroll. The official number of episodes is currently unknown (although a Chinese streaming site lists 13), but we’ll update this post once information becomes available.