Tanji Washijou – One Of Sports Anime’s Best Antagonists (Haikyuu!!)

It is somewhat easy to characterize our self-worth
using our own limitations and become bitter and unyielding in response to those limitations. When you come face-to-face with a hurdle that
you can’t seem to overcome, the hardest thing is, naturally, working yourself to the
bone to try and overcome it, and in the end, actually overcoming it. Concurrently, The less difficult thing to
do is to admit defeat and resign yourself to the idea that it was impossible. Because in that case, all of the blame lies
with the unfairness of the world, and none with you. It doesn’t matter how hard you could have
worked – it would have been a waste of time, because it was impossible. And convincing yourself of this is the key
to moving on – Devastated but resigned to the fact that life just didn’t give you
a good hand. And so, from then on, it is natural to give
into confirmation bias – looking for any evidence that you were correct in thinking that your
specific hurdle was impossible, and trying your best to ignore proof of the contrary
and that nagging feeling that maybe.. if you had tried just a little bit harder.. you could
have done it. It’s an organic human reaction – we don’t
want to believe that we could have achieved the dream we gave up on, so we pretend as
though it was impossible, because the alternative results in an unthinkable destruction of one’s
self-worth. This is the sad journey of Tanji Washijou,
who I consider to be one of the most beautifully executed characters in the entirety of Haikyuu. It’s the journey of a man who lived and
breathed volleyball as a boy, who worked hard to achieve his dream to go professional, but
was ultimately told by coaches that he wouldn’t be able to make it due to his lack of height. His life was spent looking upon strong and
tall players with envy and admiration for their ability to scale the walls that he could
not, and everything he was told by others reinforced this envy. As such, Washijo believed what they said to
be the truth, and gave up on his dream to become a coach instead. As you’d expect, he didn’t grow up a happy-go-lucky
and overly enthusiastic coach, but one of strict discipline and bitterness – and the
reason this makes sense is two-fold. Firstly, giving up on his heartfelt desire
and passion would undoubtedly cause someone to become disillusioned with existence in
general, so enthusiasm would naturally be hard to come by as life went on and it’s
really no wonder that he became the grumpy old man we see in the story. And second, the strictness helped ensure that
his teams would be able to be the best they could be, which is important to him for deeply-rooted
reasons aside from just wanting to have success. Now, at the time of the story, Washijo had
crafted his team to be the antithesis to what he was as a player to reflect his adherence
to this idea. The ultimate cannon in Ushijima, the quintessential
ace characterized by height and power, surrounded by a team full of length, defensive stability,
and an ego-less setter, crafted to perfectly compliment Ushijima’s strengths. This team is, from a conceptual standpoint,
the textbook extrapolation of the type of volleyball that Washijo could not achieve. As a result, Shiratorizawa is a representation
of Washijo’s philosophy and insecurity, and the special meaning behind the way he
constructed the team meant that he conflated his self-worth with their success to a greater
extent than any normal coach would. They represent the idea that height and power
reign supreme in volleyball, and that those short in stature – like him – will simply
never be able to make it to the top. And it’s not as if they need to win the
nationals every single year, but as long as they keep having a significant amount of success,
Washijou can rest assured in thinking that he was correct in quitting volleyball, and
that there was no chance for him. And there is that ever-present sense of vicarious
fulfillment – he may have never reached those heights, but his team sure as hell can, and
since his identity is integrated with this team in that juxtapositional way, that’s
the way he derives value from the sport now. And then he meets Hinata Shoyo in the Spring
High Miyagi Prefecture playoff finals. The game starts off fairly innocuously, and
the little middle blocker doesn’t seem to be anything more than a minor annoyance at
times. But as Karasuno slowly start to adapt and
adjust to Shiratorizawa’s power, not only do they emerge as a threat to steal the crown
from them, but Hinata solidifies himself as the greatest threat to Washijo’s ideals
and self-worth that he has ever seen. Because for obvious reasons, Washijo sees
himself, the young boy from decades ago who resigned himself to defeat, in Hinata. Yet, this kid, this stubborn, fierce, determined
decoy, undeniably becomes a thorn in the side of a team specifically designed to combat
players of his ilk. And so, Washijo finds that he must do whatever
he can to defeat Karasuno – probably more to beat Hinata than
to actually go to Nationals. This is a man who has built up so much spite,
jealousy and bitterness that he has become brittle. Washijo knows that if he’s beaten by Hinata,
someone who is as unlucky as he was, yet attempting to do what he assumed he could not, then that
would be proof of the possibility that he could have maybe achieved his dream. But the regret would hit so hard, that he
cannot fathom accepting this and allowing it to happen. Washijo’s struggle is a desperate attempt
to preserve the ego that he has been substantiating for years to combat any possibility that he
was wrong, so Shiratorizawa’s battle with Karasuno is in no small part a battle for
Washijou to maintain the his pride. So of course, their defeat to Karasuno, appropriately
nailed home by Hinata, is indicative of the false belief that Washijo built up over the
decades crashing down. But interestingly, this is not enough for
Washijo to accept his fate, and the story has him retreat to hide behind his postured
ideals once more, which I find to be a terrific narrative move tinged with realism and a genuine
understanding of who Washijo is. And so, after the defeat, we go back to that
concept of confirmation bias with him. During Hinata’s stint as the ball-boy during
the camp at Shiratorizawa, Washijo makes it clear to him that he doesn’t believe that
Hinata has any significant worth as a player without Kageyama as his setter. That Kageyama is so special that he literally
gifts Hinata success. This is an allegory of Washijo grasping for
straws, searching for anything that can help him salvage his pride and self-esteem. Because if Kageyama is the sole reason that
Hinata succeeded, that means that Washijo was still correct to quit volleyball, since
he didn’t have anyone like that to support him. It’s, again, an easy and lazy way to fall
back and criticize Hinata. And it’s incredibly unfair, but if you view
it from Washijo’s perspective, is it really surprising that he’d try to preserve any
possible hope that he didn’t spurn a chance that may have made his life substantially
better? Yet Hinata works. And improves, and learns, and does everything
possible to clear every hurdle in front of him. Making the best out of every situation, seeing
every chance that others might view as unfair as an opportunity to get better at volleyball. Being a ball boy, improving at receiving,
learn in-game at nationals, blocking, overcoming Nekoma’s trap, standing toe to toe with
Hoshiumi, doing himself proud against every opponent he faced. Throughout nationals, Hinata proved to be
a special, accomplished player, and he achieved so much – not just for a short player, but
for any player in general. Ultimately, it eventually becomes insurmountable
evidence that Washijo finds himself unable to defy any longer. And so he tosses aside his pride and finally
accepts the reality of his situation. That Hinata cleared the hurdles he could not
and would continue to scale greater heights – not because of luck or unfairness, but because
he worked harder than Washijou and saw possibilities where he didn’t. This former sense of spite transforms into
genuine admiration for Hinata. Instead of identifying with his team and continuing
to conflate his self-worth with the philosophy that destroyed his professional career, through
his acceptance and acknowledgement of Hinata’s skill, he instead finds the courage to admit
that maybe he was misled and gave up too early. That maybe it’s most appropriate for him
to identify with Hinata, That maybe it wasn’t an impossible hurdle that was put in front
of him.. just an improbable one. I can’t stress enough how admirable I find
Washijou to be because of this, how amazing it is that he’s able to not be overcome
by resentment and denial. Volleyball was his dream, and he gave it up
thinking it was impossible, which must have been heartbreaking.. but now, towards the
end of his life, he’s being presented with evidence that he may have been premature with
his decision in giving up, that maybe in an alternate universe where he persevered, he
would have been successful. But it’s far too late to go back. So early on, of course he tries to beat him,
to put him down, to make him give up. He’s scrambling for some proof that he took
the right path in life. But as time goes on, it just becomes more
and more obvious that Hinata may just be able to make it and fly. And he finally is able to let go, appreciate
his life for what it was and is, and contextualize his identification with Hinata as a mix of
empowerment, and raw admiration. Washijou still feels proud of, and is a part
of his team, but Seeing Hinata overcome all odds in the matches with Japan’s elite does
give Washijou a sense of vicarious gratification that surpasses what he felt with Shiratorizawa’s
wins for obvious reasons. Yet it also encourages him. It shows him that this beautiful sport that
he loves so much may not have as unfair a barrier for entry as he thought – that anyone
can play it and achieve their dream if they work hard enough. He no longer has to champion a position that
makes the sport he loves seem more cynical and cutthroat than it has to be, And at last
he is able to see why, even from his sad perspective, this possibility is a positive thing. It reignites his hope, and he goes from Hinata’s
biggest decrier to his biggest supporter. It represents a dismissal of the negativity
that plagued him before, and it brings a new sense of optimism to his beliefs. Undoubtedly devastated and broken at the realization,
yet mature enough to not let this sadness rule his life and stifle the fire of his passion. Hinata, through his progress and success,
shows an eventually grateful Washijo that the world of sport is not as cruel as he assumed. And most of all, he tells him that.. maybe
he can do it, too. Many thanks for watching.

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