Harukana Receive (2018)

They Make A Great Set.

Don’t be fooled by its posters, trailers, or marketing material, as Harukana Receive is hardly an ecchi series. Bar the odd butt spank or two, Harukana Receive is relatively disciplined when it comes to lewdity. There is no inappropriate touching, no swimsuit malfunctions, or explicit sexual content. Rather, the series is a slice-of-life sports dramedy that surveys sportsmanship, female friendship, the power of positive encouragement, and the value of one’s word. Harukana Receive will probably appease teenage girls more than their male counterparts, who mightn’t be satisfied with mere innuendo and skimpy swimsuit shots.

Ready to play ball!

Based on Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Nyoijizai, Harukana Receive is a 12-episode anime that follows bubbly protagonist Haruka Ozora, a towering and shapely high schooler who moves to the scenic Okinawa Island to live with her cousin and grandmother. Although tall and curvy, Haruka is very self-conscious about her height, even though she’s often mistaken for being a model. When arriving on the island, Haruka meets up with her cousin Kanata Higa, an Okinawan native, who has a complex about her diminutive size, being relatively short compared to others her age. Kanata is initially shy and withdrawn, but quickly opens up to Haruka due to her positivity and empathy, the two girls bonding over the insecurities they share over their respective physiques.

While out touring the picturesque seaside with Kanata, Haruka spots a couple of similarly aged girls practicing beach volleyball on the sand. The said girls, named Ayasa Tachibana and Narumi Tōi, invite Haruka for a few friendly hits, which quickly turns competitive after Narumi takes offense to a casual comment made by Haruka about perhaps being a volleyball ‘ace’ someday. You see, Narumi lives by the self-made credo ‘No Such Thing As Aces,’ believing that success in volleyball depends on full coordination and synergy with one’s partner. Narumi challenges Haruka and Kanata (who’s hanging around close by) to score a single point against her and Ayasa, to which they get schooled, despite Haruka and Kanata giving it their all. Throughout the confrontation, Haruka learns the meaning of Narumi’s words and discovers that Kanata and Narumi were once inseparable friends and volleyball partners.

Taking it to the nets level

It turns out that Kanata was once a skilled volleyball player, having almost become a National Champion, but was forced to take a break after the death of her parents and the psychological trauma that followed. During this time, Kanata became lonely and depressed and lost faith in her own abilities, becoming increasingly anxious and uncomfortable about her shortness. Consequentially, her partner, Narumi, felt guilty for not being there for her friend; this eventually led to the pair’s relationship breakdown and team disbandment, Kanata exiting the sport entirely and Narumi finding a new partner in Ayasa.

However, the brief game the girls share on the beach slightly re-energizes Kanata, who regains a bit of confidence thanks to Haruka and her eagerness and positivity. Learning that Narumi and Ayasa are high school volleyball champs (known as the Fukuchiyama Academy Valkyries), Haruka requests a rematch in a week, which the girls accept. Although a rookie, Haruka has a natural talent for picking up the sport, and convinces Kanata to partner up with her, who gains motivation by the notion of someday squaring off against her former companion, Narumi, in a national tournament. So, the two girls decide to hit the beach daily, training to beat the Valkyries and become the next volleyball titleholders, our protagonists making new friends and allies, strengthening old bonds, and discovering more about themselves along the way. Throughout the series, Team Harukana learns how to operate as a single unit, the twosome overcoming their self-esteem issues through the trust and connection they share both on and off the court.

Set your volleyball goals high!

As part of their preparation, Haruka and Kanata join the Umuru High Beach Volleyball Club; so, ‘Team Harukana’ (an amalgamation of the leading ladies’ names) aren’t the only players we get to meet. A handful of other characters join the roster, who, while having their own history, goals, and motives, reinforce the relationship shared by that of the central duo, the girls all connecting through their love of volleyball.

Thus, we are introduced to ‘Team Eclair,’ two of the top junior beach volleyball players globally. This team comprises American exchange student Claire Thomas and her younger twin-sister Emily (who can be identified by her thick, black-rimmed glasses). Blonde, blue-eyed, and babelicious, Claire and Emily bring cheek and bounce, the sisters constantly bickering due to their conflicting personas. Claire is carefree and fun-loving while Emily is sensible and reserved, the latter continuously subjected to her sister’s childish antics. The fair-skinned Thomas twins are probably the most memorable characters in the series. Then, there’s Akari Ōshiro, a pop idol and TV commercial actress who dreams of becoming a beach volleyball star one day. A traditional tsundere-type character, Akari lacks the skill to play pro ball but has the stamina and endurance because of her work as a singer/ performer; therefore, she becomes a quasi-manager for the Harukana and Eclair teams.

Winners are grinners!

Helmed by Toshiyuki Kubooka, who’s worked as a director on the Batman: Gotham Knight (2008) series, Harukana Receive is bursting with color and energy. Adapted by C2C animation studio, Shachibato! President, It’s Time for Battle! (2020), the series is excellently animated and boasts some stunning eye-candy in terms of both the busty, bikini-clad babes and gorgeous beachy vistas. The sports and volleyball action is also smooth, kinetic, and easy to keep track of; there’s a mix of slo-mo and fast-paced shots, all of which add to the excitement and intensity of each slam — granted, the matches do become a smidge repetitive as the series goes on.

The level of detail in the character designs and backdrops is also quite impressive, even if these can be uneven at times. The detail on the swimsuits, for instance, can change depending on whether were watching a close-up or action shot — but these inconsistencies aren’t at all distracting. Moreover, the environments are exhaustive and atmospheric, the setting nicely evoking a sense of time and place — you can almost smell the salty beach air or feel the warmth of the hot summer sun.

‘Errr … did I just miss game point?’

The characters themselves are spirited, bouncy, and rather striking; they’re distinctive and expressive too, their playing styles shining through via subtle visual indicators. For example, Haruka’s playstyle evolves as the series advances, her moves and tactics becoming a hybrid between Claire and Kanata’s. Furthermore, the computer graphics are nicely integrated into the hand-drawn stuff, bar a crowd scene featuring a CGI singer (Akari at one of her pop concerts) in Episode 7 (titled ‘We’re Already Friends’) that looks way too video-gamey — think Senran Kagura-type PS4 graphics. Overall, the artwork and animation are very well done, Harukana Receive one of the flashier-looking anime shows in recent years.

With a script and series composition by Touko Machida, The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan (2015), Harukana Receive tracks a generally generic sports anime formula, the narrative a bit too familiar — while the volleyball games are fierce and formidable, we ultimately know who’s going to prevail. The plot itself also feels too simplistic, with the drama and conflict generated from the character arcs and relationships instead of the storyline. Additionally, the passage of time throughout the series is a tad uneven. Typically, these kinds of slice-of-life/ sports shows depict a slow progression of events, allowing viewers to take in the moment (and often the setting). Harukana Receive, however, tends to focus heavily on milestones and growth highlights (emotional landmarks). Thus, we have irregularly spaced intervals that make it hard to track the proceedings and the girls’ development — an episode could jump days, weeks, or months without a caption or indication.

Sets on the Beach

And, yes, Harukana Receive is unabashedly ‘sexy and sweaty,’ but the fanservice is never overly obscene, or done in a vulgar way. Our beach queens are certainly put on display — there are plenty of racy shots and risqué angles — but it’s not off-putting, distracting, or demeaning. Think of Harukana Receive as the female equivalent to Free! (2013), an anime that revolves around a high school boys’ swimming team; both boast the same amount of sex appeal.

Remaining fun and light-hearted throughout, Harukana Receive does explore some mature themes and ideas, as well as promote hard work, perseverance, and effort. The rivalry between Team Harukana and Eclair is presented as being healthy and enriching. Competition doesn’t diminish the strength of the girls’ friendship; on the contrary, our heroines constantly greet and encourage it. Regardless of the result of each serve, attack, dig, block, or spike, the girls always come out stronger and closer than before, bettering themselves as individuals and athletes with every victory or loss — it’s a fitting message for young people of today.

‘Bump, set, spike it, that’s the way we like it!’

The series also unpacks the often complex and sometimes obsessive relationship between teenage girls, the fiery bond shared by Kanata and Narumi likened to ex-lovers. But ultimately, Harukana Receive hammers home the notion that friendships are not conditional, and that true ones will survive just about anything. Funnily, it’s Akari (a seemingly insignificant character) who binds the girls together. She handcrafts scrunchies modeled after the Hibiscus flower for all four competitors, which symbolizes friendship and happiness. Akari gifts this to the girls before Team Eclair and Harukana go head-to-head and fight for a spot in the nationals, worried that friendships might strain; she stands to lose everyone if things go south and there’s a fallout after the game.

As serious as some of this sounds, there’s still a stack of fun to be had. In an anime where every episode is the ‘Beach Episode,’ we get a silly swimsuit shopping trip as a stand-in, and there’s a heap of frisky banter between the players. And, thankfully, you don’t need to know squat about the urban sport to enjoy the series, as Harukana Receive doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of volleyball — I only have a mild understanding of what a ‘spike’ is, even though it’s referred to heavily. Fun Fact: there’s a near-total absence of men in the entire series, bar Haruka’s grandfather, who pops up once for literally a second. This is probably an artistic choice over anything to do with ecology. But still, it’s fun trying to spot dudes in the background or spectating.

‘You just got served!’

All up, Harukana Receive comfortably makes it over the net; the all-girl cast is a knockout (visually and artistically), and the story, while a little barebones, inspirational, the series brought to life through its cutesy art and vibrant animation. The opening track, ‘FLY two BLUE’ performed by Kana Yūki and Saki Miyashita, is super upbeat and catchy too. One can argue about the show’s depiction of women, but when you stop to think about it, the series is quite empowering, as it presents a team of girls who are tough, driven, and supportive, with legitimate fears, dreams, and aspirations, the narrative reinforcing the theme that everyone, no matter their size or stature, deserves a fair go! Sure, the girls are attractive, and there’s plenty of suggestive imagery, but for a who-watches-this-sort-of-anime-for-the-plot type of series, Harukana Receive scores more points than others in the same basket.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)

Harukana Receive is released through Madman Entertainment Australia