HANEBADO! finally wrapped up this past weekend, and what a wild ride it was. For a seemingly lesser known sport like badminton, I certainly wasn’t expecting HANEBADO! to bring as much drama and intensity as it did. From Ayano’s heel turn to her demolishing everyone in front of her, the show had a lot to keep me captivated, even if at first I really wasn’t sure if there was going to be much substance. My recency bias will tell you that this is one of the best animes of the year—which I believe will hold up later when it’s time to decide that—but now that the series has ended its TV run, how well do they stick the landing?
As I wrote about a month ago on Crunchyroll, Ayano’s heel turn/mental breakdown/whatever you want to call it was a fascinating way for the series to go and play with the idea of whether or not she’s a villain. My conclusion is that she wasn’t a villain, but just wanted to crush anyone in her path. Despite becoming what her opponents thought she was, Ayano wasn’t evil or resorting to cheating. She was just dominant. Why wasn’t I convinced that she was truly a villain though? Simply, her turn reminded me of pro wrestling and one character in particular’s story of the past few years—Tetsuya Naito.
Tetsuya Naito’s journey in New Japan Pro Wrestling has been strange. He debuted for the company in 2006, and following his return from excursion to Total Nonstop Action Wrestling in the US and CMLL in Mexico, he was seen as one of the next breakout stars for the company. However injuries and fan appreciation would hold that back, especially when a fan vote caused his main event at Wrestle Kingdom 8 to be demoted to the semi-main event. Fans didn’t buy Naito as a main event star and began to despise him, despite his “babyface” or fan-favorite status.
By 2015, Naito was still being pushed as a good guy and a top star, but nowhere near the status of the company’s aces such as Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, or Shinsuke Nakamura. In the Spring of 2015, he once again toured Mexico with CMLL, and there he would join a controversial stable known as Los Ingobernables. Armed with a new attitude, Naito returned to New Japan and formed Los Ingobernables de Japon, cementing his heel turn as one New Japan’s top bad guys. Yet despite his constant rule breaking, disrespect for the company, titles, personnel, and other wrestlers, Naito became of the most popular wrestlers in the entire company. This culminated with an IWGP Heavyweight Title reign in 2016, the Tokyo Sports MVP award in 2016 and 2017, and now is seen in the conversation as one of the company’s top stars.
Now what does this have to do with Ayano? Her change brought out a more aggressive, dominating, and shit-talking version of herself, but despite that, people didn’t run from her. Her rivals actively sought her out even as she destroyed them. Her teammates still wanted to be by her side and root her on. Even in her match against Nagisa, she gets a standing ovation from a packed gymnasium. The change in attitude didn’t affect how people liked or disliked her. In fact, Ayano dropping the soft and nice façade that she had going meant that people knew who she really was and despite being rough around the edges, everyone respected her game. Just as with Naito, changing let people respect Ayano more than they might have before.
The final match of the series sees Ayano go up against her teammate Nagisa Aragaki in a match that Nagisa has been waiting for since being shut out by Ayano a few years prior. With that result looming of Nagisa’s head, it’s not the same match as their first. Ayano is full of confidence after crushing her opponents on her way to the finals, while Nagisa is battling a knee injury. Ayano’s shit-talk is constant and consistently tries to work her mental warfare, which is one of her strengths, but Nagisa doesn’t allow it to get to her. The confidence of Ayano ends up being a detriment as she doesn’t realize that facing a teammate is going to be much harder than anticipated because what better way is there to scout an opponent than to see them everyday at practice.
All of the drama leads us to this excellent match between the two. [As a side note, all the people complaining that the show has too much melodrama clearly haven’t watched any American sports movies or TV shows since that’s the basis of those.] Ayano’s entire game plan is to lure her opponent into playing her style. She’s a defensive player and if she can force you into playing the way she wants you to, Ayano is able to dictate the pace and drain her opponent of stamina. Of course, Nagisa knows this. She also is aware that Ayano will be prepared for her power and smashes, which is why the first set becomes a reversal of roles. It’s not Ayano who controls the pace of the match, it’s Nagisa by not relying on her smashes and instead attempts to drag Ayano into the deep waters of a stamina match. Ayano is still able to win Game 1, 21-16, but it’s not decisive that she’s about to sweep Nagisa.
The second game sees Ayano’s stamina really begin to falter and her body is unable to keep up with the pace. Nagisa begins to use her smashes and power to try and overwhelm Ayano in a way to keep frustrating her, which is effective. Ayano is backed into a corner that she is not used to and hasn’t been for quite some time, as she’s defeated 21-18. She’s in trouble and knows it as she lashes out at Yu and Sora who are seconding her. Ayano doesn’t believe she has anyone on her side and that the team wants her to lose. The spiral of not being in control of the game, your body not wanting to listen, and the lack of stamina causes Ayano to get into a deep hole to begin Game 3.
It’s important to talk about the fact that Ayano’s characterization of a heel turn isn’t just a character trait, it’s based on the fact that she effectively was abused by her mother abandoning her for no good reason. She’s been left with abandonment issues ever since and feels that if she doesn’t succeed, everyone will leave her just like her mother. That’s partly why she quit badminton despite there being parts of her that still enjoyed the sport. She didn’t want to be tied to a sport that caused her mom to leave. Here in Game 3, she’s beginning to have these thoughts creep in again as she loses multiple points in a row. Yet, it’s Yu and Sora who help break her out of those thoughts by telling her that she has to keep on fighting for those who couldn’t be in the position that she’s in. She’s able to receive support from the crowd that wasn’t as prominent throughout the match. That might be cliche, but fighting your own mind can be a dangerous thing and sometimes you need encouragement from others to fight through it.
Following that, Game 3 becomes a legendary battle between Ayano and Hanesaki. We see the beginnings of Ayano’s own version of badminton that’s not just what she learned from her mother. She uses jump defensive returns to combat smashes and switches hands to try and throw off Nagisa so that she won’t know exactly where she’ll aim her return. It’s very experimental and not guaranteed to succeed, but she’s ready to try literally anything to come back and win. The third game is dragged all the way out to where it’s tied at 21, and both competitors are running on fumes. It’s just pure adrenaline carrying them to compete at this point. They’ve pushed each other to the brink, even to a point where Ayano comments that she’s having fun despite how frustrated she is. However, it’s Nagisa who pulls through and wins the final game giving Ayano her first loss in quite some time.
The Ayano and Nagisa match is extraordinary. It had me on the edge of my seat in the same way that actual sports does. That match was everything I wanted from their eventual encounter and so much more. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the final episode is perfect. Far from it. Eventually, Ayano and her mom were going to have to confront each other after Uchika’s sudden return to Japan, and Ayano basically avoiding her at every chance. Here you’d expect Ayano to vent her frustrations and distance herself, but instead the show goes for a more “happy” ending with Ayano telling Uchika that she hated her, but essentially goes for a more mature or adult route of extending an olive branch by asking her to play badminton when she returns. It sucks. Ayano shouldn’t forgive her. People in abusive relationships shouldn’t automatically forgive their abuser, despite how hard it can be to not do that. If your parent, friend, lover, or whatever relationship you have has mentally and/or physically harmed you, you are in no way obligated to keep them in your life. I completely understand that can be hard and it’s not as easy as I’m making it, but it’s such a bummer that HANEBADO! goes for a safer ending with these two. Ayano constantly said she was going to abandon her mom when she was more aggressive, and I also get Ayano not wanting to be exactly like her mom. However, it doesn’t seem healthy to keep that relationship when Uchika basically has no remorse for her actions. It’s the biggest detriment that the ending has.
What is good about the final episode after the match is that we see that Ayano’s shit-talking hasn’t magically went away despite seemingly having her face turn. She still tries to gode Nagisa into a match after she’s returned to the hospital. It shows that the real version of Ayano is like this. She can be nice, but when it comes to competition, she’s going to let you have it on the court and verbally. It’s smart to keep that because it doesn’t erase what has happened over the course of the entire series. Ayano knows that her shit-talk can get into her opponent’s head so why not keep doing it, especially when she’s surprisingly really good at it? Once again, the Naito comparison shows back up.
Some of my colleagues thought that the appropriate way for the series to end would be for Ayano to give up badminton altogether. I never quite bought into that idea because we do see earlier in the series that despite what the sport has done to her, she has a love for it deep down. As someone who competed in athletics through my youth, there are times where you will love a sport, but hate so many aspects of it whether it's the politics, people involved, or what it can do to you—but those are separate from the actual sport itself which, in my mind, is what Ayano had. I see her going from the match with Nagisa and now creating her own version of badminton—a playstyle that has the base that her mom taught her, what she can learn from her team and coach, and the new aspects she can add herself such as being ambidextrous and mental warfare. In this way, she creates an aspect of the sport that is hers and hers alone. Not her mom’s, not the team’s, but Ayano’s. From revenge to a rebirth in the sport, Ayano will continue to grow and become even more of a dangerous competitor that maybe one day we can revisit with a continuing story or just a rewatch. Ayano and HANEBADO! made a sport that’s not as known as other racquet sports and showed everyone why they should pay attention.