Slam Dunk, Vols. 1-2
By Takehiko Inoue
Published by Viz Media
Red-haired tough guy Hanamichi Sakuragi just can’t get a girl. After a string of rejections in junior high, he finally meets pretty Haruko on his first day of high school. Trouble is, Haruko already has a huge crush on a junior high basketball star who has also enrolled at their school! Determined to win Haruko’s heart, Hanamichi decides to join the basketball team. He’s a huge, strong guy with a lot of natural ability. Unfortunately, he’s also brash, self-involved, and utterly lacking in maturity or emotional boundaries. Can Hanamichi ever learn to be a team player?
On one hand, Slam Dunk is an extreme example of a typical shonen sports manga, with its overblown characters, outrageous rivalries, and intense focus on winning. On the other, it is a fresh, lighthearted look at a guy who just can’t seem to catch a break, despite a level of optimism previously unknown to mankind.
It’s not that Hanamichi never wins, of course. The guy can’t lose in a fight, and he even manages to win (sort of) against Haruko’s brother Akagi (who also happens to be the captain of the basketball team) in an epic game of one-on-one. What he can’t win, no matter how he tries, is the girl, and it’s somehow refreshing to meet a shonen sports hero whose real focus is far, far from the game. Also, while Hanamichi’s myopic pig-headedness makes him generally insufferable, it’s also the key to his charm.
There’s a scene in the second volume, for instance, in which the captain of the school’s judo team attempts to lure Hanamichi away from basketball by offering him some photographs of Haruko in exchange. After a series of conversations consisting basically of, “So, will you join the team?” “No.” “But don’t you want the photos?” “I do!” it finally becomes clear that Hanamichi intends to refuse the captain’s offer and simply take the photos by force. Though the scene does nothing to improve Hanamichi’s image as a hopeless brute, it is surprisingly satisfying to see the judo captain’s tired scheme dismissed so easily.
Another strength of the series is its supporting characters. Though Hanamichi’s strong and silent love rival, Rukawa, is barely seen in these early volumes, basketball captain Akagi is already a powerful character. Mature enough to separate his personal dislike of Hanamichi from his responsibilities as captain, he displays the beginnings of the kind of depth and nuance found in Inoue’s later seinen series, Real. Also notable is the basketball team’s manager, Ayako, who is very much welcome as a confident, athletic, female presence on the testosterone-heavy court.
Inoue’s art is similarly refreshing, with a clean, easy-to-follow quality too rare in shonen manga. The artwork is quite expressive as well, revealing a real investment in the characters and a genuine love of the game.
Though the real action gets a slow start in favor of important characterization (and some less impressive class hi-jinx), Slam Dunk shows its potential right from the beginning. Just two volumes in, it’s not difficult to see why it’s a popular series on both sides of the Pacific. Recommended.
This review is a part of Shonen Sundays, a collaborative project with Michelle Smith.
Real, Vols. 1-8
By Takehiko Inoue
Published by Viz Media
Tomomi Nomiya is a high school dropout, consumed by guilt over his involvement in a motorcycle accident that leaves a young woman without the use of her legs. Kiyoharu Togawa is a former junior high runner whose struggle with bone cancer costs him his right leg below the knee. Hisanobu Takahashi is a high school basketball hotshot who becomes paralyzed from the chest down after colliding with a truck while riding a stolen bicycle. What these three teens all have in common is a passion for basketball.
It’s not quite fair to compare this series to Takehiko Inoue’s earlier basketball series, Slam Dunk. After all, Slam Dunk is written for young boys, and Real for adults. Still, with both series being released concurrently in English, its difficult to resist. Though Slam Dunk contains the seeds of a great basketball manga, it is through Real that Inoue is able to express not only his real love of the game, but his real insight into the human condition.
The main action of the series revolves around the Tigers, a wheelchair basketball team with which Togawa maintains a fairly tormented relationship over the course of the series’ early volumes. It’s this team that brings Togawa and Nomiya together to begin with (in a sort of roundabout way). And though Takahashi has (as of volume eight) still just barely begun rehabilitation that might make it possible for him to one day participate in wheelchair basketball, it feels inevitable that he’ll end up there at some point. The basketball scenes in this series are intense, in a very different way from the super-fueled play in Slam Dunk, and entirely gripping even for non-fans of the game.
What’s most impressive about this series, however, is Inoue’s ability to get inside his characters’ heads and transform their thoughts and feelings into compelling narrative. Enormous chunks of the later volumes, for instance, involve Takahashi’s bitterness over his father leaving him as a child, torment over his current condition, and his inability to adjust to his new body.
Inoue not only brings Takahashi’s memories to life with a series of powerful flashbacks, he also focuses heavily on Takahashi’s grueling rehabilitation process, with a level of realism that kicks your average training montage squarely in the behind. Yet, through all this, Inoue deftly steers clear of allowing his story become mired in its own weight. Even the series’ heaviest sequences are a true pleasure to read.
Something that seems important to note, and possibly why Real is able to avoid becoming intolerably dark, is that it’s clear from the beginning that Inoue genuinely likes people. Despite the fact that each of his characters has endured terrible heartbreak, pain, and various levels of personal misery (not to mention that most of them have also been responsible for causing significant pain to others), Real is far from cynical. There is no overarching disappointment in humanity here, no deep bitterness, no long-winded speeches about the unavoidable fallibility of the species. Even his characters’ most bitter reflections are directed toward individuals rather than humanity as a whole.
Inoue’s artwork in this series is impressively mature. Without the attractive sheen of Slam Dunk‘s shonen sensibility, the world of Real is unpolished and gritty. Inoue’s early expressiveness is even more pronounced in this series, and much more detailed. Also, despite some great dialogue, Inoue lets his artwork do the bulk of the storytelling. Important moments are played out visually, panel-to-panel, without the need for any narration or extraneous dialogue to pick up the slack.
Both heart-wrenching and down-to-earth, this series makes the most of its human drama, both on and off the court, without ever sinking into melodrama. Simply put, Real is real. Highly recommended.
Review copies of vols. 5-8 provided by the publisher.
Michelle Smith saysJune 13, 2010 at 3:01 pm
Yay, I’m so glad you liked Slam Dunk! I think you may’ve even detected more positive qualities in these first two volumes than I did, actually. It really gets good when more of the team is assembled.
Melinda Beasi saysJune 13, 2010 at 5:41 pm
I think I had the advantage of having flipped through some later chapters in Shonen Jump. I look forward to reading more!
Michelle Smith saysJune 13, 2010 at 7:10 pm
Yay! It’s best, I find, to read this series in at least two-volume chunks. I’ve now got 9-10 waiting on me to find the time.
Danielle Leigh saysJune 13, 2010 at 4:40 pm
ohhhh, very nice reviews! Inoue is certainly a worthy subject for shonen sunday (And I believe Michelle encouraged you to read Slam Dunk? If so, I’m very very pleased with the results!)
Melinda Beasi saysJune 13, 2010 at 5:42 pm
Well thanks! Only Slam Dunk really applies, but I figured I should talk about both at once. :) And yes, Slam Dunk was one of Michelle’s recommendations.
Katherine Dacey saysJune 14, 2010 at 8:32 am
Glad to see you enjoyed both series! I agree with Michelle: Slam Dunk definitely improves in later volumes, especially as Inoue gives his supporting cast more to do than just marvel at Hanamachi’s strength and stubborn stupidity. And while I also like Real better than Slam Dunk (for all the reasons you so elegantly enumerate), I think both series do a terrific job of capturing the ebb and flow of a basketball game; if you’ve ever played, you’ll appreciate the way in which Inoue captures the “geography” of the court (e.g. where players stand, how they move the ball and drive to the basket).
Melinda Beasi saysJune 14, 2010 at 9:18 am
I’ve never played (short, dumpy girls tend not to be at the top of the recruitment list) but even as a non-player there is something that just feels right about the way the basketball is drawn, so I’m not at all surprised to hear that this is the case. I’m actually hoping I might develop an interest in basketball from reading these!
I’m really looking forward to reading more of Slam Dunk. I actually would have read more for this review, except my library system only has the first two volumes! For shame!
Michelle Smith saysJune 14, 2010 at 7:48 pm
As a dumpy girl of average height, basketball was about the only thing I /was/ fairly decent at, sports-wise. So, I guess I’ve always liked the sport, though I don’t get into watching televised games or anything.
Ruby_Alexandrine saysJune 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm
Well after reading this, I will add Real to my reading list as well. I’m an NBA fan so I’ll definitely give Real a shot. ^_^
Melinda Beasi saysJune 14, 2010 at 2:16 pm
Ruby, you will not be sorry. It is a wonderful series!
themooninautumn saysJune 14, 2010 at 11:23 pm
So good. (Both your reviews and the books themselves.) I particularly liked the way you pointed out how the dialogue is so sparse sometimes but isn’t really necessary to tell the story.
I marvel at how much Inoue communicates with the amazingly detailed and nuanced pictures. Posture, facial expression, backgrounds: everything comes together to tell this story. And those watercolor washes . . .
I can’t handle the ultra-violence of Vagabond, so I’m really glad I was able to see Inoue’s more mature style and subject matter in Real. This series is incredible. Thanks for giving it such thoughtful consideration.
Melinda Beasi saysJune 15, 2010 at 10:32 am
Well, thank you! I’m so pleased you enjoyed these reviews. And yeah, Vagabond isn’t my usual type of thing either, so I’m glad to be able to enjoy Real so much.
judi(togainunochi) saysJune 30, 2010 at 4:27 pm
Because of you and various other reviewers, I picked up Real(I was already reading Slam Dunk).
I am so thrilled that I did. I read 1-3 in one night and am waiting on 4-8 as I write.
What a truly powerful, and human manga. I found myself crying at certain points, yet exhilarated through out. What a treasure.
Thanks to you and all those who recommended it.
Melinda Beasi saysJuly 1, 2010 at 6:39 am
Oh, I’m so glad! It really is a wonderful series. I didn’t expect it to be so moving when I began reading.
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