MICHELLE: Good evening and welcome to a special installment of Off the Shelf. You might be aware that I am co-hosting (with Anna from Manga Report, who’s also a contributor to the Bringing the Drama column here at Manga Bookshelf) the Takehiko Inoue Manga Moveable Feast this week! And so, I have enlisted MJ’s participation so that we might devote this week’s column to Inoue’s seinen series, Real.
Inoue is most famous for Slam Dunk, a thoroughly shounen series about a delinquent who finds his way via basketball, and there are definitely some elements of that in Real. What’s different, however, is that two of the main protagonists are wheelchair-bound and the one able-bodied fellow draws his inspiration from seeing how hard disabled athletes work to achieve their goals.
MJ: I’m thrilled to be talking about this series, Michelle. It was my first exposure to Inoue, and my first experience with a manga series about sports that wasn’t created to fit the standard shounen formula.
Should we talk about the main characters a bit?
MICHELLE: Sure! Actually, I think Anna summed up their personalities very well in her review, so I am just going to quote her, if that’s okay!
Real centers on three main protagonists. Tomomi Nomiya is a wanna-be tough guy who is a bit of an outcast at school even though he is on the basketball team. He was involved in a motorcycle accident that paralyzed his passenger, a girl named Natsumi whom he had just picked up randomly. Hisanobu Takahashi is the arrogant new basketball captain who is about to experience something that will change his life forever. Kiyoharu Togawa is an elite athlete who had most of one leg taken off due to a childhood brush with cancer. His driven personality isn’t a good match with the hobbyists on his wheelchair basketball team.
That’s how we find them at the beginning of the series, and as the story progresses, they inspire each other (and others) in seemingly infinite ways while each struggling to find and pursue their own path. Ultimately, for each of them, basketball turns out to be that path, but this is definitely far from being your typical sports manga.
MJ: I think “far from being your typical sports manga” is really key here. Even, as you say, when these characters serve as inspiration, there’s no heroic glow carrying the story forward. Their pain and their disappointments are real, and not easily banished by fine speeches or awe-inspiring action scenes. Real is not afraid to get into the real darkness its protagonists fall into at various points in the story, nor does it gloss over their wrongs. Real is unforgiving, much like life.
MICHELLE: The plight of Hisanobu Takahashi, the aforementioned arrogant guy, best illustrates what you’re talking about, I think. Here’s a guy, obsessed with comparing himself to others, who becomes paralyzed as a result of being hit by a truck while fleeing on a stolen bicycle. Inoue relentlessly takes us through his ups and downs, hopes that bubble up and are quickly dashed, and doesn’t try to artificially improve Hisanobu’s attitude overnight. There are encounters that buoy him for a while, a rivalry with Nomiya that motivates him, but he’s in a fragile state and can still be sent spiraling down by the sight of a seeming weakling who is better at physical rehab than he is.
It’s as if Inoue is saying, “You can borrow some strength from others, but in the end, it’s all up to you to follow through.”
MJ: Takahashi’s is perhaps the most interesting journey to me, I think because Inoue doesn’t let him off the hook for anything, so when he does achieve small successes, they really feel earned. Though I also like the fact that Nomiya is traveling what could be considered an impossible path (to become a professional player). I admit I’m really anxious to see where that goes in the end.
MICHELLE: Me, too. I desperately hope he is able to make the pro team, and that’s what I’ve been groomed to expect from my years of loving sports manga, but I’m faced with the very real possibility that Inoue will depict him not making it and being shattered by the experience. I really love Nomiya very much, and one of my favorite scenes is where he’s just lost his job after trying so hard at it, and he really needs to see Togawa’s wheelchair basketball team, The Tigers, achieve their dream after putting in so much effort. They don’t, however, and I wonder what sort of blow it’ll be to him if he also fails. I feel as though I’m watching a friend put their everything into something that might not pan out, so I root for them but also I worry.
MJ: Of course, that’s part of what makes this series work so well. Both volumes nine and ten acquired some vaguely shounen tendencies, with a lot of (from my review of volume 10) “grand declarations, gritty determination, and talk of achieving one’s dreams,” but even then, there’s no sense that this will necessarily happen.
MICHELLE: But, you know, I still can’t loving those moments. If there is any one drawback to Real, it’s that I kept expecting them to, like, all join the same team and get awesome together and beat their rivals. But it takes until volume ten for Hisanobu to remember his one encounter with Togawa, the basketball badass in a wheelchair, and realize “I could do that.”
Not that I’m complaining, of course, because so much of his journey is learning how to really work for something again, which he hasn’t done since he was a kid, essentially on account of his father abandoning the family.
Y’know… we haven’t seen any of Nomiya’s childhood yet, have we? We’ve seen some of Togawa’s and quite a lot of Hisanobu’s, but none of Nomiya’s. We just hear about his mother bringing back sweets from her various trips.
MJ: You know, that’s a good point. It’s been a while since I looked at early volumes, but I don’t recall that we have. Perhaps that’s yet to come.
Actually, I realize now that with volumes 9 and 10 freshest in my mind, I’ve let Togawa go a little bit. With Takahashi’s and Nomiya’s stories really hitting their stride, Togawa’s hasn’t been quite as much front-and-center as of late.
MICHELLE: No, it hasn’t. But it was certainly getting lovely there for a bit, with the introduction of Ryo, a sullen disabled teen, who is inspired by Togawa just as a young Togawa was by Tora, the original founder of the Tigers. And the beauty of it all is that Togawa has no idea that he’s become such a figure for this kid. We’ve heard a lot about the history of the Tigers, how it went from Tora’s era, to Yama’s (a friend of Togawa whose physical condition is deteriorating rapidly), to Togawa’s. I’m sure it’ll be Ryo’s era after that. I delight in seeing this familiar character through fresh eyes, while we’ve become entirely accustomed to his various faults. Inoue sure is adept at introducing new/secondary characters who immediately become integral to the story.
MJ: That’s true! I’m currently quite enamored with Hara-sensei, Takahashi’s badass… uh, physical therapist? I guess that’s what she probably she, but without any of the touchy-feely Florence Nighiengale-y images that might normally spring forth.
MICHELLE: I also like his two friends in rehab, who are challenging his notions of ranks and worth. There’s Shiratori, the famous wrestler, who is actually behind where Takahashi is in his recovery, and then there’s Hanamaki, the scrawny otaku, who is farther along than both of them, but who yet is a major Shiratori fanboy. Supporting each of the three protagonists are people who can help them change and find their way, including a couple of intriguing female characters that I wish we got to learn more about.
MJ: It’s true, the series’ female characters seem to come and go rather quickly. I’m particularly interested in Azumi, Togawa’s childhood friend who also manages the Tigers. There’s a favorite scene of mine in volume 10, where she must indignantly remind Togawa that she has goals and dreams as well.
MICHELLE: The pair of them actually remind me a little of the main character and his sidekick in Drops of God, but Azumi seems to be more complicated than her counterpart, which I appreciate.
One thing we haven’t yet touched upon is Inoue’s art in Real, which is pretty damned awesome. He excels at both action and expression, but some of my favorite sequences are more fanciful, like when Hisanobu and Nomiya engage in a mutual daydream about what would’ve happened had they been present for their high school team’s final game.
MJ: I become impressed all over again by how expressive Inoue’s artwork is with every new volume. The series has a gritty, realistic look to it, but there’s such life on the page! In volume ten, page 148, there’s a tear running down Shiratori’s otherwise mostly covered face, and it’s the most oddly expressive, moving, not even remotely beautiful tear I’ve ever seen. It has none of that graceful mono no aware sensibility that tear-shedding moments so often have. In fact, it could just as easily be a trickle of sweat. But to see it on this huge man’s covered face is just… kind of stunning.
MICHELLE: It’s art that really serves the characters instead of merely being technically proficient. The first few pages of the first volume stunned me, because in that opening sequence you learn practically all you need to know about Togawa. In fact, I plan to discuss them in greater depth in a Let’s Get Visual column this weekend.
Another great thing about Real is that it feels far from over! We’ve talked about Nomiya’s impossible-seeming goal, but Togawa also wants to make it to the Paralympics, so perhaps the series, in sports manga fashion, will end there? I admit that would be very satisfying, but I don’t know that we should expect it.
MJ: It’s really impossible to guess! Like you, I’d love to see all three characters achieve their dreams (and in spectacular, shounen-style fashion) but I’m not making any bets!
MICHELLE: Well, volume eleven is due in November, so perhaps there’ll be a little closer to their goals at that point!
MJ: I can’t wait!