When I first started reading Takehiko Inoue’s prize-winning manga series Real, I didn’t expect to appreciate it as much as I do. Real has actually become one of my favorite series. I wasn’t particularly interested in wheelchair basketball, one of the main subjects of Real, although that has since changed. Instead, I was initially drawn to the manga because it was created by Inoue, whose artwork I greatly admire. I also am very impressed by his storytelling skills, especially in Real, but also in his other manga available in English, Slam Dunk and Vagabond. As much as I enjoy those two series, in the end it’s Real that I find to be the most compelling. It is a very powerful work. I’ve said it many times before, but it is still true–I honestly believe Real to be one of the best comics that is currently being released in English. The fifth volume of Real was originally collected in Japan in 2005 while the English-language edition, released under Viz Media’s Signature imprint, was published in 2009.
Ever since his motorcycle accident, Nomiya’s life has been falling apart. Although he has tried to earn his drivers’ license, it has taken him quite some time since he is terrified to be on the road. Nomiya is even more terrified of facing Natsumi, the young woman who was in the accident with him. While Nomiya was barely injured, Natsumi has lost the ability to walk and must now use a wheelchair. Nomiya blames himself for the accident and Natsumi’s current condition. The guilt has nearly brought his life to a standstill. He wants to do all that he can to move forward, but this means confronting his fears and confronting Natsumi. Unsurprisingly, she’s not particularly interested in seeing Nomiya, either–she blames him for the accident, too. Her rehabilitation is going well, but Natsumi’s life has been changed forever. Takahashi’s rehabilitation has actually taken a turn for the better, too, after a visit from Nomiya that ends rather badly. It’s been about six months since Takahashi’s own accident which cost him the use of his legs, but he has recently shown enough improvement that he will soon be able to leave the hospital.
Whereas the previous volumes of Real thoroughly introduced the lead characters–Nomiya, Togawa, and Takahashi– and explored their personal, internal struggles, the fifth volume addresses some of the more practical problems and challenges experienced by those who are disabled in an world and environment designed for the able-bodied. This can particularly be seen when Takahashi is considering returning to Nishi High to finish school. Not only is he not yet in a position where he can take of himself, the school itself isn’t at all accessible to someone in a wheelchair and the needed accommodations are prohibitively expensive. These external issues and concerns are inexorably tied to how Takahashi and the others view themselves and and see themselves as people of worth. Takahashi in particular is obsessed with ranking people and assigning them value. He used to consider himself one of the elite, but now his self-worth has been severely compromised. It’s understandable that this is something that he continues to struggle with, especially as he no longer feels that there is a place for him.
Takahashi isn’t the only one suffering from a crisis of self-worth in the series. A major theme in Real deals with what it means to be a good person and a decent human being. Takahashi’s attitude and efforts to be the best in whatever he does comes across as extremely arrogant, but people are beginning to see through his facade of perfection. Nomiya has made, and continues to make, plenty of mistakes in his life, but his honest desire to improve himself and the care and acceptance that he offers others show that he is a much better person than he recognizes. This search for self-worth isn’t limited only to the series’ leads, either. All of their friends and family members are struggling with it as well. In a particularly heart-wrenching development, Togawa’s close friend Yama, who has always been vibrant and maintained an admirably positive outlook, is frightened of who is becoming now that his disease is overtaking his body and mind. Inoue’s characterizations in Real are fantastic. The series is compelling because it is so easy for anyone to identify with the personal struggles being portrayed in the manga even if the characters’ particular situations are unique.