Shojo FIGHT! Volume 1 by Yoko Nihonbashi
I’m very happy about Kodansha’s recent investment in digital manga, since it means that some titles that might be not commercial enough to get a print release are being translated. At the same time, I’ve been burned by digital manga in the past, and I only have so much budgeted for digital comics a month, so I’ve been a little picky with my purchases. I was very interested to see a girls volleyball title coming out from Kodansha, because I do enjoy a good sports manga. The first volume of Shojo FIGHT! is largely set-up for the whole series, and it packs an impressive amount of drama in one short volume.
Neri spends her time on the bench for her middle school volleyball team. She seems to be content to be incredibly unassertive and dismissed, but she has a group of friends and fans who look after her. The manga starts by showing the dynamics of Neri’s current team. Koyuki seems to be noticed as much for her looks as her volleyball talent, while Chiyo is the seemingly evil teem member who is comfortable saying horrible things to everyone. While Neri doesn’t do much in the way of athletics in the first few pages, it is clear that she has the aura of somebody special. Neri has a built in fanclub that includes Odagiri, a girl who spends her time drawing volleyball manga. There are also the brothers Shikishima. The younger blond Shikishima is a carefree volleyball player while his his older brother with the dark hair has the burden of being the heir to his family’s osteopathic clinic, having magic injury soothing fingers, and also playing volleyball.
When Neri does get off the bench, it is clear that she’s been hiding her skills as well as her single-minded intensity towards the sport of volleyball. Part of the reason why she’s been able to hide so long is because her school tends to give starting positions based on the height of the players. Neri becomes aggressive and vocal, yelling at Koyuki to get her head in the game. Neri and Koyuki end up colliding when they go after the same ball. Neri’s travails in volleyball would be enough to carry this volume, but she also has a family tragedy that she’s dealing with as well. Slowly the details are revealed as the story progresses, and while Neri’s set up for a different type of volleyball career as she enters high school, she’s still dealing with plenty of baggage. It seems like her friends are always going to be around to support her, especially Shikishima the elder.
Part of my enjoyment of Shojo FIGHT! is due to the novelty factor. Perhaps because I haven’t been able to read many female-oriented sports manga, I found Neri’s portrayal as a volleyball hero with athletic prowess and intensity that could cause situations to get out of control refreshing, just because I’m much more used to seeing this type of character as a male protagonist. If this had been the 5th female volleyball manga that I’d read instead of the 2nd, I might not find it quite as charming though. Other reviewers have noted that the art of this volume looks very similar to OEL manga, with smooth dark lines, sparse backgrounds, and lacking the delicacy that most shoujo fans might expect. I was halfway wondering if it was as I was reading it if it was OEL, but as I looked up Shojo FIGHT, it indeed came out in Japan originally in the mid 2000s. Nihonbashi’s style made me wonder if it really was that unique, or if it comes down to just the type of series that tend to get translated for a North American audience. Nihonbashi’s high contrast style gives Shojo FIGHT a more graphic, less flowery sort of look, and while she is good at facial expressions, I did find myself wondering at times if Neri had variants of her stunned and shell shocked look as she grapples with her emotions. I did enjoy all the distinctive character designs. With such a large cast, having distinct looks for the characters helps the reader greatly.
There was enough drama for two volumes in the first volume of Shojo FIGHT!, but at the same time I’m reserving judgement a bit, because I expect the narrative to settle down in the second volume. I’m hoping to see if Neri is able to fight off her inner demons a bit for the sake of volleyball.