I am a huge fan of Takehiko Inoue’s illustrations and manga. Everything that I have read by him has impressed me; his artistic skills and storytelling, as well as his complex characterizations, are fantastic. When I first began reading Inoue’s manga I fully expected to enjoy his series Vagabond the most. Vagabond is marvelous and I love it, but it was Inoue’s wheelchair basketball series Real that became my favorite. Real also happens to be the first manga by Inoue that I read. Since I don’t follow sports of any sort very closely, I was somewhat taken by surprise by how much I enjoyed Real. But the series is about so much more than basketball. Inoue adeptly portrays hard-hitting challenges and life-changing events in Real; basketball is just one part of the whole. The fourth volume of Real was published in Japan in 2004 while the English-language edition was released under Viz Media’s Signature imprint in 2009. Inoue received a Japan Media Arts Award Excellence Prize for Real in 2001, the same year the manga began serialisation.
After a violent falling-out with the captain of his wheelchair basketball team, Togawa has only recently returned to the game. There is still a fair amount of tension between the members of the Tigers, but with the Sunflower tournament coming up the team has started to pull together in a way that it hasn’t been able to in a long time. Togawa’s hard work and enthusiasm for basketball have served as an inspiration for some of his teammates. Unfortunately, some of the other players aren’t as appreciative of his attitude and the grueling practices that he leads. It is very likely that the Tigers forward momentum is only temporary and that the team will soon fall apart again. For Togawa, playing basketball and playing for the Tigers means everything to him. Having his right leg amputated as a middle school student because of bone cancer brought his dream of becoming a sprinter to an abrupt end. Togawa struggled immensely with this loss and it wasn’t until he discovered wheelchair basketball that he was able to find himself and his passion as an athlete again.
Just as the third volume of Real largely focused on the beginning of Takahashi’s rehabilitation, the fourth volume in the series delves more deeply into Togawa’s past, looking closely at the state of his life immediately following the amputation of his leg. It shows how the young track star, after having his ambitions crushed, came to play wheelchair basketball. The loss of his leg was devastating for Togawa. He became withdrawn, cutting himself off from his classmates and his friends, and his father unintentionally reinforced this isolation. Along with his leg, Togawa lost his sense of purpose, drive, and direction in his life. Even greater is the tremendous loneliness that he experiences. Togawa doesn’t want pity from others, he wants understanding. At the same time he is shunning contact and pushing people away, he is desperate to ease the loneliness that he feels. Togawa is extremely fortunate to meet a man by the name of Tora who helps drag Togawa back out of the shell he created for himself, serving as a much-needed role model–something that Takahashi has yet to find.
Despite all of the sweat and tears in Real, Volume 4, it tends to be slightly more ruminative and quiet than the volumes that precede it. One of the major themes that Inoue explores in the series–the meaning and purpose of a person’s life–becomes particularly prominent in the fourth volume. Both Togawa and Takahashi are faced with enormous challenges and changes in their lives which require them to completely reevaluate who they are as people. They are both struggling to rediscover and redefine their identities. Having lost something incredibly important to them, they anguish over the reasons why and what could have been done to prevent it. Ultimately, these are questions that don’t have an easy answer or solution. Over the course of the series, Takahashi frequently lashes out at those around him. In contrast, as seen in Real, Volume 4, Togawa tends to internalize his anger and despair. The similarities and differences in their situations and personalities are striking and an extraordinary effective part of the series. Real is a powerful and emotionally engaging work.