How I learned to stop worrying and love Slam Dunk (Volumes 1-6)

I have been intending to read Slam Dunk for a long time. So long, the edition of volume 1 that I have was published by Raijin comics instead of Viz. I didn’t buy it immediately when it came out, but my lone volume of Slam Dunk has been sitting on my shelves for years. I dipped into it briefly when I was searching for manga scenes where people reference the song Dona Dona, but I didn’t go on to read the whole volume. I had a variety of ill-conceived concerns that relegated Slam Dunk to a semi-permanent place on my to-read stack.

One of the reasons why I was a reluctant Slam Dunk reader is that after being introduced to Takehiko Inoue’s art in Vagabond first, the art in Slam Dunk just didn’t seem to be as good to me after a cursory glance. Inoue’s style in Slam Dunk is much more simple and less realistic, and the characters seemed to be given to exaggerated facial expressions. It was honestly a bit shocking to me to see how much his art style has evolved. The other factor that made me not all that interested in Slam Dunk is that I thought the general plot outline just seemed very typical of a shonen sports manga. An idiot high school student decides to take up basketball in order to impress a girl. That seems reminiscent of most shonen plots, and it just didn’t grab me at first glance.

I was so wrong, and now I am extremely annoyed that I didn’t give this series a try earlier.

The first volume opens with Sakuragi getting rejected by a girl once again, because she has a crush on someone on the basketball team. He cast down in the depths of despair and all of his friends are making fun of him when he hears the question “Do you like basketball?” He turns around enraged only to find that he’s been approached by a cute girl who is carefully inspecting his height and legs. Haruko ends up getting Sakuragi to attend basketball practice with her, and he happily tags along, forgoing his usual after school fight. Sakuragi and Haruko start practicing in an empty gym and he goes up for a slam dunk only to knock himself silly on the backboard. Despite Sakuragi’s flaws and utter ignorance of the fundamentals of basketball, Haruko observes that Sakuragi has hops and concludes that she’s managed to scout the basketball team’s savior. Sakuragi is so dizzied by the prospect of a girl who actually seems to be willing to talk to him for more than 10 seconds that he joins the Shohoku High basketball team only to find that his troubles have just begun.

Sakuragi soon discovers that he has a nemesis in the form of Rukawa, a fellow first year student who is the actual object of Haruko’s affections. Rukawa is oblivious to Haruko. He spends most of his time sleeping in class and perfecting his poker face, but despite his stoic exterior he is an incredibly gifted athlete. The basketball team’s captain is a hulking gorilla of a high school senior who adds to his height with a vertical hairstyle reminiscent of Kid ‘n Play. Captain Akagi is as strict as a military drill sergeant, and he just happens to be Haruko’s beloved older brother. The first few volumes end up being a crash course in basketball for Sakuragi, as he is forced to learn the fundamentals like dribbling and layups even though all he wants to do is slam dunk again.

There is no denying that Sakuragi is an idiot, but Inoue manages to make him an extremely loveable idiot due to his secondary personality traits. He exhibits strong streak of dogged determination. When he’s first rejected for the team he shows up to clean the gym all by himself to prove his commitment to the team. Sakuragi also has a level of confidence in himself that borders on the absurd. He views himself as the savior of his team, and while he is occasionally able to show flashes of brilliance due to his innate athleticism he doesn’t yet really have a handle on the game. Still, there is something almost admirable about someone who manages to be so absolutely obtuse.

The supporting cast for Slam Dunk is well developed. Haruko is Sakuragi’s biggest cheerleader, saying that he isn’t scary when her classmates are intimidated by him and insisting that he has the potential to become a great basketball player. She is able to maintain her platonic friendship with Sakuragi by being blissfully unaware of his crush for her, assuming that he’s motivated because the game of basketball is so great. Rukawa is a great foil for the overemotional Sakuragi, as he is self-contained and a tiny bit cynical. The coach of the team who makes very brief appearances is a benign silent presence whose smiling expression is so hard to read he completely psychs out the coaches of opposing teams.

As the first part of the series progresses, Sakuragi begins to learn the basic moves of basketball, but he still has a long way to go in learning how to play a team sport. He uncharacteristically accepts not starting in the first basketball game of the season when the coach informs him that he is their “secret weapon.” One of the fun things for me in reading Slam Dunk is seeing themes that are explored later in Vagabond. The idea of someone who is so elite that he only comes alive when truly challenged is shown when Shohoku High takes on leading team Ryonan High, with an ace player named Sendoh who spends most of the game playing with a slightly indifferent attitude because he doesn’t have to give 100% in order for his team to win. Sendoh has a bemused expression as he is watching Sakuragi’s antics. Sakuragi ends up accidentally foiling the opposing coach’s defensive strategy through his own poor sportsmanship when he refuses to pass to Rukawa, feeding the ball to all the lesser players on his team. When Sakuragi and Rukawa double team Sendoh, Sendoh actually starts playing like he’s having fun for the first time because he’s actually being challenged.

One of the things that’s nice about Slam Dunk as opposed to Inoue’s more serious works like Real and Vagabond, is that he’s actually able to indulge his sense of humor in this series. I often laughed out loud at Sakuragi’s antics, and seeing how the other players manage to endure their new teammate was always entertaining. While Inoue’s art is much simpler in Slam Dunk, the art is much better than a typical shonen series. The basketball players all have distinct character designs and body types. Even the larger guys like Sakuragi and Akagi have different frames. Inoue really captures the tension in a basketball game, the speed and athleticism on the court, and the occasional frozen moments of time when a player gets incredible air and executes a perfect shot.

I think that Cross Game is probably my favorite sports manga, but after reading six volumes of Slam Dunk in short succession, I was really impressed. One of the reasons why I liked it so much is that there’s a general feeling of warmth that you get when reading this manga. Sakuragi is often made fun of, but he’s portrayed with affection. He even inspires a bit of grudging respect from his teammates as his basketball skills keep getting better. As a bonus, the reader also gets treated to a variety of 90s fashions and hairstyles. Inoue’s enthusiasm and love for the game informs the manga, making it seem more personal and interesting than a shonen manga that is developed by committee with the aid of magazine polls. After reading Slam Dunk, I can understand why it was one of the top selling manga in Japan. If you haven’t tried reading Slam Dunk yet, don’t be an idiot like me and wait for several years, just pick up a few volumes as soon as possible.

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