Slam Dunk, Vol. 26

With each new volume of Slam Dunk I’m simultaneously happy and a bit disappointed – happy because I can read another volume of a great sports manga, and disappointed because we are slowly inching towards the final 31st volume. I continue to find Slam Dunk fascinating even when a basketball game gets spread out over several volumes. Shohoku is still playing tournament favorite Sannoh, but things finally start to click for the loveable underdogs. My favorite aspect of this volume was that the breakout star of the game wasn’t the cool Rukawa or the sometimes doltish basketball savant Sakuragi, but their sometimes overlooked and quiet teammate Mitsui who starts out the volume by hitting three 3-pointers in a row. He’s able to take advantage of the fact that Sannoh’s focus is on Shohoku’s star players and score with simple precision. Everybody is mystified by Mitsui’s sudden confidence, including his own teammates. The Shohoku fans remember that Mitsui used to be a junior high MVP, but his play has suffered because he felt like he had to live up to some past glories. Shohoku’s enigmatic coach concludes that Mitsui is starting to believe in himself again at just the right time, and there’s a great wordless interchange between coach and player as they make eye contact and pump their fists. Simple moments like this where Inoue just uses a few simple panels to underscore a moment do so much more to drive the story forward than pages filled with expository dialogue.

Once the opposing team realizes that Mitsui needs more coverage, Shohoku needs to change up their strategy yet again. Rukawa and Sakuragi both have some moments, but Sakuragi is tested when the opposing team puts a huge substitute player in and his coach tells him that the monster is his assignment. It is a measure of just how far Sakuragi has come that while he does give in to his first impulse of trying to fight strength with strength, he eventually hits on a way to deal with the new player using strategy and observation. Each volume of Slam Dunk always feels very satisfying. To describe the plot, it might seam as if the story is moving forward at a glacial pace, with three volumes or so spent on one basketball game. But the evolution of characters and personalities brought on by the conflict of basketball is layered and dense, and that makes this title such a special sports manga.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Viz Quick Takes: Slam Dunk 23 and Ai Ore 6

I can’t think of two series more dissimilar than the shonen basketbal Slam Dunk and the shoujo soap opera with gender role reversals Ai Ore, so of course I will write about them both at the same time!

Slam Dunk Volume 23 by Takehiko Inoue

I throughly enjoyed being able to read six early volumes of Slam Dunk, so I was excited to get a peak at the most recent release. While there are a few new characters, the core message of the manga is the same and moving forward to this volume I can see that Inoue’s art style has evolved to look much more similar to the more recent series Vagabond, particularly the character designs. One of the interesting things about the art in this volume of Slam Dunk was that while it still retains a certain level of simplicity that I would expect from a shonen sports book, there’s so much more detail in the characters’ facial expressions and posture, which pulls me in to the emotional arc of the story.

Shohaku heads to the nationals, and while they’ve been training hard and racked up some impressive achievements they can’t face their current opponents without a struggle. Hanamichi is his usual charming self as he almost gets into an altercation with the captain of their first opposing team as they travel to their next match. As always, Inoue’s treatment of the physical aspects of basketball is a treat. He blends the mental struggles of the athletes as they try to figure out their opponents with some great scenes of passing, stealing the ball, and generally great athleticism. Hanamichi is always the emotional core of the story and his earlier bluster doesn’t live up to his initial prowess on the court, as he gets so nervous he manages to throw the ball into the stands instead of making a basket. The Shokahu team makes the mistake of getting into a running game with Toyama, and they have to focus again on playing at a different pace. Akagi comes alive as center when the game is slowed down. After all of Hanamichi’s training, he begins to appreciate how amazing Rukawa really is as a player. His coach tells him to watch Rukawa closely, steal everything he can, and practice three times as hard, because if Hanamichi doesn’t “you’ll spend your whole high school career playing and never be as good as he is.” Slam Dunk is so much fun compared to other sports titles that I’ve read, largely because the characters of the whole team are so well defined and it is interesting to see the interpersonal dynamics in play both on and off the basketball court. Hanamichi really is a classic manga character, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he’ll do in the next volume if he’s allowed off the bench.

Ai Ore Volume 6 by Mayu Shinjo

The more comedic later volumes of Ai Ore continue to be a fun summer read, although I expect I’m going to enjoy her forthcoming series Demon Love Spell a bit more. This volume focuses on a shoujo staple plot as the boys and girls head out to a beach vacation. Mizuki’s self-conscious behavior threatens to spoil her enjoyment of some time alone with Akira, but Akira’s unscrupulous friend Ran is even more of a problem as he manages to force Akira to cross dress at the beach. Later on, Mizuki and Ran find themselves alone in a hotel room and what happens in this series is exactly the opposite of the type of seduction scene one would expect from a Mayu Shinjo manga. Ran comments to Mizuki that she’s overreacting to everything that he says and he “might make the mistake of thinking you’re aware of me as a man.” Mizuki is absolutely bewildered and says that she knows Ran’s a guy and “I’d never think of you as a girl! Don’t be an idiot!” Later on, when Ran’s seduction techniques don’t work out the way he was expecting, Mizuki announces that he has the eyes of “a dead sardine.”

For all of Mizuki’s tremulous behavior about Akira, her innocence and direct way of speaking basically provides her with an invisible shield that most Shinjo heroines lack. Anybody other than Akira attempting to get close to her is going to get resolutely shut down, and it is nice to see Mizuki and Akira so secure in their odd relationship. There a certain lack of angst overall in Ai Ore, even though there’s plenty of flailing and tears with Mizuki and Akira dealing with young love the humor in this manga makes it fun to read. I think there are just a couple volumes left for this series, and it looks like after this vacation idyll there’s going to be a return to some more music/entertainment industry centered plots, so that will be fun.

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.