Real Volumes 1-5 by Takehiko Inoue

I suspect that while co-hosting the Manga Moveable Feast this month will be fun, I’m going to find this week more rewarding as a reader than as a host, simply because I’ve been waiting to explore Inoue’s sports manga series. Real is one of those titles that I’d heard about and was intrigued by, but hadn’t read before. I thought that I was only going to post a review of the first volume this week, but after reading it I promptly decided to order the next few volumes in the series and indulged myself in a mini-marathon of this seinen manga focused on wheelchair basketball. I would have read more volumes of this series if I’d had them on hand but I decided to pursue moderation in my manga choices for this week since I also had a mini-stack of Slam Dunk and a couple Vagabond omnibus volumes to get to. One of the things I just love about manga is the variety of topics. The fact that an 11+ volume ongoing series about wheelchair basketball even exits is pretty great, and when it is produced by someone with the artistry of Takehito Inoue it makes it even more special.

Real centers on three main protagonists. Tomomi Nomiya is a wanna-be tough guy who is a bit of an outcast at school even though he is on the basketball team. He was involved in a motorcycle accident that paralyzed his passenger, a girl named Natsumi who he had just picked up randomly. Hisanobu Takahashi is the arrogant new basketball captain who is about to experience something that will change his life forever. Kiyoharu Togawa is an elite athlete who had most of one leg taken off due to a childhood brush with cancer. His driven personality isn’t a good match with the hobbyists on his wheelchair basketball team.

Real Volume 1

The opening chapter of the series introduces Nomiya, and it lead me to think that Inoue excels at portraying loveable lunkheads. Nomiya shows up at school in street clothes to drop out. He kicks people around, confesses his love to an indifferent girl, obliviously gives his ex-teammates advice, and to conclude his visit he gets naked and defecates near the school gates. All of his previous behavior is then immediately placed in a different context when he is shown carefully smoothing his hair down and rearranging his clothes before he goes to visit Natsumi, who is still recovering from their accident. She refuses to talk to him, but he is stupidly persistent. He takes her on a walk and they hear someone practicing basketball. Nomiya promptly assumes that the young man in the wheelchair can’t play due to his disability, but Togawa promptly challenges him to a game of one on one after announcing that he’s not impressed with Nomiya. When Togawa shows Nomiya his moves, Nomiya demands a handicap for the match, asking to borrow Togawa’s sports wheelchair while Togawa rides in Natsumi’s hospital issue chair. Nomiya and Togawa’s lives begin to be more entangled when Nomiya recruits Togawa for a grudge match against his old team when he finds out that a former teammate is being bullied. Togawa reveals that he’s capable of using his disability to run a hustle on anyone, showing up at the match and making a most uncharacteristic speech about how he’s “Earnest and sincere…always with good cheer…I work hard and try my best..Even if I’ll never match up to you able-bodied folks.” Togawa deliberatly plays the role of a simple disabled person who is optimistic in order to endure that his opponents will underestimate him.

Real Volume 2

As this volume opens Nomiya and Togawa’s scheme of basketball street hustling has been derailed by the presence of an elite wheelchair basketball athlete named Mitsuru who has recently returned from Australia. Hisanobu has just suffered a spinal cord injury and isn’t capable of focusing on rehabilitation, because he can’t accept what’s happened to him yet. Togawa decides to rejoin his wheelchair basketball team, deliberately humbling himself because he wants to train again in order to match up with Mitsuru. Togawa’s childhood friend Azumi serves as manager for the Tigers, and she promises the other players that he his trying to change. But Togawa is still the only person on the team playing with the intensity of an athlete who really wants to win, so the basic cause of tension in the wheelchair basketball team is unresolved. Nomiya drifts from dead-end job to dead-end job. Nomiya and Hisanobu both face their old team playing the final game of the season. Hisanobu is alone in the hospital, hoping that they lose without him. Nomiya attends the game as a spectator in disguise, remembering all of the training he put in on his own to lead up to the last match. While Nomiya and Hisanobu face a low point, Togawa flashes back to his days as a track and field athlete with the potential to become something special. While his sprint times might be dropping, he has a nagging pain in his leg, that might be over training or something more serious.

The scenes of Hisanobu in the hospital are particularly well executed. The panels change perspective to show that Hisanobu can only look up at the people who bend over his bed to talk to him. Mundane details like a bowl of uneaten food or the curtain that separates his area from his roommate’s space contrast with the dynamic action Togawa is still able to experience on the basketball court, as he pushes himself and his team to win their next game despite his teammates’ hostility.

Real Volume 3

The real source of tension between Togawa and his team is the fact that they have innately different attitudes and approaches to the sport. Togawa is determined to push himself to win just for the sake of winning. His teammates say that winning is for the able-bodied. Wheelchair basketball doesn’t make it to the paper – it is only a human interest story, “Nobody expects anything from us. It’s about overcoming our disabilities. Put on a happy face and be optimistic. That’s all anyone wants to see.” After that speech, one of the Tigers reacts with violence, and for a change it isn’t Togawa. Yonezawa throws a cup of water in the face of the speech-maker and says “I want to win.” For the first time the Tigers play with intensity, even though they are about to lose to the Dreams who have two all-star players from the All-Japan team on their roster.

Nomiya sees that Togawa is making progress with his dream, while he’s still a high-school dropout whose post traumatic stress syndrome is preventing him from getting a driver’s license. He goes to Nagano to visit Natsumi but when he sees how much of a struggle physical therapy is for her, he’s unable to talk to her. He vows to become a better person and come back. Hisanobu’s stay in the hospital becomes a parade of horror, as he’s increasingly confronted with the fact that he won’t walk again. He’s uncomfortable being given a bath by the nurses, and shocked when he’s raised upright and immediately becomes dizzy. He dreams of running, but awake he begins to realize that he really doesn’t have any feeling in the lower half of his body. Hisanobu’s immobility contrasts with Togawa’s relentless pursuit of sport. When his old team comes to visit him, he kicks them out. When he asks for his long-lost father to visit, he experiences a psychological break and tries to kill himself. What follows is one of my favorite scenes in the series, as Nomiya turns up in the hospital for a vist, unaware of the exact details of Hisanobu’s condition. The two share a moment where they replay the final game of their former team in their imaginations as if they were still there – Hisanobu with a bandage over the side of his face making a game-winning shot. Hisanobu is so hostile that when Nomiya finds out about his condition, he can’t bear the thought of someone he thought of as a loser pitying him. Hisanobu’s nurse points out that he’ll e able to move around for himself when he starts rehabilitation, but Nomiya contrasts Natsumi’s quiet determination with Hisanobu’s petulance and concludes that Hisanobu is just like the way he was at basketball practice, looking for ways to slack off, making fun of people who were working hard and yells “You don’t have what it takes! Don’t kid yourself! You aren’t a loser because you can’t walk…you were already one to begin with!” Nomiya might not be the most intelligent person around, but his nearly pathological bluntness does allow him to see the truth of a situation.

Real Volume 4

Togawa’s experiences often serve as a spark for other characters to assess their own place in life. As Togawa becomes more energized when he sees some of his teammates finally show up to practice with a competative attitude, Azumi and Nomiya sit and watch him. She thinks that Togawa is finally back to the way he used to be and remembers him in his prime sprinting in track and field. Nomiya is aware that he’s being left further behind as Togawa seems to be on the verge of fulfilling his dreams of competition. Mitsuru watches the first game of the wheelchair basketball tournament with interest, thinking that Togawa’s team doesn’t suit him, and pondering the nature of Ego in team sports.

This ends up being a very Togawa-centric volume as the reader gets a bit more of his backstory, seeing how he reacted to his leg amputation surgery. Togawa ends up becoming a shut-in, only to be distracted one day when a man in a wheelchair named Tora sees him shuffling along with a prosthetic limb, gropes his knee area and discovers evidence of Rotationplasty, yells “Perfect!” and tells him to practice using a wheelchair before zipping off. Togawa also meets Yama, whose wasting disease is going to progress to a point where he will no longer be able to move at all. Yama and Tora show Togawa the possibilities of wheelchair basketball and suddenly Togawa has a new mentor and direction in his life. Tora is drawn as a sweaty beast of a man in a wheelchair, cracking jokes and always going at top speed, yet able to slow down and get Togawa to talk about his experiences adjusting to his new reality. It is easy to see why Togawa is so invested with the Tigers after seeing their former leader Tora.

Real Volume 5

After focusing on Togawa, this volume swings back to show how Hisanobu is doing with his rehabilitation. Driven on by the memory of Nomiya calling him a loser, Hisanobu is actually putting forth an effort for the first time. One of his former teachers urges him to consider going back to high school, and she takes him back there so they can make a list of the accommodations he might need. Real has an apt title, because the topics it deals with are never glossed over or treated superficially. As Hisanobu’s visit winds up, an official at the school looks at the projected costs for bringing him back and says “High school isn’t everything, is it?” He begins to talk about high school equivalency exams and special schools for the disabled. Nomiya finally gets his lisence and goes to visit Natsumi and she confronts him finally, telling him not to visit her because she thinks of him as her assailant.

Togawa gets a boost as he’s scouted for the national team and Mitsuru decides to join the Tigers. When he goes to visit his friend Yama, he’s confronted with Yama at his lowest point. Yama can no longer even palm a basketball. He’s hostile and depressed, asking Togawa and Azumi if they’ve done it yet and announcing that he wishes he could have sex before he dies. Togawa and Yama end up being able to communicate better through text message, when Yama tells Togawaa “I’m scared. I don’t know who I am anymore. By the time I die I’ll have turned into some awful person. Togawa is late to basketball practice as he texts back “I’ll tell you this, Yama. You’ve always been my hero, and you still are.” Yama is confined to his bed as Togawa yells to his team on the basketball court.

I don’t think I’m overstating anything by saying that Inoue is one of the best manga artists working today. He is able to tell an absolutely gripping story weaving together the lives of three very different people, and the supporting cast always seems well-developed and interesting. As one would expect, the art is a standout. Even a meathead like Nomiya is able to display some poetic moments of fluidity and grace when he goes in for a layup. Togawa’s power in his wheelchair is shown to be absolutely intimidating when able bodied opponents see him coming down the court at top speed. While Real centers around the wheelchair basketball world, it uses that setting as a way of exploring the underlying psychological issues of the protagonists. Nomiya desperately searches for a form of redemption. Hisanobu’s toxic habits of personality and thought patterns threaten to derail his rehabilitation. While there is no question that Togawa has the drive and personality to be an elite athlete, his lack of people skills while playing a team sport might threaten his bright future. Real is just an absolutely gripping manga, and I know I’m going to be seeking out the remaining translated volumes of the series as soon as possible.

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