Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Slam Dunk: Ah, to be young, stupid, and good at sports

Here's that review of Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane Season Two #1 at Comics Bulletin. Now for the business:

Slam Dunk, volume 1
By Takehiko Inoue



Takehiko Inoue obviously loves basketball, judging by the number of manga series he has based around the sport. His current series, Real, is about a wheelchair version of the game, and he has also done a goofy, futuristic hoops series called Buzzer Beater, but Slam Dunk is where it all started, back in 1991. After reading some of the excellent Real (as well as his samurai series Vagabond), it’s fascinating to look back and see how his art style has changed over the years, as well as the development of his storytelling skills.

While his more recent work takes a more serious, adult tone, Slam Dunk is a full-on shonen sports comedy, with an obnoxious, talented protagonist, the requisite love interest, plenty of slapstick antics and comic violence, some locker-room humor, and lots of super-deformed character art. It’s definitely an early work, but you can still recognize Inoue’s art style, and he was a great writer even then, crafting a fun, gripping story with some entertaining drama and lots of truly hilarious moments.

The story here is about Hanamichi Sakuragi, one of those self-confident, full of himself, ridiculously talented shonen characters, who decides to join his new high school's basketball team when he meets Haruko, a cute girl who is just his type, and finds out that she is a big hoops fan. Being a headstrong and not especially bright fellow, he throws himself into the task, but he doesn't know the first thing about the sport, so Inoue gets some good comedy out of his mishaps, like when he tries to perform a slam dunk for her and bonks his head on the backboard. You'll have to read the book to see the actual scene, which is beautifully staged, with a perfect punchline, but here's the aftermath:



Of course, there are some complications, like Hanamichi's tendency to get in tussles with the upperclassmen (most of whom he already towers over), and the existence of Rukawa, another guy who Haruko thinks quite highly of and is already pretty awesome at basketball. And then there's the Takenori, team captain, who Hanamichi picks a fight with and ends up playing a pick-up game against. He's a huge guy, with an awesome (awesomely bad, that is) haircut:



Some (mostly Hanamichi) would even refer to him as a gorilla. Their lengthy game is wonderfully done, drawn out over three chapters and punctuated with some hilarious comedy, including a moment that will probably serve to have Hanamichi perpetually on Takenori's bad side:



It seems like a lopsided contest, but in true shonen manga fashion, Hanamichi is determined and talented enough to learn just enough over the course of the game and prevail. But wouldn'cha know it, Takenori is Haruko's older brother, and she had just wanted them to be friends, so Hanamichi could help lead the team to the national championship. Takenori, humiliated by his defeat, doesn't want anything to do with him, so Hanamichi goes about trying to get on his good side, in the silliest manner possible, of course, doing things like delivering a huge box of bananas to Takenori's desk. Because gorillas like bananas, of course. Hanamichi eventually wins him over by showing more dedication than some of the current members of the team, but once he joins the squad, he gets relegated to the corner of the gym learning fundamentals with Ayako, the spunky team manager:



But he soon gets frustrated because he can't join in the rest of the team's practice activities, leading him to quit dramatically. To be continued! Oh, the drama!

It's an amazingly fun read, showing that even when Inoue was starting out, he knew what he was doing. He's able to draw the reader in quickly and get them invested in Hanamichi's travails, while still laughing at him when he screws up. The art is an interesting early version of his style, usually remaining more spare and clean than his current work, but during moments of action or intense emotion, he sometimes makes it more scratchy and kinetic, similar to how his current artwork. He also does a lot more comedy and chibi here, with characters contorting their faces into crazy expressions and tears flowing freely. And he uses some interesting representations of both physical and verbal conflict, as in this scene when Haruko thinks Hanamichi has been fighting with Rukawa, his rival for her affections:



And I love that dynamic action. Scenes of characters jumping, running, fighting, or performing the eponymous action are beautifully rendered, with rushing speed lines and cool motion distortion. My favorite example is probably Hanamichi's incredible effort to defend against Takenori:



So it's definitely tons of fun, and this is only the initial volume of what was a long-running series, lasting 31 volumes. I expect future volumes will be filled with some excellent, dramatic basketball action. It was good enough that it even sparked a large increase in the popularity of the sport in Japan. When was the last time a comic had that kind of effect on society in the United States? I can't wait to read more, and I'm sure Inoue will continue to blow me away with his excellence.

This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. Volume 1 is scheduled to be released on September 2, 2008.