Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Real: I sure feel like it is

I could link to some stuff here and there, but I'll just go with this one:  blog pals Tucker Stone and Noah Berlatsky are collaborating on a sort of tag-team review of Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold.  That should make for some good reading.  Here's the first installment.

Real, volume 2
By Takehiko Inoue


Takehiko Inoue is an incredibly talented creator, delivering high-intensity drama that often either involves matters of life or death, or makes seemingly normal events seem that way.  This series would be one of the latter, and it's amazingly compelling reading, looking at real-life scenarios and putting readers right inside the heads of the characters, viscerally causing their emotions to leap right off the page.  It makes for a great read, and it's fascinating to see Inoue accomplish it so effectively.

This second volume of Inoue's series about wheelchair basketball takes a bit of a step back from advancing the plot, spending some time developing the characters instead.  The three leads each get their own plotline, barely even interacting with each other for the whole volume.  First, the recently-injured Hisanobu Takahashi deals with the emotional repercussions of being paralyzed and realizing he'll never play basketball again.  It was obvious that he's going to end up playing wheelchair basketball with the others as soon as he got injured in the last volume, but Inoue isn't going to just plop him in a wheelchair and have him join the team; he's exploring what the loss of mobility and freedom does to somebody, especially one that is as sure of himself as Takahashi is.  He says that he's going to walk again and keep playing basketball, but it's obviously a front, and we see the emotion come pouring out:





As a counterpoint to Takahashi's anguish, we see Nomiya's own emotional turmoil as he watches what would have been his last high school basketball game from the stands.  Without Takahashi's lead or Nomiya's skill, the team ends up floundering, and Nomiya has a similar emotional meltdown as he watches:


We see some flashbacks to his time playing with the team, and he remembers how important it was to him and how passionate he was about it, causing him to get that much more upset when he realizes it's all over.  It's tough to watch, especially since we've come to like the character and know that he's caught in a tailspin.  Will he be able to break out of it?

But the real meat of the book is the story of the third lead character, Kiyoharu Togawa (unfortunately referred to as Kiyohiku on the back cover).  After getting his ass handed to him by a better wheelchair ball player last volume, he's consumed with bettering himself, in classic manga style.  This means rejoining the team that he previously walked out on, and while he has a new resolve, they don't necessarily like the idea of him coming back and taking a position of leadership again.  It's a good conflict, but it gets taken over (for now, at least) by a lengthy flashback to before Togawa lost his leg to cancer, as he was discovering the competitive urge and the desire to better himself.

This flashback (or series thereof) starts out as a memory of Togawa's friend Azumi, but Inoue slips into an omniscient narrator voice in the captions as the story shifts to events that she couldn't have known about.  We see that Togawa became interested in track, but his father insisted that he play piano instead.  It's the classic Japanese father-son conflict that probably comes up in at least two thirds of the narratives produced by that culture; Togawa's father wants him to succeed at piano like he was never able to, but Togawa has discovered a new passion: running.  It turns out he's really good at it, and even has a chance at the national junior high meet.  Of course, we know what's coming in his future, so the buildup to what must eventually happen is excruciating.  But it's great drama, especially as Togawa's father comes to realize the importance of the sport to his son; it's like a miniature version of one of those family bonding movies.

Inoue's storytelling is pretty amazing here; it seems too obvious to have Togawa's cancer ruin his victory at the national meet, so he throws us off by seemingly showing him failing early on.  This turns out to be a dream, making us think that maybe he'll succeed after all.  But as the lead-up to the nationals continues, Togawa begins getting pains in his leg, and the terrible moment becomes all but inevitable.  It's powerful stuff, and Inoue actually ends the book on something of a cliffhanger, so we won't get to find out exactly what happened until the next volume.  Devious!

Inoue's plotting is incredibly effective, but it's made possible by the beautiful artwork that he delivers on every page.  The techniques he uses to convey emotional intensity are amazing, giving his characters a real expressiveness both in facial expression and body language.  I was especially floored by some of the techniques in the track sequences:


That page is notable for the "jump cut" between the race and the piano-playing, but that first panel is stunning.  I love how the runners' bodies are angled so low to the ground, increasing their perceived speed.  And the speed lines are mostly on the ground in front of them, drawing the eye in that direction and creating the perception that they're going to run right off the page.  But it gets even more impressive; later scenes are even more dramatic, and the background drop out altogether:


Look at the physicality of that figure!  And while he is surrounded by speed lines that make it look like he's moving incredibly quickly, the ones around his body are more sparse, and the lines on the ground are drawn parallel, making it look like Togawa is running right on top of those lines.  That's fast.  And then there's this page, which increases the perceived speed by angling the runners to look like they're charging down a steep hill, then contrasts it with the expressions of the spectators:



That's beautiful stuff.  And it's not all that Inoue manages; in addition to the excellent character work throughout, he delivers some incredible images in other places, like a flashback to Takahashi's accident that's shocking in its violence:


Or an emotional panel of Takahashi that recalls classic Japanese brushwork:


It's an amazing-looking book, and one that hits you right in the heart with its emotional storytelling.  I can't wait to check out the next volume; hopefully we'll get more interaction between the leads and continued growth of the characters.  But whatever Inoue does, it will surely be worth reading; he has demonstrated the ability to enthrall with any story he wishes to tell.  There's no stopping him.

This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.