Review: Real and Slam Dunk

Slam Dunk, vol. 1
By Takehiko Inoue
Rated T for Teen
Viz, $7.99

Real, vol. 1
By Takehiko Inoue
Rated OT, for Older Teens
Viz, $12.99

Slam Dunk and Real are nominally about basketball, but both manga have larger themes. Slam Dunk is a high-energy in which the hero’s tribulations are mainly played for laughs. Real is an understated drama in which all the main characters seem painfully aware and alive. Slam Dunk is for kids, Real is for older teens. Slam Dunk is hot, Real is cool. I preferred Real, but each books is good in its own way.

Warning: Spoilers after the jump.

I had expected Slam Dunk to be a typical shonen battle manga, in which at some point the hero shakes his fist and vows to be the greatest basketball player ever. Actually, it’s a lighthearted, almost frantic story of a big goof who takes up the game solely because of a crush on a girl. Perhaps there will be some fist-shaking later in the series, but the main use of fists in this first volume is to bloody other people’s noses.

The hero is Hanamichi Sakuragi, a guy whose chief characteristics seem to be his height, his red hair, and his bad luck with girls. Hanamichi is just starting high school as the book opens, and it looks like his romantic life might be improving a bit when the lovely Haruko shows up and asks if he plays basketball. As a matter of fact, Hanamichi hates basketball, because the last time he was rejected it was for a basketball player. Still, he melts when he sees Haruko and soon winds up on the basketball court, where he attempts a slam dunk and succeeds only in clocking himself.

Despite this bad start, Hanamichi eventually gets on the basketball team, although his chief motivation is his crush on Haruko, not his love of the game. Never having played before, he is completely ignorant of the basics of the game and is sent off for remedial coaching by the bossy female manager, Ayako. At some point it clicks that in addition to his size and speed, Hanamichi does have a natural talent for basketball, but one of the enjoyable things about this book is that he doesn’t get a free pass because of it; the captain, who hates him anyway, is determined to make him slog through the basics before he can hit the court.

The basketball action is entertaining, and it’s fun to watch Hanamichi turn all shades of red whenever Haruko shows up. What doesn’t work is the apparently pointless battle between Hanamichi and his fellow first-year students and the third-year students who rule their portion of the school. This results in a lot of fistfights that don’t really move the story along; more basketball and romantic tomfoolery would have made this volume even better.

Inoue’s art is clean and expressive. His figures have a pleasing massiveness to them, and the action is easy to follow. One of the best parts is the way he uses Hanamichi’s gang of friends as a sort of demented Greek chorus, exaggerating his every move with cheers, confetti, and other sight gags.

Viz packs this first volume with extras, including full-color and two-color pages, and a special basketball section in the back. Japanese text in the panels is translated in the gutters, which is helpful if somewhat distracting.

Real is rated for older teens and that higher age rating reflects not only some “mature” content (if you consider taking a dump on the school steps mature) but also a much more serious approach.

We meet Tomomi Nomiya, the lead character, on the day he decides to drop out of school. He has just returned to high school after a motorcycle accident in which the girl who was riding with him, a stranger he had picked up, was paralyzed from the waist down. Nomiya emerged from the wreck with minor injuries, but he was suspended and kicked off the basketball team. This first scene, in which Nomiya says his farewells and settles a few scores, is a small masterpiece of storytelling. Where Slam Dunk is raucous and exaggerated, Real is quiet and understated; Inoue sets up the framework of this story with just a few terse comments and meaningful gestures.

Without school or, more importantly, basketball to keep him anchored, Nomiya is lost. He tries to make amends for the accident by visiting the injured girl, but she never speaks or smiles, and he really seems to be more of a nuisance than a help. Taking her for a walk one day, he chances on a gym where he sees a young man playing basketball with startling intensity. Kiyoharu Togawa, we learn, lost a leg to bone cancer and quit his wheelchair basketball team in disgust at their lack of fire. “What do you expect?” one of them says to him after they lose a game. “We’re disabled.”

Nomiya and Togawa form one of those guy friendships where they somehow come to an understanding by glaring at each other, without much small talk. The book gets really entertaining when they team up and start turning the tables on unsuspecting opponents who underestimate Togawa because he’s in a wheelchair. They earn some quick cash and settle a few scores, but they also realize this is only going to take them so far; as part of their strategy, Nomiya wins the right to use the school gym to play basketball, and we start to see the seeds of something bigger.

Nomiya is a genuinely sympathetic character. He’s obviously good-hearted but can’t quite seem to make things work, and it’s painful to watch him being taunted by his former teammates. The most satisfying part of this book was seeing him begin to set things right. Togawa is more of a stock character, the resentful, intense, quiet guy. He’s harder to like, but his intensity makes him a good foil for the shambling, big-hearted Nomiya.

The third character of the story is Hisanobu Takahashi, who takes over from Nomiya as captain of his school’s basketball team. Hisanobu is a bully who picks a victim and freezes him out of the games, a tactic he used on Nomiya and then on Nomiya’s friend. It’s a startlingly accurate metaphor for the social bullying that goes on in high school, and Inoue does a good job of depicting its effects. Toward the end of the volume, Hisanobu is hit by a bus and winds up in the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down. Inoue’s depiction of Hisanobu’s physical and mental pain is unsparing, and his portrayal of Hisanobu’s mother, who worries and watches but isn’t quite taken seriously, is dead on.

Inoue’s art is more solid and less exaggerated in Real than in Slam Dunk. Each of his characters has a clearly defined personality that is telegraphed through their looks and their clothes. There is more basketball action and it is more convincing; when Togawa barrels right up to someone and screeches to a sudden stop, you can practically smell the rubber. Viz has opted for a slightly larger trim size and heavy, cream-colored paper, which shows off the art to its best advantage and gives this volume a deluxe feel.

Much is made of Inoue’s artistic talents, but his writing is what lifts both these books, particularly Real, above the manga mainstream. Slam Dunk is just plain fun; Real zeroes in on the feelings of alienation, inadequacy, and insecurity that haunt almost everyone in their teen years. Both books are worth reading in different ways, for different moods, but of the two, Real is the one that has the potential to transcend the manga milieu and appeal to a wider circle of readers.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy of Slam Dunk, but I paid my own money for Real. Also, as an occasional freelancer for Shojo Beat I technically have a business relationship with the Viz folks. Just so you know.)

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  1. I’ve been reading Slam Dunk in Shonen Jump, and found it surprisingly engaging, though now that I’m reading your reviews here, I think I would enjoy Real more. I think I’ll have to pick up the first volume. Thanks for providing these thoughtful reviews!

    Also, this? “Real is rated for older teens and that higher age rating reflects not only some “mature” content (if you consider taking a dump on the school steps mature)” made me laugh so hard I almost choked on my coffee. :D

  2. Well, it’s always hard to distinguish between “mature,” as in “not acceptable to show to children” and “mature” as in “themes that will resonate with readers over 13.” :)

  3. I actually prefer Slamdunk. I felt the story was stronger there. Also, it’s much hilarious.

  4. I think the general consensus is that Slam Dunk is more about basketball (with a large influence from the ’90s Chicago Bulls) whereas Real is more about human drama. With the later being a much heavier read but one that resonates longer with the reader.

  5. It’s worth mentioning to new readers that the reason for the difference in art between Slam Dunk and REAL is the fact that there’s more or less a 10 year gap between the first volume of Slam Dunk (1990/1991) and the first of REAL (2001), *not* because one is distinctly ‘for kids’ or ‘for adults’.

    10 years is huge in terms of artistic growth (when Viz publishes the English translation of the Water artbook, check out and compare Inoue’s author photographs in Slam Dunk vol. 1 and the artbook – he’s definately not the young baller-type he was in the early ’90s), so it’s a little misleading to start comparing art notes between the two series without a little disclaimer. :)



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