This was first posted at my blog, but since no one reads it I thought I'd post it here, too, because I love it and want to share it with you guys.
This was particularly difficult to write. Where to start? How to get people interested in a comic about basketball, and a Japanese one at that? I'm not the most eloquent person -especially not in English- so I believed it would be difficult to convince strangers to venture into a complete unknown area like manga. I grabbed one of its volumes from my bookshelf, looking for inspiration - and ended up rereading the last 10. I decided then and there to go ahead with this review / blatant endorsement in the hopes that at least one person would learn to love it.
So let's get right to it, after the jump.
Comic? "Manga"? Eh?
I'm a comic book geek, I admit it: not the biggest geek out there, but I know comics, I read comics, and I consider them wonderful entertainment and the perfect format for some stories. I'm sure most of you have read a comic or a hundred in your lifetime, so whether you love them or hate them, I'm not about to change your opinion with this post. You know where you stand.
"Manga" is simply the term used to designate comics drawn in Japan - and yet "manga" has also many extra connotations that can catch unaware readers off guard and turn them off on the story they're reading. Manga, like any other art expression, is heavily influenced by the cultural and historical context it's created in, and Japanese culture is very different from that of Western countries. You'll see evidence of this at every turn: the style, the references, the speech patterns. Why is it so shocking that Sakuragi has red hair? Why do they assume he's just a troublemaker (a "yankee") for it? Why do people call him a "monk" when he cuts it short? "Pachinko"? I can only urge you to ignore all of these secondary details and simply read on, for the meat of the story is as universal as it gets: guy meets girl, guy joins school team of the sport girl loves, guy proves to be a prodigy in that sport, rivals appear, friendships are formed, games are won, games are lost.
And keep this in mind: the aptly-named "Slam Dunk" is first and foremost a manga about basketball.
The main character of the story is Hanamichi Sakuragi, a first-year high school student. He's a bit of a juvenile delinquent (at least by Japanese standards) and the head of a gang of exhuberant merrymakers that love fighting and getting into trouble. His reputation and his strange looks (very tall and burly by Japanese standards, red-haired) made him very unpopular with girls in junior high school - in fact, he was so unpopular that the story starts with his 50th rejection. As she breaks his heart, the girl rejecting him admits that she likes someone on the basketball team.
This is the reason why coming Shohoku High School, Sakuragi has a bias against the sport, actually headbutting into unconsciousness anyone that mentions the word "basketball". On his first day of school, though, a chance encounter with a cute girl called Haruka changes everything. She is the sister of Shohoku's basketball team's captain, Akagi, and a big fan of the sport in general and slam dunks in particular. Recognizing Sakuragi's athleticism and above-average height, she asks him whether he's a basketball player, and Sakuragi, who's already head over heels for her, goes with the flow and ends up joining the team in order to impress Haruko and prove that he is worthy of her.
Shohoku's basketball team has been a one-man show for two years now, built around star center and captain Akagi and vice-captain Kogure, a hard worker but physically lacking. That year, though, talent comes in spades: a freshman called Rukawa, an amazing player of unmatched skill, who would unknowingly becomes Sakuragi's bitter rival in love when Haruka develops a crush on him; Mitsui, an ex-junior high school MVP who had quit school to join a gang and returns because of his love for basketball; Ryota Miyagi (no Karate Kid jokes, please), a sophomore who had also quit the team for personal reasons. Along with Sakuragi, this band of misfit goes on to become one of the best teams in the country.
As time passes by and Sakuragi keeps playing basketball, he grows to love the sport and trains restlessly to become the best. That's Slam Dunk 101 - as Sakuragi learns to love basketball we remember why we love it ourselves. It's a rediscovery of the sport through the eyes a complete novice.
Damn, I made that sound so boring. I should write Wikipedia articles.
Speaking of Wikipedia articles, I'll be blatantly plagiarizing it for this section of my review (and this review for volume 30, too). Then again, it's Wikipedia, so I imagine that article is already plagiarizing something else.
There are many, many characters in Slam Dunk, and it'd be impossible to talk about them all. I'll just focus on the core group of the Shohoku team, its coach and the girl who started everything. Trust me when I say there are some great characters I won't be mentioning.
Position: Power Forward
The protagonist, and a first year student. At first, Sakuragi is known for his poor basketball skills, and in his first few official matches, he fouls out every game. However, his basketball skills advance throughout the series and eventually he manages to become a decent player. His most notable features are his red hair, his tenacity when playing, his ability to take massive amounts of punishment, and his rebounding skills. He often refers to himself as the "Rebound King". He likes Akagi Haruko, but has not told her yet. He is at first disliked by Akagi, but as time passes and Sakuragi improves, he earns his grudging respect. Sakuragi has a habit of making fun of other players by giving them strange nicknames, such "gorilla" for Akagi.
Third year student, the captain of the Shohoku Team, and Haruko's older brother. It is later revealed in the series that he, like Sakuragi, was a horrible basketball player at first. Serious and disciplined, Akagi's dream is to lead Shohoku to the national championship. Regarded as the best center in the Kanagawa prefecture, Akagi plays as a fairly typical center, using his height and power to score close to the basket. He also has a reputation for being a virtually unbeatable defender. As captain of the team, he keeps discipline among his players during matches.
Akagi is not too fond of the nickname given to him by Sakuragi, but it is appropriate because of his slam dunks, which the whole school refers to as the "Gorilla Dunk". Akagi eventually tries to help Sakuragi become a better player and teaches him the skills he needs, despite their embarrassing first one-on-one game.
Position: Small Forward
Another first year student. Rukawa was a superstar in junior high school and maintains his high level of play in high school. His good looks and superior game play have made him the object of infatuation of many girls in the school, including Akagi Haruko. However, Rukawa has no interest in women, and is always looking to elevate his game to the next level. When he plays, he is very selfish, and very rarely passes the ball. He has earned the nickname "Fox" from Sakuragi because of his sly attitude. He and Sakuragi become natural enemies.
Position: Shooting Guard
A third year student who rejoins the team after a year of absence around the same time Miyagi joins. In junior high school, he was declared Most Valuable Player because of his great shooting ability, in particular for his ability to consistently make three point shots. However, after joining Shohoku, an injury to his left knee in a training session interrupted his basketball career. An imprudent early return to the basketball court reinjured the knee more severely, leading to a basketball hiatus of over a year. Although he eventually healed, he was embittered by his exclusion from the court, and quit basketball to become the leader of a gang. All the while, he secretly wanted to return to the basketball team.
Position: Point Guard
Second year student. Miyagi is small for a basketball player, but makes up for it with incredible speed, skills, and court awareness. His skills are typical of a point guard: strong passing and dribbling, as well as an understanding of the game that allows him to be a floor leader. Off-court, Miyagi has a reputation for being a bad boy.
Like Sakuragi, Miyagi is motivated to play by his love for a girl: his best friend and classmate Ayako, the manager of the team. At first, he and Sakuragi become enemies because of their natural antagonistic tendencies, but when they learn of each other's unrequited love for another girl, they become fast friends.
Position: 6th man
Shohoku's vice-captain and a good friend to Akagi and Mitsui. He and Akagi are the only two players who have been on the team for all three years - Mitsui left during their first year, while other players quit the team because they found Akagi's training regimen to be too strenuous. He is gentle, empathic, and always friendly, and is almost never seen without his glasses on. Despite spending a lot of time on the bench, Kogure brings experience and considerable firepower to the team when he's on the court. He is the player most likely to be subbed in to replace one of the starters, a pretty good shooter and tactician.
The coach of the Shohoku High basketball team, and one of the best ones in Japan. His calm and collected attitude contrasts with the temper he had in the past, when he was nicknamed "White-Haired Devil" as a demanding college coach. However, behind his impassible demeanor is a brilliant strategist, who always knows how to turn the tide of a match for his team. Anzai, like Haruko Akagi, realizes Sakuragi's potential early on and decides to make him a starter even though some of his basketball skills are very poor.
Takenori's younger sister and Sakuragi's love interest. Sweet and with a captivating personality, she is always around to cheer on the players, especially her brother Takenori, who is extremely protective of her and taught her the basics of basketball, and Sakuragi, whom she considers her best friend. Haruko often appears at matches together with Sakuragi's cohorts and her two best friends, Fujii and Matsui. She, like most girls in Shohoku, only has eyes for Rukawa, although he never reciprocates her feelings.
Is That All There Is To It?
No. In my opinion, the strength of this story goes beyond its likable characters and superb black-and-white artwork. The author, Takehiko Inoue, is a big fan of basketball, and the real core of Slam Dunk is his love for the game. Writing about a sport that was pretty unpopular in Japan at the time of the manga's publication demanded courage, and in fact he took the time to educate his readers about the rules of the game as he told his story.
Slam Dunk is also a homage to the early '90s NBA. The Shohoku team, for instance, is obviously based on Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, right down to the team's uniform and their logo design. Rukawa's demeanor during the games and his entire style is modeled after Jordan's, and if you pay attention you will see him reproduce some of His Airness' most famous moves. Akagi was based on Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing, right down to the classic flat-top haircut and his leadership on the court.
What's truly odd is the many similarities you can find between Sakuragi and Dennis Rodman, considering the Worm was still playing for the Pistons when Slam Dunk's first chapter was released. Sakuragi's bad boy attitude, his incredible leaping ability (in particular his knack for jumping several times in succession without getting tired), his rebounding skills, they all evoke an image of Rodman's heyday years. In fact, Rodman cut his hair short and dyed it red only a few months after Sakuragi did so in the manga, leading fans like me to speculate on whether he actually read the story. This may be just an incredible coincidence, but in any case it's both remarkable and appropriate.
And Inoue doesn't only use famous players for inspiration: basketball fans should also recognize famous plays, phrases, or even shoes. The nostalgic appeal is particularly strong in my case, because it was during those years that I found and grew to love the league.
Say I Want To Read It
Fortunately, Viz Media is publishing the English language version of the manga, and 8 volumes have already been released. In Argentina and many other countries across the globe it's already been released in its entirety, and you can easily buy copies in French and Spanish. I believe it's also been translated into English by a British company, and some of the volumes translated are available at Amazon.
Although I recommend buying it, the entire manga has been translated into English by fans and can be downloaded here or at any peer-to-peer site worth its name. You can also read it online here. If you don't mind reading comics in your computer, it's a viable option and the translation is top-notch. Here's a list of the international publishers in Inoue's site.
What's an "anime"? For the uninitiated, it's simply the Japanese term for "animation". An animated version of Slam Dunk was produced in 1993, and it spanned 101 episodes and 4 movies. It's very faithful to its source material, but it only covers half of the story. In any case, it's an option for those who hate comics and prefer effortless entertainment.
Production values were good at the time, but the animation doesn't meet today's standards. Still, if you watch it to enjoy the story and not to be amazed at the technical expertise you should be able to have a good time. This is not Pixar, fellows.
If you watch this anime, your options are varied. DVDs were produced a few years ago, and should still be available for purchase via Amazon. You can also buy episodes online in Joost and Crunchyroll, and some eps have also been uploaded to IGN Video. More to the point, if you're bothered by low quality video, the entire anime is currently hosted at YouTube. Here's a playlist with the first 93 episodes, and episodes 94-101 are a search away.
I imagine it won't come as a shock if I tell you I'm a big fan of Takehiko Inoue's works.
Slam Dunk was his breakthrough manga. It is incredibly popular in Japan (so much so that a Californian basketball player applying to become a Japanese citizen changed his name from Henderson to Sakuragi), and in fact it helped make basketball popular all across East Asia. His next work, Buzzer Beater, is also about basketball - but now in a futuristic, bizarre setting. You can read it here at his site, but it was a bit of a miss for me.
His following manga was Vagabond, another favorite of mine. It's an adaptation of the fictionalized accounts by Eiji Yoshikawa of the world-famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi, a double-katana wielding ass-kicker from the Land of the Rising Sun. While drawing this story he would also start Real, his third basketball manga, which focuses on wheelchair basketball. Both have also been translated by fans, and you can (and should) read them online here (Vagabond) and here (Real).
His evolution as an artist is nothing short of astounding. If you pay attention while reading Slam Dunk you will notice his art's improvement as volumes pass, but it was in Vagabond that he really hit his stride. Manga artwork is traditionally black and white, but Inoue is a gifted colorist, and he has drawn many special colored pages in his newest tale.
If you want to learn more about Inoue, check out his site.
I guess this is strickly personal, but I love reading good basketball tales. For instance, you should read "Goat", by Erik Germani, which was posted a few months ago in Rufus on Fire's basketball fiction contest. It takes a subject I care deeply about and builds upon it, shows me new facets I had ignored to that point. Even the wacky fan-game "Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden", already reviewed at Basketbawful, is special to me because it was made by fans for fans, and every crazy plot twist is an in-joke shared by the the programmer and the player, connected by their love of the game.
Anyway, my work here is done. If you actually pick Slam Dunk up or have already read it, I would love to know what you thought of it, so drop me a comment.