“Do you like basketball, by any chance?”
I have to admit that I have no interest in sports whatsoever, so I was a little dubious when I approached Slam Dunk. It’s a series that’s been greatly praised, from an artist with a formidable reputation, both for Slam Dunk itself and for his other series Vagabond and Real, so I was hopeful, but I was also leery of the possibility that it might be crammed with impenetrable jargon, or might depend on the reader being just as fascinated by basketball as the characters.
I needn’t have worried: no prior knowledge or liking for basketball is necessary. Slam Dunk follows the classic shonen manga formula of a cocky, talented boy determined to be the very best — but in this case, the cocky, talented boy, a fierce redhead by the name of Hanamichi, is also not very bright and doesn’t know the first thing about basketball, except that the girl he likes has a crush on a boy on his high school’s team. Hanamichi’s fiery determination to succeed at all costs (even if it means staying up all night polishing the club’s basketballs) makes him a typical Shonen Jump hero; what marks him out from the pack is his sheer lunkheadedness, his willingness to go hell for leather for a goal that everyone can see is unobtainable except him. And this isn’t because Hanamichi believes in himself and can therefore work miracles: it’s because he’s too stupid to know any better.
The glorious scene in which Hanamichi leaps for the basket, ball in hand, his body suspended in midair for a beautifully rendered two-page spread, only to bash his head against the backboard and fall to the floor with a crash, might lead you to believe that Inoue is satirising the cliches of the typical shonen hard-work-and-friendship, be-the-very-best saga, but that would be reading too much into it; Slam Dunk pokes fun at Hanamichi relentlessly, but it is at its core a solid and very well-done example of the genre rather than a subversion of it. Hanamichi’s error is not in reaching for the top but in expecting to get there without working for it, and once he decides to join the team, he suffers a rude awakening: no amount of natural talent can persuade the team captain to let him off learning the fundamentals of basketball. Hanamichi takes it as a personal affront that he’s not immediately allowed to do slam-dunks, but although the team captain does have personal reasons for disliking Hanamichi, he’s surprisingly open to letting him on the team — provided he learns the rules of the game.
Inoue’s art is so vivid and dynamic it practically vibrates off the page. All of the energy of the sport is there, along with all the hot-blooded tensions and explosions of adolescence; and Inoue flips easily between a hyper-realist style for the basketball scenes and a more whimsical, comical style for the scenes where Hanamichi is making an idiot of himself. The storytelling is so assured, the action so fluid, and the humour so effective that the whole thing is a joy to read from start to finish. Highly recommended.