Manga Village

Slam Dunk Volume 4

October 14, 2009

Series Description: Winning isn’t everything in the game of basketball, but who wants to come in second? It takes dedication and discipline to be the best, and the Shohoku High hoops team wants to be just that. They have one last year to make their captain’s dream of reaching the finals come true-will they do it? Takehiko Inoue’s legendary beloved basketball manga is finally here and the tale of a lifetime is in your hands.

Volume Description: Shohoku’s (somewhat) friendly game against Ryonan finally gets underway. Old rivalries reignite with captain Akagi going toe-to-toe with Ryonan’s center, Uozumi. Hanamichi has flat-out declared that he will personally shut down Ryonan’s ace, Sendoh, but will Kaede Rukawa take care of things before Hanamichi even gets a chance to hit the floor? Either way, this is bound to be a game to remember.

By Takehiko Inoue
Publisher: Viz Media
Age Rating: Teen
Genre: Sports
Price: $9.99

This was a tough one for me because of expectations. You see, everyone on the planet adores Slam Dunk. I mean, this series is venerated, legendary even. And Inoue’s two other series that are translated into English are awesome. I mean, have you seen Vagabond? It’s phenomenal. The art captures the action, the mood, and the sweep of history, and Real has a heft to it, with characters and drama that raise it up above basics of the competition that is the anchor for the series. In fact, in a first-blush, straightforward comparison between Real and Slam Dunk, Real seems to have a gravitas which Slam Dunk lacks, not just in the setup of “wheelchair basketball” vs. “unruly punk learns basketball to win the ladies”, but in all the visual matter: character design, layout, pacing, etc. Real is simply more at ease with itself, less frenetic-again, however, I must say that this is at first blush.

See, I read Slam Dunk, specifically this fourth volume, somewhat cold. I had read the earlier translation as it had appeared in the initial volumes of the ill-fated Raijin Comics magazine nearly a decade ago, and was familiar with the legendary status of the series. So when the opportunity to review this volume arose, I jumped at the chance. After all, this is the first volume in which the home team takes on their rivals, in a pre-season exhibition game, the first volume where the series slips into full-on basketball action without having to really deal with the extraneous stuff: you know, characters and their motivations. But imagine my surprise when I read it-I found it somewhat confusing, indirect, flat, with a frustratingly farcical main character and abrupt jumps in the action.

I was all set to give this book a bad review. And then I went back to the book, as I always do when I’m about to write, to collect my thoughts and to figure out where it seemed I didn’t connect with the book. I figured it had to do with basketball. I’m just not a basketball fan, you see. I love baseball, and have a genetic connection to American football that I can’t seem to escape. In fact, I like all kinds of sports, except I’ve never really gotten into basketball.  But, in analyzing it, I still didn’t think that was enough to sink or swim a manga. After all, I love a good sports story, and I’ve read manga, comics, novels, etc. about all kinds of things I don’t have interest in and found them fascinating based on the strength of the writing. Hell, I love cooking manga, especially when they get all Alton Brown and school me on cooking science-but I don’t know a damn thing about cooking or care to cook like a chef of any sort. The manga Swan is about as far from my interests as I can imagine, but it was so damn good it inspired me to read ballet fairy tales to my daughter. So the fact that I’m not a fan of basketball shouldn’t have any bearing on whether or not I like Slam Dunk.

In a way, however, I was wrong. Slam Dunk, and specifically this volume of Slam Dunk, where Inoue really pulls out all the basketball stops, is brilliant, and brilliant because of basketball. You know those manga I mentioned above? Cooking manga, for instance-it puts cooking in a manga context. So Iron Wok Jan, or Yakitate Japan! use cooking as the format through which to explore traditional manga tropes-conflict as a series of battles, achievement through hard work and endeavor, how earnestness and skill win the day, etc.

But in Slam Dunk, Inoue turns that on its head: he puts manga in a basketball context. Understand this, Inoue isn’t interested in telling the same stories found in every shonen manga for the last thirty years. No, he’s interested in basketball, and creating a manga about the game in 1990 means, if he wants to dig into the game, he has to create an understanding of basketball from the ground up in his manga. So he attacks some of the basic assumptions and tropes of shonen manga, and breaks apart the traditional rhythms and utility of manga so he can get his audience to seize upon basketball and let go of their manga expectations.  For example, on the surface this volume bears all the hallmarks of shonen manga-a big game between rival teams, the first expansion of the central conflict facing the series’ hero to include opponents outside the established circle of rivals, in which we see an escalation of skill/power/etc.

Only here, the whole setup is skewed. Hanamichi, the ostensible hero of Slam Dunk, is sidelined nearly the entire volume, instead he has to watch the game go three-quarters without doing anything except fume at the building tension. And that tension is the reader’s tension, because the reader has to delve into lots of ins and outs of basketball maneuvering, undercut by Hanamichi’s antics to break the tension, before getting to the release of our hero cutting loose on the court.  Hanamichi’s wait is crucial, however, because he’s ignorant of basketball, and is therefore a stand-in for a good deal of the contemporary Slam Dunk audience when it debuted in 1990. So Hanamichi’s watching and learning is our watching and learning. And Hanamichi’s frustrations are then our frustration-frustration that this manga isn’t doing what we expect it to, that Hanamichi isn’t getting to play, that basketball seems to reward equal combinations of power, grace, speed and luck, and that at any moment the game can change on a dime.

Honestly, reading this manga, really breaking down the panel transitions and the way Inoue breaks up the action, gets his characters into place, creates miniature epics of conflict and triumph, all the while creating a new pace and rhythm to manga-it’s fantastic.  There’s only a few comics I think of that are great just because, on a purely comics level, they rise above and beyond their subject matter-and Slam Dunk volume 4 rises easily into that category.

I could go on and on about this book, but instead I say just go out and get it, see a huge, wild, fun talent at work. In that sense, Inoue is Hanamichi, and I can easily see, had I read this volume over fifteen years ago when it was released, I would easily have wondered, as Uozomi, the rival school’s team captain does at the end of this volume, “Who is this guy?!” Instead, with now three fantastic series from this artist, we see that Inoue is a craftsman of extraordinary talent.

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Justin Colussy-Estes

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