Real Vol. 1

By Takehiko Inoue
224 pages, black and white
Published by Viz

It’s hard to miss that I’m a big fan of Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond, his re-telling of the life of Miyamato Musashi. As a result, there was no doubt in my mind that his other ongoing series, Real, would also be on my to-buy list. It’s not the first time Inoue tackled basketball—before Vagabond his series Slam Dunk was a huge hit in Japan (and is set to be reissued in English from Viz later this year)—so the fact that he was coming back to the subject immediately grabbed my attention. And now that I’ve read the first volume? It simultaneously is and isn’t what I had expected.

Real follows three people, all of whom have two things in common. Nomiya was the head of his high school basketball team, until he was in a motorcycle accident that left him in one piece but put the woman riding with him into a wheelchair. Expelled from school, he spends his days visiting the woman he injured at the hospital. That’s where he meets Togawa, who used to be the star player in his wheelchair basketball team, but quit out of frustration over his teammates lacking the same intensity. And then there’s Takahashi, the basketball player whose joyride on a stolen bicycle goes horrible long and paralyzes him for life and has to learn how to adjust to his new situation.

What initially surprised me about Real was that our initial introduction to the series isn’t Takahashi, but rather Nomiya. Nomiya seemed like a slightly odd choice because of our three main characters, he’s the only one not in a wheelchair. For a book that’s about wheelchair basketball, the "outsider" seems a little strange when you consider that Takahashi gets to be in the "newbie" role. The more I thought about it, though, the more it seems like a good call on Inoue’s part. While Takahashi will be the one having to learn how to live his life (to say nothing of playing basketball) in a wheelchair, it’s Nomiya who is going to be the character that the majority of the reading audience can identify with.

Mind you, Nomiya is like many other Inoue creations in that he’s not a simple, one-dimensional character. The reactions from his former classmates when he stops by the school is telling, a strange combination of trepidation, fear, and disdain on their faces. He’s larger than life, but he can switch from thoughtful and crafty one moment to crude and thoughtless in the next. He’s certainly not a shining angel of goodness and light, and I think that’s just great. When he starts hustling people on the basketball court for money it’s hard not to like him, playing on other people’s prejudices and snap judgments for his own monetary gain. It’s a little harder to get an instant handle on our other main characters (especially the just-introduced Takahashi), but Inoue’s begun fleshing them out in such a way that bodes well for future volumes, especially with Nomiya interacting with Togawa’s sister and learning more about Togawa’s past through her.

And of course, Real wouldn’t be an Inoue book without lush, well-realized art. There’s an early scene where Togawa zooms past Nomiya on the court, stealing the basketball in the blink of an eye. There’s so much to look at in that one drawing; Inoue’s ability to draw motion in such a way that you can sense the speed involved, the immense detail on Togawa’s hair with every individual lock being drawn, even the uncomprehending expression on Nomiya’s face that changes in the next panel as he realizes that he’s just lost the ball. Then again, all of this detail shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. This is, after all, the same book that has Inoue take the time to draw the rafters and lighting in the ceiling of the gym. One of the premiere artists working in comics today, Real is a beautiful piece of art.

Even the production values of Real are outstanding. This English language edition features a heavy paper stock for both the covers and the interior, and the covers also feature end flaps. Inside, Viz has preserved the regular color pages that often kick off a chapter of Real, something that more often than not is ignored when manga is translated from Japanese to English. It’s a princely treatment for Real, and absolutely well-deserved. I’m delighted that in Japan there are already seven volumes of Real on sale, because it means we’ve got a wealth of material waiting to be translated and published in English. Now is a great time to be reading books by Inoue.

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