Real Vol. 8

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

I don’t just dislike basketball. I actually semi-loathe the sport. At my office we have lunchtime discussions that veer off onto topics like, "Which reality show would be your worst nightmare?" and "What sport would you least want to be forced to watch hours of?" And for the latter, I must admit, basketball was a high contender. I mention this because I feel it’s important that you understand how much the sport is unappealing to me, so that you understand the power of the next statement I’m about to make. Real isn’t just a good comic about basketball. Real is one of the best comics being published, period.

If you haven’t encountered Real before, it’s not your average sports manga. Having tackled traditional basketball in his earlier series Slam Dunk, this time Inoue is focusing on the world of wheelchair basketball. The series focuses on three men; one (Togawa) who has played wheelchair basketball for several years, a second (Takahashi) who was a high school basketball star but has just become a paraplegic, and a third (Nomiya) who loves the sport of basketball but no longer has a team and recently was responsible for someone else having to spend the rest of their life in a wheelchair. In other words, it’s not an "easy" set of stories and characters; where other sports manga might be about learning how to get that new kick, or maybe getting faster on the field, a major victory for Takahashi is finally mastering how to maneuver his partially paralyzed body in and out of a wheelchair.

Basketball is the largest connection between all three characters, and it does play an important part in the book. In some ways it serves almost as a primal force that pushes the characters forward in life. The headstrong Togawa has problems with learning how to play as part of a team, a reflection of his own competitive personality and behavior. As he starts to master his larger problems with the team sport, you can find hope that he can apply those lessons to the rest of his life. Nomiya has basketball as his one constant as, expelled from high school, he drifts from one job to the next, never able to find steady employment. Ironically, he no longer has an outlet to play the sport, for now finding himself drawn to Togawa’s team the Tokyo Tigers on the sidelines and watching the players refuse to let any obstacles in their way. And for Takahashi, having given up at first on going through physical therapy and rehabilitation so that he can start to live an independent life again, seeing a wheelchair basketball team is the first time he sees himself actually having a future. It’s a literal lifeline tossed out to someone who had just about given up all hope. Even though my own enjoyment of the sport is normally nil, Inoue writes and draws Real with such passion and yearning that it’s impossible to not get drawn into these characters and their love and need of the sport.

Inoue also wisely never focuses exclusively on basketball. One of my favorite storylines in Real is Takahashi starting to reconnect with his estranged father, who left his wife and son eight years earlier when he gave up his office job for a quiet life focusing on pottery. As his father re-enters Takahashi’s life, watching his father trying to help his son and be there for him again is an almost heartbreaking series of moments. Inoue gives us both sides of the emotional rift; you can see Takahashi’s father struggling to try and fix what he did wrong as he sees the damage he caused, but Takahashi’s pain over the abandonment by his father is impossible to discount or ignore. Inoue isn’t afraid to go for an emotional gut punch in Real, and there are rarely easy solutions offered up. Still, something as small as Takahashi’s father buying a cell phone so that he can text his son and stay in touch is a sweet moment, and it’s hard to not have your heart melt a little bit… and then make you laugh when Takahashi’s father shows his technological inexperience and accidentally sends the same message multiple times.

It’s impossible to mention any creation of Inoue’s without commenting on the art. Inoue is one of the masters of comic art in this day and age, and Real is no exception to that rule. All of his characters are wonderfully drawn and look different from one another; Togawa’s tousled hair and eager expression always set him apart, as does Nomiya’s sedate, heavy-lidded gaze that hides the deep thoughts running through his head. There’s a moment in the latest volume of Real where all of the Tigers have to shave their heads, but even once they all have buzz cuts everyone still looks slightly different from one another; it’s refreshing to see Inoue’s skill at making everyone unique. Best of all, though, is that when characters are working hard in Real you can see it all over. Not just because they have sweat dripping down their faces or chests, but because Inoue draws the struggle on their faces, or in their postures. People who have read Inoue’s samurai epic Vagabond will already know that Inoue is a master of the energetic physical form, and Real is a good reminder of that fact.

I only have one complaint about Real, and it’s that the English language edition has almost caught up with the Japanese publishing schedule. (There is a ninth volume already out in Japan, but that’s it; it’s tentatively scheduled for North American publication this November.) Every time a new volume of Real hits the shelves, I have to buy it instantly because it draws my attention so quickly. It’s become so addicting, in fact, I’m planning on dipping into Inoue’s earlier works and reading Slam Dunk. (I encountered it before several years ago when Gutsoon had the publishing license, but it’s been long enough that at this point I’m going to just start over.) Real isn’t just good, it’s great. It doesn’t matter if you like sports or not, this is one of the pinnacles of comics right now. Highly recommended.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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