Tidbits: Sports Manga for the Win!

Welcome to another installment of Tidbits! This time I turn my attention to sports manga, a genre for which I nurture an inexplicable adoration. First up is Crimson Hero, a shoujo tale that attempts to balance volleyball and romance, followed by six early volumes of Eyeshield 21 and four later ones from The Prince of Tennis, in which the Seishun Academy tennis team finally makes it to the semifinals of Nationals.

Crimson Hero 14 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B
I’m not entirely sure it’s accurate to classify Crimson Hero as sports manga. Ostensibly, it’s about Nobara Sumiyoshi and the rest of the girls on the volleyball team at Crimson High as they pursue their goal of winning the Spring Tournament. In reality, there are only a dozen pages of volleyball in this volume, and only half of those feature the girls.

When last we left off, Haibuki, one of the aces on the guys’ team, had run off because he learned that Nobara was secretly going out with his teammate, Yushin. Also, some other guy named Kaz was spreading rumors about Nobara that caused her to break up with Yushin. It was really a mess, which I ranted about in more detail here.

Thankfully, Takanashi almost immediately addresses all of the things I found so annoying! Kaz abruptly apologizes and disappears. It was totally random, but whatever; I’m glad he’s gone. Yushin and Nobara discover where Haibuki is and both implore him to return. When Yushin goes to great lengths to win Haibuki back from another school that’s been attempting to recruit him, Haibuki realizes that Yushin kept his relationship with Nobara a secret only because he thought it would be best for the team and finally stops being a petulant brat. Hooray!

Though I mock some of the emotional moments in this volume, the truth is that when done well, it’s honestly very entertaining. It’s not the most original story in the world—earnest but academically challenged girl is sought after by two boys with contrasting personalities—but I like it. I still wish they would just play some volleyball already, though.

Eyeshield 21 4-9 by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata: B
In addition to his fearsome talent for gathering information and blackmailing others to get his way, Hiruma, the demonic captain of the Deimon Devil Bats football team, also excels at motivation and promotion. It’s through his efforts that a crowd of Deimon students turns out to watch the Devil Bats defeat the Zokugaku Chameleons, which in turn leads to a record turnout at the next recruitment meeting.

A handful of new players joins the team, including the absolutely adorable Komusubi, who looks like a muppet and idolizes Kurita, and the Devil Bats proceed to a tie game against their next opponent, which earns them a spot in a televised face-off against a visiting American team. A summer training trip to America soon follows, with the all-important fall tournament season only a few weeks away.

At this point, Eyeshield 21 is following the sports manga formula pretty closely: the team gets better, important positions are filled, and everyone tries hard to get stronger as they face increasingly more formidable opponents. Just because it’s formulaic, though, doesn’t make it any less good. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to be derived from watching someone earnestly work hard to achieve their goals, and even if much of what happens in this series is completely over-the-top, it’s still a fun read.

My favorite aspect of the story, though, is how those with less inate talent are not forgotten. This is best exemplified by what’s going on with “The Hah?! Brothers.” These three thugs were originally blackmailed into playing by Hiruma, but have gradually become genuinely invested in the team’s goals. Jumonji, their leader, was particularly upset to see his friends’ contributions belittled in an article, and works hard to help them improve themselves. I’m not sure why, but I find the idea of a former delinquent finally finding something to care about and strive for really moving. A scene in which the crowd cheers them for the first time actually made me teary-eyed!

Now if only there were fewer poop jokes…

The Prince of Tennis 36-39 by Takeshi Konomi: C+
When one is a long-time fan of The Prince of Tennis, as I am, one becomes accustomed to and can forgive a lot of the ridiculousness that goes on in the series. For example, it’s a given now that characters will be introduced who are supposed to be in junior high, even though they look thirty, and who have at their disposal an arsenal of highly improbable shots with silly names like “Super Ultra Delicious Swinging Mountain Storm.” Sets will also almost always end at 7-6, after a grueling tie-break, and characters frequently are one point away from defeat when they suddenly “evolve” and rally valiantly. It’s repetitive, but hey, how much variation can one really expect?

For the National Tournament, mangaka Takeshi Konomi kicks things up a notch with the introduction of a technique so eyeroll-inducing that even I can’t refrain from snerking. It’s called “the selfless state,” and manifests as a glowing aura that spectactors can detect instantly. “There it is!!” cries the peanut gallery, “The selfess state!!” It enables the player to instinctively recreate any opponent’s move that he’s ever seen, which results in even more shouting from the sidelines as familiar shots are recognized by the crowd. Our hero Ryoma Echizen can do it, naturally, but he’s been doing so for ten volumes or so now so it’s time to tweak it still further.

Volumes 36 through 39 of the series focus on Seishun’s semifinal match-up against a school from Osaka called Shitenhoji. After Fuji loses the first singles match, Seishun retaliates with a doubles victory followed by a singles win via forfeit. If they win the next doubles match, they’re going to the finals. Enter Seishun’s captain, Kunimitsu Tezuka, who not only can achieve the selfless state, but a special variation thereof called “the pinnacle of mastery.” Not to be outdone, Shitenhoji puts up Senri Chitose, whose ability to access “the pinnacle of brilliance” makes him go all sparkly.

Stoic Tezuka is my favorite character, so I don’t begrudge him the opportunity to be a badass, particularly since he missed most of the Kanto Tournament due to injury, but there’s only so much ridiculousness I can take. I mean, there’s one two-page spread where these guys just stand there and glow at one another! Tezuka ultimately wins, of course. After a brief interlude provided by a yakiniku eating contest, the finals begin, but Ryoma is nowhere to be found and Tezuka seems poised to reinjure himself in pursuit of victory.

These volumes make me sigh heavily. And yet… for all my complaining, I will eagerly buy the last three volumes of the series and be bummed out if the sequel isn’t licensed soon.

Review copy for volume 39 of The Prince of Tennis provided by the publisher.

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  1. danielle leigh says

    Oh Prince of Tennis. Such ridiculous crack. The anime was incredibly addictive and hilarious but I’ve never really given the manga a chance (and honestly, I can’t imagine trying to catch up on 40 volumes of a series). Still, though, your review reminds me how much fun the franchise can be.

    • Thanks! It’s one of those series that one can mock endlessly and yet enjoy at the same time. I was about to write “adore” there, but I think the “magical sparkly tennis,” as Joy Kim put it on Twitter, has put adoration out of reach.

  2. Hahaha, Prince of Tennis boggles me in so many ways. Like, there are plenty of shounen manga about high schoolers, so why on earth did he choose jr high when he wants to draw everyone looking (and acting!) like adults? Not that they look like high schoolers, either, but that would at least be slightly more believable.

    I read the whole series through to the end, but by the time I got there I was well and truly sick of it, so I’ve never read the sequel. What bothered me is that it really isn’t what I want or expect from a sports manga. There is none of the bonding or practicing and working hard to improve. Everyone is magically good and gets magically better with their magical special moves. I guess I just want more realistic sports manga.

    • I read about 19 volumes or so over the holidays, and enjoyed it pretty well until some point during Nationals, when I did start to get sick of it.

      You’re right that the bonding and practicing is utterly missing. That’s part of why Eyeshield 21 scores higher here, because there is such an underdog team mentality. I was also wondering what function Coach Ryuzaki actually serves! She decides, in consultation with the captain, the order in which the guys will play, but that’s about it. Every other time we see one of the players practicing it’s usually some regime they’ve come up with themselves.

      I think part of the issue is the individual nature of tennis play, which doesn’t afford as many teamy togetherness moments as one would get in, say, Slam Dunk.

      • I think the issue is that most sports manga are thinly veiled fighting manga, and Prince of Tennis is way more thinly veiled than most.

        So your wacky training techniques aside, the only real way to improve in that kind of a story is to fight stronger and crazier opponents, which in turn causes spontaneous improvement in the protagonists once they’re pushed to the limit.

        The main problem I have with Prince of Tennis is that after watching or reading it I start to think that I enjoy watching actual tennis. This is very much not true, but it fools me every time.

        • This talk of fighting manga is stoking my desire to start the Kenshin reread we’ve been planning! 🙂

          I haven’t tried to watch actual tennis much, but I don’t hate it. There’s a distinct lack of people informing me what amazing feats (if any) players are performing with, like, their spin or something, though.

  3. I think I read about five volumes of PoT before I had to bail due to budget constraints at the time. And I never picked it back up again. I just couldn’t convince myself to go back. I always felt guilty, because it’s one of about two series I’ve ever let go before the end, and it doesn’t really deserve it. I loved what I read of it, and the funny parts are really funny, but man… it’s long. And they almost never do anything except play tennis. It sounds like it pretty much maintains the status quo all the way through.

    • Yep. That’s why I didn’t try to review all the volumes in the twenties I read while I was catching up because I probably would’ve been saying the same thing over and over.

      It wasn’t too bad to collect this series as it was released, but trying to pick it up after the fact seems very financially daunting.

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