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.

Crimson Hero 12 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B

crimsonhero12From the back cover:
With one of their ace players injured, Nobara and the Crimson Field girls must fight harder than ever. Their challenge is the Newcomers’ Tournament, and their performance in this venue will determine just how far the team can go. But Nobara’s distracted when she learns that one of her not-so-secret admirers seeks to crush Yushin and destroy the boys’ team!

The girls’ team has done fairly well in the Newcomers’ Tournament, but losing Tomo to injury means they’ve got to hurriedly train a stand-in just to have the minimum number of members required to play. Meanwhile, when Nobara is injured during one of those “locked in the gym storage room” scenes followed by a “creepy stalker tries to corrupt me but I’m protected by my virtuous true love” rescue, this puts them at enough of a disadvantage that they end up finishing in 13th place, though they’re not entirely out of the running as far as their dream of reaching the Spring Tournament goes.

Despite the fact that the finals round of a tournament is underway, most of the volume actually centers on the love triangle of the series. Haibuki’s solicitude after Nobara’s incident with the stalkery guy makes her feel even more guilty for not telling him about her proto-relationship with Yushin, and she begins to think it wouldn’t be so bad if he knew. Yushin decides to handle things himself and, after the boys win their tournament and Haibuki both compliments Yushin on his captainship and the team on their general awesomeness, Yushin judges that the time is right.

I’ve never really liked Haibuki much, but the way he reacts to this news makes me want to smack him. I mean, nobody would react well to finding out they’ve been duped for months, but he plays the role of the wounded party to the hilt, moving out of the dorm in a huff and considering an offer to transfer to another school. I would’ve been more sympathetic, perhaps, if Takanashi-sensei hadn’t depicted him so woodenly during crucial scenes; an opportunity to really make us feel the horrible pain of betrayal was squandered there. Still, even had she done a better job, I still would’ve ended up hating him for immediately ringing up Tomo, whom he knows still has feelings for him. Don’t mess with her heart, you ass! I could get behind the storytelling decision to transition Haibuki into more of a villainous role, but I have a feeling we’re supposed to believe his actions are the result of profound heartbreak and not simply self-pity.

Crimson Hero may not be the best Shojo Beat has to offer, but I do still like it enough to want to follow the story, even if I can’t really get invested in the romantic plotline. I think I’d like it more if it were simply about Nobara and Yushin trying to strike a balance between loving each other and simultaneously pursuing their goals of volleyball greatness. If I’m lucky, Haibuki really will transfer out and leave the two of them alone, but I don’t think that’s very likely.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Crimson Hero 11 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B

crimson11The Crimson High girls’ volleyball team has made it to the third round of the Newcomers’ Tournament and is facing its first serious challenge. Things are going well and they win the first set, but when the opposing team intentionally wounds Crimson High’s star setter, there’s no one who can fill in. Instead, the Crimson High girls rearrange their strategy to protect their injured teammate and refuse to give up. Their spirit of camaraderie and teamwork inspires their rivals, who are, of course, actually sympathetic girls being led astray by an unaccountably obnoxious coach.

Okay, yes, I completely admit that Crimson Hero can be sappy at times. This whole volume seems calculated to make one verklempt, be it the way that the most inexperienced member of the team demonstrates her growth by scoring the winning point or how the girls from the other team come to regret the way they’ve abandoned their friendships in pursuit of the number one spot on the team. Transparent manipulation like this would usually annoy me, but it just works so well in a sports manga that I can forgive it.

There’s also a little progress on the romantic front. It seems that one of the boys who likes Nobara might still have feelings for his ex-girlfriend, but it’s really nothing to get excited about. I’m just here for the volleyball.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Crimson Hero 10 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B

The six members of the Crimson Field High School girls’ volleyball team have come a long way and are now participating in the Newcomers’ Tournament, an important stepping stone to their ultimate goal, the Spring Tournament. They win their first two rounds handily, but are faced with a tough opponent for the third round. Meanwhile, Nobara and Yushin are still keeping their feelings for each other a secret.

Even though I am far from athletic myself, there is something about sports manga that I adore. Crimson Hero does particularly well at giving each teammate a moment to shine and in recent volumes, each of the supporting girls has improved her skills in some way or another. The matches are also a lot of fun and easy to follow. Frankly, I wish there were more of them.

I’m a little frustrated on the romance front, though. Nobara has liked Yushin for a long time, and was firm about this even when she realized that another boy, Haibuki, had feelings for her. Now, when Yushin has finally reciprocated, Nobara’s suddenly starting to be affected by Haibuki, thinking things like, “These days your smile messes with my heart.” I was really hoping this series wouldn’t go down this road; the fact that it seems poised to do so is disappointing.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Crimson Hero 9 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B+

From the back cover:
Just when Nobara is set to play with the Eagles against the men’s team at Central Sokai University, Yushin shows up on campus! Has he come to make a play for Nobara?

At last! I love seeing good things happen for characters I like, and this volume is immensely satisfying in several important ways. Nobara gets her first taste of victory when the beach volleyball team manages to beat the elite college team, though I am kind of getting annoyed with all of these games that go all the way to the very final point. I guess that’s supposed to show how hard the struggle was? There’s also some awesome stuff between Nobara and Yushin.

But the very best stuff actually happens when Nobara returns to Crimson Field. In her absence, one of her teammates, Kanako, a relative newcomer to volleyball, has been training really hard. She’s proud of her new skills and shows them to Nobara, who is appropriately impressed. Alas, the coach is more interested in what Nobara has learned to do and is dismissive of Kanako, who’d been receiving personal attention up ’til that point and whose goal was to become better than Nobara.

Nobara realizes later, upon seeing the tattered state of Kanako’s equipment, just how hard she’d been working and refuses to accept Kanako’s resignation from the team. There’s this great scene where they meet up in a café or something. Kanako says, “I’m not going to lose to you!” To which Nobara replies, “I’m not going to lose to you, either!” Then they both break out in tears. There’s one panel of the two of them sobbing away with the sound effect “Waaaaah” going across it. It’s wonderful, funny, and in character, too. I think I read that sequence over, like, four times.

And, as if all that weren’t enough, the Newcomers’ Tournament (which has some bearing on the attendees for the Spring Tournament somehow) begins and the Crimson Field girls handily win their first game. It’s a feel good volume all around.

Crimson Hero 8 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B-

From the back cover:
Coach Shima sends Nobara to train with the men’s team at Central Sokai University. However, these college guys have no intention of letting a girl join their practice—unless Nobara can find a way to gain their respect.

It took me this long to start to get tired of reading this series, which is probably a compliment. And really, this volume is pretty decent. Nobara is training with a beach volleyball team and learning to see her skills—like her amazing jumping ability—objectively. Her teammates are rather silly, but overall these chapters are pretty fun. In fact, they’re very shounen, with lines like, “I’ve got to become stronger!” and “There’s got to be an attack only I can do!”

Alas, there are also some lame, kind of retconny moments. Nobara having a particular childhood hero has never been mentioned before, but suddenly we are told she had one and turns out to be, of course, Ryo, the guy she’s been sent to train with. Worse, though, is that Nobara goes practically bonkers during a typhoon and rushes out to the beach to physically hold onto one of the posts holding up the net so that it won’t get destroyed because she must become stronger and all of that. She later explains that she often goes nuts during storms on account of the childhood trauma of being locked in a storage room during one. Normally Nobara is not the type of heroine to have a “too stupid to live” moment of such magnitude. It was pretty crapulent.

Anyway, it is at least clear that Nobara is improving. I look forward to seeing how her new skills will translate on the court.

Crimson Hero 7 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B

From the back cover:
Nobara’s drive to get the girls’ volleyball team ready to qualify for the next Spring Tournament has tensions running high. Have Nobara’s dreams finally outgrown those of her teammates?

Yay, volleyball once again takes precedence over romance! This volume begins with the girls team in shambles, reeling from yet another defeat, and Ayako telling Nobara that they’re not like her and never really believed they could make it to the Spring Tournament (Nobara’s big dream). After a brief stint at a special training camp makes Nobara realize that it’s her own team that she wants to play with, she returns and the team gets itself together. Training begins in earnest, with the new coach leading the girls through intensive drills.

The problem is that Nobara’s simply enjoying playing so much that she’s not trying her hardest in the practice games. I love that the other girls are worried about her talents going to waste and are working hard to try to challenge her. Finally, at the end of the volume, Nobara realizes that she isn’t pushing herself, and departs to go study with some surfer guy who I can only assume is a volleyball guru of some sort.

With things mostly stable on the girls’ team, it’s up to the boys to provide the drama. Alas, I found this segment of the volume pretty boring. Basically, now that the third years have retired to focus on their college entrance exams, the second years are feeling overshadowed by the new crop of talented first years and quit in a huff. Yushin is ultimately the hero. No big surprise there.

This volume is better than the last, but still isn’t as exciting as it could be. Hopefully there’ll be another fun game before too long.

Crimson Hero 6 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B-

From the back cover:
Haibuki, jealous of Nobara’s crush on his teammate, Yushin, finds it hard to concentrate on volleyball, and both boys end up benched during a game. Now their coach has ordered Nobara to stay away from both of them!

There are some cute moments in this volume, but mostly it’s kind of disappointing, the middle pair of chapters especially. In the first of these, the training camp is done so everyone’s participating in a “night of fright” test of courage kind of thing. I actually giggled at Yushin’s nonreaction to a gorilla-headed guy bursting from some shrubbery (“Woah.”), only to groan some moments later when Nobara fell victim to the dreaded “girl on test of courage falls off hitherto unnoticed cliff and requires rescue by love interest(s)” plot. Seriously, so lame.

The next chapter after that is a major downer, as the girls acquire a coach who is apparently trying to motivate them by making them think they’re morons for having high aspirations or something. Also, there’s a lot of talk going around the volleyball scene about Nobara’s talent and how she’ll never achieve anything being stuck on a mediocre team. This is kind of painful to read, since I want the team to be succeeding already, but it’s true that they still can’t quite manage to keep it together and win a game. I do appreciate the consistent characterization of Ayako, who has always been the one who had the most trouble believing that the team really does have a chance to become something great.

At some point during all of this, the boys fail to win nationals but rank in the top eight. I would’ve liked to’ve seen some of that, but we really just see them walk on a court and are then told the results.

Anyway, I really want to see the girls start winning soon. I guess perhaps Takanashi figured that the audience would be expecting this win—and I was—so decided to subvert the standard pattern and give them further obstacles to surmount. I’m just already impatient for some feel-good triumph!

Crimson Hero 5 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B

From the back cover:
Out walking in the rain, Nobara and Yushin are mistaken for a couple by passersby. Nobara wants to tell Yushin that she is in love with him, but he already has a girlfriend—Satomi. Yushin, worried that Satomi might get the wrong idea about his relationship with Nobara, leaves Nobara behind to walk home by himself—and comes across Satomi kissing another boy in the street.

My first reaction upon reading the back cover blurb is, “Well, that’s convenient.” It actually plays out better than I thought it would, though. It’s not a simple decision for Yushin to switch to Nobara now that Satomi is out of the way, since he feels he’s partly in the wrong for not spending enough time with her.

And, yeah, the romance stuff isn’t bad, but it has really taken over all of a sudden. There is some volleyball action—a new member joins the team and the girls also get to attend a ritzy training camp along with the boys’ team—but nearly everything works its way back to Nobara and her feelings for Yushin by the end. As much as I like them together, I like either of them being sporty and determined more than awkward and red-faced.

There are a few things to like, though, about how it’s handled. One is that Nobara makes a promise to herself that she won’t let her feelings for Yushin enter her mind when she’s on the court, and the second that she tells him it’s fine if he wants to focus all his energy on volleyball, because she intends to do the same. Just because she likes him doesn’t mean she’s going to become clingy. And even the Haibuki situation is interesting. He, at first, seemed like a likable enough, if quiet, guy, but has recently proven himself to be short-tempered and creepy.

So, no, not my favorite volume, but there are tournaments coming up, so hopefully the series will soon return to what it does best.

Crimson Hero 4 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B+

From the back cover:
Nobara, still confused by why she cried when she saw Yushin with his girlfriend, is trying to focus her energies on her team’s first official volleyball game against one of the top three teams in Tokyo—Tabesho High. The night before the game, Yushin gives Nobara a necklace for luck, but then brings his girlfriend with him to watch the game the next day! Nobara will have to put aside her frazzled emotions to concentrate on the match at hand.

There is just something awesomely addictive about sports manga. I am eating this up with a spoon!

So, in this volume, the girls get to actually play in a tournament. Heart strings are tugged by allowing everyone on the team—even the utter newbie—to contribute a save in a critical moment. I think I actually got a little verklempt. The match actually kind of plays out very similarly to the challenge with the boys’ team, but the overall outcome is different. It’s all quite awesome.

I also love seeing the boys triumphantly clench their fists at a girls’ match. I wish more men were so enthusiastic about womens’ sports in this country (not that I am at all a sports buff in reality).

There actually isn’t much to say about this volume beyond that. It’s still tremendous fun and I’m plowing on to volume five in a matter of moments.