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.

Eyeshield 21 1-3 by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata: B

Though I’ve long professed an ardent love for sports manga, I did secretly wonder if my enthusiasm would wane when the featured sport is one in which I have zero interest, like, say, football. Would the inherent charms of sports manga be able to compensate for my real-world disinterest? Eyeshield 21 has proven to me that the answer to this question is “yes.”

Sena Kobayakawa has justed started his first year at Deimon High School, where he’s looking forward to reinventing himself after years of serving as gopher for bullies (when not fleeing from them). Picked as an easy recruitment target by the demonic Himura, captain of football team, Sena finds himself volunteering to be the team’s manager. Once Himura witnesses Sena’s speed and natural running back moves, though, he is suited up and disguised (so that other teams won’t try to steal him) and given the moniker Eyeshield 21.

Although he’s initially not too thrilled about this, the passion and skill of Himura and the completely adorable (and completely enormous) lineman, Kurita, kindles his interest in the game. His running abilities lead the Deimon Devil Bats to their first victory ever. Their next opponents, the Ojo White Knights, prove much tougher, and it’s then Sena meets his rival—Shin, a player who’s nearly as fast as he is, but much, much stronger. Although there’s really no chance for the Devil Bats to prevail, they still manage to score two touchdowns against the superior team and Sena achieves a sense of personal victory when he’s finally able to evade one of Shin’s tackles.

As volume three comes to a close, the Devil Bats have been eliminated from the spring tournament but have turned their eyes and hopes towards fall, with the eventual goal of playing in the Christmas Bowl. Things are looking up a little—they’ve finally found their fourth member, a monkey-like boy named Raimon with some mad catching skills and the presence of Sena’s childhood friend, Mamori, as team manager seems destined to attract even more recruits. Aside from Himura and Kurita, no one knows that Sena is Eyeshield 21 (since his green eyeshield is magically sufficient to obscure his identity), and he can only watch in some consternation as the mysterious player’s legend begins to grow. When he happens to encounter Shin on the street, he realizes he can admit his real identity to him, but there’s no time to bond because the two of them have to unite to take down some thieves on a motorcycle. It’s actually kind of awesome.

So yes, Eyeshield 21 manages to entertain me even though it’s about football, a sport I find excruciatingly dull. There are loads of visual aids to help explain the game, the tone is optimistic and silly, and the characters are all memorable, too. Himura’s brand of crazy is responsible for most of the gags in the series: he looks like a demon, seems to have sufficient dirt to blackmail everyone into doing his bidding, keeps a ferocious dog chained up at school, and casually totes around all manner of weaponry. There’s a lot of attention devoted to Haruto, a teen idol whose fans persist in calling him the ace of the White Knights, even though he knows he isn’t. Shin’s a cool character, and Sena is okay, too, but really, my heart belongs to Ryokan Kurita.

Kurita is very big and round, very strong, very sweet, and prone to get weepy when he’s emotional. I think a visual aid is necessary here to truly convey his cuteness.


Ultimately, Eyeshield 21 is lots of fun. I’m chuffed my library has recently acquired the full run of the series; expect to see more here in months to come!