Tiny Titans of Sports Manga

Don’t let their small stature fool you. The protagonists of sports manga are not to be underestimated. Despite their physical similarities, they aren’t to be easily categorized, either.

Sports manga seems to be taking its time to establish a presence in the western market, though it’s an enduringly popular genre in Japan. It’s gaining ground, though, with a number of titles in Viz’s Shonen Jump line. (They’ll be joined by the popular basketball manga Slam Dunk, which started off at Gutsoon Entertainment but went on hiatus in 2004.)

My exposure to the genre is limited but positive. I’m enjoying Daisuke Higuchi’s soccer story Whistle! (Viz – Shonen Jump), and I think Mitsuba Takanashi’s Crimson Hero is one of the strongest titles in Viz’s Shojo Beat. Both follow plucky protagonists struggling to succeed at the sports they love. (Whistle! lead Shô Kazamatsuri is a classic sports-manga shrimp, dismissed because of his size. In Crimson Hero, volleyball-loving Nobara Sumiyoshi faces the disapproval of her ultra-traditional mother.)

So a sampling of some of the other sports titles seemed to be in order. For a relatively new slice of the manga pie, there’s a surprising amount of variety in the available titles.

Takeshi Konomi’s The Prince of Tennis (Viz – Shonen Jump) takes an almost daring approach with its protagonist. Young tennis prodigy Ryoma Echizen is probably the most reticent star of a young men’s manga I’ve ever seen. While his genre peers are loudly declaring their love for their sport of choice, Ryoma is much more oblique in his approach. He’s gifted but imperturbable, focusing on the game and flatly ignoring the drama that surrounds him.

The fun is in watching the people around Ryoma interpret his demeanor. Some find him unbearably cocky, though he submits without complaint to the pecking order of his new school’s tennis team. The other students in his year see him as an enigma and an inspiration, though he doesn’t assume any kind of leadership role with them. He’s the son of a tennis legend, now out of the game, and Ryoma is a budding champ in his own right. But he keeps his own counsel.

Since he’s so difficult to pin down, the people around him tend to over-react. Older students challenge him, leading to some beautifully rendered matches that highlight the individual players’ styles. They also slowly reveal the depth of Ryoma’s athletic prowess and his no-nonsense approach. He’s the still center of a competitive culture, and he sparks stories that are an awful lot of fun.

In the sports-shôjo fusion category, Shizuru Seino’s Girl Got Game (Tokyopop) beat Crimson Hero out of the gate. They have a lot of qualities in common, including overbearing parental expectations and girls thrust into all-boy environments. But Girl Got Game stands out in a couple of ways.

First of all, heroine Kyo Aizawa isn’t really that keen on being a basketball star. She’d rather wear a cute uniform and bring chocolates to boys on Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, her father (a budding basketball star cut down by an injury) has other ideas. He’s enrolled her in high school as a boy so she can fulfill his frustrated ambitions.

Creepy and promising as that dynamic sounds, Seino seems more concerned with the complications of romantic comedy than generational conflict. (It’s too bad, because that seems like a particularly rich source of story.) Duty overcomes an understandable aversion to breast-strapping, and Kyo fights for her place on the squad despite her being (say it with me) vertically challenged.

Still, the gender-bending comedy has its charms. Not only is Kyo forced to masquerade as a boy, she has to live in the dorms with the basketball team, rooming with bad-tempered jock Chiharu. Naturally, near-misses ensue and hearts are set to thumping. The romance is pretty standard, but the comedy shows some real promise. (When Kyo fears discovery, she takes to overcompensating in some hilarious ways. “I’m crazy about boobies! Crazy, I tells ya!”)

For all their unique aspects, though, neither Prince of Tennis nor Girl Got Game can match the frank weirdness of Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata’s Eyeshield 21 (Viz – Shonen Jump Advanced). It’s got a reluctant protagonist in tiny Sena Kobayakawa, who has managed to avoid bullying by being quick on his feet. He’s ended up as a dependable gopher for big lugs who might otherwise end up stealing his lunch (or worse).

As he enters high school, Sena is determined to turn his fates around. His childhood friend Mamori suggests he join a club and expand his horizons, but a group of bullies seems determined to keep him in his customary role as flunky. To their endless regret, they bully him into the shabby office of the school’s football team, where they run afoul of hulking Ryokan and deeply disturbed Yoichi, the team’s only members.

Sena is completely ignorant of the ins and outs of football, and he suspects he’d wind up in traction if he actually tried to play. He volunteers to manage the team, but Yoichi has other ideas. Yoichi has seen Sena’s speed and maneuverability, and he’s decided that Sena will play. When Yoichi gets an idea, he’ll happily employ blackmail, subterfuge, and ultra-violence to realize it. His unbalanced determination is probably the reason the team has a roster of two.

But Yoichi is smart enough to realize that other teams will try and grab Sena if they see his moves, so he concocts a secret identity for Sena when he’s on the field. The mild-mannered manager is also the masked streak of lightning, Eyeshield 21. The mechanics of the game are much less important than the madcap plot twists, which is certainly fine by me.

Characters are key in Eyeshield 21. Instead of being frustrating, Sena’s passivity is a great source of comedy. His speed may have developed as a defense mechanism, but it might end up getting him the kind of attention he craves (if he survives). Yoichi lives in a universe all of his own, and he’ll happily drag others into it. In his view, subtlety is overrated: why use a starting pistol when you have a bazooka handy? Ryokan may be a standard gentle giant who doesn’t know his own strength, but his character design is irresistible. He looks like a refugee from the world of Astro Boy.

Sports manga tropes are evident only in service of over-the-top comedy. There’s anything-for-a-laugh energy to Inagaki’s script and Murata’s visuals and a resolute refusal to take football seriously. It’s promising stuff, and I hope Eyeshield 21 keeps its twisted perspective intact.

I’ll never be a sports fan. In my world view, any activities that build character and promote teamwork are to be avoided. But sports manga, with its varied approaches and engaging characters, is definitely worth watching.