Columns > Published on September 9th, 2016

Manga For Beginners: Sports!

Welcome back to Manga for Beginners!

While last month we took a focused look at ONE-PUNCH MAN, this month we're taking on the genre of Sports manga. SPORTS you say? I know writers/readers aren't always the biggest sports fans, but when you're talking manga, sports are where it's at. Sports manga appears to be having a bit of a resurgence as of late, with several new titles landing in the United States this year. There are many series to choose from, and for you sports fans (and non-sports fans), I have run the veritable gauntlet. Behold!

We're talking old school basketball SLAM DUNK vs new kid KUROKO'S BASKETBALL. The unstoppable prodigy in THE PRINCE OF TENNIS vs the hardest working kid on the soccer field in WHISTLE!. Former soccer star turned team manager in CROSS MANAGE vs a cycling anime-geek who just wants some friends in YOWAMUSHI PEDAL. The face smashing volleyball action of HAIKYU!! vs the intense and over-the-top American football action of EYESHIELD 21 (drawn by One-Punch Man's Yusuke Murata, no less!). And last but not least, CROSS GAME, a baseball drama that came out of left field like a fast ball to the stomach.

The puns! The tropes! The clichés! The madness!

I'm still here, and spoiler alert: It's all good.

Now, I am a huge fan of Taiyo Matsumoto's work. He's best known for TEKKONKINKREET, a manga which found popularity through the animated film version of the same name. Back in 1996 he wrote/drew PING PONG, a coming of age sports manga that was published in Big Comic Spirits. Flash forward to 2014 and PING PONG THE ANIMATION, an eleven episode series is broadcast. I was absolutely captivated – which was a bit surprising in that I had little knowledge or interest in ping pong other than fooling around with a paddle as a kid. Beyond the sport, it was the coming of age tale – the characters, Smile, Peko and crew – that drew me in, and continue to do so (it's one of the very few series I've re-watched.)

Unfortunately, PING PONG (manga) has yet to be translated to English (Viz, Dark Horse, Yen – help me out here!) BUT the good news is that's what brought us here today: The Utimate Sports Manga Showdown!

It's the Coming of Age, Dummy

Sports manga is generally set during high school (or the run-up to in the final year of junior high and continuing onto high school). As such, each is inherently a coming of age tale. Which, if you enjoy (like me) you'll be right at home. In Japan, high school sports are "clubs", which, along with non-sport clubs (literature, computers, etc.) heavily compete to recruit first year students. In sports manga this often results in clubs not having enough players to field a team, adding a layer of conflict with the need to either borrow players from other clubs (HAIKYU!!) or coerce students via black mail (CROSS MANAGE) or over-the-top means (guns/bazookas/etc in EYESHIELD 21).  

What about the sports?

Yes, sports manga are about sports (duh), but I'd argue that the sports aspect or genre is really a vehicle with which to tell a coming of age, (often) rags to riches/underdog story. You don't need to be a sports fan to enjoy sports manga. In fact, I think there's a strong chance that you'll find these series appealing if you are not a sports fan. My favorite series turned out to be ones which featured sports that I had the least knowledge of or zero interest in. Each series delivers the rules of their respective sport throughout the first couple volumes with varying degrees of success. Some deliver it straight with little integration (WHISTLE!) which felt a bit like watching paint dry. Others find success splicing it into the action (YOWAMUSHI PEDAL) and/or with a heavy dose of comedy (SLAM DUNK, EYESHIELD 21).

Gimme those shōnen tropes, BAYBEEE

Like most shōnen manga (manga aimed at a young male audience – i.e. DRAGON BALL, NARUTO, ONE PIECE) the tropes, clichés and similarities carried across sports manga series are numerous and easy to spot. From intense rivals forced to play together (SLAM DUNK, HAIKYU!!) to the aforementioned lack of players (EYESHIELD 21, CROSSE MANAGE, YOWAMUSHI PEDAL, CROSS GAME), to overcoming weakness (KUROKO'S BASKETBALL, HAIKYU!!, WHISTLE!), and hidden talent developed outside of a sport (KUROKO's BASKETBALL, EYESHIELD 21, YOWAMUSHI PEDAL, CROSS MANAGE), there are plenty to go around. Let's not forget the fans (girls) crushing hard on opposing players/rivals (EYESHIELD 21, SLAM DUNK, KUROKO's BASKETBALL).

THAT SAID, while tropes and similar themes abound, each series features at least a slightly different take, which—honestly to my surprise after reading thousands of pages in a short span of time—more than kept my interest. Well…WHISTLE! was a little rough…but we can't all be winners, can we? Hell, we're talking sports here! Winners and losers!

Why should I read this stuff?

Sports manga in general is a lot of fun, and it's been a nice change of pace to read some very positive stories, especially (for social media and news junkies like me) given today's nonstop gloom and doom news cycle. Several of these books fully immersed me in a world with thrilling cliffhangers that kept me glued to the page, rooting for the heroic underdogs to stay in the fight. But like a lot of manga, if you hope to see one of these series through to the end (some of these have upwards of 45 volumes) you'll want to start off your reading on the right foot. And for that, I'll leave you with some verdicts.  

Bench (Sit these guys)

WHISTLE! – Centers on Sho Kazamatsuri, a boy who desperately wants to play soccer but is held back by his short stature. To make up for his lack of height, he practices all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. Soccer practice, and the explanation of rules and skills (in a very straight forward way) took up most of the first volume of WHISTLE!. Perhaps it's because I grew up playing soccer, but I struggled to get into the book and its bland rules explanation, or to root for Kazamatsuri. (Read Vol. 1)

THE PRINCE OF TENNIS – Ryoma Echizen returns to Tokyo after spending time attending school and playing tennis in the United States. Echizen is a tennis prodigy with incredible skills, overcoming all difficulties and defeating upper classmen with ease. While Kazamatsuri of WHISTLE! was too weak for me, I found the opposite problem with Echizen – he's too good, almost robotic in nature. I'll guess we learn more about him in later volumes, but I had trouble empathizing with his character. (Read Vol. 1)

KUROKO'S BASKETBALL – In the battle of the basketball mangas, I had to go with the classic, SLAM DUNK, so KUROKO'S takes a seat on the bench. The series is an interesting concept – Kuroko, an "invisible" 6th man of the Junior High "Miracle Generation" (each player from the team possesses an uncanny, superhero-esque ability – like invisibility through misdirection, or copying play style) attends a worse school so he can be a team player and help his school defeat the rest of the Miracle Generation and be the best in Japan. Solid art and fun characters but the pacing was slow for me. (Read Vol. 1 & 2)

Warming up (On the sidelines waiting to be called in. Give 'em a shot if the sport piques your interest)

CROSS MANAGE – A serious injury has led to former soccer star Sakurai looking for fulfillment elsewhere in life. Unfortunately for him, he's failed to get into eight clubs – until he sees a girl passionately practicing lacrosse and decides to become the girl's lacrosse club manager (with the help of a little blackmail). I enjoyed the first volume of CROSS MANAGE a lot, especially its focus on confidence/self-esteem and recovery/reinventing oneself. (Read Vol. 1) 

HAIKYU!! – Although short in height, junior high school student Shoyo Hinata is determined to become a great volleyball player after witnessing star player, the "Little Giant," play on television. HAIKYU!! follows Hinata into high school where he must team up with a former rival. The art and presentation/pacing of volleyball is fantastic (up there with YOWAMUSHI PEDAL and EYESHIELD 21 and their respective sports). The characters are great and Hinata's been a joy to follow with his skill/optimism striking a nice balance without falling into the trap of a whiney or overbearing protagonist. It's a solid series so far and as one of the newer series to be published in the United States (only two volumes out as of this writing) I'm looking forward to checking out more. (Read Vol. 1 & 2) 

CROSS GAME – Billed as a romantic comedy baseball manga series, it follows Ko Kitamura, a young boy in the first volume, and the relationship between the Kitamura and Tsukishima families. This series was a nice surprise that caught me at the last minute through a Viz digital sale on ComiXology. I don't want to say much more and spoil anything (contrary to some reviews I stumbled on, events are not foreshadowed), but after reading so much light-hearted manga, this was a punch to the gut. That's not to say this isn't light-hearted as well, but there is another level at play here that I found intriguing and continues to call me back to the book. I'll need to read more volumes to fully get a handle on CROSS GAME. (Read Vol. 1)

Starters (Read on!)

EYESHIELD 21 – Sena Kobayakawa is a shy boy who's spent much of his life being a gofer for bullies, using his incredible sprinting ability to curry favor and hopefully stay off the radar. As a first year student in high school, he's coerced into becoming the manager of the school's American football club, the Devil Bats (at Deimon High School, no less). The vampire/demon-esque team captain, Yoichi Hiruma takes notice of Sena's super-human speed, turning him into Eyeshield 21, a secret star player who will lead them to victory.

Drawn by the INCREDIBLE Yusuke Murata (who you should know from ONE-PUNCH MAN), EYESHIELD 21 is ridiculous fun. Easily the most over-the-top of the titles covered here (ex: the vampire/demon-esque Hiruma is often pulling out some sort of weaponry – guns, rocket launchers, etc. for motivation – or his black book of "threats" for blackmail). The series very much "gets" American football and the NFL, seamlessly touching on rules and on-field explanations without a hiccup. Sena's fragility vs his all-star speed and secret identity as Eyeshield 21, with a surrounding cast of interesting, over-the-top characters gives the series a great setup for ongoing conflict with more than enough pressure to go around. ONE-PUNCH MAN fans with a need for more should hop on this train and get their Murata fix. 

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YOWAMUSHI PEDAL – Sakamichi Onoda is an otaku (obsessed anime/manga fan) beginning his first year of high school and hoping to start an anime club to find friends (he's shy and has…well, none). Every week since he was a little boy he'd ride his "mommy bike" 90 km round-trip to Tokyo's Akihbara shopping district to get the latest toys/manga/anime/etc. Unbeknownst to him, this built up a hidden ability for cycling, which emerges when he's challenged by fellow freshman/cyclist Shunsuke Imaizumi to a race. Onoda eventually lets his dreams of forming an anime club fall to the wayside in favor of friends and his new found love of cycling by going out for the cycling club.

I received a special edition volume 1 of YOWAMUSHI PEDAL (roughly translated as "Weakling Pedal" or "Cowardly Cyclists") with the Sports Loot Anime from Loot Crate. I know quite a few people who cycle, and I've caught a little of the Tour de France since it's been more widely televised in past years, but it's not really my thing. Well, damn–someone gift me a bike and some racing gear. I'M READY TO HIT THE STREETS. The racing in this book – from the layout, pacing, explanation of how it works, terminology, etc – it's all so smooth that at times it felt like it was animated. And the cliffhangers! Masterclass stuff. Yen Press's omnibus editions are a beauty, and with only two released to date, rest assured I'll be with YOWAMUSHI PEDAL to the end. (Read Vol. 1 & 2)

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SLAM DUNK – Originally serialized from 1990-1996, SLAM DUNK follows Hanamachi Sakuragi, a tough guy/leader of a gang who has had zero luck with girls (the rejection hits 50 when the series opens). When he meets Haruko Akagi, the girl of his dreams, she asks if he likes basketball. Despite his distaste for sports and zero skill, he goes out for the basketball team to get closer to her, setting up conflict with the captain of the team, Haruko's brother, and one of the team's star players, who Haruko has a one-sided crush on.

To my mind, SLAM DUNK has always been the classic sports manga. I was aware of it in the '90s, and I wish I'd gotten into it then as it might be my favorite out of all of the books covered in this column (count me shocked) and holds up incredibly well for its age – both in artwork and content. Aside from some of the artwork style (mainly the covers), and the uniforms, which has to be a reference to the 1990's Chicago Bulls, you could have told me the books were drawn today. The characters are great, and the layered conflicts brought about by Hanamachi's short temper and determination keep me coming back to see where this all goes. The sports action makes for great comedy too (whether or not you understand basketball) as Hanamachi has no idea what he's doing and it's hilarious to see him struggle with basic skills when he sees himself as a pro because of his innate athleticism and ability to dunk.  (Read Vol. 1 & 2)

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With that, I'll leave you with the opening credits of PING PONG THE ANIMATION, a short clip that hits home what sports manga, at its heart, might be all about: friendship.


Stay tuned for next month! The horrors of October abound!

About the author

Christopher Irvin has traded all hope of a good night’s sleep for the chance to spend his mornings writing dark and noir fiction. He is the author of Burn Cards and Federales, as well as short stories featured in several publications, including Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, and Shotgun Honey. His collection, Safe Inside the Violence, published in November 2015 from 280 Steps, was a finalist for the 2016 Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He lives in Boston, MA with his wife and two sons. His debut novel, Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All, is forthcoming in 2017 from Cutlass Press.
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