Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Harlem Beat
by Jason Thompson, Feb 2nd 2012
Episode XCIV: Harlem Beat
Sports is the biggest type of manga that simply doesn't exist in American comics. When one of the editors from Shogakukan was transferred to America to work at Viz, back in the '90s, one of the first things he did was go into an American comic store and ask if they had any sports comics, and I think he left the store wondering what kind of primitive backwater he had ended up in. Maybe it's part of the American categorization of comics and animation as something "nerdy" that means that sports, the least nerdy thing on Earth, just doesn't have any crossover audience with comics. Even Eyeshield 21, a sports manga which is practically made for Americans, wasn't a big hit here. But in Japan (or Latin America, or Europe, or the Middle East, or anyplace where sports anime has been translated on TV), all you have to do is say names like Ashita no Joe, Kyojin no Hoshi and Captain Tsubasa (or their translated equivalents) and even people who've never picked up a comic book in their lives, and who don't play any video games but FIFA, will know what you're talking about.
The first company brave enough to translate sports manga in the US was Mixx Entertainment (the company that became Tokyopop) in 1998, with Yuriko Nishiyama's Harlem Beat. Sure, Viz had translated a few Rumiko Takahashi short stories, One-Pound Gospel and stuff like that, but those were basically romantic comedies with a little sports tacked on. Harlem Beat (absolutely no relation to Kazusa Takashima's Harlem Beat wa Yoake Made, the bishonen fantasy manga which Tokyopop translated as "Mad Love Chase") was the first serious sports manga published in America. Mixx flipped the art (like every manga company did back then) and Americanized the character names (although Harlem Beat itself was the original Japanese name), but they kept the basic story and the basic appeal of RED-HOT SHONEN MANGA BASKETBALL ACTION! The basketball story also suited the "street" style of Mixxzine, the magazine where it was printed, which featured graffiti-esque covers designed by a Los Angeles artist. (It's not the only time a manga company has used graffiti artists to make their stuff look cooler; Viz hired street artists to do a Shonen Jump street ad campaign in San Francisco a few years ago.) This is a story of the STREETS, dammit, an URBAN story, and the mixing of Japanese and Western names gives it the feeling that it could take place in any big city. The story is as much about street basketball as about school basketball, so there's not as much stuff that looks weird to Western readers, like Slam Dunk's school uniforms and pompadour haircuts. It actually took me awhile to figure out if it was set in the US or Japan, and I'm sure that's just how Mixx Entertainment wanted it.
Nate Torres (Narase Tôru in the original Japanese version) is a bench-warmer on his high school basketball team. He's always wanted to be good at something, and right now, he's obsessed with basketball. "Sink a shot…I've never done it…How would it feel? I thought that only happened in movies…can it happen to me?!" Nate's got a faint man-crush for Ry Shurman (Shuji Sakurai in the Japanese version), the awesomest guy on the team, who's so cool he inspires everybody. But since Nate's a freshman, he hardly even gets a chance to play basketball for the team; he's mostly stuck cleaning the court and doing drills.
Then one day, while looking at hi-tops with his friend at the shoe store, he meets Mizz, the sexy tomboy who wears cut-offs and a backwards baseball cap. (Welcome…to the '90s!) Mizz takes a liking to something in Nate, so she leads him down an alley to a secret basketball court, where the local kids gather to play street ball. The court's called "House of 3-Slam," after 3-Slam, a trio of undefeated bad dudes who set up the basketball hoop there and who challenge everyone to fierce three-on-three matches. Suddenly a crowd gathers, and Shoe, the mysterious leader of 3-Slam, shows up and challenges Nate to a game! At first, Nate wants to give up and go home, but then he realizes that the reason he's never been good at anything is because he always gets depressed and gives up in the middle. ("I was a loser for 15 years…I always gave up…but not anymore!" ) With the courage of that realization, and Mizz yelling at him telling him to grow a spine, he discovers he has an incredible ability to jump super high! Nate leaps right over the head of the 6'4" Shoe and sinks a shot, and the crowd goes wild.
The next day, a newly enthusiastic Nate goes back to House of 3-Slam, where he starts meeting other street hoops players. Kyle "Oz" Ozman (Kôsuke Ozaki), a big tough dude in a wife-beater, didn't see the match yesterday, and he challenges Nate to show him what he can do. Oz is impressed by Nate's jumping, but not so impressed by his weak basket skills. Nate is impressed by Oz's dunking, but not so much by his arrogant attitude and the fact that he keeps trying to mack on Mizz. Sure, Nate has a crush on Mizz too (he was hoping she just wanted to make out in an alley with him), but he's not just into basketball to impress girls; he really, really wants to be good at it. Then Mizz defuses the situation with a suggestion: since they've all got different skills, why don't the three of them team up and form their own street ball team?
Grudgingly, with Mizz's encouragement, Nate and Oz learn to work together. Pretty soon, they meet other players and teams. There's Masa, the coolly handsome loner who took on the entire 3-Slam team by himself and scored a shot. Notorious, a team of junior high kids who ride inline skates while they're playing. Hiromi, the twentysomething hairdresser who secretly has incredible lay-up skills and teaches Nate his Yoda-like wisdom. Kim Yabe, a delinquent girl who becomes the manager of Nate's high school team and beats them up when they miss practice. The Ice Picks, a three-person team of street thugs who use dirty tricks and maim their opponents. With his skills forged in bloody street battles, after the first few volumes, Nate goes up a few levels and refocuses on high school basketball, where he finds he's not a bench-warmer anymore. Soon, their team is moving up, and eventually, they go on an epic journey to the national basketball championship!
Harlem Beat, which ran for 29 volumes in Japan, is your basic Weekly Shōnen Magazine manga, full of sports, machismo and a bit of fanservice. If Shonen Jump is all about ninja and yokai and shinigami, Shonen Magazine is more down-to-earth, as well as just a tad more guy-oriented; both magazines have"shonen" in the title, but Shonen Magazine is more like something you'd find in the guys' locker room. But Yuriko Nishiyama, like Rumiko Takahashi, is a female mangaka, and she keeps it fairly tasteful. (Well, there is the Mermaid Force, the all-female street ball team whose main gimmick is that they distract their opponents by wearing thongs and flashing their breasts…I said fairly tasteful.) The girls in Harlem Beat aren't major competitors on the court for most of the story (school basketball isn't co-ed, after all), but they aren't just love interests either; they're trainers and sources of wisdom, like the main character's mother in Nishiyama's other shonen manga Dragon Voice (in which the main character wants to become a singer like his famous vocalist mom, an inversion of the usual shonen manga trope where the hero follows in the footsteps of his dad). There's action, friendship (including platonic girl-guy friendship!) and occasional boobs, although Tokyopop censored some of the nudity. The censorship is pretty obvious, but it's not really much more annoying than the way that Mixx Entertainment renamed the big basketball championship the "MixxHoopz Tournament." (The Mixx/Tokyopop people liked to insert their name into the manga: there's "Mixx Rulez!" graffiti on a bathroom stall in the original Mixx printing of Parasyte.)
The romance is on the sidelines though; this is a sports manga, although occasionally they take a break from balling for a chapter or two. Characters struggle to be the best, change allegiances, get stronger, get injured, keep trying, make friends, and valiantly forge onward. Unlike Slam Dunk, which starts with the assumption that the reader doesn't even know what a "dunk" is, Harlem Beat assumes that the reader knows basketball. The Mixx edition is especially full of basketball slang and references to real players (circa the late '90s, that is): "Barkley style!" "He's flyin' like Jordan!" "This was my dream…to become a star like Jordan or Murray!" "Ewing style!" "You know what forwards do! That's what Pippin and Mullin do in the NBA!" But even if you don't know anything about sports (like me), the action scenes are great.
And of course, after action, the other element of a good sports manga is great characters. Nate is a lovable, sincere little guy, and the other characters, male and female, all have their own charms. The series ran for 29 volumes, so there are a LOTof characters, and if I have to nitpick, some of the faces are a little hard to tell apart. But luckily, Narushima is very good at drawing chibis, and in the later volumes when there's 30 or more characters and it's hard to tell everybody apart, she helps clear things up with some cute chibi group shots.
In Japan, Harlem Beat ran from 1994 to 1999, and was Yuriko Nishiyama's most popular manga. It was never adapted into an anime, but it was turned into a couple of novels, as well as a 1999 Japan-only PlayStation game by Konami, Harlem Beat: You're the One, which combined basketball with love-sim elements where you have to win the tournament while also trying to date girls. Nishiyama actually had a pretty interesting life, having lived in France and Laos when she was a child; she started out in shonen manga but has now moved on to josei and seinen manga, and I'd like to see more of her stuff in English someday.
Tokyopop/Mixx Entertainment published Harlem Beat until Mixx Zine ended, and then they started printing it direct to graphic novels. Then things got a little weird: Tokyopop decided to rebrand it and start publishing it right to left instead of left to right, so they stopped publishing Harlem Beat after volume 9 and relaunched it as Rebound. But that wasn't a great point to break the story, so they actually skipped volumes 10-11 of the Japanese version and started Rebound with volume 12; the missing volumes were never translated, only summarized briefly at the beginning of Rebound. It's all out of print now, but definitely worth picking up or checking out at the library, if you can find it. I'd even say the Americanization and changed names don't hurt the story that much, just like I'd happily watch the Ganbare Genki boxing anime in its Arabic translation, Fares al Fata ("Fares the Fighter"), if the original Japanese version wasn't available. Publishers do things like that when they're trying to make shows appeal to wider audiences, and although it's definitely lame to hide the characters' Japanese ethnicity, perhaps basketball manga is perhaps not the kind of deep otaku Japanese-culture manga that demands a totally literal translation.
That's the paradox for me: I love sports manga, although I don't like sports. But I sometimes wonder who reads sports manga in the US, if there are many sports fans or if it's just manga folks like me. Here's the homework assignment for this week: does anyone know an American sports fan who became an anime or manga fan from sports anime or manga? Has this ever happened? Even once?
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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