Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 23rd 2005
Poor, shrimpy Sena Kobayakawa: he's spent his entire school career being an errand boy for bullies. On his first day of high school, Sena's childhood friend Mamori says that he ought to make some real friends, and he does—in a very unexpected way. When the monstrous, chestnut-headed Kurita begs Sena to join the school's American football team (membership: two), Sena just can't say no. He figures that he won't have to play if he's the team manager, but when another incident causes Sena to dash through a crowd, team captain Hiruma discovers the secret of Sena's lightning-quick legs. Suddenly, Sena is the star of the team, and to hide his identity from rival schools, Sena has to wear a helmet with a tinted eyeshield! Can "Eyeshield 21" take his team to Japan's high-school championship game? More importantly, can Sena survive Hiruma's insane behavior?
Oh, those crazy Japanese! What will they think of next? A manga about football—and not the one with the round, black-and-white ball, but the American game with the oval ball? There is no way this could work. It's not even a popular sport in Japan! How could they possibly create a manga about a sport that's so... American?
Believe it or not, Eyeshield 21 meets the challenge. And in doing so, it proves an essential truth: that with appealing characters, an entertaining story, and quality artwork, you can create great manga about anything. Even football.
No one's going to question the originality of Eyeshield 21's premise—how many other manga series are there about football?—but the sports genre is full of pitfalls when it comes to plot and structure. Anyone can write a story about a talented underdog hoping to take his team to the top, and writer Riichiro Inagaki tries to avoid predictability by adding some interesting turns and details. Sena's extraordinary speed doesn't just come out of nowhere, for example; it's the result of years running errands for school bullies. His complete ignorance of football also helps readers who are unfamiliar with the sport, as they'll be learning the rules of the game along with him. On a larger scale, though, this first volume is a typical sports story, and the outcome of Sena's first game is no surprise. What really pushes this series above average are its well-defined cast of characters and strong artwork.
It all starts with Sena—the archetypal shounen protagonist, perhaps, but one who steps into his role reluctantly at first. He may be an instantly likeable underdog, but he's also the polar opposite of those talkative, obnoxious, up-and-at-'em heroes that populate so many other series. In order to get Sena involved in football, it takes the maniacal efforts of Hiruma, and if his demonic face doesn't stick in your mind, then his antics will. Despite his sheer ruthlessness, it's hard not to laugh as Hiruma enthusiastically resorts to blackmail in recruiting students for the team. Fortunately, Sena's other teammate Kurita is a much nicer guy, but he's so kind-hearted and huge that if he ever gave Sena a hug, it would end the series because the main character would suffocate. Such striking characters make it easy to tell who's who, and even the supporting cast is memorable: you've got the guy who once stole the panties of the girls' swim team, the guy who kisses a poster of His Favorite idol singer every morning, and a rival team ("The Cupids") that brings their girlfriends along to every game. Sadly, the one exception to this is Mamori, the lone girl in the cast; although she's Sena's childhood friend and potential love interest, she doesn't get enough face time to develop a real personality.
Anyone who's ever found actual American football boring (line up, pile up, repeat for two and a half hours) may change their minds after seeing the action sequences in Eyeshield 21. Sena's explosive takeoff as he dashes through the crowd in Chapter 1 is just the first among many other panels that fly off the page with their sense of motion. Manga-ka Yusuke Murata uses any number of artistic devices to capture Sena's speed: blurred outlines, exaggerated perspective, dense speedlines, and freeze-frame techniques. Watch out, too, for the panels where Sena visualizes his routes—it's a clever way of portraying what a star athlete might see on the field. Murata's imagination isn't just limited to action, however. His character designs are equally imaginative, and there's no confusing the three main characters: Sena with his small frame and spiky hair, lanky Hiruma with his demon-like appearance, and Kurita, whose immense size is a hilarious contrast to his simple face. And yes, Murata can draw girls, too, as proven by Mamori's effortless good looks.
Viz puts in a strong effort with their translation and adaptation of this manga. The lively, natural dialog matches the tone of the characters and story, with just the right balance between slang and formality. Although there may have been a strong temptation to "Americanize" this series, Japanese pop culture references stay exactly as they are, so if you don't know who Ai Kago is, you will by the end of this volume. Viz's handling of sound effects—which consists of replacing Japanese effects with their English equivalent—may still be abhorrent to some, but their sense of graphic design keeps on getting better. This time, the sounds blend in with the artwork so well that I didn't even realize the Japanese effects were absent until page 33. Viz also does a good job with the extras, keeping all "Bonus 21" pages that were in the original tankoubon, as well as a profile page with caricatures of the manga artists and staff.
Think about the 60,000 spectators at a typical American football game and ask yourself: how many of them are interested in comics, much less manga? Then think about the 20,000 attendees at a high-profile anime con and ask yourself: how many of them are interested in professional sports, much less football? There's probably not a whole lot of overlap, but if there's one thing that can bridge the gap, Eyeshield 21 might be it. Yes, there are readers out there who have no interest in sports manga and probably never will, but for curious fans who like to try new things, this is a series that promises plenty of thrills and laughs. In the immortal words of Hank Williams Jr.: Are you ready for some football?!
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Unmistakable characters and lively, detailed artwork.
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