Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jun 11th 2011
Against all odds, the Shohoku High basketball team has reached the final four of the Kanagawa prefectural tournament. But a close loss to powerhouse Kainan has left Shohoku's hot-headed, self-proclaimed "basketball genius" Hanamichi Sakuragi desperate to improve his skills. Durring a scrimmage match, Sakuragi realizes where his abilities are lacking, and trains with team captain Akagi to improve his shooting. However, Sakuragi's lack of discipline costs him a chance to play in the team's next game. After that, the next event on Shohoku's schedule is to watch the two favorites, Kainan and Ryonan, square off. Ryonan's top player, Sendoh, takes charge and stakes his team to an quick double-digit lead over Kainan. But in the second half, Kainan comes storming back with the gritty determination that has earned them the nickname of the "Kainan Kings."
Slam Dunk takes something of a detour in Volume 16, focusing on something other than heart-pounding games that take dozens of chapters to finish. It's a welcome break from the sprawling Kainan-Shohoku matchup—a return to "normal" manga pacing after super-decompressed gameplay where thirty seconds takes twenty pages. But as so often happens with transitional story arcs, the results are a mixed bag: sure, Sakuragi's training sessions are fun, and the Kainan-Ryonan game promises more on-court excitement, but without our red-headed hero getting into the thick of the action, it feels like this is just a Slam Dunk sideshow instead of the main event.
One particularly notable feature of this volume is how it navigates through a number of shonen tournament manga clichés, but carefully avoids the pitfalls. Sakuragi has reached that point where he realizes, "I've got to get stronger!" ... but thankfully avoids saying the dreaded line. Rather, the focus is on the rookies-versus-upperclassmen scrimmage, as well as Sakuragi's intensive shooting clinic with Akagi, with actual basketball drills on display (and an occasional touch of humor). This is where sports manga has the edge on the supernatural and fighting genres—instead of mumbo-jumbo training sessions where the hero sits cross-legged and meditates on the power of his sword, we get something real and relatable as athletes put their physical skills to the test.
Another cliché arrives in the form of an opponent that's too weak to be of real importance: the fourth and final team still standing, Takezato. Somehow, Takehiko Inoue has to get through the Shohoku-Takezato match without making it a pointless grind; he finds his solution by creating a silly circumstance that leads to Sakuragi missing the game. It's a shallow, slapstick contrivance that only mid-level manga-ka should ever resort to, but hey, it adds a bit of humor and keeps the proceedings from becoming a complete bore.
However, Inoue assigns far greater importance to the next game, Kainan versus Ryonan, making it big enough to occupy the entire volume's second half and spill over into the next. For a game that doesn't even involve the main characters, that's something of a stretch—sure, it's important for the Shohoku boys to scope out the team that they'll be facing next, but that doesn't necessarily make it entertaining. For several chapters, Ryonan's star player Sendoh puts his all-around skills on display, and high-scoring prodigy Fukuda makes himself known, but these thrills seem to be more about indulging in the X's and O's of the game rather than the characters. That might be fun for strategy-minded enthusiasts, but other readers will be left wondering when they get to see Sakuragi in action again.
Regardless of how enjoyable or dull the action is, though, Inoue's artwork continues to be consistent throughout. Even Sakuragi's afternoon practice sessions in an unoccupied gym are rendered in careful detail, from anatomically accurate shooting poses to subtle shadows on the walls and floor. The clean, confident lines and perfect balance of light and dark show an artist in full command of his skills—and he turns up the virtuosity even more when game time comes. Inoue never skimps on backgrounds, throwing in enough variety and detail to make spectators look convincing, and the combination of speedlines, close-ups, and freeze-frame action guarantees that even a matchup between secondary characters looks dazzling to the eye. (At this level of talent, one can even forgive the cheesy 90's haircuts on the characters.) So even though the story content wavers in quality, the presentation is always pleasing to the eye.
With the art speaking for itself so eloquently in Slam Dunk, it's understandable that the characters don't have much more to add by way of verbiage. During gameplay, the script involves little more than calling out the action, reacting to various plays, and occasionally discussing strategy. Day-to-day conversation is equally simple, with the guys either ribbing each other at school or talking about what they'll do for the next game. In fact, the biggest challenge in translating this series is simply being aware of basketball terminology and making sure to use the right words and phrases in English—which this adaptation does without a problem. Adapting the sound effects is trickier, though, with text scattered throughout each page to denote every pass, every shot, and every bounce of the ball. In the end, the results come out somewhat awkward, with blocky English letters standing out against the more refined artwork every time a dunk or a swish happens.
This entire volume of Slam Dunk feels a little clumsy, despite Takehiko Inoue's best attempts with to smooth over the bumps with his sheer talent as an artist and storyteller. Yes, he gets away with incredible action scenes in the Kainan-Ryonan game despite it basically being a sideshow, and manages to add some clever touches to a training sequence and the defeat of an unworthy opponent so that they don't feel like complete wastes of time. But that doesn't change the fact that the stakes are lower in this volume, as Mister Genius Sakuragi and the Shohoku team aren't really putting their pride on the line for anything. There's no do-or-die final shot or crucial rebound to be grabbed this time. Hard work pays off later, as they say, so it looks like we'll have to wait until the next volume after all to see if that holds true.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B+
+ Still visually stunning with great in-game action scenes, and maintains interest even during chapters with predictable storylines.
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