Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 24th 2010
Things have turned violent for the Shohoku High basketball team as a gang of thugs has invaded their gym and turned a practice session into a no-holds-barred fistfight. Can self-proclaimed basketball genius and loose cannon Hanamichi Sakuragi hold his own in a showdown of brute force? The fight takes an abrupt turn, however, when the seniors on the team confront one of the thugs, Mitsui, and dredge up some long-forgotten school memories. It turns out that Mitsui was once a promising basketball star, ready to take his place as Shohoku's ace alongside towering center Akagi. But unfortunate injuries sent Mitsui down the wrong path, and now he has a lot to answer for, having turned against the team he once promised to take to the national championship.
Well, it was about time Slam Dunk got back to being about basketball again. Coming out of Volume 7, the series appeared to be in a strange sort of slump, stringing together several chapters of an all-out brawl staged in the school gym. It was as if this Shônen Jump classic had suddenly turned into Shônen Champion, with Takehiko Inoue responding to the trends of the day—which, in 1992, meant badass punks with huge hair and sneering eyes fighting each other all the time.
This volume continues in that strange mode for a couple more chapters, but good things come to those who wait—and when the older boys finally stop Mitsui in his tracks, that's when the story makes a masterful turnaround. Then again, maybe Inoue was just messing the whole time, digging into pure shônen cliché before pulling out the next major story development: a flashback that shines the spotlight on some of the major supporting characters, while also explaining what the fight was all about in the first place. See, this guy knows what he's doing.
Still, some would say that Slam Dunk's return to form can be explained much more simply: it's about basketball again. Which is not to say that the fistfight wasn't fun—Hanamichi's retaliatory beatdown in this volume is nothing short of majestic—but when the title of the manga refers to the most exciting play in the game, it ought to be about the actual game. In fact, the basketball content is a refreshing departure from the typical "scrimmage match, plus Hanamichi screwing around for 4 quarters" formula; the flashback takes us to the days when Akagi was all size and no skills (watch him do his best Shaq impression at the free-throw line), while also showcasing Mitsui's flawless shooting style, and pitting the two young stars against each other in a matchup of brawn versus bravado.
But what is truly great about this flashback is that it not only brings back the hoops, but advances the story and develops the characters in a major way. Some may think of Akagi as nothing more than comic relief, the six-foot-and-several-inches "gorilla man"—but those perceptions will surely change after these chapters. The same goes for Coach Anzai, who turns out to be more than just a tuft of white hair and a mustache. And those who thought Mitsui and his goons were there simply to stir up trouble will gain a much deeper understanding of a troubled teenage boy—so much so that by the time the last page arrives (and the storyline returns to the present), we have gone from nonsensical after-school brawl to a truly heart-wrenching moment in a young man's life.
Once again, Inoue proves his artistic versatility by being able to go from fighting action to sports action to no action. The first few scenes capture the brutish energy of a bareknuckled fistfight, the last scene captures years of bitterness in a single anguished face, and in the middle we have all these dynamic basketball scenes that are simultaneously stopped in time but also expressing fluid motion. Not to be a sports nerd or anything, but Mitsui's lock-and-load jumpshot is clearly the artistic highlight of this volume—it's very likely that Inoue is clearly photoreferencing the pose, but he photoreferences well. And even in the midst of this fast-paced action, the page layouts are crystal clear, usually only focusing on one or two characters at a time (which is why it makes for fast reading in the first place—no time wasted having to decipher the visuals). The only drawback to this is that sometimes the art becomes too plain, especially in the brawl, where we basically get a bunch of forgettable bully-type characters fighting in a dull hardwood-and-steel environment known as a school gym. Yeah, that kind of stuff is best left to the Shônen Champion line.
In a series where schoolboy slang could have easily taken over the dialogue, this translation thankfully plays it straight, giving the characters a style of speech that's equally suited to 1992 as it is to 2010. Sure, the guys still taunt and boast at each other with attitude, but they do it in a way that flows naturally. Also flowing naturally are the sound effects, which are sparse and simple enough to blend into the art even in English. Sadly, these positive comments don't apply to the "Slam Dunk Overtime" segment in the back, which uses the most irritating puns and jokes possible to discuss NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and how to shoot a three-point shot. Whoever wrote this segment may want to rethink how true sports fans write about sports. (Hint: it does not involve comparing Kobe to the famous Japanese beef of the same name.)
All right, so there was no need to worry after all. Like a true champion, Slam Dunk overcomes its brief slump and is on fire once again, delivering terrific sports action while continuing to build an engaging story around its characters. A flashback puts the supporting cast in the spotlight and shows us why we should care about them, and it turns out that the random goons who showed up for a random fistfight weren't so random after all. Finally, those who demand visual satisfaction to go with the story can find it in the crisp, fast-paced basketball scenes (and to a lesser extent, the fighting scenes). On the surface, it may look like it's about boys being boys, striving to conquer each other ... but what really makes Slam Dunk shine is the revelation that, for a boy to become a man, he must ultimately conquer himself.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ A flashback spanning the last two-thirds of the book offers great hoops action while also fleshing out the characters and story.
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