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by Rebecca Silverman,

Blue Lock

GN 1 & 2

Blue Lock GN 1 & 2
After failing to win the World Cup, there's unrest in the Japanese Soccer community. Many of the older patrons of the sport aren't too disturbed by the lack of trophies, but newcomer Anri Teiri is furious – and she's determined to fix what she sees as the problem with Japanese players. To that end she hires maverick trainer Jinpachi Ego, who devises a strange yet rigorous plan: he takes the three hundred best young soccer players in the country, sends them to a state-of-the-art training facility, and whittles them down until he has the absolute best striker in the nation. Yoichi Isagi is one of the boys chosen for the camp. He may be number 299 out of 300, but nothing – and no one – is going to stand in his way of coming out on top.

Blue Lock really is its own special story. On the one hand, it absolutely embraces its insane concept: that soccer is not, in fact, a team sport and instead turns on the ego of its teams' strikers. On the other hand, that's a really messed up way to look at soccer. (Or any other team sport, for that matter.) It's as if Muneyuki Kaneshiro pitched a dystopian story and his editors said they wanted a sports manga instead, so he just twisted the plot he had to fit the requirements.

That's both a good and a bad thing. It certainly makes Blue Lock stand out among other sports series, and it may appeal to those who wouldn't normally touch a soccer manga. But it's also so blatantly absurd that it doesn't entirely work, coming off instead as kids with dreams of sports stardom being horribly taken advantage of by unscrupulous adults. It's insane, and not necessarily in a good way.

The story turns on the idea that Japan has been failing as a soccer-playing nation on the world stage because they've never managed to win a single World Cup. For the older members of the country's soccer governing body, that's just a thing, and they're okay with it. But for new arrival Anri, it's an abomination, because in her mind, you don't play competitive sports to have fun, you play them to win. To that end she feels that Japan is failing at soccer, and she isn't content to let things stay the same – and she's come with a plan. Her arguably awful idea is to give Jinpachi Ego, a man who should never be allowed near children, the funds and authority to build a state-of-the-art dystopian sports facility (the eponymous Blue Lock) and then track down the three hundred best high school strikers in the nation. Those kids are then shipped off to the facility, where they're split into teams and forced to play soccer elimination games, with the stated goal of having only one kid left standing at the end. That young man will then go on to become the striker of Japan's national team. The others must renounce professional soccer forever.

How this comes off is somewhat uneven in execution. We obviously have to take it with a grain of salt, because no parent worth theirs would allow their child to participate in such a thing. But the boys do want to be there once things get started, because Jinpachi is excellent at riling them up and making them feel ever more competitive. There are moments when it looks a bit like he's making up his mantra of ego over all in order to hone the boys; when they begin to play actual matches against each other, it quickly becomes clear to Isagi that they do really have to play as a team – not just eleven individuals who happen to be on the same side. But if that's what's going on, then Jinpachi may also be fooling Anri, whose press conference in volume two indicates that she truly believes in what he's doing. She frankly comes off as unhinged, and the fact that the reporters in the room are all visibly horrified by her words and demeanor would seem to support the theory that Jinpachi is only partially playing along with her.

That would be an interesting development, because as the reporters point out, what Anri's doing is forcibly crushing children's dreams and ambitions. Yes, there does come a point for many (if not most) high school students when they realize that their dreams of becoming a professional athlete/actor/other hig- profile celebrity profession aren't going to come true. But that's an important part of growing up and finding your niche in the world, and having it ripped from you in a dystopian training camp is perhaps more likely to send the kid in question to therapy than into a different field. So to have Jinpachi more sympathetic than he currently appears would be a twist worth taking, especially since Isagi is beginning to form alliances with some of his fellow players in a way that could shape them into a truly strong unit, not just a bunch of strong individuals.

While this all can make for an exciting and fraught story over the course of these two volumes – especially when Isagi discovers what his special “weapon” in soccer is, which requires having teammates – the unbalanced nature of the storytelling does undermine things a bit. There are elements that aren't quite explained enough and seem very counterintuitive, such as the boys' meals being dependent upon their points scored (which means that not everyone is getting proper nutrition and implies that the whole thing may be rigged) or the fact that they play many of their games barefoot (which just sounds like a recipe for broken toes). At best, this is misdirection or a hint that the selection really is rigged; at worst this is a glaring example of the author just not quite thinking things through. Fortunately the art (which has definite overtones of Tite Kubo) has a good sense of movement and enough character designs that it's not an impossible task to tell the characters apart, and Isagi does have potential as an underdog hero. There's also clear improvement in the storytelling from volume one to volume two, so this may be one of those series that suddenly takes off three or four books in.

Blue Lock's first two volumes aren't perfect. It's an odd combination of a sports story and dystopian elimination game, albeit without the usual murder component. But it's got enough going for it that it may be worth a few more volumes to see what happens. And besides, it's probably the closest we'll get to a version of The Hunger Games with a recognizable game in the starring role. If that's what you've been dreaming of, now's your chance to read it.

Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : B

+ Enough variety of design that you can tell the characters apart, some interesting potential plot and character developments implied.
"Dystopian sports” doesn't quite work as a genre, does feel unnecessarily cruel at times.

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Production Info:
Story: Muneyuki Kaneshiro
Art: Yūsuke Nomura

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