Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Tomoki first discovered the sport of diving when he was in elementary school and fell in love with it watching slightly older student Yoichi. Now in his second year of middle school, only Tomo, Yoichi, and two other middle school boys currently dive at the Mizuki Diving Club, which is in danger of closing. In a last-ditch effort to save the club, a new coach is brought on, Kayoko Asaki, who has trained in the United States. Asaki tells the boys that if one of them can qualify for the upcoming Olympic Games, the company that owns the club will allow them to stay open. Do any of them have a chance?
DIVE!!'s manga and anime adaptations perhaps came at an unfortunate time for the series. Although the original light novels date to 2002, the anime didn't come until 2017, and the manga, which was originally released in Japan in 2007, is only now coming to English-speaking audiences. I say that this timing is unfortunate because it leaves the series open to comparison with the super-popular Free!, which features competitive high school and college boys' swimming. DIVE!! is about middle and high school boys' diving, a sport which is only really related to swimming in that both take place in pools. That's enough for the two to have been set side-by-side, however, and DIVE!! doesn't always compare favorably.
However, that shouldn't stop you from checking out its manga version, especially if you're looking to see representation of a sport not frequently covered in sports stories for middle grade and young adult audiences. (Or any audiences, really.) DIVE!!'s story is rooted in some of the insecurities of its characters, which makes it relatable even if you have the athletic prowess of an aged possum or have never jumped from anything higher than the side of a pool. In part this is because the primary protagonist, Tomoki (called Tomo) is trying to figure out where diving fits into his life, and how much he wants it to take away from other aspects of it. When we meet him, he's got a girlfriend he's not quite sure what to do with and his only major worry is that the club where he dives might go under due to lack of members. Largely he tucks that latter issue away, instead just enjoying diving with his agemates at the club, two other middle school second years who joined slightly before him. He idolizes Yoichi, a high schooler seen as the club's major star, but doesn't so much worry about catching up to him as he likes having a goal to reach.
All of that changes when a new coach is brought in. Kayoko Asaki, apart from appearing to be the lone female at the club, has been brought in to increase the chances of Mizuki Diving Club (MDC) staying open, and her plan to do that is to get one or more of the boys to qualify for the upcoming Olympics. She brings with her a more competitive edge to the sport, one that the divers aren't used to – and in Tomo's case, isn't sure that he's entirely comfortable with. Yoichi, as the child of two renowned divers, isn't thrilled because he recognizes what's coming, but for the middle schoolers, Asaki's plans inject an unwelcome angst into their relationship and participation.
This is probably the strongest part of these two books, as well as the thread that truly binds them together. While the Olympics remain a goal for the characters, it isn't because they thought of going themselves or even especially want to, although Asaki does try to make that their own personal goals as well. But most of the kids have been diving because they enjoy it and like learning new moves and routines, and they've been diving together as a sort of loose, friendly team. When Asaki makes her announcements and quickly zeroes in on Tomo and Yoichi, Rei and Ryo, the other two boys, very quickly begin to doubt themselves, something Ryo especially takes out on Tomo.
To say that this is a very familiar aspect of being fourteen might be to understate the matter, and as often happens in such cases, Tomo's life immediately begins to form a landslide of strained, difficult relationships. While his friends are taking out their frustrations and hurt on him, his brother is putting the moves on his girlfriend, and while Tomo's not all that attached to her in the lovey-dovey sense (he really just agreed to go out with her because he wasn't sure how to say no), this is an emotional difficulty he does not need. Arguably he's much more upset that his brother betrayed his trust than that he lost his girlfriend, and given that it comes at the same time as Asaki's push for the Olympics and his ostracization by his diving friends, he reacts as if it were an extension of his other troubles. In large part that's what makes these books work – unlike in some other sports stories, Tomo's love of diving doesn't eclipse all else in his life. It is his primary concern, yes, but he still wants to have friends and family outside of the sport, and when the two can't seem to coexist, he's not sure what to do. Another character sought out by Asaki, Shibuki, the grandson of a famous diver, ends up in a similar position when Asaki asks him to join MDC and to try for the Olympics: diving has been part of his life rather than his life, and he's not sure he's comfortable or willing to make the jump to being who Asaki wants him to become.
As you may have noticed, Asaki herself is a major issue within the story. In one sense that means that she drives the conflict in the plot, pushing the other characters forward in their chosen sport. But in another, she's a miserable excuse for a teacher/coach in that she selfishly pushes her own agenda without consulting the kids she's working with and without considering how her plans may interfere with or conflict with their lives outside of diving. While it isn't uncommon for people of all ages to devote themselves solely to a specific pursuit when something like the Olympics are at stake, none of the kids at MDC had any thought of it until she began pushing it, and that makes her a character it's difficult to get behind, especially when Tomo is in the throes of his angst and she appears unable to understand.
DIVE!! isn't the single most compelling sports manga being released in English (I'd have to give that to Haikyu!!), and both of these volumes drag in places. But its focus on the emotions of the characters outside of their sport is a good feature of the books, and the art gives a good sense of the heights from which they DIVE!! and the acrobatics needed to do so. It certainly deserves to stand on its own merits rather than suffer from comparisons, and if you're looking for something a little less intense on the sports manga front than some of the other offerings out there, this is an interesting story.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Explores Tomo's life outside of diving, nice art
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