Prince of Tennis
Manga Volume 1
At the young age of 12, Ryoma Echizen is a prodigious tennis star with potential to surpass even the career of his father… if only the rest of the Seigaku tennis team knew about it. As a new student at Seigaku middle school, seventh grader Ryoma endures bullying on all sides from resentful team members who dislike him for the threat he represents to the upperclassmen when he enters the 16-year-old and under tennis group. Before he can gain the respect of his teammates, Ryoma must prove himself worthy of competing at the ninth grade level by gaining a position on the team as a starter. The only way to accomplish that is by defeating opponents much older than him. Ryoma must rely on his natural talent to prevail against the experience of players much bigger than himself.
Prince of Tennis, also known as Tenisu no Oujisama, is the first tennis-based sports manga to arrive in the US. It's also one of the first non-basketball related sports manga to hit North American shelves. With all the publicity it has received from Shonen Jump and Viz, Prince of Tennis holds potential to become the most popular sports manga in the US. Unfortunately, the first volume doesn't bode a very promising start for the series.
In spite of readership anticipation incited by Shonen Jump weeks before its release date, Prince of Tennis Vol. 1 is a mild disappointment. Having been an avid tennis player for most of my life, I may be the wrong person to review a hyped-up shounen tennis drama. I can see all the incredible exaggerations for what they are, and sometimes it's hard to just let go and enjoy the story for all its inaccuracies. Certainly a sports manga cannot be expected to carry through with flawless precision 100% of the time, but does it have to defy all counts of realism in the very first volume?
While Prince of Tennis makes the admirable attempt to cater to both novices and experienced players, it ends up appealing to neither. References to actual tennis moves, tips and common advice are noteworthy, but the exaggerated storytelling can be irritating on many levels. Prince of Tennis does a fair job of staying true to the sport, but the series falls short of satisfying the soul on a readership level when few of the readers can honestly say, "Oh yeah, I went through that back in middle school." It's going to take some plot work before more readers with tennis experience can relate to the characters on a personal level.
Non-tennis players and beginners at the sport will also find difficulty in relating to any of the characters introduced in the first volume. Some game-specific manga like Hikaru no Go open with the main character knowing next to nothing about the subject of the series. Hikaru isn't even an amateur; he's a total beginner with no motivation. Ryoma, on the other hand, starts at the top of his form from the opening chapter. This doesn't seem to leave much room for improvement on Ryoma's end, making it difficult for the reader to latch on and share in his experiences. Ryoma Echizen is intended to be a quiet, mysterious and strong-hearted player, but his character comes across as dull, cold and untouchable--much too confident for a 12-year-old just entering middle school. The only real reason to sympathize with Ryoma stems from the constant displays of abuse he takes from arrogant 16-year-olds who have nothing better to do than exercise their hierarchical power over the underclassmen. It appears that every male in Prince of Tennis has an ego the size of Texas. The only two female characters are the coach of the Seigaku team and her shy granddaughter, of whom the latter also takes continual abuse from the older kids. Volume One doesn't show much in the way of women's tennis yet, but I'm still hopeful there's more to come.
The art of Takeshi Konomi is excellent. Not only do the characters look Japanese, each player is easily distinguishable and the designs are visually appealing. Konomi retains a sleek bishounen-like style for his male characters while applying expert attention to detail in each panel. Even brand names on bags and hats such as Fila are those of actual sports companies.
The highlights of this first volume are the numerous methods Ryoma takes to make his opponents eat their words on the tennis court. While that can be fun, the reader may feel cheated knowing early on (and being constantly reminded) that Ryoma is only toying with everyone who challenges him. The character designs are feasible, if a little shallow from the outset. Regrettably, the story takes so long to get off the ground that I'm half asleep by the middle of the book. Almost the entire volume wallows in exposition. Though the book is nearly 200 pages long, it contains a significant lack of controversy. Really the only problems presented to Ryoma in this volume are the inflated egos of Seigaku's testosterone-happy tennis punks. A little ball busting from Ryoma and the work is done.
Prince of Tennis also doesn't seem to have much to say about its subject, aside from the highly competitive and combative nature portrayed among members of a single team. A tennis manga should be more than just about tennis, or it isn't much of a story. In general, sports manga tend to focus on the young main characters growing up from the children they once were and developing a sense of responsibility and direction in their lives. So far, Prince of Tennis just seems to lack substance in that regard. The first volume of a manga should wow its audience with enough suspense to snag readers into coming back for more, and this is where Prince of Tennis falls short.
As of this moment, the only hope for Prince of Tennis to gain popularity with US consumers is its great following in Japan. Konomi's efforts to create an original tennis drama are admirable yet, and in spite of the slump in Volume One, I expect the story to improve in later volumes. Perhaps Volume Two will make a greater impact than the first book, if anyone is willing to read it.
Story : C
Art : B
+ Exciting and well-paced tennis play
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