Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 15th 2010
Hisanobu Takahashi was once a promising high school basketball talent until an ill-fated accident left him unable to walk. While going through rehabilitation, Takahashi's self-absorbed attitude continues to soften, and he gets a surprising new roommate in the form of bad-boy pro wrestler "Scorpion" Shiratori. While Takahashi has been struggling just to find the will to live, Shiratori proudly insists that he will walk again in three months. Where does a guy like him get the will to do the impossible? Meanwhile, Takahashi's former teammate Nomiya faces an impossible goal of his own: getting into the Japanese pro basketball league despite having dropped out of high school and being out of the game for months. A chance encounter with a pro coach gives Nomiya the outlook and motivation he needs, but he still needs to get his skills back—which he hopes to do by scrimmaging with his old buddies who are now playing college hoops.
Life is about the journey, not the destination, they say—yet the sights along the way in the ninth volume of Real aren't as thrilling they have been in the past. There is no big tearjerker moment, no heart-swelling triumph, not even a dramatic twist coming out of nowhere. In a series full of ups and downs, this part is more of a plateau, tilted slightly upward as the protagonists work toward their goals. And sometimes, that's just life—instead of something happening in one incredible flash, big changes often take place through small, incremental steps, a truth that Takehiko Inoue reveals here. In a world with so many boy heroes running around screaming, "I'm going to get stronger!", this inspirational tale shows what it really takes to get stronger.
Takahashi's quest to walk again is the more compelling of the two interlocking storylines in this volume, mostly owing to the great supporting cast around him. When alone and mired in his self-destructive thoughts, Takahashi is hardly a likable figure, yet when contrasted against the wrestler's show-stealing, gung-ho attitude—not to mention the obsessive-compulsive quirks of resident otaku Hanasaki—this odd merry-go-round of personalities makes all of them more entertaining to read about. Like the doctors say at the rehabilitation center, "Takahashi seems like a better person when he's around those guys"—a fact that not only applies to his recovery as a patient, but also to the story as a whole. It's characters interacting with each other that makes things work around here, not just a single character struggling with life's hardships. After all, most folks have had more than enough of Takahashi's sighing and moaning—but give him a few minutes with crazy Scorpion Shiratori and one starts to see his personality evolve in a new direction.
That evolution of character is also clear to see in school dropout Nomiya, who thankfully has finally found a goal in his life (albeit a highly unrealistic one). But what is it they say about shooting for the moon and landing among the stars? It may be a mawkish old aphorism, but Takehiko Inoue breathes new life into it here, sketching out a story arc where the dumb drifting underachiever suddenly starts improving himself, building people skills, and making smart life decisions because he's crazy enough to think he can become a pro baller. However, with the lack of entertaining personalities like in Takahashi's side of the story—as well as the lack of an all-out life-changing moment—it's the kind of story arc that must be appreciated for its gradual momentum forward, rather than any specific plot point. And again, that's probably likely the lesson Inoue is trying to teach.
Of course, aside from teaching self-help topics like setting goals and taking things one step at a time, Takehiko Inoue could also teach a master-level art class, with the nuanced character illustrations throughout this volume. Not that he's already gotten enough praise for everything he's drawn in the other eight—but again, he brings out shades of emotion that almost no other manga-ka can manage, simply because he has studied facial expressions and gestures to the level where a single shrug or twitch says all that needs to be said. Even an exaggerated, comical character like Shiratori is rendered with realistic depth to him, with his muscle mass and the way he does everything big. This focus on character does take away from some of the other artistic aspects, though: backgrounds are often sparse or nonexistent, and the layouts, although well-spaced and easy to read, sometimes jump between present-time, flashbacks and memories without warning. But it's a small price to pay to see some incredibly talented figure drawing.
If the life-affirming truths of Real cut deep to the core, it's likely because they are expressed in simple, powerful words. And this is the magic of Inoue's scripting: that he does not try to make a deep series sound deeper than it needs to be, that he doesn't force the characters into putting on melodramatic airs. They just go about their business saying things that people in their situation might say, whether it's Takahashi trying to make sense of his life or Nomiya trying to convince his peers. The best lines are often the simplest ones—a fact that is brought out in this straightfoward but eloquent translation. Japanese signs and symbols in the artwork are handled subtly with translations in between panels, but sound effects are more conspicuously edited as English text replaces the original characters outright.
With the series' main characters currently in a state of transition, working toward their goals but not making any dramatic accomplishments, there isn't much to mark this as a particularly notable volume of Real. At the same time, though, there's really no such thing as a bad volume of Real, or a bad volume of anything by Takehiko Inoue for that matter. Sometimes a great series just has to lie low for a while and resolutely move forward, waiting for a future payoff. With deep, fascinating characters like these, and top-notch artistry bringing them to life, there's nothing wrong with watching them do the little things so that they may someday accomplish the Big Thing. Whether it's surviving one session of lower-body rehab, or one session of pickup basketball, we all have our battles to win, big or small. And so once again this work of fiction opens our eyes to some undeniable truths.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : A-
+ The talented, nuanced art and the progress of the characters make for compelling reading even if it's just "guys doing stuff."
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