Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Hanamichi Sakuragi, high-school punk extraordinaire, wants nothing more in the world than to have a girlfriend. While in junior high he was rejected a record fifty times, the last by a girl who was a fan of basketball players. He enters high-school with a huge basketball-hating chip on his shoulder, only to do an abrupt about-face when he meets cute basketball fan Haruko Akagi. He decides to join the team for the sole purpose of impressing her, a goal that he flubs at every turn with the practiced skill of a natural-born idiot. He picks a fight with the player that she secretly has a crush on, de-pants her towering brother in public, and generally makes an A-list fool out of himself at every turn. Fortunately he's also endearingly earnest and a basketball natural, which counts for everything in Haruko's sports-worshipping eyes. It's just too bad that his over-inflated ego keeps derailing his success.
Some manga are popular because they are good. Others are popular because they're bad. And some are popular simply because they're a blast. Slam Dunk is one of the latter. Subtlety, intelligence and insight are not its forte—though when necessary it can display (low) degrees of all three—and profundity is the farthest thing from its mind. Slam Dunk just wants to have fun. And it does—in spades.
The fun begins and ends with Hanamichi. An inspired choice for lead character, he's no ambitious hothead or modest but superbly skilled athlete. He's a lunkheaded thug with a hair-trigger temper, all the wrong motivations, and an extraordinary wealth of misguided confidence. In short, he's a fount of situational comedy whose natural genius for athletics allows him to occasionally be really cool. As a character he manages the seemingly impossible task of balancing likeability and extreme hubris, thanks largely to his habit of leaving himself open to extreme comeuppance. A fact which allows Takehiko Inoue to set up some very funny sequences involving Hanamichi's rotten luck in love.
As the abundance of humor and romantic disaster suggests, Slam Dunk is more romantic comedy than sports manga as of yet, though more than once Inoue does succeed in seamlessly combining the two. Hanamichi's first slam dunk is suitably impressive and ends with a pratfall worthy of the Loony Tunes, while his first game—a one-on one with the captain of the basketball team—begins with a series of pratfalls and ends with a moment of pure slam-dunkin' cool. Nevertheless, Inoue is more concerned here with establishing his cast, allowing Hanamichi to swing from lovelorn apathy to sudden violence and from cheerful idiocy to animal cunning, and detailing Haruko's one-sided crush on star rookie Kaede Rukawa.
Inoue's art hasn't reached the heights here that he would later achieve in Vagabond, but it's far from bad. He has an eye for sight gags—the finest probably being Hanamichi's hilarious guarding technique—and constructs fine punk fights. He hasn't ironed out all the kinks in his basketball action, as physically impossible feats abound, but they're nonetheless dynamic and exciting. He has a fondness for heavy shounen-style hatching and a real way with anger, which elevates action scenes an artistic level or two above the lighter sequences, many of which also depend on crowded little square panels. His guys all look about forty years old, but Inoue draws cute girls and fabulously 'tude-heavy punks (oh, the pompadours). He knows exactly when to insert full-page impact shots, but doesn't truck much with backgrounds or atmospherics.
Viz gives the title the all-star treatment, reprinting the entire first chapter in color and tacking a glossy color extra (about NBA star LeBron James) and a big sticker of Hanamichi onto the end. Their “read this way” arrows have become a Shonen Jump staple, and anyone expecting anything other than complete English replacements for all sound effects will be sorely disappointed. The art is clean and consistent throughout, and the translation wisely resists the temptation to fill the punks' mouths with slang.
Overwhelming fun aside, Slam Dunk isn't without hints of better and more complex things to come. A short jolt of heartbreak for Haruko suggests a hidden potential for real romantic complications, and the basketball that squeezes itself in between the goofing off has in it the promise of real sports excitement if allowed free reign. And with thirty volumes to come, you can be damned sure that Inoue will have plenty of space to do just that.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ Great lead character, great humor, the seeds of some great basketball action.
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