Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Will high school troublemaker Hanamichi Sakuragi ever make it as a basketball player? He's got one major reason for joining the team—he wants to impress Haruko, the only girl who's ever been nice to him—but with Haruko's older brother as the team captain, it's going to be an uphill battle. To make matters worse, Haruko's crush Rukawa is the team's rising star! Hanamichi is determined to prove himself in a scrimmage match between the starters and the first-years, but it's doubtful whether he even knows the basic rules of basketball. Meanwhile, the judo club thinks that Hanamichi's raw athletic ability would be better spent throwing guys around on a mat—but can the judo captain win over a self-proclaimed "basketball man" who plays by his own rules?
It's a great time to be a basketball fan: the Lakers-Celtics rivalry is alive once again in the NBA, a new generation of stars is coming into its own, and Slam Dunk is finally being released by a US publisher that's financially solid enough to continue putting out the series. But in the age of Kobe, Lebron, and Boston's three-headed monster, can a relic straight from the Jordan era still succeed? As this volume shows, fascinating characters and high-flying action are timeless qualities (even if the guys do have funny haircuts). Hanamichi may not have the mind-blowing superhuman skills we normally associate with shounen protagonists—what, he doesn't even have spirit powers?!—but watching him grow into a sportsman and decent human being is still just as exciting.
Of course, being a good sportsman means having the mental toughness not to quit—and that's the dilemma still unresolved from the previous volume. Fortunately, it takes just a little bit of provocation to get Hanamichi back on the team (which also proves how much his character runs on instinct), and the next few chapters involve a varsity-vs.-newcomers match that finally brings some actual gameplay to the series. Even through the filter of almost two decades, these scenes are as electric as ever—then again, that's also why we have TV channels like ESPN Classic—and having Hanamichi on the sidelines ranting like a loon adds a touch of humor as well. Naturally, the humor explodes into full-out insanity once he whines his way into the game and starts wreaking havoc; even non-sports fans can appreciate the slapstick quality of a misplayed dunk.
The second half of this volume enters more unconventional territory, focusing mostly on conversation rather than action. Some may find the judo team recruitment storyline a letdown from the thrills of the scrimmage game, but those who are paying close attention to the characters will find plenty to like. Gamesmanship and rivalry abound in the confrontation between judo captain Aota and basketball captain Akagi, but the real highlight is in the showdown between Aota and Hanamichi—a truly nail-biting battle of dimwits, with a couple of judo moves thrown in. Although these man-to-man confrontations these are generally played for humorous effect, they still reveal a lot about the characters—the longstanding animosity between Aota and Akagi, for example, or just how much of a stubborn, rule-flouting goof Hanamichi is. As scenes like these prove, great battles don't have to involve magic swords or ninja powers; sometimes it can just be high school boys being high school boys.
But even at its most high-school-boyish, this series continues to impress with solid artwork that stands the test of time. Sure, there are occasional lapses into gag-strip style, and the school-punk character designs are generally considered comedy material these days (think Cromartie High School), but artistic fundamentals like visual flow and a sense of motion are always present. Nowhere is this more evident than in the basketball game, where the page layouts open up wide for thrilling moments like Akagi's monster dunk or Rukawa's fast-break moves. Even incidental moments of action, like Hanamichi facing off against a bunch of street thugs, are rendered with attention to detail. A careful eye for light and shadow are what make these visuals work—Takehiko Inoue always make sure to let black, white and gray balance out on each page—and the wide variety of facial expressions among the cast bring each scene to life, whether it's an intense game or day-to-day school banter.
In a series like this, it's usually the one's actions that do the talking—but that doesn't stop Hanamichi from opening his mouth to make embarrassing outbursts. Although the dialogue is simple, most of it is fun to read (aside from maybe one wordplay scene that overexerts itself), thanks to the lively characters who express themselves with honest words rather than canned lines. And while basketball scenes are noisy by nature, Inoue resists the temptation to overload the page with sound effects, the result being that even when they're translated and replaced with English sound effects, it really doesn't interfere with the artwork (which naturally stands out much more). This volume even comes with a sprinkling of bonus content, but sadly, the glossy color pages are not devoted to Inoue's artistic technique—instead they feature point guard extraordinaire Steve Nash and the art of shooting a free throw, the usefulness of which may vary depending on the reader.
Although Slam Dunk is marketed as a basketball series, it's the stuff that happens off the court that really make up its heart and soul. Each character has a story to tell and a goal to reach for, and ultimately, the court simply provides a stage for them to act out these universal struggles. Just because Hanamichi Sakuragi's special ability isn't supernatural—and just because his chosen battlefield doesn't involve fighting to the death—doesn't make him any less compelling as a hero. If anything, he'll have to try even harder than the average superpowered martial artist to master a sport that demands just as much finesse as raw strength. And if his attempts to prove himself result in a few goofy comedy moments, all the more fun. With solid characters, eye-popping action, and a classic underdog story, Slam Dunk is what all manga series (and basketball players) should aspire to be: the complete package.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Delivers fantastic action in the series' first actual basketball game, while also developing the characters and the relationships or rivalries between them.