Reviewby Carlo Santos,
The Shohoku High boys' basketball team are facing their greatest challenge yet: Sannoh High, three-time national champions and arguably the best team in the country. Thankfully, a "surprise attack" from unpredictable power forward Hanamichi Sakuragi—plus a flurry of baskets from the rest of the squad—has given Shohoku an unexpected lead. But Sannoh is quick to switch strategies, and sitting on their bench is Mikio Kawata, a freak of nature whose sheer size disrupts Shohoku's game plan. Once he gets close enough to the basket, Mikio can shove his way through and score at will! Is there any way around his immense height and width? Even if Sakuragi can outplay Kawata, Shohoku must still find other ways to keep up with a team that has a top-caliber player at every position ...
Volume 26 of Slam Dunk is as pure as it gets: 180 pages of basketball, cover to cover. No flashbacks (aside from very brief ones), no tangents, no goofball moments where the characters try to get funny (although Sakuragi certainly tries). This is the sport at its most beautiful, flowing from one side of the court to the other, both teams making adjustments and getting every player involved. For each strategic move, there's a counter-move, and another, and then another—and so it goes for the entire first half of the Shohoku-Sannoh game. Joke if you must about how shonen manga will stretch anything into super-slow-motion, but when it comes out this good, it's hard to complain.
Because this volume is completely focused on basketball, it accomplishes a rare feat: every major player from Shohoku gets to make a highlight play. Usually it's only one guy who gets the special treatment, appearing in a back-story segment and then emerging as the star of the game—but this time, all the Shohoku starters get a shining moment, whether it's Mitsui draining threes, Akagi throwing down a dunk, or a lucky bounce coming out of nowhere. As the book enters the middle and late chapters, though, Sakuragi reminds everyone why he's the main character: his colorful personality, plus the insurmountable task of defending mega-sized Kawata, instantly steal the show. Will he be bowled over by his opponent's size, or will his wild, unpredictable nature become an advantage? Coach Anzai's decision to feed Sakuragi the ball—a daring gamble, considering that he's the team's most unpolished player—adds another spark of excitement, enough to lead this volume all the way to the closing chapters.
However, too much of a good thing can be dangerous, and the repetitive rhythm of basketball might lull some readers into boredom. By now the pattern is familiar: team runs up the floor, they attempt a shot, other team gets the ball, they run up the floor, and repeat the same. Sometimes it takes an entire chapter just to set up a single shot, with each player pausing to consider his tactical options (and possibly his life goals) before anything can happen. In moments like that, well-known jabs like "It takes a whole week to get through 30 seconds" are justified. The storyline also shortchanges the Sannoh squad in trying to spread the action between all the players: Mikio is the only one who gets an in-depth role, while his teammates are essentially treated as "the other guys."
However, even the series' lesser moments are made enjoyable thanks to Takehiko Inoue's skillful art. Whether it's a high-stakes shot that changes the momentum of the game, or a simple, fundamental move that won't end up on anyone's highlight reel, every scene is drawn in precise detail. Convincing poses and sure-handed anatomy add realism to the game: no power-ups or super-moves here, just textbook basketball skills. That adherence to realism makes it all the more impressive when someone accomplishes a physical feat. The action might chaotic at times, but the variety of character designs—big guys, little guys, and one incredibly huge guy—makes it easy to follow. The art also benefits from page layouts where individual moves and players are the focus, rather than trying to show everything at once. Highlight plays also get plenty of room even with the 18-pages-per-chapter limit. In fact, the only time Inoue might be accused of trying to draw too much is with crowd reactions, where even the most irrelevant person on the bench has to show a look of amazement when something important happens.
Because the action does such a good job of speaking for itself, dialogue is often superfluous in this volume—usually it's just players calling for a pass, or Sakuragi jawing at everyone else on the floor. (His trash talk may be entertaining, but it's certainly not essential.) However, the various shifts in strategy do call for some explanation, and it's here that the writing has to strike that balance between going in-depth, but being simple enough for regular folks to understand. These brief explanations are often the best part of the dialogue, helping readers gain a deeper appreciation of the game. The writing translates smoothly enough into English, but the real challenge is in dealing with sound effects. In-game noise is a big part of the action, and when every roar of the crowd is reworked in English letters, some of the edits look pretty conspicuous against Inoue's precise artwork.
Thanks to the talents of its creator, Slam Dunk is one of those series where it can go into pure action for hundreds of pages, but still be satisfying to read. The first half of the Shohoku-Sannoh game is an exciting potpourri of basketball strategy, with different characters and their various playing styles on display. Granted, this volume may not be the best when it comes to storytelling variety—no drama-filled flashbacks or inspirational training sessions—and the decompressed, moment-to-moment pace may be too slow for some. Yet the masterful art still captures the speed and excitement of the game, and the series' most entertaining character shines in the spotlight. Whether one is a fan of real-life basketball or not, it's hard not to be a fan of Slam Dunk.
Overall : B
Story : C+
Art : A-
+ A nonstop flow of action, different styles of play, and standout visuals add up to pure basketball goodness.