Reviewby Carlo Santos,
A vicious schoolyard brawl has left the boys of the Shohoku High basketball team with plenty of bruises—mostly to their egos. One good thing has come out of the fight, though: delinquent student Mitsui has chosen to straighten himself out and rejoin the team, reviving a once-promising hoops career. Coach Anzai, however, isn't about to let the team's misconduct go unpunished, and as Shohoku begins its run through the prefectural tournament, Anzai benches the star players who were involved in the fight. Everyone will have to prove their teamwork and self-discipline if they hope to get back in the game and win. Unfortunately, self-discipline is probably the hardest thing in basketball for a brash, unpolished, self-proclaimed genius named Hanamichi Sakuragi...
The trouble with Takehiko Inoue being so good at what he does is that, well, one eventually gets used to seeing him do it. In other words, Slam Dunk's ninth volume offers another exciting round of Japanese high school basketball, but shows little sign of Inoue elevating his game as a manga-ka. We already know he can draw terrific sports action scenes—which he does in this volume. We know that he can fill his stories with charismatic and memorable characters—which he also does in this volume. But where is the heart-wrenching drama of Mitsui's flashback in the previous installment, or even the life-or-death adrenaline of the brawl in the gym? The latest action in Slam Dunk is pleasing, to be sure—but it doesn't quite hit the next level.
Part of the problem lies in the storyline's current situation: in order to ascend to the heights of basketball glory, Shohoku must necessarily start at the bottom, which in this case means plowing through a bunch of no-name schools in a regional tournament. All of the team's stars have been assembled together at last, so they end up overpowering their opponents by margins of 20, 30, even 50 points or more—hardly the stuff of electrifying sports action. One of the later chapters tries to condense the story with a montage displaying the tournament's progress, but it still feels like drudgery. The only thing helping to maintain interest in the tournament is a couple of students from a much stronger rival school stopping by Shohoku's games to comment on the team (a typical sports-manga gimmick) and see what the deal is with these characters.
Indeed, the characters are what carry the story right now—regional early-round games may be a chore, but Shohoku's variety of ways to beat the other guy adds excitement to the proceedings. In one chapter it might be Akagi's brute-force dunks that lead to dominance, in another it might be Mitsui's pinpoint shooting, or Miyagi's lightning passes. More than just a highlight reel of basketball moves, it's clearly the work of an artist who knows how the game is played. The series also works in a few comedy moments, courtesy of self-proclaimed hero Sakuragi: the chapter where he has to take two free throws is practically an exercise in slapstick humor, and his sheer unpredictability on the court—bumbling, fouling, calling for the ball when he doesn't need it—keeps everyone on their toes. However, we've already seen Sakuragi's incompetence in action before, and it wouldn't hurt he if actually accomplished something for once. It's already Volume 9; when is the main character going to get some development?
Visual presentation is the other area where Slam Dunk continues to shine, even if the story doesn't—a dull, low-stakes game (like, say, the Lakers vs. the Raptors in mid-winter) can still be high entertainment if it turns out to be a showcase of highlights (like, say, Kobe Bryant scoring 81 points). Of course, this being a fictional account, the artist is free to choose nothing but highlights. The middle chapters are a veritable smorgasbord of eye candy with dunks, layups, steals, fast breaks and blocks—and that's just one game. Even though Inoue is clearly photoreferencing for the trickier action shots, he still applies his own personal style throughout, with surehanded linework and a strong sense of motion. The characters' facial expressions also add to the in-game excitement, from the aggression of a finishing move, to the sneers of rivalry, to Hanamichi's own wide-eyed bewilderment at just about everything. One can even forgive the ultra-90's hip-hop hairdos on these characters, since they make the game itself look intensely fun.
Much of that intensity also radiates from the dialogue, which strives for a careful balance between streetball slang and proper, normal speech. Occasionally the translation teeters too much in one direction ("Mad hops!!"), but the spirit of the game is captured nicely in the way the players taunt and encourage each other. Even Hanamichi's constant screams for attention—annoying as they may be—have become endearing over time. Meanwhile, the bonus basketball tips in the back and player profile (this time featuring Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett) have toned down the forced puns and slang, resulting in a much more enjoyable segment—although the tips on playing good defense are just typical fundamentals that one could learn from a youth hoops camp.
Then again, learning good fundamentals is essential if one ever hopes to progress to higher skill levels—which applies to the arts as much as it does to sports. And here we see Takehiko Inoue calmly demonstrating the fundamentals of good comics, even if the storyline is churning through a dull spot right now and the whole point of the volume is to showcase a fully loaded Shohoku team demolishing some local cannon fodder. Oh, and there's also the matter of Hanamichi still being utterly incompetent on a basketball court—screwing up free throws, fouling out, throwing fits of rage at just about everyone. It's mildly amusing, but like everything else in this volume of Slam Dunk, it's not exactly heart-stopping action or character-driven drama like some of the earlier, more compelling chapters. The tournament has just begun, the team continues to progress, and things may look a little ordinary right now ... but surely there are better things to come.
Overall : B-
Story : C
Art : B+
+ Great action sequences show the artwork in top form, while the varied characters continue to amuse and thrill.
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