Let’s turn back the clock to July 2008, when I first came across this series. At that point, I was reading both Monster and The Drifting Classroom, both a part of the still newish imprint of Viz Signature. There weren’t many books under the imprint at that time (basically those two, Golgo 13, and a few past titles that were rebranded for Signature like Uzumaki and Phoenix), but I was still big into reading a lot of manga during that time regardless. As such, I ended up checking out this book and was very interested in seeing what it had in store for me.
And at the time, Real was good. Damn good—to the point where I ended up checking out another book from the writer, Takehiko Inoue, called Vagabond. Between these two titles, Monster, and The Drifting Classroom, I was lead to really almost every book that Viz Signature had to offer. However, I would say it’s been a good four or five years since I actually bought or even picked up a copy of Real to read. Between now and then, has the book aged well and is it still as great (or possibly even better) than when I first read it or has the quality faded in hindsight? Let’s find out together. Is it good?
Real Vol. 1 (Viz Media)
Written & drawn by: Takehiko Inoue
Translated by: Not listed (Though considering John Werry translates the next few volumes, it’s a safe bet he did the translation for the first volume as well)
Our manga focuses on three young men, roughly around the same age. There is Tomomi Nomiya, a recent high school dropout, who is trying to make amends for actions that led to a young woman becoming disabled in a motorcycle accident that he caused. There is Kiyoharu Togawa, a wheelchair-bound individual who wound up that way due to bone cancer. Then finally there is Hisanobu Takahashi, a high school student who is a huge bully and complete jerk to most of those around him. All of them are very different, but share two common traits: They are all individuals who were or will be shaped by recent or past tragedies and they all have a love for basketball.
This a sports/drama manga, but also a bit of a character (or characters, if you will) piece, focusing solely on these three individuals and watching them evolve as time goes on. As such, this manga really isn’t story-driven all that much outside of this first volume, since it’s all about setup and establishing the characters. That said, this is a great start to the series and it should easily reel you in with its impressive writings, characters, and artwork.
Starting from the top, the setup for the first volume is great here. It does a fantastic job establishing the main characters and their situations, giving each character plenty of time to make an impression and gain an understanding of who they are. It helps draw the audience in and makes them start caring about the characters (well, except for one of them at first, but Inoue flips the table on that). The manga also helps establish how basketball connects all of the characters and shows a bit of wheelchair basketball to allow the audience to see how a person would play it. However, it doesn’t really scratch the surface of the sport yet or even go into a lot of depth about how much the game truly means to some of the characters (except for Nomiya). Either way, the book does a solid job of laying out the ground work here for the story to build off of.
Since this primarily a character-focused story, let’s discuss the three main characters. The first one is Tomomi Nomiya, who has the most focus in this first volume. He’s very much a bullheaded individual at points and often gets into conflicts with others, which can result in him getting knocked down a peg at times. However, he’s a very much likeable and sympathetic individual, having gone through a lot of character development right before the story started. After the incident on his motorcycle that caused a young girl to become handicapped, he is determined to make up for his mistake and constantly visits her, trying to cheer her up or apologize for everything. It may not work and it’s most likely she doesn’t like him being near her at all, but he keeps on doing it (sort of punishing himself for only getting a slap on the wrist with the accident and wanting desperately to make things right in any way he can). Plus, he’s also willing to stand up for his friends when he sees them being mistreated. He has a very strong passion for basketball and is also still dealing with some other inner fears, like being able to drive again. Sure, he’s a complete moron and rather jerkish in areas, but he brings a lot of heart, humor, and levity during the heavier scenes in the book.
Then comes Kiyoharu Togawa and he’s probably the most interesting of the cast. He’s a rather stubborn character, who some time in the past left his basketball team after it became clear to him that they didn’t have the drive to win their games (most are just being happy to play the game). He also gives off the impression that he is a bit full of himself, seeing how he is a bit better at the game than most. However, like Nomiya, his more positive qualities do shine through under his toughguy act. The way he cares for a former friend from the basketball team who is slowly becoming unable to move his body is touching, as are his interactions and wanting to help his childhood friend, Asaka Azumi, and his enjoyment from playing wheelchair basketball. Plus, the first volume ends with him wanting to return to his old team, so there seems to be more potential with him to grow and develop as time goes on.
Finally there is Hisanobu Takahashi and frankly, he is a world class jackass. He’s the captain of high school’s basketball team who treats a lot of characters like crap because he feels superior or better than them. On top of that he bullies and mocks others, he seems like a womanizer, and as the captain of his team, he pretty much uses his influence to exclude other members of the team he doesn’t like from playing or even getting passed to. You will definitely dislike this character and for good reason… then the writer pulls the rug out from under us. About a little over half way through the first volume, Takahashi is struck by a truck and the results of that are disastrous. According to his doctor, he becomes paralyzed from the waist down and is unable to feel anything, not even when he craps himself as he discovers. The way the art and writing brings this all to life is rather shocking and somehow makes you feel bad for the guy, even after everything he did. The volume ends just a bit after his realization, so we don’t see how he progresses after that, but either way, it certainly makes you interested in where his story will be going now.
Besides the sports aspect of the story, there’s also the drama and there’s quite a bit of it. Given the situations the characters have experienced before or during the story, that’s to be expected. However, the drama is handled extremely well. It never feels overly dramatic or dives into any over-the-top melodrama. Every scene feels incredibly genuine with how the book is able to balance the right amount of emotion for the scene to let the audience feel the tragedy, or sadness of the situation. For instance, the scene with Togawa talking to his former teammate at his home is touching, but never feels too strong nor too heavy. It’s just two guys talking about their lives then and now and that’s it. Then there is the aforementioned scene where Takahashi is in the hospital and the nurse has to change his diaper. It’s a very heavy scene, really letting the audience see and feel how embarrassed and horrified he is (especially since he can’t fully comprehend situation he is in yet). It’s definitely strong in the drama and emotion, but it feels incredibly fitting and appropriate for the situation. All of the drama just feels, well, real, and that is what makes the book even better.
The writing in general is great as well. Besides the three main characters, the rest of the characterization for the cast is good. I mean, we don’t get to learn too much about them, but we do get enough to gain an understanding of them and hopefully we’ll see more of them soon. The pacing is a bit slow, but it builds everything up so well that it really isn’t that much a problem early on. The story structure and layout are fine, making for an easy to read experience. There is one scene that ends on a rather shocking double page spread before it quickly jumps to another scene, but it feels fine honestly and the cut isn’t really all that jarring. The dialogue and inner narration going on is pretty good as well, feeling rather natural and realistic in areas, helping make the characters and drama feel more real. Probably the best aspect for the writing is the tone, since the book does a great job at balancing the mood of the book. Even if every scene feels like it has the right amount of emotion or drama, it might be a bit overwhelming at points if every scene is like that, so the writer does a great job with adding moments of humor and happiness here and there. Everything here adds up to a fantastic read.
Looking at the artwork, writer & artist Takehiko Inoue does a great job at drawing characters, with everyone looking so unique and different from one another while also looking Japanese. I do mean everything, from the body types to even the eyes on people’s faces. The only one who looks off is Takahashi’s sort of self-proclaimed girlfriend, who looks much older than she is, but that’s it. The facial expressions are pretty good and able to convey the right emotion, even when it dives into some more cartoonish style to bring out of some of the silliness in the humor. The depiction of the games are incredible to look at and really give a sense of motion and movement, especially when Togawa is in his wheelchair. There are few pages of color in the book and they look quite lovely as well. Probably the biggest highlight of the artwork is the amount of detail put into it. The characters, the action, and even the scenery at points (though there are quite a few blank panels) are amazing in the level of detail they feature. It really makes a lot of the scenes quite stunning and memorable in the right ways, like the final full page shot of Takahashi on the ground after being hit.
Real Vol. 1 is an absolutely great start to this series, setting up a strong cast of lead characters, some great writing and artwork, and truly wonderfully handled drama. It’s the kind of series that if you want to get an older teen or adult into manga, this book would be absolutely perfect to do so. It wouldn’t even matter if they were fans of basketball or not, it would still be a great starting place. As for me, this series is even better then when I first it all these years ago. I look forward to getting back to the manga and seeing the rest of the series.
Real is available from Viz Media. There are 13 volumes of the series currently out right now (14 in Japan), with the latest having come out back in November. Like stated before, it’s a very slow series, having been around since 1999 in Japan, so only one volume comes out per year. If you like this series, be sure to check out Slam Dunk as well, another basketball manga by the same writer.