How good is this series? So good that when it devotes the majority of a volume to its least interesting protagonist and storyline, the series still manages to be pretty compelling.
I refer to aspiring wheelchair basketball ace Kiyoharu Togawa, who takes the spotlight again after several volumes in the background. Though he clearly has skill and speed, the young man still has significant gaps in the knowledge and theory of the sport. It’s why his team’s coach registers him for A-Camp, a three-day training session led by the American coach who took his team to victory in the paralympics. Here, Togawa hopes to find what he needs to get past the latest wall that he has hit in his training.
The main reason I’ve always been a bit lukewarm towards this character’s struggles is because his arc has felt like a distaff version of mangaka Takehiko Inoue’s most famous series, “Slam Dunk.” Fellow protagonists Takahashi and Nomiya’s stories have them dealing with getting out from behind the eight-ball that life has put in front of them, and their struggles to get their lives back on track have been equal parts painful, challenging and uplifting to witness. Togawa, on the other hand, has his life pretty much in order and his goal now echoes the familiar Shonen Jump formula at “being the best at a given thing.”
However, it’s through Togawa that we really get to see what the actual sport of wheelchair basketball is like. I know I just made the comparison to “Slam Dunk,” but the comparisons end here. Not only does the character’s evolution as a player provide a window and insight into a sport that isn’t mainstream at all, but this volume also throws some challenges his way as well. Though he makes quite the initial impression with his speed and skill, Togawa soon becomes frustrated with the team he has found himself a part of. He believes that they’re holding him back and the time that he spends here will be in vain.
If you’re guessing that this will turn into one of the more “uplifting” parts of “Real” then you’d be correct. Togawa’s teammates vent their frustrations back at him, he gets some questioning from the American coach, and meets the brother of a friend who inspired him when he was starting out in the sport. This is something that could’ve easily descended into mawkish sentimentality were it not for Inoue’s skill. He captures the grit, frustration and eventual joy of all the players in the camp and makes sure that Togawa’s newfound understanding of the game feels earned and not something dictated by the plot.
So, it’s pretty entertaining to read. It’s also overshadowed by the scenes with Takahashi, his family, and “Scorpion” Shiratori in particular. Seeing Takahashi’s family try to come back from his tragedy is heartening enough. His dad is getting back into shape with the hopes of going one-on-one with his son in some form again, while his mom has decided that a change in appearance will do her good. As for Takahashi himself, we see his newfound drive towards rehabilitation on the page and its downright inspiring. It also helps that he has a goal to shoot towards: playing wheelchair basketball. Not only am I rooting for him to achieve this because of what it means to him as a person, but it’ll hopefully mean that his story with entwine with Togawa’s and allow the book to tell their stories more evenly without having to put one on the back burner every few chapters.
Nomiya, regrettably, gets the short end of the stick here as he only shows up in one scene. It’s a fairly depressing one too. Fortunately, based on what we’ve seen of him so far, he’s certain to get back on his feet and start working towards his goal of playing pro basketball in the next volume.
Not immediately, though. Vol. 12 doesn’t quite end on a cliffhanger, more like a note of very high anticipation. I mentioned “Scorpion” Shiratori earlier? Ever since he arrived in the same hospital as Takahashi, the pro wrestler has been obsessed with getting back on his feet and into the ring. I’ve thought that the drama would always come with how his expectations clashed against the reality of his situation… until now. Utterly determined in his goal, it looks like he’s going to get his chance. The man may seem foolhardy or even delusional, but Inoue finds a way to make him more sympathetic than anything else. Shiratori’s speech about how once a label is attached to a person, it not only comes to define them but fester in a person’s psyche is powerful stuff. It shows that he really does understand his situation and is going to play the hand that is dealt to him no matter what it has in store for him. Tragedy? Or one last moment of triumph? We’ll find out in a year.
Its focus on people struggling with physical and psychological limitations may make it seem like a depressing read. This volume of “Real” really drives home the fact that moments of real uplift can only come through hard struggle. We’ve seen plenty of that in prior volumes and things start to pay off a little here. There’s still going to be plenty of drama in the title’s future, Shiratori’s storyline virtually assures that in the next volume, so I have no doubt that this title will continue to remain Inoue’s best.