Real, Volume 5

Real, Volume 5Creator: Takehiko Inoue
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421519937
Released: July 2009
Original release: 2005
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award

When I first started reading Takehiko Inoue’s prize-winning manga series Real, I didn’t expect to appreciate it as much as I do. Real has actually become one of my favorite series. I wasn’t particularly interested in wheelchair basketball, one of the main subjects of Real, although that has since changed. Instead, I was initially drawn to the manga because it was created by Inoue, whose artwork I greatly admire. I also am very impressed by his storytelling skills, especially in Real, but also in his other manga available in English, Slam Dunk and Vagabond. As much as I enjoy those two series, in the end it’s Real that I find to be the most compelling. It is a very powerful work. I’ve said it many times before, but it is still true—I honestly believe Real to be one of the best comics that is currently being released in English. The fifth volume of Real was originally collected in Japan in 2005 while the English-language edition, released under Viz Media’s Signature imprint, was published in 2009.

Ever since his motorcycle accident, Nomiya’s life has been falling apart. Although he has tried to earn his drivers’ license, it has taken him quite some time since he is terrified to be on the road. Nomiya is even more terrified of facing Natsumi, the young woman who was in the accident with him. While Nomiya was barely injured, Natsumi has lost the ability to walk and must now use a wheelchair. Nomiya blames himself for the accident and Natsumi’s current condition. The guilt has nearly brought his life to a standstill. He wants to do all that he can to move forward, but this means confronting his fears and confronting Natsumi. Unsurprisingly, she’s not particularly interested in seeing Nomiya, either—she blames him for the accident, too. Her rehabilitation is going well, but Natsumi’s life has been changed forever. Takahashi’s rehabilitation has actually taken a turn for the better, too, after a visit from Nomiya that ends rather badly. It’s been about six months since Takahashi’s own accident which cost him the use of his legs, but he has recently shown enough improvement that he will soon be able to leave the hospital.

Whereas the previous volumes of Real thoroughly introduced the lead characters—Nomiya, Togawa, and Takahashi— and explored their personal, internal struggles, the fifth volume addresses some of the more practical problems and challenges experienced by those who are disabled in an world and environment designed for the able-bodied. This can particularly be seen when Takahashi is considering returning to Nishi High to finish school. Not only is he not yet in a position where he can take of himself, the school itself isn’t at all accessible to someone in a wheelchair and the needed accommodations are prohibitively expensive. These external issues and concerns are inexorably tied to how Takahashi and the others view themselves and and see themselves as people of worth. Takahashi in particular is obsessed with ranking people and assigning them value. He used to consider himself one of the elite, but now his self-worth has been severely compromised. It’s understandable that this is something that he continues to struggle with, especially as he no longer feels that there is a place for him.

Takahashi isn’t the only one suffering from a crisis of self-worth in the series. A major theme in Real deals with what it means to be a good person and a decent human being. Takahashi’s attitude and efforts to be the best in whatever he does comes across as extremely arrogant, but people are beginning to see through his facade of perfection. Nomiya has made, and continues to make, plenty of mistakes in his life, but his honest desire to improve himself and the care and acceptance that he offers others show that he is a much better person than he recognizes. This search for self-worth isn’t limited only to the series’ leads, either. All of their friends and family members are struggling with it as well. In a particularly heart-wrenching development, Togawa’s close friend Yama, who has always been vibrant and maintained an admirably positive outlook, is frightened of who is becoming now that his disease is overtaking his body and mind. Inoue’s characterizations in Real are fantastic. The series is compelling because it is so easy for anyone to identify with the personal struggles being portrayed in the manga even if the characters’ particular situations are unique.

Real, Volume 4

Real, Volume 4Creator: Takehiko Inoue
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421519920
Released: April 2009
Original release: 2004
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award

I am a huge fan of Takehiko Inoue’s illustrations and manga. Everything that I have read by him has impressed me; his artistic skills and storytelling, as well as his complex characterizations, are fantastic. When I first began reading Inoue’s manga I fully expected to enjoy his series Vagabond the most. Vagabond is marvelous and I love it, but it was Inoue’s wheelchair basketball series Real that became my favorite. Real also happens to be the first manga by Inoue that I read. Since I don’t follow sports of any sort very closely, I was somewhat taken by surprise by how much I enjoyed Real. But the series is about so much more than basketball. Inoue adeptly portrays hard-hitting challenges and life-changing events in Real; basketball is just one part of the whole. The fourth volume of Real was published in Japan in 2004 while the English-language edition was released under Viz Media’s Signature imprint in 2009. Inoue received a Japan Media Arts Award Excellence Prize for Real in 2001, the same year the manga began serialisation.

After a violent falling-out with the captain of his wheelchair basketball team, Togawa has only recently returned to the game. There is still a fair amount of tension between the members of the Tigers, but with the Sunflower tournament coming up the team has started to pull together in a way that it hasn’t been able to in a long time. Togawa’s hard work and enthusiasm for basketball have served as an inspiration for some of his teammates. Unfortunately, some of the other players aren’t as appreciative of his attitude and the grueling practices that he leads. It is very likely that the Tigers forward momentum is only temporary and that the team will soon fall apart again. For Togawa, playing basketball and playing for the Tigers means everything to him. Having his right leg amputated as a middle school student because of bone cancer brought his dream of becoming a sprinter to an abrupt end. Togawa struggled immensely with this loss and it wasn’t until he discovered wheelchair basketball that he was able to find himself and his passion as an athlete again.

Just as the third volume of Real largely focused on the beginning of Takahashi’s rehabilitation, the fourth volume in the series delves more deeply into Togawa’s past, looking closely at the state of his life immediately following the amputation of his leg. It shows how the young track star, after having his ambitions crushed, came to play wheelchair basketball. The loss of his leg was devastating for Togawa. He became withdrawn, cutting himself off from his classmates and his friends, and his father unintentionally reinforced this isolation. Along with his leg, Togawa lost his sense of purpose, drive, and direction in his life. Even greater is the tremendous loneliness that he experiences. Togawa doesn’t want pity from others, he wants understanding. At the same time he is shunning contact and pushing people away, he is desperate to ease the loneliness that he feels. Togawa is extremely fortunate to meet a man by the name of Tora who helps drag Togawa back out of the shell he created for himself, serving as a much-needed role model—something that Takahashi has yet to find.

Despite all of the sweat and tears in Real, Volume 4, it tends to be slightly more ruminative and quiet than the volumes that precede it. One of the major themes that Inoue explores in the series—the meaning and purpose of a person’s life—becomes particularly prominent in the fourth volume. Both Togawa and Takahashi are faced with enormous challenges and changes in their lives which require them to completely reevaluate who they are as people. They are both struggling to rediscover and redefine their identities. Having lost something incredibly important to them, they anguish over the reasons why and what could have been done to prevent it. Ultimately, these are questions that don’t have an easy answer or solution. Over the course of the series, Takahashi frequently lashes out at those around him. In contrast, as seen in Real, Volume 4, Togawa tends to internalize his anger and despair. The similarities and differences in their situations and personalities are striking and an extraordinary effective part of the series. Real is a powerful and emotionally engaging work.

Real, Volume 3

Real, Volume 3Creator: Takehiko Inoue
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421519913
Released: January 2009
Original release: 2003
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award

Takehiko Inoue is probably best known for his basketball manga series Slam Dunk. Now, I enjoy Slam Dunk quite a bit. However, it’s another basketball manga by Inoue that is my personal favorite—Real, which specifically features wheelchair basketball. Although Real and Slam Dunk both share some similar themes, Inoue’s approach in Real tends to be much more serious and realistic, which make sense as the series is intended for a more mature audience. Real began serialization in the manga magazine Weekly Young Jump in 2001. Later that year, Inoue would win a Japan Media Arts Award Excellence Prize for the manga. The third volume of Real was released in Japan in 2003. Viz Media published Real under its Signature imprint, releasing the English-language edition of Real, Volume 3 in 2009. Real is a fantastic series that starts strongly and only continues to get stronger with each volume.

Things always came easily for Takahashi and he naturally excelled at both school and sports. But now he is faced with one of the most daunting challenges of his life. The question is whether or not he will be able to meet that challenge. After being hit by a truck, Takahashi has lost all feeling in his legs along with his ability to walk. He is in complete denial about his condition and is convinced that with only a little effort he’ll be back to playing basketball in no time. Takahashi is in for quite a shock when he begins his physical rehabilitation and he doesnt’ take it well. Recovery, both mental and physical, will be a long and excruciating process and in the end Takahashi will never have the mobility he once enjoyed. Coming to terms with that fact and facing reality are the first steps that Takahashi needs to take in order to move on with his life, but they may be some of the most difficult ones to accomplish.

Although Takahashi is largely the focus of the third volume of Real, he is not the only one who is facing a significant crossroads in his life. Moving forward after a traumatic experience is one of the themes addressed in Real, Volume 3. Nomiya still feels incredibly guilty over the accident that he was in which caused Natsumi to lose the use of her legs. She, like Takahashi, has begun her rehabilitation. It’s a painful and exhausting process for the body, the mind, and the spirit. Seeing this, Nomiya desperately wants to change the direction his life is heading and to become a better person. This, too, is not an easy process. At this point in the series, Togawa serves as proof that these sorts of challenges can be overcome. Things certainly aren’t perfect for him and he still harbors intense anger and frustration, but even with a missing leg he leads a full life. However, it took hard work and effort to get to where he is now. Whether or not Takahashi will be able to do the same remains to be seen.

One of the things that impresses me about Real and Inoue’s work in general is his ability to create incredibly flawed characters who are still sympathetic. Takahashi in particular can be extremely harsh and unlikeable, but I still care about him and his situation. His tormented feelings over no longer being able to walk and how he believes that makes him a lesser person are counterproductive. But he is not the only person who shares them; others struggle with those types of feelings as well. Tamura, the captain of Togawa’s basketball team, has repeatedly expressed similar sentiments which either deflates the other players or pisses them off. (Togawa is particularly sensitive to this issue and has hauled off and punched Tamura at least once because of it.) Inoue’s adept handling of these concerns, while specific to the context of Real and its characters, is also more universally applicable. Almost everyone, no matter who they are, has experienced feelings of inadequacy and disappointment at some point in their lives. Real simply shows what can happen when that reality is faced head on.

Real, Volume 2

Real, Volume 2Creator: Takehiko Inoue
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421519906
Released: October 2008
Original release: 2002
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award

Although I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself to be a sports fan, I have come to the realization that I really enjoy sports manga. Out of all of the sports manga that I’ve so far read, Takehiko Inoue’s wheelchair basketball series Real is the one that stands out for me the most. (Actually, Real happens to be one of my favorite manga series in general.) But it’s really more than just a sports manga. Yes, basketball is an important part of the series, but to an even greater extent Real is about challenges faced in life and how people deal with them. It’s a mix of human drama, tragedy, and hope that earned Inoue a Japan Media Arts Award Excellence Prize in 2001. The second volume of Real was first published in Japan in 2002 while the English edition was released in 2008 by Viz Media under its Signature imprint. Real, Volume 1 did a fantastic job of introducing the series’ main characters and establishing some of the themes that the manga begins to explore more deeply in the second volume and those that follow.

After his accident, Takahashi no longer has the use of his legs. Confined to a hospital bed and with very few visitors he has had to come to terms with his condition largely on his own. He had good grades and excelled at whatever he applied himself to, becoming the captain of his high school’s basketball team with ease. No longer having the ability to walk is a devastating blow to Takahashi and how he is viewed by others and by himself. It won’t be an easy process to compensate for what he has lost. It’s been five years since Togawa lost one of his legs to bone cancer and that’s something he continues to struggle with. He still has most of his mobility, but having a leg amputated brought his dream of becoming the fastest sprinter in Japan, if not the world, to an abrupt end. An extremely competitive athlete he has redirected his ambitions towards wheelchair basketball, now one of the few things in his life for which he has any enthusiasm. Nomiya has a strong love for basketball as well, but as a high school dropout he currently has no outlet for that passion.

A large portion of Real, Volume 2 is devoted to Togawa and part of his backstory. The series turns to his middle school days as he is discovering his love of running, struggling with his relationship with his father, and developing strong, lasting friendships. Immensely talented, it is crushing to know that Togawa will never achieve his dream even as everything seems to be going his way. Just as Takahashi is now being forced to admit his limitations, Togawa also had to deal with events in his life that were beyond his control. The interplay between their two stories in Real is handled extraordinarily well. The two young men have never met, their only direct connection at this point is that they both know Nomiya, but Inoue draws on the parallels between their experiences to great effect. Takahashi is at the beginning of his recovery while Togawa has made years of progress, but the challenges that they face are very similar. Their personalities and how they handle things are very different, though.

Parallels also exist between Togawa and Nomiya. They are both very focused and intense, taking any and all opportunities that they can to practice and improve their game. Even when Togawa, Nomiya, and Takahashi’s stories don’t directly intersect, they are all still very closely tied together. The second volume of Real is very much about beginnings and endings. After originally leaving his basketball team, Togawa has found new drive and inspiration that brings him back. Nomiya doesn’t have the option of returning to his old team and can only watch from the sidelines as his former teammates play their last game. As for Takahashi, he can’t even do that. His denial is slowly turning into agonizing despair as he comes closer to admitting to himself that his life will never be the same. Inoue captures all three of their struggles in a very realistic way. The story is emotionally intense without being melodramatic and the artwork is fantastic, making Real and incredibly effective series.

Real, Volume 1

Real, Volume 1Creator: Takehiko Inoue
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421519890
Released: July 2008
Original release: 2001
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award

When I first began reading Takehiko Inoue’s manga series Real it was simply because it was the only work of his that my local library had at the time. I was already familiar with and loved Inoue’s fantastic artwork but I hadn’t actually yet read any of his manga. The series that I really wanted to read was Vagabond, but it happened to be Real that was more readily available. Little did I know that Real would not only end up being my favorite series by Inoue, it would become one of my favorite manga period. I honestly believe that Real is one of the best comics currently being released in English. The first volume of Real was published in Japan in 2001, the same year that Inoue won a Japan Media Arts Award for the series. Viz Media released the English-language edition of Real, Volume 1 in 2008 under its Signature imprint.

Ever since he quit the Nishi High School basketball team, nothing seems to be going right for Tomomi Nomiya. His life is changed forever when he is involved in a motorcycle accident. Nomiya comes through it relatively unharmed, at least physically, but Natsumi Yamashita, the young woman who was riding with him, is no longer able to walk. While visiting her at the hospital Nomiya meets Kiyoharu Togawa, another young man who, like him, has a passion for basketball. He’s incredibly talented, but with only one leg it’s wheelchair basketball that has become his outlet. Thus begins a somewhat antagonistic friendship between Togawa and Nomiya. And then there is Hisanobu Takahashi, one of Nomiya’s former classmates and the current captain of Nishi High’s basketball team. He may have the skills on the court, but he has an extremely arrogant attitude and delights in making Nomiya and his friends miserable. But soon he’ll have some serious challenges to face in his own life as well.

In general, Inoue’s artwork in tends to be very realistic, with a particular focus on characters and their designs. This is certainly true for Real, and his style suits a story that emphasizes real-life issues as the source of its drama incredibly well. The characters’ personalities and attitudes can easily be determined by their actions and how they are drawn. When Nomiya is first introduced, he seems to be nothing more than a delinquent. And to some extent he is a delinquent, frequently getting into fights and finding ways to scam rich kids out of their money. But he is also exceptionally kindhearted and accepting of others. Nomiya’s facial expressions and body language range from pure anger to utter delight. Togawa, on the other hand, more often than not has a smirk or sneer on his face and barely manages to suppress his extreme irritation. He has absolutely no patience for people who can’t take themselves or what they are doing seriously and it shows. At times Nomiya and Togawa’s respective intensity can be both frightening and exhilarating.

At its heart Real is very much a manga about its characters and how they deal with the challenges and setbacks in their lives. Basketball is simply a part of that because the game is important to the characters as individuals. The first volume of Real does an excellent job of introducing the main players of the series—Nomiya, Togawa, and Takahashi. In one way or another, each one of them is searching for some direction in their lives. It is their passion for basketball that provides some of that needed purpose. Nomiya struggles a great deal with the guilt he feels over the incident that cost Natsumi the use of her legs; his love of basketball is the only thing that really remains from before the accident. Togawa holds onto a tremendous amount of anger that playing basketball helps to keep under control. As for Takahashi, his talent for basketball was one of the few things that secured his popularity. But even considering the important role that basketball plays in Real, it is not at all necessary to be a fan of the game to be able to appreciate the manga.