Takehiko Inoue made his name in the 90′s with Slam Dunk, the hugely popular basketball manga. After that he was sponsored by ESPN to do another basketball manga, Buzzer Beater, but that one didn’t go down as well. So the next year he decided to switch genres and starting drawing Vagabond, the samurai epic. But I guess after a few years of him waking up surrounded by pages of samurai doing slam dunks, he realised the basketball was in him and he needed to go back to that genre before he exploded. Sitting in front of his editor and faced with pitching his new sports manga, he desperately needed some new angle.
“It’s about bask..bas…” gaze darts around the office.
“Baske…ba…baaaaa” eyes dart from newbie mangaka sweating profusely to experienced editor in chief picking his nose to the new sub-editor who only has one leg so is in a-
“Wheelchair basketball! My new manga is about wheelchair basketball!”
One thing I was worried about going into Real was that the depiction of disabled folks would come off as patronising. There can be a bit of a tendency in stories focusing on disabilities to paint the characters as selfless heroic individuals with no faults, as though they think glorifying their achievements will somehow counterbalance the lack of respect regular society gives them. This is absolutely not the case with Real. The characters are assholes. Completely and utterly horrible people. There’s three main characters, two of which are in wheelchairs. One of them is a stuck-up, self-absorbed, weak-willed bully. The guy not in the wheelchair is a temperamental, anti-social idiot. Even the third dude, the up and coming wheelchair basketball star, is an angry whining little twit.
While this goes a long way to making the characters feel like human beings with genuine personality, dreams and weaknesses, it can also mean that watching them gets a bit difficult at times. Particularly at the start of the story. Real takes the approach that these characters will learn and grow to become better people through their interactions with others over the course of the story. To achieve that though, they really shove these characters down to absolute rock bottom. High school dropout loses his drivers licence and cripples the girl he picked up and has that looming over his conscious as he tries to put some sort of life together. Top-tier student breezing through class gets spinal cord snapped in traffic accident and realises while in hospital that none of his previous relationships are worth shit. Aspiring wheelchair basketball player tries to set up team but most of the players abandon them due to his relentless ambition.
But in US Marine style, breaking them down completely allows the story to start rebuilding their lives. It’s fucking gruelling to sit through at the start. With every breakthrough a character has, something else will knock them back. Team gets back together, instantly loses first match. Guy manages to get job, company goes bankrupt. But with each knockback, the person will learn something. They’ll draw inspiration from one of the other characters in the story and this will spur them on to go further. It’s a feel-good story about triumph in the face of adversity, which you could probably guess from the fact it was about wheelchair basketball. But in humanising the characters and knocking them down so low, it becomes that much more rewarding when they do make a breakthrough.
The artwork is fantastic. Takehiko Inoue opts for a more realistic drawing style, which works well with the story. Characters do seem to sweat an awful lot, which makes the basketball matches look like the players were all bukkake’d before getting on the court. This is compounded by the fact Inoue likes to draw the characters with their shirts off to display muscles and so forth. The author has no qualms whatsoever about drawing dicks either, which is a little bit weird. This is actually relevant material, since your own body image is a huge theme in the story. It’s both a huge part of sports and your disability. Shots of the Australian wheelchair basketball player with his humongous biceps next to his stick-thin legs go a long way to demonstrating how characters come to terms with how they body will be shaped.
Where the artwork really seemed to improve over the course of the series is the visual metaphors and panel composition. Now I admit that the panel composition thing may be just me taking time to get used to his style, given the guy is kind of a veteran at this whole manga thing. But the more the manga went on, the better he seemed to get at depicting the thought process of characters using visual cues. The moment that was an absolute standout for me was when the guy in hospital remembered the game of basketball he played against the guy in the wheelchair before he broke his back and he suddenly realises there is a sport for him. There’s a fantastic flow to the way the panels show his mind naturally wander before his eyes widen when he remembers the guy in the wheelchair. As for the visual metaphor, these increase over the course of the manga and go a long way to allowing me to understand how the disability effected people. Stand out moment here was the guy sprinting in a race and seeing his leg crash into some imaginary mud and snap off.
It took me a bit to get into Real as the story construction requires the start to be gruelling reading. But once the characters started growing, it became a highly absorbing and rewarding read. It hasn’t ended yet. There's 11 volumes out at time of writing. But I can’t see it continuing on for too much longer because it really feels that the characters have gotten over the worst of their problems. Plus it’s about wheelchair basketball. Goddamn wheelchair basketball! How awesome is that! Go read Real, it’s pretty great.