Monday, June 16, 2008

The Prince of Tennis (manga, vol. 25) by Takeshi Konomi

In this volume, Seishun's tennis team is still playing matches against the national-level players from Rikkai as part of the Kanto tournament. In the first half of the volume, Sadaharu (the guy who relies on data tennis) continues to play against Renji (another data tennis guy who's so creepily good that he knows what Sadaharu is thinking). The match forces Sadaharu to move beyond his usual data tennis and try something new. In the second half of the volume, Shusuke (not much has been revealed about his playing, other than that he's good) begins his match against Akaya (another one of Rikkai's players - his eyes turn bloodshot when he starts playing seriously). In this match, which isn't finished in this volume, we get to see Shusuke play more seriously than he ever has before. Although Shusuke gets hurt, this may only end up revealing even more of his hidden strengths.

For those of you who read Prince of Tennis for particular characters, the focus of this volume is Seishun's Shusuke (who happens to be my favorite, despite the fact that he rarely gets to play) and Sadaharu and Rikkai's Renji and Akaya. Kunimitsu Tezuka (another one of my favorites) also shows up briefly during a flashback involving him and Shusuke. The flashback reveals some of Shusuke's motivations for his renewed decision to become an even better player.

As far as the emotional content goes, there are a few things that come up in this volume. For instance, it's revealed that Rikkai's tennis team is especially determined to win because of a promise they made to their ailing (and possibly dying) team captain. Sadaharu and Renji's match has additional tension because they were once friends and athletic rivals when they were younger - this particular match is a stand-in for the match they never got to finish the last time they saw each other. Shusuke and Akaya's match also has some interesting tensions, despite the fact that they don't have the personal connection that Sadaharu and Renji do. For maybe the first time ever, Shusuke really wants to win a match, not just to improve his playing, but also for his team and for Ryoma, who was injured in his earlier match with Akaya.

Prince of Tennis, in general, may be most appealing to those who play or otherwise enjoy tennis, since, from what I can tell (I'm not a player or fan of tennis myself), much of what the players do on court in pretty realistic, even if the players are occasionally weird or quirky and the techniques have funny names. It's not like Eyeshield 21, a football manga where it's not unusual to see themed teams, such as one that bases their looks and everything they do on Wild West cowboy stereotypes. In comparison with something like that, Prince of Tennis is pretty realistic.

That doesn't mean that things don't occasionally get a little strange or off-the-wall (at least, in my opinion - it doesn't seem likely to me that some of this stuff would actually happen in real life, but I could be wrong), and that might turn some people off this series in general. As an example of character weirdness, there's Akaya, whose eyes turns bloodshot when he starts playing seriously. There's also Sadaharu, who calculates probabilities as he plays - things like thinking "Renji Yanagi's chances of winning: 94%" while he's desperately trying to return Renji's shots. As far as the naming weirdness goes, there's plenty of examples of that throughout the series, but in this particular volume there's things like Shusuke's "Triple Counter 'Hakugei': White Whale." This is the kind of stuff I expect to see in boys' battle manga, not in a mostly realistic tennis manga. There's also a bit of over-the-top dramatic moments, as when Shusuke decides to continue playing, despite being temporarily unable to see.

This isn't really my favorite sports manga - I like reading manga that develop the characters more and show more of the tension between players' lives as atheletes and as people who also have lives outside of their chosen sport. Prince of Tennis isn't, in my opinion, all that strong in either of those areas. However, that doesn't mean there aren't quite a few exciting tennis matches to read about, and you're pretty much guaranteed to find at least one character you'll like, even if it's only because of a certain quirk or their character design. I like Shusuke and Kunimitsu mostly for their character designs, although Shusuke has a few quirks I love (like his ability to apparently enjoy Sadaharu's disgusting vegetable juice), as well as some flashes of amazing ability that I'm eagerly awaiting being able to see in action. For Shusuke fans like myself, the next volume looks promising.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Whistle! (manga) by Daisuke Higuchi - Readers who enjoy the mostly realistic presentation of tennis in Prince of Tennis and would like more realistic sports manga may enjoy Whistle! In this series, a hard-working boy named Sho transfers to a new school just so that he can get a better chance to play soccer. Although he isn't very good at soccer, he practices long and hard and gradually improves his skills. Others begin to notice him, and Sho becomes part of his school's team. Even though he isn't usually the best player, people notice him because his cheerful, determined presence tends to improve moral and his flashes of brilliant playing hint at future greatness. Like Prince of Tennis, the focus of this manga is the sport these boys are playing, although Higuchi does take more time than Konomi to show what certain players' lives are like outside of their chosen sport. In some ways, this manga feels even more realistic than Prince of Tennis, because none of these characters have completely off-the-wall quirks or signature moves with funny names.
  • Naruto (manga) by Masashi Kishimoto - In this manga, Naruto, a young ninja, is determined to become the best ninja in his village, but he must first learn teamwork and better fighting techniques in order to survive all the tests he needs to pass in order to become a full-fledged ninja. Although this isn't a sports manga, there are parallels between some of the ways things are done in this manga versus the way Konomi does things in Prince of Tennis. Battles, like Konomi's tennis matches, last a long time and tend to have some sort of deeper emotional element. Also, characters grow and evolve during their battles, in much the same way that Konomi's characters evolve during tennis matches. Kishimoto's ninja teams have as many rivalries and close relationships as Konomi's tennis teams. Readers who enjoyed these things in Prince of Tennis and don't mind something that belongs more in the fantasy/action genre might enjoy Naruto, although they should also prepare themselves for the fact that Kishimoto must spend a great deal of time establishing Naruto's world before any of the team battles can begin.
  • Eyeshield 21 (manga) by Riichirou Inagaki (story) and Yuusuke Murata (art) - Readers who'd like another sports manga and don't mind something that's less realistic than Prince of Tennis might like this manga. In Eyeshield 21, high school freshman Sena gets forcibly drafted into the football team when Hiruma, the demonically scary team captain, finds out that he can run really fast. Sena's always been a bit of a doormat, defended only by his friend Mamori. If Mamori discovered that he was involved in something so dangerous as American football, she'd pull him out of it. Also, if any other sports clubs at Sena's school discovered that he was the football team's super-fast Eyeshield 21, they'd all try to recruit him. Therefore, Hiruma makes Sena keep his identity a secret (hence his use of the name Eyeshield 21). Because American football isn't well-known in Japan, Inagaki tries hard to explain the rules and strategies of the game as the series progresses, using diagrams when necessary. These explanations root this series in reality a little, but Hiruma's over-the-top violence (he's the most heavily armed high school student in existence), the football teams' weird themes (cowboys, Egyptians, etc.), and more keep the series from ever being described as realistic. That's not necessarily a bad thing, either - if you don't mind your sports with a hefty dose of weirdness/goofiness, this series can be a lot of fun to read. Readers who enjoyed Prince of Tennis's team relationships and intense matches may enjoy this series.
  • Hikaru no Go (manga) by Yumi Hotta (story) and Takeshi Obata (art) - Although this manga focuses on a board game, rather than a sport, there are many similarities between it and sports manga like Prince of Tennis. When Hikaru finds a possessed Go board, he suddenly becomes the constant companion of a long-dead Go instructor named Sai. In order to appease Sai, Hikaru begins to learn about Go and eventually begins the path to becoming a professional Go player. As with many of the tennis matches in Prince of Tennis, Go players' matches are one-on-one, and things can sometimes get very intense. The gameplay and matches are very realistic - unlike with Prince of Tennis, I know this for sure with Hikaru no Go, because I was part of a Go Club for about half a year. Like the players in Prince of Tennis, Hikaru and others evolve during their matches, improving as quickly as they can. If readers would prefer watching anime, there is also a very excellent anime adaptation of this manga - I'm not a big fan of the English dub for the anime, but the Japanese language track is very good.

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