Monday, October 3, 2011

Silence Do-nothing on "Slam Dunk" Vol #1-9

Hello, everyone. Silence Do-nothing here (I wanted to do a Benjamin Franklin reference that doesn't invoke electricity experiments or the idea of sacrificing liberty for security). Tim has invited me to write some posts for the blog.

Okay, this is a little late for Comic Book Week. If only there were Comic Book Fortnight.

In the very first chapter of the first volume of Inoue Takehiko's sports comedy manga "Slam Dunk", protagonist Sakuragi Hanamichi, a basketball neophyte, attempts a monster dunk to impress a girl he has a crush on. Splashed across a two page spread, he is seen soaring through the air in a pose reminiscent of Jordan's iconic free throw line jam. Sakuragi approaches the target, his eyes nearly level with the rim and then SLAM! His head has slammed into the backboard and he has missed the dunk. He ends up in a daze, sprawled on the floor , his arms awkwardly bent at a right angle, a giant knot already forming on his forehead.

I mention this sequence for a couple reasons. One is to illustrate that, contrary to popular opinion, not all humor in Japanese animation and comics is bizarre or nonsensical. They also have physical comedy relatable to a western audience. The other is that the dunk attempt is emblematic of Sakuragi's behavior. His wealth of confidence allows him to achieve impressive feats (the height he achieved was Blake Griffin-like) that a more sensible person wouldn't even attempt, but it also results in debacles that a little humility could have avoided.

"Slam Dunk" follows Shohoku High's basketball team and their quest to win nationals, focusing on its most inexperienced member, Sakuragi. He is is a first year student (the equivalent of a sophomore since they have three years of junior high and three of high school) and self-proclaimed "basketball genius" whose existence challenges the conventional wisdom that self-confidence is seen as an attractive quality in guys. Never has someone so sure of himself had such trouble getting a date. In a streak dating back to junior high, he has been rejected by girls fifty times in a row (it's unclear whether these were fifty different girls or if he was turned down multiple times by some of the same ones. I'm not sure which is worse). He isn't disfigured. He's odd and off-putting. Big guy plus weird equals ladies fleeing like frightened villagers before Frankenstein's monster.

In one of many signs that his confidence is tough to dent, shortly after his first crushing and tear-inducing high school rejection, he sets out to woo a fellow first year student, Akagi Haruko. She loves basketball, so he goes out for the team, certain he will impress as its greatest star despite his lack of experience with the game. His tall athletic physique and his tenacity earn him a shot.

His main foils are teammates Akagi Takenori and Kaede Rukawa. Third year Takenori is Haruko's brawny older brother. Since their official coach mostly only shows up for games, the serious-minded starting center essentially functions as a player/coach during practice, dispensing bops to the head along with his scoldings. Sakuragi is the only one with the guts to stand up to him, earning Haruko's respect, though not her affection (and earning many of Takenori's punches to the top of the skull). Rukawa is an extremely skilled first-year who has earned a hot-shot reputation from junior high. Haruko, along with half the female student body, is smitten with him. All he really cares about is basketball and sleeping. He doesn't notice any of his admirers, but that doesn't stop Sakuragi from becoming jealous and seeing him as his biggest rival.

Were it not for their unwavering loyalty to stand by him in a brawl, Sakuragi's friends could probably be seen as adversaries as well. They exhibit the ability to instantly materialize anytime he is about to be embarrassed so they can loudly celebrate his failings. They evidently have horns and party streamers with them at all times to break out when he is shot down by a girl. Sakuragi brawls enough that the tradeoff of respect for loyalty doesn't seem totally unreasonable.

Except for Haruko, almost everyone outside the team expects and hopes for him to fall flat on his face. The girls who swoon over Rukawa know Sakuragi is his rival and hate him for it. They boo him at games and tell him in between classes that he doesn't pass to Rukawa enough. His friends are as boisterous as anyone in their delight over his mistakes. It becomes understandable that he has developed an armor of self-delusional arrogance to protect against all this. He would be paralyzed without it. Because of this, his brash behavior becomes more palatable.

The hostility he experiences from the crowd enhances the sense of triumph when he succeeds. Though not very skilled, his freak athleticism and maniacal effort allow for flashes of brilliance which amaze the crowd. They still don't like him, but they can't help but be impressed. To win over an angry crowd, even if only for a moment, makes his success feel greater.

Inoue does a good job of keeping the characters likeable despite all the jerky behavior. There is a dynamic where unsympathetic actions by one create sympathy for the other. When Sakuragi struts around like a cowboy, snickering to himself about how he is going to put everyone else on the court to shame, I feel justified in seeing his ego knocked with an embarrassing mistake. When everyone is against him and delighting in his every failure, I root for him to prove them wrong. When Takenori can't go one practice without hitting the players, it becomes fun to see him driven nuts by Sakuragi's undisciplined and selfish behavior. They pay with regularity and swiftness for their misdeeds, so their shortcomings aren't as objectionable. It's the idea of getting away with something that can make some characters infuriating.

Although Sakuragi's brashness is so over the top that it would surely be seen as insanely and insufferably arrogant anywhere, it's still especially fun to see his hotdogging antics take place in a culture known for teamwork and social harmony. Judging from the characters' bewildered looks, they don't seem to know how to process it.

Sakuragi declares himself a basketball genius early on, but he really doesn't know what the heck he's doing. He is so clueless that he thinks you can just cradle the ball and run all over the place without it hitting the floor, drawing the laughter of scores of onlookers (although, in his defense, it's possible he may have seen Patrick Ewing and his patented seven-steps-without-a-dribble-or-a-travelling-call post move). He is forced to spend much time on tedious drills to address his deficiencies, something he doesn't see as likely to wow Haruko anytime soon.

Since he requires an explanation of the game's rules and nuances from the ground up, it means the reader gets them as well. Someone who doesn't initially know the game can learn it from the comic and follow the basketball action. As someone who has played organized basketball, I never found the explanations of basic information that I already knew to be tiresome, because they usually involved him screwing up in an entertaining way. I didn't mind seeing a layup being taught, because it meant I got to see Sakuragi's attempts sail over the backboard as his friends taunted and giggled.

Each new skill he learns begins with him making a fool of himself as he struggles with an unfamiliar task, but he succeeds in integrating them remarkably fast. He is a naturally gifted athlete and picks up the game swiftly. Though he usually doesn't tell him, for fear of inflating his already gargantuan ego, even Takenori is impressed with Sakuragi's progression. There is a certain satisfaction in seeing him build himself up from nothing, to have this painfully pointed out to him, and then have him come through and shut up his detractors. It makes for a bigger swing between his struggles and his triumphs.

"Slam Dunk" is very good at portraying his reversals of fortune. Sakuragi is emotionally volatile and his play is very inconsistent. He is an object of ridicule one moment, and a hero the next. He amazes one possession, and the very next his ignorance of the game produces a major blunder. The humor helps establish the lows, the sporting-heroics the highs. They complement each other, because his triumphs seem greater when it is seen as not merely hitting a big shot, but in avoiding becoming the laughing stock. The humor of his failures works better because he is known to be capable of awesomeness. Lebron James missing an uncontested dunk is funnier than Steve Kerr doing the same (I actually liked Steve as a player. It's just that his strength was hitting open three-pointers, not awesome dunking).

There is a lot of physical comedy in "Slam Dunk". Much of it involves people getting hit in the head. Takenori delivers a punch or chop to the top of the head as a typical rebuke during practice. Sakuragi's weapon of choice is the headbutt. He headbutts his friends to avenge their celebrations of failures. He headbutts the school's entire judo team when they try to strong-arm him into joining. He even headbutts a depiction of the comic's author in a fourth-wall breaking scene. It's hard to discuss this type of humor without sounding silly myself, but the draw of slapstick isn't only the imagery. It's the idea of extremely overreacting. Sure, he could've done a better job boxing out, but is a karate chop to the head really needed to teach that? All I can say is it consistently cracked me up.

Often times in manga, the action scenes aren't as fun as they should be, because it's hard to tell what exactly is going on. The lines are too busy. The shot is too tight. Combine that with lack of color and it's hard to tell who is doing what. Everything becomes a confused mess. Some see this vagueness as a strength, as it is supposedly allows the reader to use his imagination. Personally, I think it often backfires. If you want an action scene to spark the imagination, then make it cool and enjoyable. The imagination will be motivated to produce something similar. An unclear action scene just turns into random motion.

I was happy with how the basketball scenes were handled in "Slam Dunk". If something is obscure, it is for a particular effect, like omitting Sakuragi in one panel so that when he swoops in to deflect the pass in the next it seems like he came from out of nowhere, making his speed all the more impressive. It was easy to imagine what was happening outside the panel because it was clear what was happening inside it.

Inoue played high school basketball, so he has a sense for the flow of the game. Players' positioning and stances felt right, except for Sakuragi, since he doesn't have the greatest grasp of the game. Behemoths battling for position in the paint had a sense of power behind them. The action is exaggerated for dramatic effect, but not to the extent that it becomes implausible or fantastic. You won't see anyone perform "NBA Jam" type half court dunks. It's more like some of the players have the athleticism of professional All-Stars. It seems appropriate, given the medium.

Sakuragi has been compared to Dennis Rodman, but my impression of Rodman was that he thought of himself as the personality of the team, not the star. He was happy to focus on defense and rebounding and cared little for the more glamorous scoring. Sakuragi thinks he's the best before he even makes the team and is obsessed with wowing fans with his dunking prowess. He is not shy telling people how much better he is than everyone else.

I see him more as the Japanese Chad Ochocinco. Like Ochocinco, his boasts are so crazy that he comes off more as a loveable clown than an offensive jerk. It would not be out of character for him to wear a jacket which reads "Future Hall of Famer" or claim that he could beat Michael Phelps in a swimming race. Those are both things which Chad has done. Since the comic came out before Ochocinco's NFL career, maybe he should be considered the American Sakuragi Hanamichi.

Inoue is good at depicting the awesome and the funny. Not many people can do both. Even in good action movies, the quips are usually only decent, at best. Different sensibilities are required. "Slam Dunk" transitions well between exhilarating action and humorous failure. Each one enhances the other because it becomes harder to predict which is coming. Sure, when Sakuragi takes off for a dunk, it might very easily end with a rim rocking jam which brings the crowd to its feet, but it could also result in him accidentally dunking on the defender's head. If you see him hustle like crazy in an attempt to stop an opponent from getting a shot off, it isn't known if you're going to see teammates congratulating him later on for great lock-down defense or if Sakuragi will sky in the air after buying the pump fake and land on the shooter with a belly flop.

Basketball is said to be a game of scoring runs. It has more frequent lead changes than any other sport, so momentum shifts are one of its defining characteristics. "Slam Dunk" mirrors these shifts. Sakuragi frequently shifts from fool to hero, from someone to mock to someone root for. Action shifts from exhilarating to funny. I think these shifts are what make the series so enjoyable.

"Slap Shot" was the greatest hockey comedy ever made. "The Longest Yard" (the Burt Reynolds version) the funniest for football. "Major League" is the premier baseball comedy ("Bull Durham" is over-rated). If Inoue Takehiko were to claim "Slam Dunk" as the greatest basketball comedy the world had ever seen, it would be no crazy Sakuragi-like boast. It wouldn't be very modest though, so, for politeness sake, I'll recommend against him doing so.

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