Prince of Tennis vols. 1-6

Prince of Tennis vols. 1-6
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

Where did sports comics go? Americans haven’t enjoyed them for decades, despite inspiring sports figures like Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and Curt Schilling. They’re not unknown in Europe, where boys and girls have thrilled to the exploits of Roy of the Rovers and other such cartoon sportsmen for generations– but they’ve never permeated comics culture the way they do in Japan, where there’s comics about everything. You’ll find sports manga listed right up there with the best of the medium– next to the works of Miyazaki and Tezuka and Shirato, you’ll see Tomorrow’s Joe (boxing) and Star of the Giants (baseball) and even Attack no. 1 (girls’ volleyball!).

We may still be left wanting for sports comics produced locally, but the surge of manga’s popularity in the west has brought with it plenty of sports manga and anime, from Whistle! (soccer) to Fighting Spirit (boxing). A recent example of this would be Shonen Jump’s massively popular Prince of Tennis, a series that sparked a hit anime spinoff in Japan, not to mention plenty of interesting goodies like replica tennis shirts and heightened interest in the sport itself. Thanks to Viz, now we can enjoy Prince of Tennis as well.

Prince of Tennis‘s title is one hell of a hint. It’s the story of a kid named Ryoma Echizen, a 12-year-old tennis prodigy who spent years competing in junior tournaments in America before returning to his homeland to kick ass for his new school, Seishun Academy. A quick and dirty summary of Ryoma can be delivered in just two words: TENNIS GOKU. He almost instinctively adapts to and learns his opponents’ attacks, and carries himself in a cocksure, almsot naiive manner that infuriates practically everyone he faces. He wastes no time breaking into his school’s starting team. But can a 12-year-old genius really compete with 15 and 16-year-olds, kids who are simply bigger and faster than him?

Prince of Tennis!
Fortunately, artist and author Takeshi Konomi doesn’t spend all of his time trying to answer that question. Ryoma might be the main character, but Konomi fleshes the rest of the team out really well. Along with Ryoma’s seemingly endless skills, the team includes Kaido, a wild-eyed kid with a scary temper and an even scarier whip-shot; Momo, a good-natured boy with a ferociously strong serve; Inui, an average player who boosts his game by carefully studying his opponents’ weaknesses; and Tezuka, the team captain, a powerful and remarkably composed player, just to name some of Seishun’s team. Konomi fills out the cast with the team’s tough old lady coach, a woman who seems to understand just how talented Ryoma is, and even tosses in a potential love interest in Sakuno, the coach’s granddaughter. That’s just the core cast; there’s plenty more interesting characters in the team’s rivals, a motley lineup made up of snotty private school kids, aggressive street tennis punks, and some well-balanced players. Seishun are a good team, and they’re made even better by Ryoma’s talent, but they rarely come off as invincible.

I like Prince of Tennis. Konomi’s art is excellent– his characters are fresh and dinstinctive, his lines are clean and confident, and best of all, he seems to have an excellent understanding of tennis. Just from reading the stuff, you can see that he’s modelling Ryoma after Bjorn Borg, the sort of player who’s stronger on powerful and accurate ground shots than volleys. Konomi is also not afraid to cast Ryoma in a negative light; the kid has skill and charisma, but there’s no denying that he’s kind of an asshole sometimes. My only real complaint is that Konomi also loves gimmicks, and loads his comics and characters with wacky special moves that get used over and over, complete with the player shouting the name of the move as he does it. This is a tradition in Japanese boys’ comics, but it’s still a little grating in what’s otherwise a very realistic tennis comic. He also likes to start Ryoma’s matches with the kid playing right-handed, before dramatically switching to his much stronger left hand, a move roughly equivalent to the part in Dragonball Z when Goku takes those 10,000-pound weights off of his wrists and ankles.

Prince of Tennis!
So the question is, will Ryoma Echizen become the next Rod Laver? It’s an interesting question to ponder, because there’s never been a Japanese tennis player who’s made a big impression in the Open era. It makes me wonder– in characters like Joe Yabuki (Tomorrow’s Joe), Hyuma Hoshi (Star of the Giants), and Ryoma Echizen, are Japanese manga artists trying to compensate for their lack of globally-known sports legends? Maybe I’m just reading too much into this, or maybe it’s all part of Konomi’s comic-based effort to increase interest in the sport– after all, other sports manga are quick to knock their heroes off the pedestal, but six volumes in, Ryoma has yet to suffer a major setback. (Has he lost a match yet? You can read the comics to find that out.)

At any rate, The Prince of Tennis is good, solid reading for all ages. It’s a book that will make you interested in both its characters and in the sport they play (come on, do you really think I knew who the hell Rod Laver was before I did the research for this review?). I might grumble a little about Ryoma’s cockiness, but it’s that mixture of aggressiveness and talent that makes him a memorable character. Prince of Tennis serves up quality sports comics, the kind we haven’t had in years.

Added:  Monday, April 25, 2005

Related Link:  Viz
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