By Riichiro Inagaki & Yusuke Murata
I know very little about football, especially the rules and history behind it. While I’ve seen a few Super Bowls, but I’ve never been captivated by the sport to learn more about it. As Riichiro Inagaki puts it in his author comment, that’s okay, because “even the main character [of this series]…doesn’t understand them.” The power of sports manga is to captivate readers like myself, who would otherwise be uninterested in a sports, to see their appeal, and become as invested in a narrative revolving around them as a fan would be witnessing a real-live game. Eyeshield 21 is perhaps the ultimate sports manga in this regard. American football is niche outside of the U.S. for a variety of reasons tied to its historical practices and international misconceptions. Unlike baseball or soccer, which are played worldwide and thus have several manga devoted to them respectively, a mainstream comic about Football would be a much harder sell not just in Japan but internationally as well.
It’s remarkable that Eyeshield 21 was not only successful, running for 37 volumes, but that’s it was to the extent it increased the popularity of the sport significantly in Japan. It’s hard to determine how influential it was, but considering Slam Dunk’s precedent in doing the same for basketball, to the point that basketball manga have become almost their own subgenre in the sports manga scene like baseball, it really just goes to show the power sports manga can have on the popularity of the sports themselves. But how did a manga about such a niche sport like Eyeshield 21 catch on in the cutthroat world of Weekly Shonen Jump, and make a sport with such a high barrier of entry to international readers seem so accessible and enjoyable to read about?
What captivated Inagaki about football was strategy, because “with strategy as the basis, you can use power and speed to bring down your opponent.” Every sports manga boils down to this fundamental appeal once the excess of their particulars are removed. Using wits and power to overcome an obstacle is a broad, universally understandable and relatable concept. The important thing becomes introducing challenges and conditions that keep you guessing as to how the team will overcome them. Even though this first volume is light on gameplay, there’s significant investment in the journey to simply play. The Deimon Devil Bats have to beat the odds just to gather enough teammates to play in a practice game. They have to keep Sena out of the game until the last minute so that they don’t reveal their trump card to other teams too quickly. None of these challenges have to do with playing the game or responding to their opponents themselves, but they are nonetheless obstacles that infuse tension in the narrative. They still demand effort and strategies to circumvent them, like Sena assisting Ishimaru on his paper route, or Hiruma’s blackmailing and manipulation, resulting in the catharsis of the Devil Bats gathering enough members to play at the last minute. It’s the psychological game that the characters are playing against each other in-story, and that Inagaki plays with the reader’s expectations, underlying the actual football which keeps us interested in the story.
Though this approach to storytelling the fact Inagaki’s characters are playing football is supplementary, because the main appeal of the story is the protagonist defeating great odds using his personal strengths. Especially in a story for kids, who may be unsure about their futures and what they’re good at, the idea that you have a special talent through which you can achieve success is inspiring and cathartic. Sena’s arc starts off the series having been virtually friendless and bullied his entire life, but even he has a unique talent that’s highly valuable to many people. Through the recognition of those people, and his own personal efforts, he manages to make friends on his own and become part of a group that accepts and treasures him both for his abilities and who he is. This is a basic character arc that almost every shonen series utilizes, but it’s a proven way to inspire and endear us to a protagonist. Sena might be comparable to a slew of similar protagonists, but his particular circumstances are so sympathetic, his fears so palpable, and his determination to do right by his friends so admirable, there’s a great build-up of the catharsis in his emotional arc that intrigues the reader into wanting to experience the satisfying pay-off to his journey. Even in a manga about a niche subject, we want to see Sena’s journey through to the end, to see how strong someone who started off so weak can become.
Eyeshield 21 also embellishes its narrative arc with excellent humor that characterizes it. Hiruma is the MVP of the series, with his dastardly and hilarious mischief providing the source of most of the series’ unique humor. In his first scene, he steals Sena’s phone, learns his phone number, then calls up multiple restaurants and stores to learn his name and address, so that he can later bombard him with fliers and calls soliciting him to join the football team. It’s an absurd but brilliant sequence that pushes the series into the realm of cartoonish insanity, and Hiruma’s Looney Tunes-esque antics only escalate throughout the volumes as he pulls out guns, cannons, and even fireworks to shock, scare, and laugh. Few sports manga, even those that feature reality-defying stunts like The Prince of Tennis and Kuroko’s Basketball, break the rules of their worlds for the sake of a joke, much less successfully integrate these moments without them feeling at odds with the emotional center of the story. Inagaki has retained his impeccable sense of the cartoonish absurd in his currently-running Shonen Jump serial Dr. Stone, but Eyeshield 21’s brand of irreverent violent slapstick remains as fresh and unique as ever, and plays a large part in what makes the series stand out against other sports manga to this day.
Yusuke Murata’s art is of course a big part of how the series can balance tonal extremes for well. He has a knack for both the cartoonish and the dramatic, and can seamlessly transition between both while retaining the consistency of his art style within the world presented. Murata’s art here doesn’t play to these extremes as much as One Punch Man later would, nor is it nearly as hyper-detailed and dynamic. But his mastery of expressions and dramatics shines though, particularly during the sequences where Sena envisions a path through crowds of people, or when he uses a well-timed two-page spread to emphasize the awesomeness of Sena rushing through a cloud of smoke. Murata’s art is very stylized and expressive, allowing him to be playful with his art but still be able to pack a punch when he needs to make a point of it.
My experience with Eyeshield 21 is more limited than my experience with football. I’ve never read past the first two volumes before or seen past the equivalent material in the anime, and haven’t attempted touched it in over half a decade. This year marks Eyeshield 21’s 15th anniversary, which makes is a prime occasion for me to finally experience the series all the way through for the first time and see how well it holds up. Throughout the month of July I plan to read and review every volume of the series, culminating in a podcast centered around it, the details of which will be ironed out as this project reaches completion. While I don’t know how much I will have to say about each volume, this first volume has already shown me plenty of what the strengths and appeal of the series are, and was an incredibly enjoyable read in its own right. Eyeshield 21 may not start off atypical for a sports manga narrative or have any lofty themes underpinning it, but it’s a great example of how well done is better than well said.