By Riichiro Inagaki & Yusuke Murata
Having spent the first volume emotionally investing us in the narrative, Inagaki can start teaching his readers more about the game itself. What’s innovative about Inagaki’s approach to exposition is that he’s not content to simply have characters talking to each other. There is always a fun framework or presentation to expository scenes that masks their didactic intentions with humor or visually stimulating artwork. Instead of having Sena merely remember and regurgitate what an extra-point conversion is, we’re treated to a lengthy sequence where he imagines a library-like maze in his mind that then turns into giant slot-machine that visually illustrates the concept, all while the Deimon Devil Bat screams, breathes fire, and fires laser eyebeams at him for not remembering it correctly. A normal sports manga might’ve just spent a panel or two where two characters just spat out the information, but Inagaki goes the extra mile to craft a multi-page scenario to explain one concept in a way that’s hilarious and entertaining in it’s own right.
Even better is how such sequences can infuse moments of character development. An earlier scene finds Hiruma challenging Mamori’s knowledge of football, making her answer three questions with personal stakes on the line. Inagaki not only contextualizes his exposition in the form of a fun game between the characters, but it develops the rivalry between Mamori and Hiruma and establishes that Mamori is a quick-witted learner whose smarts can even give Hiruma a run for his money. He contrasts their contest with Sena learning from Kurita in a more down-to-earth manner, eliciting humor from the tonal whiplash of the two modes of exposition. Finally, Hiruma outright abandoning the game adds an abrupt comedic punchline to the sequence. There are so many layers to how this one scene was constructed that it’s astonishing how natural it feels, and how it makes what’s ostensibly an expository scene stand out as a legitimately memorable one. Inagaki is incredibly skilled in writing his story in ways that are always fun even when the characters are just talking or explaining things to each other.
Using techniques like this, the match against the Ojo White Knights is describing more detail about the game itself, as well as establishing the central rivals of the series. Itagaki focuses on a select few members of the White Knights to delve into, but fully commits to exploring them so that we clearly understand their motivations. This makes both sides of the team feel like they have something on the line in this match, adding more stakes and uncertainty to how the game will play out. Again, Itagaki efficiently utilizes expository scenes, like how Shin theorizes Sena’s abilities to his coach, to provide characterization. Itagaki quickly establishes in brief moments like when Shin owns up to his faults in scouting and during his training how serious-minded and dedicated he is. Understated moments like characters talking about how Shin injured two players last year, or how the Shinryuji Nagas are specifically scouting the Knights just to watch his plays, say a lot about how good he is. Through his comments on Sena’s abilities, we learn how intuitive and prescient he can be. Even before Shin ever plays, we’ve already seen what’s so formidable about him simply through his own words and the rumors surrounding him. It’s effective build-up for a threat that dramatically pays off when Shin single-handedly overturns the Batas’ momentum and makes the Knights’ first score in the game. That Itagaki can deliver such a satisfying and effective build-up and pay-off for an antagonist in a single volume speaks greatly to efficiency of his writing and expertise in characterization.
What particularly makes the game with the White Knights stand out is the contrasting character arcs between Sena and Sakuraba. Both are players on opposing teams completely unaware of each other’s circumstances and their stories never directly intersect. However, they form the underlying emotional center and stakes of the game. Both Sena and Sakuraba are burdened with the guilt of being the aces on their teams, though their specific reasons differ. Sena’s desire to help his teammates win conflicts with his fear of getting hurt, whereas Sakuraba struggles to reconcile his perceived prowess as an athlete from his fans with his actual inadequacies as one. Both must make a choice whether to run away from responsibilities and accept their weakness, and the climax of this volume visually parallels their determination to better themselves and fight with all they’ve got by crushing the symbol of their weakness in their fists. The way Inagaki can intersect two thematically similar character arcs and Murata expertly delivering the catharsis of their decision in a brilliant parallel visual metaphor is unbelievably cohesive, and a level of sophistication I’d have expected so early on into this series.
In my review of volume one I wondered how a manga about football could’ve caught on as much as it did in Japan. I didn’t expect to have my answer so soon. Eyeshield 21 succeeds in telling its atypical sports story through inventive visual storytelling. Inagaki and Murata know how to keep the game interesting and understandable, be it in how it communicates clashes between characters with fighting-game esque one-on-one mockups, or potent metaphors like the classical knight imagery that characterizes Shin. Even small comedic asides, like Otawara trying to psych out Kurita by bending a pole and Kurita unbending it for the referee, have a narrative purpose to them that move the story, characters, or both forward. Eyeshield 21 is just an expertly crafted manga with a cohesive vision of what it needs to do to make a niche sport entertaining to its readers and how to do it in the most fun and unexpected way possible. If I’m already this impressed in how well-constructed it is two-volumes in, I can’t imagine how much I’m going to love everything yet to come.