By Takuma Yokota
Takuma Yokota’s previous series Straigthen Up! ended only a few months back, so it’s remarkable that he’s returned with a new series for Jump so soon. It’s a sign that Jump’s editorial staff is confident in Yokota’s talents, and that he has a wellspring of ideas and a passion for drawing manga to kick off a new weekly manga after only a short recess. That faith is well-entrusted, because Shudan! is nothing but confident storytelling. Engaging, efficient, and most of all entertaining, Shudan! stands out for its in-media res beginning and expertly delivered balance of action and characterization.
Most sports manga pilots emphasize establishing characters before experiencing the game itself. Robot x Laserbeam’s first chapter, for instance, spent most of its pages focusing on Robot’s refusal to play golf and his friendship with Tomoya. It was only towards the end of the chapter where Robot picked up a club, and even then, he only hit a few shots on the driving range, not played the actual game itself. Where Shudan differs is that it shows us an entire soccer game right in this first chapter. The entire afternoon of Hamanishi FC is shown from start to finish, from the kids arriving to the field on the bus to them leaving at sunset. This time-lapse provides a sense of what these kids do everyday, but more importantly, it keeps us on the center subject of the series– the soccer field. There are no outside settings or conflicts that take up focus– much like on the kids themselves, all the series is focused on is playing the game and having fun.
Shudan also differs in introducing the entire team of characters we’ll be following all at once, and it’s remarkable how memorable they all are in just sixty pages. As the main protagonist, Rokuro is the one character whose mind into which the story delves the deepest, and his character arc of not taking the game seriously. Being pushed to do his best in order to win and keep up with his new teammate is relatable and effective. The same can be said for all the other characters, who individually have simple, even one-note characterizations: Rokuro is the slightly more mature and skilled rival; Yamato is the fat but athletic captain with a powerful kick (whose name, the “wave canon” is an amusing reference to Space Battleship Yamato); and even the female protagonist Nanase can be boiled down to the “you go girl” trope. That they are simple characters doesn’t make them any less fun, and in some respects it actually benefits the emotional arc of the chapter.
Most sports manga pilots are usually about the protagonist learning he’s talented or striving to do well at his sport of choice; it’s focused on the individual’s dreams and aspirations. Shudan focuses on the team instead. Rokuro and Nanase have their own mini-character arcs, Rokuro being driven to play better because of Nanase, Nanase learning to have faith in her teammate’s skills, and their burgeoning respect and trust for each other that ultimately helps them tie the game. Yet the chapter is more about what the team collectively experiences thanks to Nanase: wanting to play their best and win, taking the game more seriously than they ever have before, and consequently, having more fun playing it than ever before. This general sentiment is broader than many of the themes and morals displayed in other sports manga pilots, creating an opportunity to experience catharsis more likely than with a more insular, character-specific approach. It also helps the entire team as a whole feel important, because they all had a part to play in their victories, and all of them felt the thrill of adrenaline playing the game. Most shonen sports manga espouse teamwork, but most of their first chapters just introduce the protagonist and their journey. Right from the start, Shudan! promises to be a manga about its team, emphasizing that all of these characters are equally important to its story.
Placing focus on the team over the individual is not Shudan’s only atypical quality. It’s not unheard of for a girl to be on a boys’ sports team, even in Jump, but it’s a rare enough and welcome occurrence that broadens the cross-gender appeal of the series. The more unusual deviation from the norm is that these characters are elementary schoolers, whereas the trend for most shonen sports manga is to focus on high school clubs. This is where I think the series will really be a breath of fresh air. The structure of a high school sports club is too familiar and the narrative arc too predictable. We all know that the team will have to play at the inter-high, that they’ll probably lose the spring tournament so that they can make a comeback in the fall, it’ll be the last chance for the third-year senpai so they’ll more than likely win, etc. Tropes like these make series like Kuroko’s Basketball and Haikyu! feel like carbon copies of each other, so it’s a relief that Shudan! won’t fall victim to the same trappings. Not only are the characters much younger, but they’re all from different schools, and they joined their club not for achievements but for fun. The mindset of these young kids is a lot more carefree that that of high schoolers, who usually have more at stake and a need to win. Yet as evidenced in this chapter, the lack of stakes doesn’t mean they aren’t giving it their all on the field, nor does it make the games any less exciting and fun to read. This was just a practice game, a taste of what the series is capable of going forward. I can only imagine how a full-fledged game between rival teams might turn out.
Takuma Yokota’s character designs are as adorable as ever. All the characters are infectiously cute and its hard not to be infatuated with them just by their designs alone, though it certainly helps their personalities are just as precious. Where Yokata’s art really shines is how he depicts the game itself. He pulls off multiple-sequencing and afterimage tricks like he employed in Straighten Up! to convey the speed and flow of movements, and in general has a knack for showing the right pose at the right time. The sense of speed is communicated through the layouts clearly, making reading the series a quick, page-turning experience and. The sense of rhythm Yokota’s perfected working on the musically-inclined Straighten Up! allows him to manipulate how you read a page and what you focus on, such as letting your eyes linger on the chapter’s two-page spread climax of Nanase head-butting the ball. What Yokota does with his paneling and layout to guide the readers’ eyes is subtle, and once again, the sign of a confident artist.
I loved Straighten Up! for it’s cute and compelling characters and fun, fluffy take on sports manga, and I’m confident I’ll love Shudan! just as much or even more. A series about a youth soccer club certainly brings back memories, and reading Shudan! was like reliving the childlike emotions I experienced playing the game myself. For kids in Japan, Shudan!’s grade-school aged cast might be more relatable in their emotional arcs, whereas for adults like myself it’ll be nostalgic and endearing to see kids trying so hard and having so much fun and remembering what all that was like. Shudan!’s first chapter has already elicited a lot of love and praise from my circles on the net, more than Straighten Up! did, and I’m hoping all the unique elements that make this series so special will be just what it needs to do well and have a good run in Weekly Shonen Jump.