Prince of Tennis 26-31: A MangaLife Spotlight
Written by Park Cooper

Recently, Erik, the man who sends me review copies of manga from Viz, sent me a new package, and he wrote:

“Hey Park--I recall you dug a lot of Viz sports manga so I thought you might like a retrospective of Prince of Tennis...”

Well, yes and no. Yes, that was quite true of Whistle! And I’d count Hikaru No Go for a while (I read a spoiler I greatly, greatly disliked about the end of the series). Harlem Beat/Rebound was also a favorite of mine. More recently, I have greatly enjoyed Real and Slam Dunk.

But I’ve never really liked Prince of Tennis.

I certainly didn’t like the anime, and I didn’t love the manga, although I could see that it had some good qualities.

Because I gave Prince of Tennis a chance. A real chance. I got out a whole bunch of volumes from the local library and started chewin’ my way through ‘em. Around volume 7... 8... certainly 9... I started having alls I could stands and I couldn’t hardly stands no more.

The guys in Prince of Tennis are way, way too pretty. OBNOXIOUSLY pretty. The moves, as I have mentioned recently elsewhere, have fancy names and are overly gimmicky. The drama... oh, the drama. Remember the start of Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety, where his plane lands, and all sorts of bizarre things happen to him as he’s on his way out (while the credits are rolling), and he finally steps outside and goes, “Wow! What a dramatic airport!” Remember that? That’s how I feel about Prince of Tennis: Wow, what a dramatic series of tennis matches.

But, far be it from me to look six comp copies in the mouth, and so I gave PofT a new shot.

And it was so pretty and gimmicky and dramatic that it broke my brain so bad that I think I had a breakthrough and I GET PoT now.

It’s... it’s... it’s the perfect sports manga for those of you who like Rurouni Kenshin.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s talk about another sports manga I have disliked: Eyeshield 21.

Recently, in reference to what I find the insane gimmicky-ness of the plays in this football manga, I uttered this phrase:

“Eyeshield 21 has slightly less relation to real football than Shaolin Soccer has to real soccer.”

Okay, here’s the thing. I LIKED Shaolin Soccer (although my need for its existence in my life dropped sharply as soon as Kung Fu Hustle came out). But it wasn’t a SPORTS movie. It was a flamboyant contemporary martial arts movie.

I have also recently claimed that sports manga are just fighting manga with a lot more rules. What I don’t like about Eyeshield 21 is that it doesn’t follow the rules, by which I mean the conventions of the football story genre, ENOUGH. It’s all... very, very unreal. (Also I don’t like the art or the characters or much of anything else, but the gimmicky plays/moves are among the worst parts).

But let’s jump back and look at Prince of Tennis again.

Volume 26: Ryoma Echizen vs. Genichiro Sanada

We open with one of Ryoma’s teammates playing mostly-blind because of a recent shot by his opponent which hit him in the head.

AND HE’S STILL WINNING.

His senses, as the guy once said on Sports Night, have COME ALIVE.

I shouted an unpleasant expletive expressing my disbelief when I was informed of this.

My wife Barbara asked me what so disturbed me, and made me tell her. I told her. She tried to believe it. “Well, he IS the PRINCE OF TENNIS...”

“No, no,” quoth I, “This isn’t even the Prince of Tennis--this is just one of his TEAMMATES. This is merely a LOYAL VASSAL in the court of the Prince of Tennis.”

“Okay, I don’t believe it,” said she.

Okay, but determined to keep going, I kept going, and nothing so horrible happened again right away. Ryoma stepped onto the court, and he exuded a BATTLE AURA, but after Kenshin and Hunter x Hunter, I’m perfectly able, these days, to believe in people, even in real life, exuding a battle aura, so that didn’t faze me.

Volume 27: Until the Very Last Shot

Okay, so Genichiro is playing Ryoma, the Prince of Tennis, and they are each having a heck of a time trying to out-badass each other in a tennis-flavored way. AND THEN...

Genichiro is playing Ryoma, the titular Prince of Tennis. And Genichiro is noting that Ryoma just keeps getting faster even though you’d think he should be getting tired about now. And he knows there’s something... special... about Ryoma. And he looks at him extremely carefully to try to puzzle out what this thing might be. AND THEN...

You turn the page and the whole double-page spread is darkened, like when Naruto talks to the 9-tailed fox that is sealed inside him. But what we see, from Genichiro’s view, behind the tennis net, is no racquet, no ball, but a sword-wielding samurai. With white pupil-less eyes like he’s The Batman.

You turn the page yet again and there’s Ryoma. And Genichiro narrates mentally: “WHAT... WAS THAT?!”

And I GOT IT. I GOT IT.

For the first time, I understood the LEVEL OF REALITY upon which the creator of PoT was working, had been trying to work, or perhaps rather had BEEN TRYING TO WORK UP TO ALL THIS TIME.

By doing this weird, weird thing, the creator of this manga suddenly showed me this teeny, tiny, teensy-weensy grain of sand the size of a molecule of the SUPERNATURAL, or at least the PRETERNATURAL, in this sports manga.

And why not? There’s a ghost in Hikaru No Go, in which we all seek the perfect zen-like nature of satori as it might be found in the game of Go.

But PoT has worked its way more slowly up to this sort of revelation, so as not to overwhelm it. Just like how, by the time leaves and blades of grass that blew into Kenshin Himura’s battle aura would snap in half all by themselves, and those that blew into Lord Shishio’s battle aura would simply self-ignite, you said to yourself, “I BELIEVE IT!!!”

After this moment, I was fine with reading the rest of the volume, and of all the other volumes I got today of PoT. When Genichiro tried a super top-spin lob, so high that Ryoma couldn’t possibly hit it, and when, instead, Ryoma ran up and partially climbed the judge’s tower and leapt off it into the air in order to slam the ball back down to spin madly along the ground in a way that practically bent the laws of physics like light through a prism, I didn’t say, “Dude, is jumping off the judge’s tower even a legal move?”

Okay, I did say that, but when he wasn’t disqualified or penalized, I was able to accept it and deal with it.

THIS MANGA IS NOT ABOUT TENNIS.

This manga is, like all sports manga, about the Love of the Game, it’s true. But there’s also something else, something further happening here. It’s about Loving the Game BECAUSE the game, in this case the tennis court, is the contemporary battlefield, which allows a warrior to test himself again and again until he achieves his own ultimate level of personal perfection.

It’s Hikaru’s Divine Move all over again, only with way more physical action. It’s an allegory, just as Tohru Honda is the Buddha (I’ll explain THAT one to you some day, but I assure you that on a certain level it is true).

Prince of Tennis strains credulity less than Shaolin Soccer. I Can Cope With It.

Volume 28: Hyotei Rhapsody

This volume starts out with finishing the previous volume’s completely stupid beach volleyball tournament that Dear Old Tennis Gang started during their summer vacation/training camp... even the back-cover text is ashamed of this part of the story and tries to pretend it doesn’t happen.

A highlight of this volume, instead, is how a cute girl shows up to be Ryoma’s newest fan! Heck, she’s all ready to be his new girlfriend! He’s not interested, though, and when she leaves, he knows she’ll never be back--he’s realized she’s just a spy sent to try to figure out what his weakness might be, so he’s faked one, just to throw her off and display some disinformation for her to report back...

Volume 29: The Nationals Begin!

It’s time for the Nationals, where we start out against a team so evil, they “accidentally” let a stray shot peg the old man coachy guy who hangs around with Dear Old Gang right in the face! These baddies are from Okinawa, so they’ve come a long, long way and brought their Okinawan martial-arts tennis moves with them! Can Ryoma ever return a serve by a big huge guy that’s so strong that at one point it knocks the racquet out of Ryoma’s hand?

Volume 30: The Boys From Okinawa

It’s more tennis against those no-goodniks from Okinawa, who are so hardcore they picked their starting lineup by dunking all their heads underwater and the starting lineup was composed of the guys who kept their heads under the longest--clearly those with the most stamina! They’re so hardcore that their will to win is stronger than that of their own coach!

Volume 31: A Surprise Strategy: Eiji Plays Singles

The highlight of this volume is Eiji, a teammate on Dear Old Team who loves playing doubles, but his usual partner still hasn’t totally recovered from an injury, so he decides to try his hand at playing one-on-one singles against one of the bad guys, instead. When he’s unable to succeed that way... he just goes back to playing doubles against the guy. Over and over, everyone sees him in two places at once, like he’s playing both positions, doubles-style. How is this explained? It isn’t. Oh, you tell yourself it’s like he’s just that FAST—but I don’t think the manga ever SAYS that that’s what it is. He’s just sort of used his powerful battle-energy to sort of create a duplicate visual version of himself, mentally and spiritually covering both positions. Naruto can do it, so why not Dear Old Tennis Gang?

See what I mean about this title? But now that I understand that this is really sort of a spiritual samurai epic of the modern day, I can live with stuff like this. Go ahead, Erik-who-sends-me-manga-from-Viz. I no longer fear this gambit from you. I have pushed myself even beyond my limits and have discovered power I never knew I had--potential that was always inherent within me, unlocked now for the first time!

Because that’s how the court rolls in Prince of Tennis.

If you think that you’re ready for a sort of Kenshin Himura recast by the threads of fate into a 7th-grade tennis prodigy, maybe you might enjoy Prince of Tennis in spite of itself. It happened to me, just this evening...

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