One of the neat idiosyncrasies of manga (Japanese comics) is the popularity of sports-themed series. Slam Dunk, a comic about a high school basketball team, is among the best-selling manga series of all time, and there are books about everything from swimming to rugby. Even sports that don’t have a whole lot of cultural relevance in Japan are potential candidates, and that’s where Eyeshield 21 comes in: a manga about American football.
At the book’s centre is Sena Kobayakawa, a small, weak kid who’s been bullied all his life. In his first days at high school that doesn’t look at to change, until Yoichi Hiruma—the school’s most feared bully—sees some potential in him. You see, his life of being a gopher for bigger kids has turned him into a fast, agile runner, which is exactly what Hiruma needs for the school’s struggling American football team.
Sena doesn’t exactly want to play such an aggressive sport, but Hiruma can be very persuasive. Much to his surprise, Sena discovers that he rather enjoys it. To avoid the wrath of his overprotective best friend, he plays with his face hidden by a tinted helmet. On the field, he’s not Sena; he’s Eyeshield 21, the Deimon Devil Bats’ mysterious running back.
This builds into the kind of coming-of-age story that’s typical of teen-focused manga. It’s about an introverted kid coming out of his shell and finding his passion in life. It’s about the friendships that develop and that challenges that Sena, Hiruma, and the rest of the team overcome on their journey to winning the high school championship.
Admittedly, it’s very formulaic. Manga aimed at teenage boys (known as shōnen manga) generally follows a familiar structure, and Eyeshield 21 is no exception. If you’ve ever read any other shōnen series, like Naruto or One Piece, you’ll find very similar story beats and character archetypes here. Nothing that happens will come as a surprise.
However, that shōnen structure comes with its charms as well. It’s generally quite lighthearted and funny, with that very Japanese sense of humour typical of manga, but it also veers towards interpersonal drama quite regularly. Some may find it overly melodramatic, but that’s one of those shōnen quirks that I find quite endearing.
Of course, the highlights are the action sequences on the football field. Even though it’s heavily scripted and it’s usually easy to see what will happen, I found the Devil Bats’ games every bit as exciting as a live match. The characters hilarious eccentricities really get a chance to shine—Hiruma in particular—and everything is wonderfully brought to life by Yusuke Murata’s art.
Eyeshield 21 won’t be for everyone, but if you like shōnen manga or American football, and especially if you like both, I’d definitely recommend it.