Shojo Beat Review | Crimson Hero

As a great T-shirt once said, volleyball is life. The rest is just details.

(Viz Media; B&W; $8.99 ea.)

(W/A: Mitsuba Takanashi)

Vol. 1 – 192 pgs, available now

Vol. 2 – 184 pgs, available now

Vol. 3 – 192 pgs, available 08-01-2006

High school is a time of obsessions. The teenage years tend to be a sea of overwhelming emotions and constant drama, and that goes doubly for Nobara Sumiyoshi, the single-minded protagonist of Crimson Hero. As a great T-shirt once said, volleyball is life. The rest is just details.

The sports entry in Shojo Beat’s manga lineup, Crimson Hero tells the story of Nobara, a girl torn between her obsession and her family. Nobara has wanted to play volleyball for as long as she can remember, but her mother has other ideas. As the proprietor of the Seiryu Ryotei, an upscale Japanese dining establishment passed down for generations, her plan has always been to leave the restaurant to her tomboyish oldest daughter, despite the fact that her elegant younger daughter Souka is much better suited for the job. Against her mother’s wishes, Nobara enrolls at Crimson Field High School, renowned across Japan for its volleyball program, only to discover that the school is known for boys volleyball, and that her mother has used her influence to make sure girls volleyball isn’t an option. Infuriated, Nobara runs away from home and, with the help of her aunt Momoko—Crimson Field’s school nurse and the black sheep of the family—gets a job as the "dorm mother" for a building housing four members of the boys’ volleyball team and sets out to bring back girls volleyball, even if it kills her.

It’s easy to be underwhelmed by the first few chapters of Crimson Hero, as initially, Nobara seems little more than a whiny, insolent teenager. When she brays "It’s all for volleyball. I’m doing this so I can play volleyball!" in the book’s second chapter, it hits with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. But as the story progresses, Nobara’s obsession truly takes over, as the poor girl runs herself ragged between handing out flyers to every girl on campus and doing all the cooking and cleaning for her dorm residents. The first arc peaks as Nobara and her first two recruits challenge three of the best boy players in a practice game to determine the fate of their team. And if you think that the game doesn’t come down to the final point, well, then you obviously haven’t read enough sports stories.

Mitsuba Takanashi’s writing may take a little while to get going, but the same cannot be said of her art, which is top notch from beginning to end. Her characters are tall, lithe, and uniformly attractive, and Takanashi’s sharp eye for fashion keeps them looking both interesting and realistic (though you’ll be wondering how much money ASICS threw at her to get every character in their athletic wear). Nobara exudes tomboyish charm, and Takanashi’s skill with facial expressions—particularly her large, reflecting pool-like eyes—make the emotions hit home. The volleyball scenes, though, are what make or break a story like this, and Takanashi pulls out all the stops with kinetic layouts that maintain the precision in character design of the quieter scenes.

The second major arc sees Nobara and company taking their first fateful steps toward becoming a full team, pulling in more members and competing in their first practice game. This being a shojo story, some romance has to be thrown into the mix in the form of a four-sided love triangle (love rhombus?). Nobara feels an immediate connection to Yushin, one of her dorm residents whose brash attitude hides his fiercely protective attitude toward Nobara, but she shares a past with Haibuki, the quiet dorm resident who developed a crush on her as a child that caused a rift between he and Tomoyo, his ex-girlfriend and another volleyball player who is very much still on the scene. As a nice change of pace, the ultimate victor of this romantic entanglement isn’t immediately obvious, and the boys are more well-rounded than the typical shojo stereotypes.

Takanashi’s storytelling is not perfect; the script is overly reliant at times on Nobara repeating "I just really love volleyball" in inner monologues far more than necessary, and the injection of flashbacks to previous conversations every three to five pages can get monotonous. The volleyball action is riveting but rare, and it will try the patience of some readers to only have one game in the story’s first 400 pages, regardless of how big the payoff is. The character interaction, however, is top notch, and with strong characters and even stronger art, Takanashi overcomes some minor writing ticks to produce an overall highly enjoyable book. While the book starts off hesitantly, the story picks up quickly and within a few chapters you’ll find yourself rooting for this young girl’s volleyball dream more than you ever expected.

Click "Next" for Jason's review of the all-ages comedy Baby & Me!

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