Eyeshield 21, vols. 1-37

Eyeshield 21 vol 1When wimpy shrimp Sena Kobayakawa’s lightning-speed legs get him drafted for his bottom-rung high school’s barely existent football team, he has no idea what he’s getting himself into. Or how it will change his life forever.

Always on the hunt for new recruits, the Deimon Devil Bats’ wily quarterback Hiruma snatches Sena up and immediately declares him the team’s new secret weapon: the mystery running back known only as Eyeshield 21. Hiruma and the team’s only other permanent member, giant teddy-bear lineman Kurita, desperately want to make it to the Christmas Bowl before they graduate. Spurred by their heartfelt enthusiasm–and machine gun-toting Hiruma’s gleeful threats of violence–Sena is soon as caught up in the dream as they are. But three crazy kids can’t do it alone (football is a team sport, after all), so they add an over-protective manager here, a goofball monkey of a receiver there, then a trio of blackmailed, delinquent linemen, a grizzled, mohawk-sporting kicker, and a host of other colorful, loveable cohorts who put their all into every practice and every game, learning more about themselves and what they can do both individually and as a team with every over-the-top play.

“Over-the-top” barely begins to describe this series in which reality regularly reflects metaphor, with the Ojo Knights seeming to charge forward on horseback with lowered lances and the Seibu Wild Gunmen’s uber-focused Jo Tetsuma laying track as he steams like a locomotive toward his plotted reception point. Trick plays and special moves abound, all with appropriately outlandish names: the Devilbat Ghost, Super Maxi Catch, and (my personal favorite) Juvenile Delinquent Murder Method(!). To accommodate all the internal monologue, shop talk, and back-seat driving from the stands, a single play can last for pages, a game for several books, yet it always feels edge-of-your-seat. And it’s that ability to emotionally engage the reader and never lose her attention that keeps this series fresh and fun.

For example, over 37 volumes, the kiddos encounter more than a dozen unique teams, each of which has its own star players and stand-out personalities, many of whom become respected rivals and lifelong friends. You’d think that with so many names and faces (I gave up counting after 50) they’d all start to blur together, but Inagaki and Murata give them so much individuality, both in character and physique, and so much stake in the story, that it’s easier than expected to keep the reappearing ones straight. This is partly due to each volume’s helpful inclusion of a prominent character guide. But more importantly, the accomplished, increasingly-refined art and clever writing mesh so well that you soon come to recognize key players not only by their jersey numbers, but by what they say and how they say it, the way they stand, their builds beneath their uniforms, even by just their eyes and the bridges of their noses behind their face masks.

VIZ’s suggested readership of 16 and up seems reasonable yet negotiable. Obviously, there’s a good deal of fantasy football violence here, as well as a few fistfights, but none of it particularly gruesome or fatal. Hiruma readily resorts to blackmail and pulls from his bottomless arsenal of guns to build and “encourage” his team and intimidate opponents. He also prefixes everyone’s nicknames with “Damn,” and Agon growls out one or two stronger expletives early on. There are also a few instances of underage gambling and drinking as well as some crude adolescent humor (including the occasionally bare bottom of a character who tends to forget his pants and a hilarious scene in which Hiruma tricks naive Sena into flying the bird). It’s all pretty light-hearted, however. The most adult-oriented material in the series involves talented, arrogant, dangerously short-tempered Agon, who is implicitly shown to be sexually active. Yet while clearly set up as a villainous contrast to the rest of the characters and a model of what not to be, he can no more escape the positive influence of Hiruma and his band of earnest misfits than can anyone else, including the reader, and manages to grow some respect for others and earn some in return by end of the series.

Eyeshield 21 deftly balances exciting action, snappy comedy, and some sincerely emotional drama, lending it surprisingly broad appeal, even for non-sports fans like myself. And while things may feel a little rushed in the final 3 volumes following the Christmas Bowl arc’s conclusion in volume 34, that doesn’t detract from the series’ overall brilliance or the joy of watching the endearing, hard-working characters reinvent themselves, not just as players but as human beings, while you grow to love each and every one of them. “Ya-ha!”

Eyeshield 21, vols. 1-37
by Riichiro Inagata
Art by Yusuke Murata
Vol. 1: ISBN 9781591167525
Vol. 2: ISBN 9781591168096
Vol. 3: ISBN 9781591168740
Vol. 4: ISBN 9781421500744
Vol. 5: ISBN 9781421501139
Vol. 6: ISBN 9781421502747
Vol. 7: ISBN 9781421504057
Vol. 8: ISBN 9781421506378
Vol. 9: ISBN 9781421506386
Vol. 10: ISBN 9781421506394
Vol. 11: ISBN 9781421506408
Vol. 12: ISBN 9781421510618
Vol. 13: ISBN 9781421510626
Vol. 14: ISBN 9781421510637
Vol. 15: ISBN 9781421510642
Vol. 16: ISBN 9781421510650
Vol. 17: ISBN 9781421511665
Vol. 18: ISBN 978142151544X
Vol. 19: ISBN 9781421516241
Vol. 20: ISBN 978142151625X
Vol. 21: ISBN 9781421516268
Vol. 22: ISBN 9781421519550
Vol. 23: ISBN 9781421519569
Vol. 24: ISBN 9781421523930
Vol. 25: ISBN 9781421523949
Vol. 26: ISBN 9781421526212
Vol. 27: ISBN 9781421526220
Vol. 28: ISBN 9781421526232
Vol. 29: ISBN 9781421527765
Vol. 30: ISBN 9781421528137
Vol. 31: ISBN 9781421529271
Vol. 32: ISBN 9781421531625
Vol. 33: ISBN 9781421532318
Vol. 34: ISBN 9781421533063
Vol. 35: ISBN 9781421535777
Vol. 36: ISBN 9781421536842
Vol. 37: ISBN 9781421536859
Viz Media, 2005-2011
Publisher Age Rating: 16+

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