Written and illustrated by the author/artist duo of Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata, Eyeshield 21 is a sports manga that approached a sport not all that popular in Japan: American football. While there actually are other manga about the sport out there, this was the one that stood out from the rest. The series is about a weak-willed freshman at Deimon High School named Sena who has spent his childhood acting as a gofer for bigger, stronger kids. These indignities have left him with a set of legs that grant him speed unexpected of someone so small, getting him roped into playing for the Deimon American football team: the Devil Bats. To attract attention to the football club, its captain, Yuichi Hiruma, decides to pass Sena off as a legendary high school football star known as Eyeshield 21, having him wear a helmet with a reflective visor to hide his true identity. Hilarity (and some crazy ass football) ensues.
So was it really that good a series, or was it simply the beneficiary of a weak niche market? Let’s have a look.
THINGS THAT ROCKED
While the series is meant to show off an insane version of high school football as played by kids who don’t really seem to do all that much actual schoolwork given the amount of time they devote to what is supposed to be a sports club, the area where the series really shines is its characters, especially given that their interactions are what makes reading through the multi-chapter games worth it. Hell, the characters are so easy to like that I honestly felt that you could cut out a good chunk of the football, and these characters would still be interesting to follow in their own rights.
The Devil Bats are, as is par for the course in this genre, a team of misfits and underdogs thrown together by a mixture of circumstance and the machinations of their quarterback, who I will get to soon enough. What’s funny about the team, and so vital to their characterization and the emphasis on teamwork, is the fact that each of these characters is an incomplete player who, with the help of the other players, is able to overcome their own shortcomings while pushing their talents to the max. Sena, our main character, is a pretty standard average loser kid who turns out to have one talent that gets him noticed by those around him: his near-untouchable speed. Over the course of the series, he grows into someone a little more willing to stand up for himself and the people around him, growth that is mirrored by his development into a damn fine running back. Aside from him are the team’s founders: the gentle but powerful Kurita, the unflappable kicker Musashi, and one of the most hilariously terrifying high school students in shonen history: Yoichi Hiruma.
While Sena is the main character, Hiruma is the true star of the show, acting alternately as a leader, a strategist, and a troll. He keeps the team psychologically pumped up with his antics, screws with the heads of those around him, and knows enough dirt on seemingly everyone to get whatever he wants whenever he wants. He’d be terrifying if he wasn’t so much fun to watch. It helps that he’s on the Devil Bats’ side, and God have mercy on those who oppose him.
The rest of the team is great too. We have Monta, a hotheaded wide receiver who might be the missing link, the Ha-Ha brothers, a bungling trio of delinquents (who aren’t actually brothers) with more depth to their characters than is expected of their archetypes, the physically puny but determined Yukimitsu, the short but powerful Komusubi, the dimwitted Taki, and Ishimaru, a character so forgettable in-universe that opposing teams sometimes forget to even cover him.
The fact is that these characters are just so easy to like as individuals and as a whole that you find yourself rooting for them, even if you can’t help but feel sorry for characters on other teams, who are themselves more than a little likeable.
Each of the opposing teams is for the most part (and by that I mean just about anyone not named Agon, and even he gets some moments that make you wonder) made up of sympathetic and likeable characters. Since there are so many of them, with at least one bound to appeal to some member of the audience; I’ll bring up just a few for the sake of brevity. We see a fellow underdog in the male idol Sakuraba, who desires to be thought of as more than a handsome face. We also meet Panther, an American who could be the hero of his own underdog story (complete with ensemble cast and background) if not for the fact that we are following the Devil Bats. His teammates on the NASA Aliens could have easily been played as jerks and bullies, but are instead a contrast to their coach, standing up for Panther as both friends and teammates.
Even more antagonistic characters are not devoid of sympathetic traits. Coach Apollo of the NASA Aliens might be an overbearing racist, but we also discover someone who respects hard workers and an ability to move on beyond his prejudices. As for Agon, who is basically the dickhead jock in every 80s teen movie turned up to 11, the prick is heavily hinted to have sympathy for his less talented twin brother Unsui, showing that for all his arrogance and overall dickish behavior, there is some semblance of decency in him.
The series also benefits from some pretty solid writing that combines the shonen staples of hard work and team efforts with a light tone that complements the exaggerated nature of the sporting events portrayed in the series. A fine balance is struck between comedy, drama, and fast-paced action. The humorous moments are genuinely funny, the dramatic moments are genuinely powerful, and the actual football, as over the top and ridiculous as it gets, is genuinely exciting.
Another example of solid writing comes in the form of the Devil Bats’ success. For the most part, the team is lucky to win when it does early on, otherwise it finds itself achieving ties and losing to superior teams. In fact, it is not until the entire team truly comes together that they start a winning streak familiar to those expecting the usual invincible good guys trope shonen manga often includes. One scene early on actually convinces you for a second that they’ve lost an important game, and while you know that they won’t stay down for long, it really does show just how important achieving success in football has become for these kids.
I also appreciated the manga’s approach to the question of whether a hard worker could catch up to a more talented peer. The answer the story gives is a reasonable one, and it fits with themes of both the value of hard work and the idea that what matters isn’t victory entirely, but the very nature of finding meaning in struggling forward regardless of the final result. This is a huge contrast with works like Naruto, where such questions are tossed aside in favor of illustrating the tropes of Japanese spirit: a seemingly talentless but hard working youth unlocking his true talents through his constant effort. Or in the case of Naruto, being a messianic figure foretold of in an old prophecy. While characters do grow more skilled in this series, they come to realize that they will hit a wall defined by their true talent level, but continue to fight on anyway. If anything, it’s a wiser, but still inspirational message to impart to readers.
THINGS THAT SUCKED
No series is perfect. There’s a reason why I call this format “Things That Rocked, Things That Sucked.” It’s to remind myself that every work has its flaws, minor or major, and that I have to be willing to find the brilliance in even the most tarnished pieces, as well as the flaws in even the most polished of diamonds. I’m not going to pointlessly hate on something or suck off an author whose work I enjoy. If I like something, I’ll admit to liking it, but I won’t be too proud to point out that even something I took pleasure in experiencing has its shortcomings. If I didn’t, I’d go back to writing copy for PR.
Anyway, to start, E21 has the unfortunate honor of outliving its welcome before it was supposed to finish. The battle against Ojo felt like a climax in itself due to the emotional connections between the two teams, and the actual game was exhaustingly awesome to read through. Following that, we were introduced to the Hakushu Dinosaurs, who managed to come off as threatening, even succeeding in causing a serious injury to Hiruma! While it lacked the anticipatory detail of the match with Ojo, it still was a decent match to follow. However, after that came the match against Japan’s powerhouse.
Teikoku is the team that those who followed Major League Baseball always claimed the New York Yankees circa the mid-2000s to be: a prestigious team that signed away the best players from other teams to add to their own star-studded roster. Their presence had been foreshadowed since around the halfway point of the story, and naturally, it was fitting that such an overwhelming opponent should be Deimon’s opponents in the finals at the Christmas Bowl. Hell, two of the players on the opposing team turn out to have significant connections to Monta and Sena. The star among stars among its receivers turns out to be the son of the baseball player that Monta has spent years idolizing. The second of the players is of even greater importance: he is the real Eyeshield 21!!! However, what should have been a thrilling and emotional match never really fulfilled its promise, and despite being a team made up of the best of the best among the aces drafted away from other schools, Teikoku was surprisingly underwhelming as an opponent. I will give credit to the author for writing a fitting ending to the match though. Funnily enough, the match is followed by the victorious Devil Bats being cheered on and tossed in the air by past opponents jubilant at this victory for the underdog. It would have been a nice scene to end on, and the story seems to realize that. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there.
The final arc of the series feels mostly unnecessary, and was likely included after the creators realized that they had a popular enough product to extend their series in spite of the fact that they already had a pretty good finale. So what happens is that the best amateur players from around the world are to compete in an American football tournament, with America as the expected favorite. One of said Americans is Panther, so this arc provides an opportunity to see how he’s been doing since then. The problem is that this arc feels extraneous in several ways, even if it does address some things—the question of hard work in comparison to natural talent and the aforementioned Panther—fairly well. As epic as this arc should have been, it was highly rushed (think the Demon World Tournament in YuYu Hakusho), and a lot of things just felt like an excuse to get to the final match between Japan’s all stars and America.
What makes it worse is that after the sympathetic and likeable foreigners portrayed in the NASA Aliens arc, what we get from the American team (sans Panther) is a bunch of arrogant dickholes. Granted, I liked Mr. Don due to how over the top he was in his arrogance, but that aside, the rest of the Americans didn’t feel like threats so much as they did prideful shitheads. Anyway, Team Japan plays America to a tie, forcing them to go into overtime. Japan has proved itself on the international stage, and Sena knows want he wants out of life.
Another reason why the final arc doesn’t work is because we move away from the Devil Bats to focus on the aces of each team, meaning that while it is nice fanservice, the team lacks the same chemistry and camaraderie that made following the underdog Devil Bats so intriguing. We’ve already seen Deimon achieve their series-long goals. So to pull the rug from under the reader and reveal a new goal at the last minute for fan favorites that weren’t all from Deimon didn’t have as much impact for readers.
This Is Gonna Be Awkward
Now we come to the part of the series that is a problem to talk about in Western, particularly American, culture. The arc that introduces Panther reveals that part of his coach’s actions stemmed from resentment of not only being cut from the team despite his best efforts, but also because of what he saw as…the innate physical superiority…ugh…of…there’s no real method of putting this smoothly…black people. Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. That’s just awkward for any reader who otherwise enjoyed the series.
As off-putting as it is, one could also write it off somewhat as the ramblings of a racist character, given that the rest of the manga manages to avoid anything controversial. At least until the World Cup Arc. Oh my sweet Lord, the World Cup Arc. Bad enough that it represented a moment in time when it became clear that the series had been going on for too long, but this is when the racism went from “well, this is a bit silly” to “best I don’t read these chapters while in public.”
Before proceeding further with the matter of Panther, I would like to bring up the depictions of American characters in the series. By this, I don’t mean the minor characters that appeared during the road trip through the country while the Devil Bats trained during the summer. I’m talking about the NASA Aliens as compared to the American team during the World Cup. Still with me? Okay, while Coach Apollo was racist, as mentioned earlier the team itself was made up of a bunch of normal guys who didn’t really do anything to indicate racism on their parts. Hell, one of them was an occidental otaku who based his idea of Japanese culture on what he read in manga! In short, the story managed to mostly avoid the easy stereotyping of foreign cultures that plagues a lot of other manga. Unfortunately, the World Cup takes this smart and culturally sensitive approach, tosses it out the side window, and then proceeds to do what a lot of manga tend to do: engage in obnoxious stereotypes. Team USA is made up of a bunch of arrogant jocks, and some of the other teams at the competition seem to have themes (see that one country with all those military jocks).
Meanwhile, the moment Panther is shown taking the field, shit gets racist as fuck. If I have to praise Viz for anything aside from their quality translations, it’s making the product English consumers got more palatable for Western markets. In the fan translated (and thus more likely to be accurate to the original) chapters, there is a strange need to point out that white folks and Asian folks just can’t compete with the brutha with the magical legs because he’s a brutha with magical biological advantages. Note the sheer ridiculousness of that last sentence. Certain characters just can’t shut up about the superior genetics black people have when it comes to professional sports like American football. Viz tones it down quite a bit, and aside from a few mentions, it doesn’t stand out nearly as much, so kudos to their staff for doing their jobs well.
If you’re looking for a serious sports manga about American football, I suggest you look elsewhere. But if you can stomach less than accurate and unrealistic sports depictions in a manga, E21 offers a likeable and varied cast, a light yet suitably intense tone, and some (for the most part) solid writing, even if the author does make a few missteps (namely anything to do with positive discrimination and the last arcs of the story). It’s definitely something I recommend with the aforementioned caveats in mind.