THERE was a period in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s when the Southeast Asian obsession with all things Japanese crystallised into something close to perfection -local reprints of manga. I cannot recall what I was studying in the lead-up to UPSR, but I cannot forget running down to the newsagent's to buy the latest edition of Doraemon or Slam Dunk.
These were reprints of Japanese comics that would run for years and hundreds of issues in their native country, serialised chapter by chapter in anthologies. New volumes would beckon tantalisingly from the display table at Syarikat Desa, where the auntie would fix you with a stare that would curdle spinal fluid at a hundred paces if you looked but didn't buy. Some had their pages reversed so you could read them from left to right, some didn't, but all of them had one wonderful thing in common – they were in Bahasa Malaysia.
There is a charming pomposity to BM, a grandeur sharpened into something lovely and regal by the knowledge of its steady decay. Nowhere has this been put to better use than in the pages of these manga; BM lent gravitas to exasperation and steeped sketches in mostly undeserving wisdom. Nowhere was this more apparent than the magnificently idioticbons mot of SakuragiHanamichi, the flame-haired protagonist of Slam Dunk.
This is an opportune moment to stop and make one of those well-researched, balanced statements that are the foundation of modern journalism. Here it is – Slam Dunk is one of the very best fictional representations of sport in any medium. It's well worth tracking down, even if all you can find is an English translation; this being a respectable publication, I am of course unable to mention that it is readily available online.
Sports fiction is a broad church, a long temple, any combination of size and denomination that fits. Slam Dunk uses a particularly Japanese convention - the gifted athlete who doesn't have a bleeding clue about his chosen sport, or the sport that has chosen him ' but is one step removed from this.
Indeed, when we first meet him, Sakuragi doesn't even know he's an athlete. He's lovelorn and violent; the early chapters have a fun but distracting gangster flavour that falls away once the basketball gets going. Hanamichi, in fact, only gets into basketball to impress a girl, the latest in a long line of failed pursuits. Her name is AkagiHaruko, and she has a connection to the basketball team that is too delicious to reveal here.
Even at this early stage, Slam Dunk's Simpsons-esque cast generously allows each other a shot at centre court. Sakuragi's entourage, the captain of the basketball team, his nemesis RukawaKaede – each of these characters has a background, a motive, a unique style of play. There are no real villains; instead, you dally for a while with fans and coaches and other players. You still cheer for your heroes, but you understand where even the most difficult adversaries are coming from, and it's wonderful.
Rukawa, in particular, is one of Slam Dunk's highlights. He's a rookie too, but a sublimely talented one, and his moves are just believable enough to inspire much sweat under a backboard. Creator Inoue Takehiko is credited with popularising basketball in Japan, and it's easy to see why – readers grow with Sakuragi, learning moves and techniques as he does, aspiring all the while to Rukawa's gifts. The rivalry between the two is seldom less than hilarious, lending itself to the whip-sudden transition into caricature that manga does so well.
There's a bit of a love triangle, but this isn't a romance, and the high-school setting keeps everything chaste. Still, Inoue manages a delicate balancing act that perfectly captures the throb of high school – the contrast between the challenges and victories that swell to fill the whole world and the knowledge that there is a whole world out there waiting to be explored.
Slam Dunk also has the best grasp of relativity since that bloke by the name of Albert. This is why the manga works so much better than the anime - in Inoue's skillful hands, time stretches or congeals from panel to panel, and the extremes are equally addictive. The ball might move from one end of the court in a flash, but lifetimes can pass in agony as a three-pointer arcs towards the basket.
This contributes to great pacing and some truly amazing build-ups. Sometimes all you'll get is a face drowned in sweat and emotion, or a flicker of shadow - and then you plunge forward to discover a gloriously rendered splash page. Inoue's clean lines deliver moments so perfect you'll feel a chill, but he's not afraid to spend time and effort setting up a punchline so ridiculous that its memory will make you chortle quietly at entirely inappropriate moments.
SakuragiHanamichi is the perfect straight man. He's complicated – intelligent but not bright, dedicated only when the right motivation is applied, hungry for personal glory but the consummate team player. The combination of all these things means that the most satisfying parts of Slam Dunk come down to one emotion: pride.
Inoue has gone on to create other manga; his most recent, Real, is a darker, more mature work that focuses on the world of wheelchair basketball. But Slam Dunk, his very first, is a story of growth. When Sakuragi succeeds, it is impossible not to be proud at how hard he has fought, how much he has learned, how far he has come. By the end of the series, he has grown tall indeed, but his goals are higher still. Whether he gets there or not doesn't matter – it's much more fun to think of Sakuragi eternally in flight, somewhere between the court and the rim.