With a new promo video for its anime adaptation having just been released, the hype is real for Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Yusuke Nomura’s Blue Lock. What better time then to check out the manga and see how it stands out from the crowd among other sports series? While competition is a hallmark of the genre so is teamwork, and Blue Lock pumps the former up to eleven while actively subverting the latter. It’s a whole new approach to soccer manga and the narrative of an athlete striving to become their best self. With all that said, is Vol. 1 good?
For more on what makes the manga’s premise so unique, here’s a plot summary courtesy of Kodansha:
After a disastrous defeat at the 2018 World Cup, Japan’s team struggles to regroup. But what’s missing? An absolute Ace Striker, who can guide them to the win. The Football Association is hell-bent on creating a striker who hungers for goals and thirsts for victory, and who can be the decisive instrument in turning around a losing match…and to do so, they’ve gathered 300 of Japan’s best and brightest youth players. Who will emerge to lead the team…and will they be able to out-muscle and out-ego everyone who stands in their way?
The titular Blue Lock program is the source of most of the manga’s tension. It’s not just a select camp for talented athletes, but a live-in compound that they’re not allowed to leave for as long as they’re enrolled. The threat of expulsion is ever high, and the promise that it will end the athletes’ soccer careers only further compounds that stress. All of this would already be enough to generate intense pressure for the characters to have to contend with, but it’s the program’s ethos that really drives the conflict. Despite soccer’s status as a team sport, anyone hoping to succeed in Blue Lock must embrace their ego and look out only for themselves.
Enter protagonist Yoichi Isagi. Just before entering Blus Lock his high school team fails to make it to nationals, specifically because of his teammate’s failure to score a pivotal goal. The question arises in Yoichi’s mind: what if he had gone for it himself instead of passing? While he initially comforts himself with rhetoric about group effort, Blue Lock forces him to grapple with his commitment to that philosophy. Which is more important, preserving supportive team dynamics or powering through for one’s own sake regardless of collateral damage?
Every aspect of life in Blue Lock forces Yoichi to grapple with this question and to unleash a side of himself he didn’t even know he had. It’s one he views as monstrous, and that forces him to confront his own sense of morality even as his actions defy it. This is a case of plot contrivances imposed upon characters successfully triggering consistent conflict and thus resultant growth. Most of the characters’ decisions throughout the volume aren’t ones that would be easily defensible, but rather draw out all their worst, ugliest traits as people. This is a story about survival and the mental headspaces necessary to maintain it, and the execution of these themes is riveting.
Artistically, Nomura knocks it out of the park here. The action is thrilling to follow largely because of how difficult it is to predict. This is partially due to the fast-paced nature of the game but also due to Yoichi’s own internal conflicts. The flow of motion across panels and plays is always clear with no clarity issues even when Nomura juggles a dozen characters at a time. There’s a real sense of momentum to the compositions that makes one invested in following along from point A to point B.
With that said, the most memorable aspect of the manga’s art is the facial expressions. These are grade school age boys trapped within a highly stressful, life-altering situation with no support, and their emotional states reflect that. The mixture of anger and pain in a player’s expression when the ball flies straight into his face is exquisite. The same player’s reaction to being expelled from the program is also fantastic; the perspective and hyperdramatic focus on specific facial details (a bloody bitten lip, enraged eyes that almost look like they’re pulsing, etc.) make the panel look like something out of a horror manga. Again, the series’ extremity works in its favor.
Meanwhile Jinpachi Ego, the figurehead in charge of Blue Lock, is made all the more repulsive by his facial expressions. He receives far less textural detail than other characters, looking rather simple and bored in comparison. His dull, judgemental looks contrast heavily against the exhausted, sweaty physiques of the boys whose fates he dooms, giving him an air of separation and egotism befitting his name and philosophical approach.
All in all, Blue Lock Vol. 1 is a fantastic debut volume. This is sports manga cranked up to eleven with every aspect of the plot crafted to induce maximum stress (and thus, character development) in the protagonist. The art meanwhile is polished but intense and difficult to look away from. Every detail of this manga feels like it’s been intentionally designed to heighten every other aspect, resulting in a final product that’s virtually flawless. If the anime is even half this good then it’s likely to be massive hit.
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