Sometimes fate likes to play you for a fool. Perhaps you were one of the top sprinters in the country and decided to confess to the girl of your dreams if you win national competition, only to have the moment of your victory snatched away by your leg breaking down. Maybe you were best looking and most talented person in class, but one mistake leads to an accident that takes everything away from you. Or maybe you were just someone that no one ever believed in and are stuck where you are because society deemed you were worthless.

REAL is the latest masterpiece by Slam Dunk author, Takehiko Inoue. The plot follows three young men in yet another basketball based manga, though this time the excitement isn’t as much in the game, as it’s in the setting and character development.

Plot summary from Wikipedia:

The story revolves around three teenagers: Nomiya Tomomi, a high school dropout, Togawa Kiyoharu, an ex-sprinter who now plays wheelchair basketball and Takahashi Hisanobu, a popular leader of the high school’s basketball team who now finds himself a paraplegic after an accident.

REAL features a cast of characters who find themselves being marginalized by society, but are all united by one common feature: a desire to play basketball, with no place to play it in. Nomiya, being a high school dropout, has no future in his life. Togawa, being a difficult personality, finds himself constantly feuding with his own teammates. Takahashi, once a popular team leader, now finds himself being unable to move from the chest down.

REAL also deals with the reality of physical disabilities, and the psychological inferiority that the characters struggle against. The characters break through their own psychological barriers bit by bit.

While basketball is a large part of REAL, a larger emphasis is placed on character development– Takehiko Inoue is just as interested in exploring the past of the characters, their inner world, and their attempts to achieve something in life as he is in looking at the sport of wheelchair basketball.

I have to admit, I was quite conflicted when reading this manga, shedding a tear from time to time as a result. The manga’s portrayal of three main character’s back-stories and what exactly dragged them all down to where they’re currently at is compelling, realistic, and very much touching. This is the kind of sports manga that adults read. Yes, stories such as Crossgame and Saki can touch the hearts of all ages, but REAL really shines in the minds of adults, those who truly understand realistic side behind the fluff.

More than just a realistic story, REAL is a story of three young boys maturing into men. Three young men trying to overcome fate. Three young men trying to find meaning in a life after losing everything. Something that is important to note is that despite the fact that each of the characters endures terrible heartbreak, pain, and personal misery (not to mention causing pain to others), REAL is far from cynical. There is nothing here that makes you lose faith in humanity even when character reflections get bitter, they are directed more toward the individual than at the species.

The artwork in this series is impressively mature, impressively real. There is no polish meant for younger audiences, the art is kept expressive, detailed, and gritty. There is plenty of dialogue, but the majority of story telling is done through the art, which is able to visually deepen the impact of important scenes at the right moments.

There is one particular scene that reached out to me more than any other. That scene involved a coach explaining to one of the recently disabled characters that he believes that certain people have disabilities because God believes they can overcome them. He was mainly referring to Magic Johnson discovering he had HIV, but I think the message is much deeper (a desire for people with disabilities to never give up).

Both heart-wrenching and down-to-earth, this series makes the most of its human drama, both on and off the court, without ever sinking into melodrama. There is always some good in humanity. The world doesn’t end when fate kicks you down. Simply put, REAL is real. I was surprised by the heart and the complexity of REAL . If you’re going to read an adult-aimed sports manga, this is as Real as it gets.