Kodansha's recent push into digital-exclusive manga has been a boon to many genres of manga, including sports manga. There was plenty of titles I could have chosen from, focus on sports ranging from baseball to MMA fighting. In the end, I chose the most unique title of them all; one that wasn't focused on playing a game, but instead on coaching.
GIANT KILLING (Jaianto Kiringu), written by Masaya Tsunamoto & art by Tsujitomo. First published in 2007 and first published in North America in 2017.
Tatsumi Takeshi was once the star player for the East Tokyo United team, but he wanted a challenge and decided to leave and coach an amateur team in England. Years later, ETU is in danger of losing their place in both the local league and the hearts of the locals. The staff eventually convince Tatsumi to come back, but it's going to take a lot more than a change of coaches to win over both the fans and the remaining team members. Tatsumi's not worried, though. His attitude may be eccentric, but there's no one better around at turning underdog players into a giant-killing team.
Aside from the emphasis on coaching, Giant Killing doesn't seem all that different from most of the sports fiction we've seen over the years. You have a team of underdogs, an eccentric mentor with incredible talent, a town full of skeptics waiting to be won over, and the promise of a tournament somewhere in the hazy future. It's familiar, even comforting fare for readers on either side of the Pacific. Yet as I was reading this, I was struck by the care, the detail, and the sheer love Tsunamoto puts into this cast and this story. He may not be an innovator, but he does know how to imbue every part of this manga with personality and take all the time he needs to do so.
You know Tsunamoto is taking things slow when it takes halfway through the first volume just for Tatsumi to finally decide to take on the ETU position. In the meantime, we take in the story through the eyes of ETU team managers Gotoh and Yuri. We not only get to see Tatsumi's skills at work during a championship match, but also how his efforts have united both his team and the townfolk around them. He applies this same approach to the hometown crowd back in Japan, and it does wonders for fleshing out the world of Giant Killing. Only a few characters get anything beyond a scene or two, but Tsunamoto makes the team staff, team players, and the supporters around them feel lively yet down-to-earth. They feel like the sort of ordinary folks you might find in any other no-name suburb.
It's also a tactic that helps to endear the reader to Tatsumi before they actually have to follow him as a character. While he's clearly a talented strategist with a keen eye, he's also kind of flippant and more than a little mercurial. He's not an asshole by any means, but he doesn't go out of his way to charm anyone either, including the reader. Still, it's that same flippancy that makes him a great coach. He's willing to shake things up to discover hidden talents in some and guide others towards new perspectives. He lives for a challenge; the title refers to his fondness for turn the humble Davids of the soccer world into champions that can conquer giant, seemingly untouchable obstacles. Again, it's something that's familiar, but Tsunamoto builds upon that familiarity to create something truly compelling.
The art is just as compelling and hard-to-pin-down as Tatsumi himself. There's something about the way that Tsujimoto draws faces that I find fascinating. Maybe it's the way that Tatsumi's hawkish profile and messy sweep of hair compliment one another or the cat-like curl of Yuri's smile. Maybe there's something about the thick linework that makes the art stand out. Maybe it's the sheer variety of interesting character designs on display, or the level of detail put into the backgrounds. Maybe it's the way that he uses good montages and paneling to make up for the slight rigidness of the sports action. Taken all together, it's truly striking.
Giant Killing isn't as action-packed as some of the other manga I've covered this month, but the sharp writing, eye-catching art, and unique approach more than makes up for it. It's absolutely worth reading, so long as you're ready to commit to it for the long haul.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is ongoing in Japan with 46 volumes available. 11 volumes have been published digitally and are currently in print.