As an American, I was tickled pink by the fact that there was a manga that dealt with American Football. From what I understood American Football is like Aussie Rules Football, way more popular in their home countries and generally ignored by the rest of the sports loving world. Was I wrong about that? Soccer is still king my friends.
There is a lot about this manga that creeps up on you. I will not lie, it took me well over 100 chapters to really get into the storyline. The main reason that this was is because the writer, Inagaki Riichiro, and the artist, Murata Yuusuke, set a rather slow development for the characters. A negative and a positive writing style because I have yet to find another manga written by Inagaki while Murata has gone on to work on other published works. By slowly developing the characters, the reader is invited to see the complete transformation and become more connected to those characters. Yet, this style of storytelling makes the manga last way longer than I felt it needed to be. Although, that slow buildup made the ending a lot more satisfying, even with the very predictable ending.
The characters really are what makes this manga, though for me it wasn't the main character Sena that made me keep reading. Hiruma is the real star, really like how the QB is usually the star in real American Football teams. He is the core that plots, plans, and blackmails to get through till the end, and he is still kinda shrouded in mystery till the bitter end. Hiruma's character was the comic relief, intelligent informer, master planner, and almost everything else in this manga. Instead of being revealed in larger arcs like the rest of the characters, Hiruma is one of the few characters that doesn't continually developed, but he is continuously revealed. This distinction is important because it keeps Hiruma dynamic instead of stagnant in the storyline. Other characters like Shin, Agon, Ikkyuu were all pretty stagnant to me. Sure Ikkyuu was fun and he brought some comic relief, as well as looking like Vegeta, but Shin and Agon really had no development. All they were were the "perfect" ideal in the manga and that just makes them placeholders and not real characters.
On the football front, anybody who is actually a fan or learns the rules will figure out that a lot of the plays and the special skills some of the players possess are just impossible or completely illegal. Shin "Trident Spear" totally illegal, the "Dragonfly" formation isn't ever going to happen. Though the "Criss Cross" play was a good idea, I have no idea if it could ever work. I also saw a lot of pass interference going on during every game. But credit should be given were credit is due, this is the only manga I have ever seen that deals with American Football and that gives it it's biggest advantage.
Manga has a very rich and diverse history. Since Tezuka blazed the trail on both manga and animation, he has been the starting point for many different plot lines. As a reader continues to read, they start to see a lot of overlap in the genres because there is just only so much you can do that hasn't already been done before. Baseball manga are everywhere, shojo is always pulling in the shy girl with the popular guy, and there are just too many student council stories to go around. Yet, Eyeshield 21 is the only mainstream American football manga that I was able to find when I did a search. Similar to what I said about Rurouni Kenshin, that manga was already designed to standout. Be it Murata and Inagaki or whatever editor they dealt with at Jump, somebody got it right. Sport manga are almost always hugely popular and add it to the fact that American Football is not a common sport and throw it in Weekly Jump? Gold my friends.
Artistically, I felt like I can say this without shame, Murata was totally influenced by Toriyama Akira because I couldn't look at Ikkyuu and not see Vegeta and Kurita as a much larger version of Chaozu. Not even just artistically, I felt like I was reading a mix of Dragonball and a sports manga the whole time I was reading. The American teams were the Seiyans and they leveled up accordingly. Maybe I am way off base with that, but it was a strong impression I got. Eyeshield 21 held a much mix of different shonen themes and archetypes that almost any reader could read it and find something familiar in it.
With the recent string of shōnen Jump manga that is geared not just to boys but girls as well, it was a little strange to read this manga because it was obviously not written with any type of female audience in mind. There is no romance to drive the plot, there are only 2 main female characters who are not really developed beyond friendship, and American football is not a sport that Japanese females are going to be remotely interested in. Japanese girls are not interested in sports that include beating the crap out of your opponent, they like boys who play baseball and basketball. This manga is unapologetically geared for guys and only for guys.
In comparing Eyeshield 21 to Kuroko no Basuke? I feel that they are the same type of sports manga. I say that Kuroko has much better characters that are much more dynamic. There are times in the manga that I felt Eyeshield 21 strayed into PoT land with the types of "skills" these guys had, and I have yet to really get that feeling from Kuroko.