Starting in the December issue of Shonen Jump magazine, Viz Media will begin releasing the manga voted number one of all time in Japan, Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue. Slam Dunk is the story of a comically arrogant high school student who goes out for the basketball team to impress a girl. Although he’s talented, he knows nothing about how to play the game. Over 100 million copies of this basketball manga have been sold worldwide, and in September 2008, Viz Media will publish the digest-sized tankoubon for American readers.

The 40-year old Inoue is also the mangaka (manga creator) behind the epic ongoing series, Vagabond (Viz Media), based on Japan's most revered and influential samurai warrior, Miyamoto Musashi. Viz plans to release an omnibus edition of Vagabond next year in addition to art books Sumi and Water, which feature Inoue's Vagabond art work.

But in even bigger news, Viz Media is bringing Inoue's newest manga series, REAL to American audiences. REAL is a story about wheelchair basketball, a quintessential Inoue work that merges his passion for the game with his passion for those who strive to overcome barriers to achieving greatness. To honor Inoue and his work, Viz brought the famed mangaka to New York City to celebrate the opening of the new Kinokuniya bookstore near Bryant Park and Inoue painted a wall mural of characters from Vagabond at the new store. In this two-part interview held at the bookstore, PW Comics talked with Inoue-sensei to hear his thoughts on creating manga, creating art and his love for basketball.

PW Comics Week: You’re a big fan of basketball. You played in high school, and you’ve followed the NBA. You’ve even set up a scholarship with Kent University in the U.S. to allow Japanese students to train and play in the NCAA. How did you first discover basketball, and how did your love for it develop?

Takehiko Inoue: I started to play to be popular with the girls. Before that, I wasn’t really interested in it.

PWCW: Did it help?

TI: A little.

PWCW: So is Sakuragi, the protagonist in Slam Dunk, based on you?

TI: Yes, but he’s very exaggerated.

PWCW: Can you talk about your interest in manga and how that developed?

TI: I’ve always loved drawing and I always knew I would make a living drawing. I didn’t think I would be a manga artist, but when it came time to decide [my career], manga seemed closest to me. I wanted to utilize manga to express myself.

PWCW: Basketball and drawing both take a great deal of time to develop the skills for each. How did you find time to pursue both?

TI: For basketball, I played in high school—that’s all I did, play basketball. For drawing, when I began, I didn’t really have the skill. I improved as people saw my work.

PWCW: What made you want to create a basketball manga?

TI: I wasn’t a great basketball player. Also, I wasn’t the best manga artist to begin with, but by utilizing manga and basketball—it’s a little difficult to explain—but I was the best person to utilize both in one.

PWCW: There are a lot of sports manga in Japan. How did you approach it in a way that would make it different? Did you want to do something different? What were you trying to achieve?

TI: I didn't think about it at the time, but in retrospect I see that Slam Dunk is from the player's point of view and perspective, and accordingly the reader sees it from the players’ point of view. Other manga are done from an audience's perspective, using an announcer or something.

PWCW: Your samurai series, Vagabond, is about Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s famed swordsman. How did you become interested in his story?

TI: I consider [sports] to be a battle with rules. So I wanted to convey something that’s closer to reality, something more real.

PWCW: The story of Musashi has been told in many different forms. How did you approach this well-known story?

TI: Not a lot is actually known for sure about Musashi, and it's not like I'm trying to create a history book. I'm creating this character for the modern reader and that's the focus.

PWCW: How do you feel about REAL, your wheelchair basketball manga,being pubbed in the U.S.?

TI: I feel that the feelings and reactions and emotions people have are the same no matter what country. I’m interested in seeing if the reaction here is similar [to that in Japan].

PWCW: How did you come up with the concept of doing a wheelchair basketball manga?

TI: I saw it on TV and it really surprised and shocked me, the speed and how hard the players were playing. Playing sports myself, it really hit me. I did a lot of interviews and came to know and befriend wheelchair basketball players. They really have a strength within them and a kindness. They’ve had to overcome a lot. I wanted to express that.

PWCW: Your artwork, your style for Slam Dunk differs from your artwork in Vagabond. Vagabond is detailed and painterly, whereas Slam Dunk is comedic with key dramatic moments and your artwork is highly stylized. In REAL, the reader gets to see these two styles fused into something gritty yet beautiful. How did you develop these two styles?

TI: I consider Vagabond a challenge. Slam Dunk I consider very typical and mangalike. For Vagabond, I was trying to do something different.

PWCW: Are there any artists who influenced you as you developed this style?

TI: Not specifically for Vagabond. But there are people who influenced me as manga artists such as Ikegami Ryoichi. [Ryoichi’s works include Crying Freeman, Heat and Sanctuary. Heat and Sanctuary are hard-boiled crime series that delve into the interwoven world of politics and crime in Japan.]

[Part 2 of PWCW's interview with Takehiko Inoue will be available on PW The Beat on Wednesday.]