Takehiko Inoue: The True to Life Manga Artist

Takehiko Inoue is a manga artist that helped to elevate the medium and change what people’s expectations of manga should be.

Nov 15, 2022By Idalis Love, BA Studio Arts & Art History
who is Takehiko Inoue manga artist


Takehiko Inoue is a juggernaut in the manga industry for having some of the best draftsmanship and storytelling. His works have a true to life atmosphere that can go from being nostalgic to meditative. He is a mangaka who sought to bring his passion for basketball into the industry and ended up contributing so much more.


Where Does Inoue Come From?

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Takehiko Inoue at the Latino Awards Japan in 2020, image taken by Cuervo y Sobrinos, via Cuervo y Sobrinos


Takehiko Inoue was born in Kagoshima, Japan in 1967. During his high school years, he played basketball, one of his most known passions. In 2006, Shueisha, a Japanese publication company, interviewed Takehiko Inoue about his Slam Dunk Scholarship and his love for basketball, and in that interview, they touched on his high school life.


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Slam Dunk: Volume 11 New Edition Cover by Takehiko Inoue, 2018, via Takehiko Inoue’s Official Website


During his high school years, he essentially stuck to his studies and played basketball — Inoue even stated that he had yet to even decide on being a mangaka at that time. He said that he “enjoyed [his time playing basketball]. [Their] team was not good, but [they] were able to enjoy [their] progress. In [his] high school life, [he] won, [he] lost… [and] experienced many things as [he] grew. [Their] team’s result[s] w[ere] poor, but [he] was able to learn something from it for three years. It was very important for [him], so [he] ha[s] to appreciate basketball.”


Inoue’s high school experience undeniably affected him and where he ended up. Basketball became a quintessential part of him and ended up inspiring one of the most lauded manga of all time, Slam Dunk.

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Why Did Inoue Begin His Journey as a Mangaka?

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Picture of Shinji Mizushima and his manga Dokaben, 2022, via Nikkei Asia (Original photos from Kyodo News)


There are three absolutes when it comes to Takehiko Inoue. One, he has an unwavering love for cats; two, his passion for drawing and storytelling knows no bounds; and three, he LOVES basketball as much as lungs love oxygen. So, instead of finishing his degree in Literature at Kumamoto University he dropped out in order to dedicate his time fully to manga.




Because during his time in high school he had begun reading the work Dokaben by Shinji Mizushima. The original Dokaben came out in 1972 when Takehiko Inoue was only five years old and finished its serialization in 1981 when Inoue was 14 years old. How did this quirky looking manga inspire Inoue? It’s simple. It was about baseball; it can be assumed that the heart that was put into the work and the passion for team sports is what attracted Inoue as that had been a constant for Inoue from high school all the way to now. He started reading Dokaben at a very young age and it undeniably had an influence over his style and storytelling.


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Kaede Purple by Takehiko Inoue, 1988, via Archive.org


In addition, in an interview done by Timothy R. Lehmann in his book MANGA: Masters of the Art (2005) Inoue talks about how he always had a passion for drawing, even prior to him getting into manga.


He talked about how he didn’t feel he had the skill to go into the fine arts, which was his goal in high school, and ended up going into the direction of manga instead, which was something that he loved. The only time he had formal learning for art was during a month and a half prep school in order to go to a fine arts university, which he ended up not even doing, hence the Literature major.


During his time in college, he submitted to Shonen Jump’s rookie contest, and he debuted shortly thereafter with his manga Kaede Purple (1988), which won him the renowned Tezuka Osamu Award for best new mangaka, a prelude to his well-loved Slam Dunk (1990-1996) which came two years later.


Inoue’s Art Style 

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Fully Inked and Sketched page of Vagabond (Picture taken of booklet from behind the scenes DVD DRAW) by Takehiko Inoue, via Parka Blogs (Images submitted by Teoh Yi Chie)


Takehiko Inoue definitely went through an artistic revolution. Much of this has to do with his early artistic influences such as Dokaben, which I talked about before and the works of Ikegami Ryoichi works as well. They helped to influence the direction that Slam Dunk was styled in the most.


Just this year, Dokaben’s Shinji Mizushima died at age 82 after only having been retired for two years after the completion of his baseball series that spanned over forty years. I was unable to get a copy of the original Dokaben which Inoue would’ve been influenced by, but I was able to find some pages from his later additions to the Dokaben franchise. What I gathered is that Mizushima’s use of stylized and exaggerated expressions, attention to detail, and the importance of character relations influenced Inoue’s work.


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Dokaben Volume 36 Cover by Shinji Mizushima, 1972-1981, via the Hofstra University Museum


He used expression as a means of individualizing characters — making their personalities all their own. The attention to detail was something that Inoue continues to take to heart. Inoue’s use of “muscle memory” (LA Times Interview, Solomon, 2010) when he draws is something that can be seen in Dokaben as well. Just like Inoue you can tell Mizushima had a love and passion for baseball that surpassed most, and it shows through in his work.


Everything that Mizushima drew was for a reason and this is something that Inoue adopted wholeheartedly. Lastly, while Mizushima makes a point to give individual characters time to shine like his main character Tarou, what is so important about Dokaben is how he and the cast interact with each other which is important all throughout Slam Dunk and Inoue’s other iconic works such as Vagabond (1998-2015) and Real (1999-now).


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Slam Dunk: Volume 31 by Takehiko Inoue, 2013, via Comic Vine


Just with Mizushima’s influence you begin to see how Slam Dunk ended up so driven by the characters’ individual passions and how the love for basketball was more than just a sport, it was a devotion that comes off of every page.


Ryoichi Ikegami’s Otokogumi was another influential manga for Inoue. Ryoichi Ikegami’s work has had a huge influence on the technical aspects of Inoue’s overall art style and perhaps even his main character, Hanamachi from Slam Dunk. Ikegami’s Otokogumi is considered a staple in the teen delinquent subgenre of the 1970s. Without the swaggering characters that he became known for I think it is fair to say there would be no Hanamachi or Takezo, from Vagabond.


Additionally, his work Baby Face is so evidently influenced by the works of Ikegami. In terms of style and genre.


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Detail of I Ueo Boy by Ryoichi Ikegami, 1973-1977, via The Comics Journal


Mizushima’s influence allowed Inoue’s early work Slam Dunk to maintain that playful nature, however with works like Ikegami’s I Ueo Boy you get to see where the technical influences for his more realistic scenes came from. That attention to detail without over stating as well as his ability to make each character feel like someone you could meet walking down the street. Ikegami’s influences can especially be seen in Vagabond which takes what Ikegami was doing to a whole new level.


Not only that, Ikegami’s Nobunaga (1986-1990), a biography about the renowned Oda Nobunaga, probably had a direct impact on how Inoue pursued his later work Vagabond, in not just style but also storytelling. Oda Nobunaga may have been born and died before Miyamoto Musashi, the main character of Vagabond, but they were both still a part of, and influential figures of, the Sengoku period, so Inoue probably was able to take notes on how Ikegami depicted the period and people of the time.


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Left to right: BEGIN Volume 1 Cover by Ryoichi Ikegami, 2017, via Big Comics Superior Magazine; with Vagabond Volume 34 Cover by Takehiko Inoue, 2012, via Takehiko Inoue’s Official Website


Furthermore, Ikegami’s blending style easily comes through in Inoue’s later works, especially Vagabond.


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Vagabond featuring Sasaki Kojiro and Ito Ittosai, (Volume 17, Chapter 156), 2004, via CBR


Takehiko Inoue has spoken about his techniques many times. With the start of Vagabond came a shift in his style. It became rougher, despite his technical skills getting even better, and more meditative. Inoue is also known to take photos of “scenery – flowers, trees, cats, the sky – to deepen his appreciation of the natural world” (CNN, Turner, 2012), and such appreciation shines through in all of his works with his real to life, atmospheric, approach of how he draws the world around his characters. The aforementioned Vagabond is the best example within his works, with his detailed and even sometimes meditative Daoist approach in many pages such as the two-page spread shown above. Within Vagabond there are many images like this that make each character a small part of a bigger world which is symbolic of them trying to find their place in a world that seeks to keep them down.


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Takehiko Inoue painting Kinokuniya Bookstore Mural in NYC of Sasaki Kojiro, via Hikikomori Room image provided by Rokuta


Inoue spoke of his love for using an ink brush with Vagabond specifically due to its chaotic nature and him not being able to have complete control. Such a statement is perfect because in Vagabond the world is chaotic, and nature is abundant. He didn’t want anything to look unnatural or forced. Which is why at times he would struggle through chapters because he wanted even the expressions to come off as natural and appropriate as possible and sometimes, he would even be left dissatisfied.


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Pepita: Inoue Meets Gaudi by Takehiko Inoue, 2013, via Simon and Schuster website


In the early 2010’s Inoue took the time to travel to Spain to experience and appreciate Antoni Gaudi’s architectural marvels. He recorded his experiences during his time in Spain in Pepita, a travel journal and artbook combined. His book depicts strokes of inspiration, sketches of people and architecture, people, and even his thoughts. Within those pages you see a style of drawing that you did not see in Inoue’s works until after his time in Spain. He starts to give his characters even more diverse faces and he introduced a more of those techniques that he played with while there in his covers especially.


takehiko inoue vagabond illustrations poster
From left to right: Real: Volume 13 by Takehiko Inoue, 2014, via Comic Vine; with Vagabond: Volume 36 Takehiko Inoue, 2013, via Takehiko Inoue’s Official Website


Above are two covers that were created after Pepita was published and there is an obvious shift in his covers for Real especially. He rendered the subjects form differently than previous covers, with the addition of experimenting with color which was an important aspect of the Art Nouveau and Gaudi’s own work, most notably would be his Sagrada Familia.


Inoue’s First Passion Project

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Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue, Volumes 7-10 “Updated Covers”, 2018, via Takehiko Inoue’s Official Twitter account


Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk is considered the most popular basketball manga of all time. Such is with good reason because it was such a deeply personal project for him. In Inoue’s NHK, DVD exclusive, interview (2010) Inoue spoke about how “You write part of yourself when you create a story.” So it goes without question that so much of himself went into Slam Dunk. Even more explicitly, in an interview with the LA Times Inoue said that he drew from his memories of playing — like muscle memory — emphasizing aspects of playing basketball that only someone who played could personally understand.


Inoue was 23 years old when Slam Dunk began its serialization. He now had experience as a manga assistant with the legendary Tsukasa Hojo on his City Hunter (1985-1991) and was published with his aforementioned Kaede Purple as well as his own experience as an artist he had all of the working necessary to make something unforgettable.


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Slam Dunk: Volume 1 by Takehiko Inoue, 1991, via Comic Vine


Slam Dunk focuses on the story of Hanamachi Sakurai, a high school boy who has a penchant for delinquency and hates basketball. When a girl approaches, due to his imposing stature — unbeknownst to him — asking about his feelings towards basketball. Of course, he lies and says he likes it as one of his other truths was that he was in need of a girlfriend, so young Haruko Akashi came at the right time. After she asks him to show her his skill and asks him to slam dunk, leading her to convincing him to join the basketball team, the rest is history. Slam Dunk’s compelling narrative was one that started with younger people and ascended to all ages as it grew in popularity nationally and then internationally.


Takehiko Inoue’s True to Life Basketball Illustrations 

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From left to right: Portrait of Seiya Ando by Takehiko Inoue for B. League x Takehiko Inoue Collaboration, 2019; with Portrait of Yoshitake Matsushima by Takehiko Inoue for B. League x Takehiko Inoue Collaboration, 2019, via Takehiko Inoue’s Official Twitter Account


If you scroll down far enough on Inoue’s Twitter start to see these animated illustrations of basketball players printed on newspapers from 2018. There is so much life in each image you can’t help but find out more. So, with some digging I came across his collaboration with the B. League, a professional Japanese basketball league. He interviewed 13 of their players and made stunning portraits of some of the players.


In these portraits he captures their mannerisms and likeness beautifully while still maintaining his iconic style. His passion for basketball also comes through every line in these drawings, while his attention to detail gives credence to how much he cares about making his work as true to life as he can while still holding the viewers’ interest. In these artworks you can really see Inoue’s growth as an artist from Kaede Blue to now.

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By Idalis LoveBA Studio Arts & Art HistoryIdalis Love graduated with her BA in Studio Arts and Art History from Oglethorpe University in 2020. During her time as a Studio Arts major, she found passion in Far Eastern and European art histories, which enabled her to double major. When she isn’t gushing about other people’s art she is making it as well.