Karate Heat Volume 1 review

Shinya Kinoshita doesn’t much care for sports. He’s not particularly strong or tall, but one thing he has going for him is his perfect posture—a product of constantly trying to look taller than his twin sister.

Takumi Yanagiya is the six-time elementary school national champion in karate. A strict training regimen means that he doesn’t have time for friendships, and even if he wanted to, he’s forbidden from training with other kids his own age.

Related: Ping-Pong Dash‘s story of table tennis and high school gang wars approaches sports manga in a wildly different way than Karate Heat. Read our review of volume 1.

A chance encounter in the summer holidays before they head off to middle school suddenly brings these boys together, and changes their lives forever. After initially mistaking Shinya for another karateka, Takumi sees potential in his perfect posture and decides to teach him, his master’s orders be damned.

So begins Karate Heat by Eiichi Kitano, a light-hearted sports manga characterised its friendly atmosphere. Where most others tend to be put a focus on the competitive nature of their chosen sport, and the trials and challenges that the hero overcomes in their pursuit of it, Karate Heat is more interested in the burgeoning friendship between Shinya, Takumi, and the rest of the Kawasaki Ukishima Junior High School Karate Club.

That isn’t to say that Karate Heat isn’t without its athletic drama. Shinya and Takumi both have their rivals, and Shinya in particular is defined as much by his hard work and refusal to give up as he is by his cheerful nature. But, at least in the first volume, Karate Heat puts less emphasis on that, and more on the friendly, light-hearted interactions between its characters.

Nor is this to say that sports manga tend to shy away from friendships; indeed, friendship is a key theme across the genre. But they tend to focus on bonds forged through fire, in some sense: a hero lucks into a sport they never would have tried, learns to love it, and then finds kinship among their teammates as they fight through the gauntlet of other teams.

Karate Heat plays down those high stakes and machismo, and instead takes on a more relaxed tone. It doesn’t completely upend the genre’s tropes (nor does it try to), but it takes a much friendlier, more carefree approach to them, and there’s something refreshing in that.

Kitano’s art does a fine job of carrying the emotion and humour of the story to the fore. Close-ups on characters’ faces feature heavily throughout the book, giving their expressive eyes and demeanour the space they need to do their work, whether its highlighting the intensity of Shinya’s training or Takumi’s unexpected clumsiness when he isn’t.

When the action does ramp up—this is still a sports manga, after all, and a martial arts one at that—the speed and kineticism really comes through. You can see each fighter’s movement in the sharp, heavy linework, and liberal use of afterimages drives home the agility at the heart of the sport.

Karate Heat isn’t going to change the mind of anyone who doesn’t like sports manga, but its a welcome change of pace for those fans wanting something a bit more low-key.

Karate Heat Volume 1
Score: 3.5 stars
Genre: Sports / Shonen
Writer: Eiichi Kitano
Artist: Eiichi Kitano
Publisher: Kodansha Comics
Release Date: 19 June 2018
The publisher supplied a copy of the book for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.