Pitching for ‘Cross Game’s’ success

May 28th, 2011

Today’s profile: Cross Game vols. 1-2
r: Mitsuru Adachi
Publisher: Viz
Suggested age rating:
Teen 13+

I can’t remember exactly when I fell in love with baseball.

Maybe it was when my dad took me to see the old Hawaii Islanders of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in the early ’80s.

Maybe it was when Kaiser High grad “El Sid” Fernandez was a part of the pitching staff that helped the 1986 New York Mets win the World Series — yes, the same Series that featured Bill Buckner’s infamous bobble of Mookie Wilson’s ground ball that ended up tormenting Boston Red Sox fans for another 18 years.

Whenever it was, I know that fandom was firmly entrenched in time for me to taunt one of my friends about his love of the Atlanta Braves, and another friend about having a cousin who was just about the only light-hitting, bench-warming University of Hawaii Rainbow on a team full of heavy hitters, in the early ’90s. It’s only grown ever since  (steroid era notwithstanding). Give me any game, from the youngest Little League levels where the coaches lob underhanded pitches to their team’s batters to the major leagues and Felix Hernandez firing a fastball straight down the middle, daring Jose Bautista to knock it out of Safeco Field, and I’ll watch it.

If anything in those last few paragraphs made any sense to you, then congratulations, Cross Game — the focus of this month’s Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Derik Badman over at The Panelists – is your manga. Go out, buy it now, you’ll totally love it. And considering Viz is bringing it out stateside in nice, fat omnibus editions — three have been released so far, covering what would’ve been seven normal-sized volumes — there’s a whole lot to love. Yet there’s more than just the sport known as the “national pastime” to love about this series … there’s love itself.

Cross Game is, at its core, the Quintessential Shounen-Idealized Manga for Its Sport. We’ve seen this type of manga series appear several times stateside with titles like Prince of Tennis (tennis), Eyeshield 21 (football), Initial D (drift racing) and Yakitate!! Japan (baking … hey, come on, you’ve seen Iron Chef, that counts as athletic competition, right?) where the hero has some sort of remarkable talent for his age. His teammates are shocked! His enemies are awed! He’s essentially the teenage equivalent of Sidd Finch, the orphaned pitcher described by author George Plimpton in that 1985 Sports Illustrated April Fools’ Day prank who could throw a 168-mph fastball while wearing a single hiking boot. He’s also usually the catalyst for propelling a ragtag bunch of castoffs to heights that they could never have attained on their own. You know that big-time championship tournament they usually mention at the beginning of series like these? You can expect this bunch to actually be in that championship by the end of those series … and you’ll be rooting for them every step of the way.

Thing is, it doesn’t seem at first like Cross Game is going to follow that path. It starts off as a sweet romance between fifth graders Ko Kitamura, the son of the owner of a local sporting goods store, and Wakaba Tsukishima, the second of four daughters whose parents run a coffee shop and batting cage. Wakaba, as Ko frequently mentions, is “the cutest girl in our class … no … probably … in our whole grade” … and she adores Ko. They were born on the same day in the same hospital and inseparable ever since. Ko also visits the Tsukishima Batting Center frequently, honing his batting swing (although he had, up to that point, never played catch or baseball.) When she gives him a list of suggested birthday gifts to give her, leading up to “engagement ring” at age 20, you believe that, even though they are only in fifth grade and a lot could happen in the subsequent nine years, perhaps they really could make it as a couple.

And then — minor spoiler alert, although this twist does take place a third of the way through the first book — Wakaba dies. Adachi subtly weaves the death into his narrative; we see Ko’s parents react from hearing the news over the phone, then we see Ko completely miss the news on TV when he steps away during a break in a baseball game. The sequence lasts for just four pages, but the emotional impact floors you as a reader. I actually had to pause and take a moment to compose myself before dealing with what came next. It’s here that Adachi really brings out the beauty and the power of manga as a storytelling medium, with only the most essential of words being uttered and various images in time carrying the narrative forward — the baseball game going on even after the news breaks, the preparation for the funeral and the funeral itself, life going on at the summer festival even as the characters have to deal with loss.

After that, the story jumps forward several years — the next time we see Ko, he and his peers are wrapping up eighth grade and getting ready to enter Seishu Gakuen Senior High School — and the baseball element gets kicked up to a whole new level. The dynamic at Seishu Gakuen certainly lends itself to high drama, with a vice principal who’s appointed himself as “interim principal” with the mysterious disappearance of the regular principal; the vice principal’s daughter and team manager, beautiful yet aloof and not caring about the game; a coach whom the interim principal hired with the express intent of assembling a team that could cruise all the way to the national tournament in Koshien, thus giving Seishu Gakuen much-craved publicity, and a cocky bunch of overconfident so-and-sos determined to accomplish just that. Contrast that with the practice squad, known as “the Portables”: the cast-off coach, the chubby (yet enthusiastic) girl who’s their team manager; Ko, who hasn’t played in a game since Wakaba died, yet has maintained and enhanced his remarkably advanced skills in the meantime; a few of his friends, not even given a chance to play for the varsity team; and — the real wild card — Aoba Tsukishima, Wakaba’s younger sister who’s developed as a wickedly sharp pitcher on her own, yet loathes Ko for taking up all of her beloved late sister’s time and attention.

Yeah. It’s like the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers in last year’s American League Championship Series — unless you’re a Yankees fan and wanted to cheer for the team with the $150 bazillion-dollar payroll, you rooted hard for the Rangers, the underdog team that went into bankruptcy and then was sold earlier that year, the team that had never before sniffed possible World Series glory. So, too, you root for the Portables as they take the field in their first game against the varsity team. While baseball fans will probably appreciate the drama of what goes on in that game and the strategies employed the most, anyone can enjoy watching how characters react and interact with one another as particular situations present themselves.

What makes this all such an easy, compelling read is Mitsuru Adachi’s storytelling style. I remember reading somewhere — can’t exactly remember where, apologies to whoever wrote it first — that Adachi is very similar to fellow Shonen Sunday artist Rumiko Takahashi in that they both have a way of crafting sweet tales with dramatic and humorous turns, and I can definitely see where that would be true. Adachi doesn’t break down the fourth wall as much as he simply pretends like it doesn’t exist. One character, the self-proclaimed “ace pitcher and cleanup hitter for the baseball team” Keiichiro Senda, spends an entire chapter begging for someone to formally introduce him to readers, finally resorting to posting a flier with his information on it on the wall of Kitamura Sports. (We only learn about it when Ko’s dad tells him to go take it down.) Characters also reference other manga — that just happen to be written by Adachi, and narrative boxes sometimes reference the age-old struggle of manga editors to collect past-deadline pages from artists. (It’s a sin that Adachi confesses to committing. Often. Whether he actually apologizes for that sin … well.)

3 Responses to “Pitching for ‘Cross Game’s’ success”

  1. Manga Moveable Feast May 2011: Cross Game | The Panelists:

    [...] Otaku Ohana: Jason S. Yadao reviews volumes 1 and 2 [...]

  2. MMF: Last Day Round-Up | The Panelists:

    [...] Jason S. Yadao at Otaku Ohana reviews volumes 1 and 2. [...]

  3. Otaku Ohana | Disappearing ink: The forgotten Viz Signatures | Otaku Ohana | staradvertiser.com | Honolulu, Hawaii:

    [...] I noted during the Cross Game Manga Movable Feast last year that I love baseball. It stands to reason, then, that I would've loved to have seen more [...]

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