by Mitsuru Adachi
published by Viz; $14.99 US
This was something of an experiment. To participate in the current Manga Moveable Feast focusing on Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game, I started by reading this volume. Certainly, beginning with the second book isn’t ideal, but it was the one I had.
Going in to this volume, I knew that one of the four neighbor daughters died, but to me, it was just something the characters mentioned every so often, the same way a new friend might tell you where they went to college or where they used to live. I didn’t see the lead up to it or know of her as a character, just an absence. My evaluation was thus middling; I didn’t mind the time I spent reading the book, but it didn’t overly impress me.
Then, thanks to Ed, I read the first volume. At that point, the series opened up for me. I definitely recommend, if you’re interested in the series, starting at the beginning. Not only is all the characterization established there — although the cast are mostly familiar types, it can be intimidating to meet an entire team at once in later books — but the occasional “writer talking directly to the reader” panels won’t come as a surprise, since that starts as early as page two. Getting to know the characters gradually, before baseball takes over their lives, is a welcome start, and it was very smart of Viz to put the first three Japanese volumes into the first American book to allow that familiarity to develop organically. (Later U.S. volumes contain two apiece, which means most games start and finish under the same covers.)
At the beginning, Ko is a smart-aleck kid who doesn’t even know how to catch. He can bat like a madman, though, because of all the time he’s spent at the neighboring batting cages, run by the father of four girls. Two of these daughters, the much-loved Wakaba (Ko’s age; they were born on the same day in the same hospital) and the active Aoba (a year younger, and an amazing pitcher), greatly affect his life. Through the series, we follow Ko as he learns to love baseball and grows up, coming to terms with emotional highs and lows.
The third part of the first U.S. book also sets up the continuing conflict for the series. A new coach has been brought in at the high school to win a nationwide tournament. The interim principal who selected him is power-hungry and wants his school to be known by name across Japan. The new coach selects only those players he thinks he can control and shape into a tournament-winning team, relegating Ko and his “love of the game” buddies to a “portable” team. While the varsity players get the field, Ko’s team has to do the scut work and practice when and where they can, with an older coach everyone thinks has been put out to pasture. (Of course, he’s smarter in many ways than the high-powered official leader.) When I started book two, I got the basics of this conflict, but the details shown in book one really helped my understanding.
You do have to know baseball, at least the basics, to follow this series. Adachi often sets up scenes by showing the scoreboard, to indicate where in the game we are, or a panel with lights labeled SBO (for strikes, balls, outs) to demonstrate the consequences of particular actions. This isn’t a series just for fans, though; in fact, learning about the strategies of the players may give a reader more appreciation for what used to be “America’s game”. Many nowadays find it slow-paced and complicated, but by following Adachi’s selections in a sort of “guided view”, as he only focuses on particular players or actions, you’ll get insight into why certain choices are made by coaches or teams that you can take back to watching the sport.
Book two features the game between the official school varsity team and the portables. If you’re just interested in what happens, it’s a fast, exciting read as the players face off to determine whether they’ll be able to play again. (One team member who disappoints the evil coach is dumped from the team *during* the game, promptly becoming a member of the portables.) Careful attention, though, will reveal key character moments, especially when it comes to Aoba’s commentary from the stands. She’s brilliant about baseball but limited by her sex in this formalized system.
The cartooning is amazing, active and expressive. Adachi portrays just the right moment of movement in a style that’s smooth and easy to read. I found surprising beauty in seeing a batter’s swing or a pitcher’s arm cocked back, ready to release, even though they’re such classic sports images. (The publisher provided a review copy.)